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The Plight of the Poor in America

The Plight of the Poor in America             Gerry O'Shea

George W. Bush, a Republican, ran successfully for the presidency of the United States  as a compassionate conservative in 2000 and 2004. The leadership he provided in Washington for disbursing more than 40 billion dollars to sub-Saharan African countries to help them deal with the scourge of AIDS shows that his electoral rhetoric was sincere.

The present Republican leadership has moved much further Right, making no claim to compassion in dealing with the poor at home or abroad. It is ironic that such hard-heartedness dominates an administration led by Donald Trump, who, before he ran for the presidency, expressed moderate views on many issues, including the need for a healthcare program that covers all citizens.

Hard-line conservatives dominate the policy discussions in all areas of the Trump administration, from treatment of the children of immigrants to taxation and budgeting to services for the poor and indigent. They believe that anti-poverty programs strip the poor of ambition and make them dependent on government handouts.

Social Darwinism, which, by the way, was not proposed or advocated by Darwin himself, highlights the perception that life must be understood as a constant struggle where only the toughest and the fittest will survive. Hard luck on the sick and the weak! This approach focuses on a highly-individualistic perspective with little place for the Golden Rule which mandates that our first obligation is to see to the welfare of others.

Ayn Rand, a distinguished writer and philosopher,  whose books are obligatory reading for anyone working in Speaker Paul Ryan's office, promoted selfishness as a desirable political practice over altruism. She is a hero for those who argue the case for following a far-right philosophy. Considered extreme by many traditional conservatives, she would sit comfortably with the current powerbrokers in the Republican Party.

Today more than 40 million Americans live in poverty, and the Trump administration is cutting back on the already-meager anti-poverty programs. Still the stock market is booming and unemployment is hitting record lows. Republicans pushed through 1.5 trillion in tax cuts that mostly benefit the rich, causing a similar massive trillion plus increase in the deficit, passing on most of the cost of this giveaway for future generations to pay. The transfer of debt from one  generation to later ones for any reason is considered a mortal sin by all true conservatives. Meanwhile, anti-poverty programs at home and abroad  languish.

 Where does this stinginess and meanness come from in a country that is deemed the richest in the world? What are the underlying causes in a culture that tolerates high rates of poverty and indeed that seems to approve anti-Robin Hood budgets that openly take from the poor and working families to subsidize the affluent even more?

Some sociologists argue that the rich, who have most of the power in all facets of American life, need the poor to enhance their own sense of importance. They like to portray their business acumen as an indication of superior intelligence and character.

Bootstrap  tales of rags to riches have a wide audience. Many wealthy capitalists thrive on adulation and  honorifics.  In reality, a majority of rich businessmen inherited wealth and successful companies from their parents or grandparents. This is not to gainsay the commendable success of men and women who took a chance in starting a business, worked hard and succeeded. Fair play to them!

Donald Trump's lies about his economic success story would embarrass any normal person. He claimed in his books and speeches that his father gave him a loan of a mere million dollars to start his real estate business from which he built an empire. Painstaking research over many months by a team of New York Times reporters showed beyond any doubt that the amount that came to him from his dad was over 400 million - and it wasn't a loan. He wanted the adulation that comes with a bootstrap story so he made it up.

Proposed cutbacks in the Supplemental Nutritional Program (SNAP), better known as the Food Stamp Program, are particularly egregious. More than two million people who now benefit, including parents raising children and many members of the handicapped population, may lose some or all of their benefits as the latest Republican proposal involves cutting about 20 billion from SNAP over ten years.

The President enjoys a very high level of support among Christian Evangelicals and around 50% of white Catholics voted for him. The shocking immorality of a government directing big money to the most affluent people in society while cutting meager food benefits for the poor cries out to heaven for a response. This political behavior is directly contrary to the core Christian message. The pulpits should be on fire about this abomination. Unfortunately, with very few exceptions, our moral leaders seem disengaged from most issues involving economic justice.

America claims with some justification that it provides opportunities for everybody, but it has never dealt adequately with those who, for whatever variety of reasons, are marginalized by poverty.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, who introduced America's best anti-poverty program, Social Security, seemed to understand the devastating consequences of people scrambling for food for themselves and their families when he wrote with admirable insight: The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much, it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.

Gerry O'Shea blogs at


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