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GOP myths about the poor hindering U.S. recovery

It's with gritted teeth that progressives watch Republicans slash food stamps, refuse to extend long-term unemployment benefits and refuse to expand Medicaid



Aside from the most rabid, lost-in-space tea partiers, Republican lawmakers don't want to be seen as waging a war against the poor — an increasingly common Democratic complaint about thems — even if they're doing just that. Rep. Paul Ryan, remember, swears that his proposed gutting of the social safety net is merely intended to keep "able-bodied people" from suffering through "lives of dependency and complacency." This is a country with one of the most notoriously weak social safety nets in the developed world.

Actions, of course, speak louder than rhetoric, so it's with gritted teeth that progressives watch Republicans slash food stamps, refuse to extend long-term unemployment benefits, and, in most GOP-run states like North Carolina, reject the federal offer to pay 90 percent of the cost of expanding Medicaid. In N.C. alone, the Medicaid rejection is leaving a half-million of our more vulnerable citizens without any health insurance coverage and is keeping millions of dollars out of the state economy. And that doesn't cover the damage to hospitals and taxpayers who are now on the hook for the poor's emergency care. Keep in mind, the federal government wants to send N.C. money for Medicaid that we have already paid in taxes. So, for the sake of the GOP's ill-tempered wish to give Obama the finger, our state loses out on both an economic boost to the state and an improvement in poorer North Carolinians' health.

With the worldwide failure of so-called austerity measures to help any economies other than the super-rich's private fortunes, you'd think politicians and the press in America would know better than to keep flogging the Herbert Hoover model of public service; and to be fair, some Democrats in Washington have proposed some helpful ideas (if only to not cut unemployment benefits, food stamps and Medicaid, never mind a national jobs program). But more and more, it has become obvious that a central problem of our nation's stumbling attempts to climb out of our collective economic ditch is the GOP belief that poor people are lazy slobs who had it coming. That's only a slightly cruder way of expressing the beliefs revealed in a new Pew/USAToday poll; the effects of those beliefs on the national well-being, however, are cruder by far.

First the good news from the poll: Republicans agree with Democrats and independents that income inequality has risen in the U.S. during the past 10 years; and even GOPers favor raising the minimum wage to $10.10, by a margin of 53 percent to 43 percent (73 percent of Americans approve of the raise). Other than those two issues, however, Republicans are out of sync with most Americans' views on employment and the economy. For instance, 63 percent of Americans (including 83 percent of Democrats), favor extending unemployment benefits for a year for those who have been out of work for a long time; 54 percent of Republicans oppose it. Sure enough, the Mitch McConnell-infected U.S. Senate last week reaffirmed that GOP view by successfully filibustering any extension of benefits.

The most interesting divisions between the GOP and, well, everybody else, are in attitudes toward the rich and the poor. A majority of Americans, 51 percent, say that if someone is rich, it's likely because that person had more advantages, as opposed to 38 percent who say the rich person worked harder than others to achieve his or her wealth. Republicans believe the opposite, by a 57 percent to 32 percent margin. It's no surprise, then, that 51 percent of Republicans think if a person is poor, it's because of a lack of effort on his or her part, while only 35 percent of all Americans feel that way. It's the same difference in attitudes shown by the fact that 60 percent of all Americans say the U.S. economic system, as currently organized, "unfairly favors the wealthy," while 53 percent of GOP members believe it "is generally fair to most Americans."

Unfortunately for poor Americans — and for GOP mythology — most studies over the past decade show that upward mobility in the U.S. has dropped well below rates in Europe and Canada. On top of that, it turns out that upward mobility (how easy or hard it is for a person of one class to move to a higher one) differs among cities in America, as shown by a new, widely publicized study by Harvard and Cal-Berkeley economists. That's the study in which Charlotte ranked 50th among the 50 biggest American cities in income mobility. I'd love to see how the Chamber will spin that finding, but that's a separate issue.

The takeaway from all these developments, at least as I see it, is that the old "pick yourself up by your bootstraps," Horatio Algerish notions we hear so much today from conservatives, e.g., the creamy wonderfulness of entrepreneurship, and the innate beneficence of the U.S. economy toward ordinary Americans — just ain't workin'. It's high time we give up the worn out ideas proposed by the GOP and its billionaire backers and urge the federal government to start priming the economic pump. An intolerable number of Americans are hurting, and Republican myths about the poor are a primary reason we're not doing much about it.