The Republicans’ Pro-Poverty Program

How They Disrespect the Very People Who Put Them in Office

By David K. Shipler

An irony of Donald Trump’s appeal to struggling, working-class Americans is his party’s complete indifference to their financial hardships. Wherever government can rescue people with direct cash assistance, Republicans are opposed. Wherever government can expand proven programs of aid — in health care, housing, food, day care — Republicans are opposed. See now how some Republicans are coming around to a thinly bipartisan infrastructure bill aimed at only things — bridges, highways, and the like — but are apoplectic over President Biden’s bill to help people. Things vs. people: no contest among the people’s representatives in the Republican Party.

That coldness is compounded by uninformed moral judgments against those near the bottom. They have long been smeared by conservative Republicans as lazy, undeserving, and unlikely to strive upward without negative incentives — in other words, a whip at their backs.

Punitive provisions are almost invariably woven into Republican-sponsored policy. Assume that they don’t want to work, so cut off their $300-a-week cushion in unemployment benefits. Blame them for not taking low-wage jobs that can’t support their families, yet adamantly oppose raising the federal minimum wage to make those jobs worth having. Condition certain benefits on proof that they seek work or job training, pass drug tests, and avoid arrest — stipulations not made when the affluent get government subsidies and tax breaks such as the home mortgage interest deduction.

Americans generally, even those technically below the official poverty line, don’t want to think of themselves as “poor,” since the society inflicts shame on the deprived. And those just above poverty, including many of Trump’s white supporters who are highly vulnerable to financial disruption, don’t display much empathy for those a notch or two beneath them. But they should, as many fell into disastrous misfortune during the pandemic and might well press the Republicans they elect to give them something back in return for their votes.

You might think that a crisis would galvanize the political class into smart, far-reaching action. That would be so if the United States were governed rationally. But tribalism, symbolism, and ideological rigidity have come to dominate this beacon of democracy. So, just as the repeated slaughters of schoolchildren make no dent in Republicans’ iron repudiation of even the most reasonable controls on guns, the mob shutdown of Congress makes no inroad into the Republican side of Congress itself, entangled as it is in a Soviet-style denial of what all Americans saw with their own eyes on January 6. This new Republican Party could teach the Communist Party a good deal about the manipulation of history.

Like mass shootings and the Capitol assault, the pandemic has failed to prompt Republican rethinking. Determined to make Biden fail and to resist enlarging government’s role in society, the party apparatus remains unmoved by the suffering exacted on millions of their countrymen as Covid wiped out jobs, wages, nutrition for poor children, and higher education for those in or near poverty.

Aside from being inhumane, the Republican policy is also bad economics. This time of historically low interest rates is the opportune moment to borrow to repair and rebuild. And even by the least altruistic, most self-interested calculations, Republicans who think they understand economics might be expected to see the virtue in looking ahead far enough to invest in a population whose health and skills will determine America’s global competitiveness in a technological future. The capabilities of large parts of the labor force are nothing to brag about.

Not all Democrats are perfectly pure in this realm, obviously, nor are all Republicans monstrous. But each party’s center of gravity weighs on different sides of a serious ideological divide over how much government should intervene in the country’s economy.

The clash plays out in tax law, with Republicans preferring breaks for corporations on the theory that prosperity at the top trickles down to those below. If that were so, poverty would practically disappear in a robust economy. Instead, the rates diminish, but severe deprivation persists among millions, many of whom feel no change at all while the wealthy watch their stock portfolios blossom.

Vivid ideological disagreements also shape debate over regulating the private sector through worker, consumer, and environmental protections. Trump’s administration dismantled many of those regulations, to the delight of business interests; many are being restored under Biden.

Similarly, the parties exhibit an acerbic distaste for each other’s views on government’s role in providing social welfare benefits. That difference goes to the essence of what liberals vs. conservatives see as the ideal society.

One thing that both sides might agree on is that the United States in 2021 is far from an ideal society.

David K. Shipler is a best-selling, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of 7 books and a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times.