The Wealth Gap

Puck, 1879; Library of Congress

[The child in the lower left-hand corner is saying to an official, “If you don’t remove these people from the streets on the score of Charity, do it for Decency’s sake.”]

Thomas Edsall writes that Mitt Romney is running against entitlements.

Mitt Romney wants to stigmatize most “safety net” spending – the array of social insurance programs from Medicare to food stamps to unemployment compensation to free school lunches — as a form of welfare that is “cultivating government dependence.”

Of course, Republicans have been running against “welfare” forever. It’s been a particularly effective strategy for them since the 1960s, when they began to paint “welfare” as a transfer of money from middle-class whites to impoverished blacks. At the time, the white middle class was enjoying the fruits of almost four decades of the New Deal; the economy was sweet, and upward mobility (for them) a given.

So, overlooking the way government programs had improved the standard of living of a generation of whites, whites told themselves that those people were moochers who didn’t work hard enough. And since then the white middle class has more or less stood aside and allowed the malefactors of great wealth to dismantle the government programs that had made the white middle-class lifestyle of the 1960s possible.

The question is, how long will this scam continue to work?

Polls conducted since 1972 by the General Social Survey show that by margins of two to one, voters consistently say too little is spent on the poor, on education, on health care, on drug treatment — the list is long.


The 2-to-1 level of support found for spending on the poor for health care and other social services disappears when voters are asked specifically about welfare, according to the General Social Survey; when that word is used, voters by a better than 2-to-1 margin, 49.3 percent to 21 percent, say that “too much” is spent. In other words, a politician can either use the phrase “spending to help the poor” or the words “welfare” and “entitlement” to describe the government programs to alleviate hardship and therefore produce antithetical reactions in the public.

And, not surprisingly, a lot of the antipathy against “welfare” still is being driven by whites, who are far more likely than Americans of other races to say that too much is spent on welfare. And the word “entitlement” rankles many people, because it suggests that some undeserving underclass thinks it is “entitled” to something for nothing.

Romney argues that “entitlements” smother opportunity. Historically, programs that have given people a hand up actually have created opportunity, since people who have some education, some food in their stomachs and a permanent address are more likely to get and keep jobs and even start businesses than those who don’t. Extreme poverty can push people down so far that just surviving from day to day is a challenge, and climbing up nearly impossible.

The question is, how much of the white middle class is still clueless enough to assume the poverty bell could never toll for them? As opposed to, say, the number who realize a lost job or a catastrophic medical bill could cost them everything they have? As it appears more and more likely Mittens will be the GOP nominee, I guess we’ll see.

There is speculation the whole political class is growing out of touch with the peasants. See Growing wealth widens distance between lawmakers and constituents: “The growing disparity between the representatives and the represented means that there is a greater distance between the economic experience of Americans and those of lawmakers.”

The nature of political campaigning pretty much ensures that anyone elected to a high political office has to have some connection to wealth, and a growing percentage of Congress critters are people who have always lived in what we might call “comfortable circumstances.” As Kevin Drum says, Mr. Smith ain’t goin’ to Washington.

I’ve said before that Americans can be bamboozled about foreign policy, but they do eventually catch on when the issues touch on their personal experiences. I don’t think the remote and patrician Romney will be all that marketable next year. But I could be wrong.

30 thoughts on “The Wealth Gap

  1. Romney still hasn’t released his tax info, though he likes to promote himself as ‘unemployed’.

    I was thinking that one of the super-pacs needs to buy network time to run ‘Wall Street’ next year. In place of commercials, do short, short educational clips done by major actors, (Michael Douglas and Charlie Sheen) or maybe one by Warren Buffet (who has released his tax info) maybe one from Krugman… Bill Maher and/or Rachel Madow on the facts – without EVER naming Obama or Romney, draw a picture of the trend of wealth and political power under the control of wealth. Corporations that pay no taxes. Billionaires who pay taxes at a LOWER rate than a plumber. Feature the poll that showed 68% of millionaires would willingly pay higher taxes. There’s at least a dozen messages that could be presented and would stimulate debate and discussion that’s well suited to the ‘sound bite’ media.

  2. Mitt’s father was a lot closer to the old American work ethos, you know, the ‘pull yourself up by your own bootstraps,’ that Conservatives all espouse, than his son.

