Loss of support for guaranteed income reflects radical shift in values

Original Reporting | By Mike AlbertiKevin C. Brown |

“People took great pride in belonging to a larger social group,” he said. Today, however, “people tend more to imagine themselves as social beings by choosing [narrower] groups that look like them and that match their values.”

Jason Murphy, an assistant professor of philosophy at Elms College who has studied the history of GAI proposals, agreed.

“You might hear people say that we have an obligation to take care of every person in society,” Murphy said, “but often when they say ‘everybody’ they have an image in their mind that does not actually include everybody, just them and people that look like them.”

A consequence of that attitude, Murphy went on, is that people who are not poor do not think of those Americans who are as being a group that can make legitimate claims on the broader society.

Rodgers also attributed the devaluing of obligations to the poor to the growing dominance of “market values,” or values based on the ever-more ingrained belief that the market is infallible and will, if left to its own devices, invariably produce the most desirable outcomes.

“When you’ve got this idea of the perfectly free and efficient market, there’s a sense that there should be no reason why somebody who wants to work shouldn’t be able to find a job,” Rodgers said. “There are no other obstacles except for the individual’s desire to work and willingness to get paid the going rate.”

According to that logic, “not having a job or being poor becomes the fault of the individual,” he said. “And once blame gets into the equation and one begins to blame the poor for their poverty, everything about moral obligation tends to unravel.”


Dividing the “deserving” poor from the “undeserving” poor

Michael A. Lewis, an associate professor of social work at Hunter College and an advocate for a GAI, readily acknowledges that the current political and social environment has become much less conducive to the idea of a GAI than what had existed 40 years ago.

According to “market thinking,” said Daniel Rodgers of Princeton, “not having a job or being poor becomes the fault of the individual. And once blame gets into the equation, everything about moral obligation tends to unravel.”

One reason, Lewis, said, is that Americans have become increasingly invested in the idea that individuals should be required to work in the labor market in order to receive benefits. “We are more invested than ever in the idea that the able-bodied poor have an obligation to work in order to get anything from us,” Lewis said.

While he pointed out that the obligation to work has long had a prominent place in American values, Lewis also said that the rise of market values added to the feeling that, if an individual was not working in the formal labor market, the circumstance was a result of a personal failing, and that he or she should not be seen as a productive or valuable member of society.

Michael Katz, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania agreed, and as an illustration pointed to the current conservative meme of dividing the population between the “makers” — those who work and pay taxes — from the “takers” — those who receive government benefits. In 2010, Congressman and eventual Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) was one of many Republicans who invoked this meme explicitly.

“Right now about 60 percent of the American people get more benefits in dollar value from the federal government than they pay back in taxes,” Ryan said in an interview. “So we’re going to a majority of takers versus makers.”

That kind of rhetoric, Katz said, effectively “represents an elevation of the idea that some people, on account of [their lack of] participation in the labor market, are worth less than other human beings.”

The contrast couldn’t be stronger with the thinking that animated the GAI proposals of the 1960s and 1970s, proposals rooted, in the 1970 words of Senator Fred Harris (D-Okla.), in the belief in “the dignity and value and worth of every human life.”


President Clinton and the “undeserving” poor

Many scholars Remapping Debate spoke with pointed to the 1996 reforms of the welfare system by President Clinton as the fullest realization of the idea that society did not owe an obligation to those citizens who were physically able to be employed but were not. The reforms replaced the previously existing Aid to Families with Dependent Children program, which had relatively weak work requirements, with the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program, which has very strict work requirements.

The “you didn’t build that” controversy

Marisa Chappell, a professor of history at Oregon State University, agreed that “market thinking” tends to eliminate history and social context from the question of what obligations people have to one another, and added that this lack of context permeates the prevailing sense of “who deserves what” when applied to the rich as well as the poor.

“In the same way that the poor are thought of as being responsible for their economic problems, the rich are understood as being completely responsible for their wealth,” Chappell said. “The sense that their success depends in part on the broader society” — a sense, she said, that was much more resonant in the 1960s and 1970s — “is gone.”

A consequence of market thinking, she went on, is that those who are successful are not thought of as owing anything to the broader society. Chappell pointed to the controversy that ensued last summer when, in a campaign speech, President Obama suggested that successful individuals would not have succeeded without the broader social goods they have benefited from, and that, therefore, they may owe something back to society.

“If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help,” Obama had said. “There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”

Republicans quickly seized on Obama’s comments, criticizing the President for suggesting that successful individuals did not deserve all of the credit for the success. A week after Obama’s speech, Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney excoriated Obama:

To say that Steve Jobs didn’t build Apple, that Henry Ford didn’t build Ford Motors, that Papa John didn’t build Papa John[’s] Pizza …To say something like that, it’s not just foolishness. It’s insulting to every entrepreneur, every innovator in America.

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