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Free Markets... For the Poor

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“When you allow people to be on unemployment insurance for 99 weeks, you're causing them to become part of this perpetual unemployed group in our economy. And it really -- while it seems good, it actually does a disservice to the people you're trying to help." — Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky

Commentators expressed horror at Senator Paul’s comments, with many suggesting the Kentucky Republican lacks a heart and columnist Ruth Marcus naming him “the hands-down winner of this year’s Scrooge award.”

What’s surprising about the response to Paul’s admittedly heartless remarks is the surprise. After all, Paul didn’t say anything new: He simply channeled the thought of Ayn Rand, the patron saint of the mean-spirited, and echoed Mitt Romney’s 47 percent and Rand acolyte Paul Ryan’s makers and takers.

Conservative political thought has long held that the social safety net encourages a culture of dependency in which the poor stay on relief because it is easier and more profitable to do so than to find work. Paul repeated standard right-wing palaver about incentives: If you pay people not to work, so the thinking goes, they won’t. But if you want them to work, don’t pay them: Stop all subsidies, including unemployment compensation.

It is, of course true that folks on unemployment benefits stay unemployed longer than folks who aren’t. Those who get benefits use them to look for the best, not the first, job they can find. But that’s not the same thing as arguing that long-term benefits cause long-term unemployment.

To state the obvious: People are unemployed because they can’t find work, and they can’t find work, not because they aren’t looking and not because they’d rather get the benefits than work, but because there are no jobs.

The war against unemployment compensation is part of the larger call for austerity in government, which conservatives all too often win. Extension of benefits fell victim to the general drift to the right and was omitted in the budget deal worked out between Ryan and his Democratic counterpart, Senator Patty Murray.

Austerity is the enemy of the poor. As Charles Blow puts it in The New York Times: “We have gone from a war on poverty in this country to a war on the poor in which poor people are routinely demonized and scapegoated and attacked, and conservatives have led the charge.” Democrats, unfortunately, have lacked the spine to oppose the conservative onslaught.

Many of the poor today are on welfare and also work; they are part of what’s called “the working poor,” people struggling to make ends meet, often working two or three jobs at low pay in retail stores like Walmart or fast-food chains like McDonald’s. They don’t want to be poor; nobody dreams of being poor; it’s no one’s ambition to be poor. Most people want to work; they want an honest wage for an honest day’s work.

Much of the attack on the poor is ideology glossing self-interest. Those who demonize subsidies to the downtrodden — unemployment compensation, food stamps, etc. — have no problem voting for subsidies for the ultra-rich. Tax breaks for big business, subsidies for agribusiness, and corporate welfare are part of the American fabric. The same Republican majority in the House of Republicans that voted to slash food stamps agreed to huge subsidies for big farmers.

We have reached the stage of economic development where we have socialism for the rich, capitalism for the poor. We love free markets… for the poor.

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