    Mitt’s more of the modern American work ethos – polish and lick your Daddies boots and straps until you inherit his money.
    Mitt tells about how his father gave his children chores to do to instill them with a work ethic. I think he hated work, because Mitt has spent his entire life eliminating work for as many people as possible – to the the enrichment of himself, his family, and his friends and cronies.

    My ad against him would be simple and consist of editing his face onto the painting of this young man, and ask “Is this who you want as your next President?”:

    I mean, even Little Lord Fauntleroy started off poor, before inheriting great wealth. That, and, after having been poor, instead of learning their lessons of how a young aristocrat should act, he went about teaching compassion to his new rich relatives.
    Mitt was born on 3rd Base, and really feels it’s about time he wins win this election, so he can finally get to the dugout and claim he hit that home run.
    I mean, c’mon!
    What’s the hold-up, people?
    I mean, he LOOKS like a President, doesn’t he? And what more should we ask of an empty-headed, talking-point spouting, job-killing, cyborg, but that he look the part.
    Ok, maybe that we’d like to have a beer with him. And maybe that’s what’ll cost this pampered pious plutocrat, Mutt, the nomination or the general election. Who on Earth would want to sit down and have a beer with Mitt f’in Romney? Mitt doesn’t even drink! And Little Boots, though he also didn’t drink, at least once used to, and still looked like he did, but maintained he didn’t anymore, even when a lot of us suspected that wasn’t true. I mean, what? al Queda developed their killer pretzel technology before we perfected our drones? And speaking of drone’s, have you ever heard of a guy named Willard “Mitt” Romney?

  3. It’s really about privatizing what are now direct government services or services controlled by government – education, health-care, utilities (energy, water, etc.) Social Security, – in a nut shell what people must have to stay alive. The estimated cost to us of privatizing these entities will be about 87% higher than what they presently cost.

    Again, follow the money. Profit for a few (and the ‘services’ mentioned above will be very profitable) is where we’re headed – at the expense of the majority of us.

  4. Doug, three days ago, I sent an email to Alan Grayson suggesting much the same as you proposed (he was the only one I could think of who might be receptive). With the Republican/Corporatist Party controlling much of the media, the Dems need to start doing some creative mass educating, rather than relying on the talking-head vs the other talking-head political campaign approach. The examples I used were Ben Cohen’s simple and simply brilliant videos at

  5. The Super Bowl commercials are an event unto themselves. They should package these messages the same way, in total secrecy with lots of build-up and suspense. Creating excitement and anticipation in advance of the event.

  6. Speaking of “bamboozled” and the wealth gap; here in the Erinyes man cave, there hangs an autographed photo of the cast (castaways) from “Gilligan’s Island”.

    Oh, the humanity…..
    We have the ultra wealthy Howells sharing an island ( but few of the burdens or sacrifice) with the bumbling, yet well intentioned Capt.Jonas Grumby, first mate Gilligan, the professor, Ginger and Marianne (every young man’s dilemma).
    Most men agree, Ginger for a one-nighter, Marianne for the long run.
    It makes me wonder how Ayn Rand would have written the script.Someone would be roasted upon a spit eventually…….

    Oh well, here in never-never land, the Republicans have made it real easy to get guns and carry permits, while they intend to cut “entitlements” in a very bad economic climate. This seems to be a recipe for mayhem.

    Romney could be very marketable next year , depending on who his running mate is (Jeb!). I think the prince of PNAC may slip in the back door.
    As I believe you wrote, Maha, Romney is the only one what don’t have bats flying ’round his head.
    He reminds me of Flipper………..

  7. erinyes,
    Mutt reminds me more of the villainous “Baron Barracuda” on the old “Diver Dan” series of TV shorts – minus the accent, of course.

    And to think I bitch about some of the crap on TV now.
    But, back then, I was a kid, and thought it was great!

    Now, in my sexist male opinion, Ginger’s worth a lot more than a one-nighter. But I agree, Marianne’s the keeper over the long haul.

  8. Sorry to go OT, but breaking news here in Nebraska is that our horrible horrible Blue Dog, Ben Nelson, will announce his retirement in the next 24 hours. He is up for re-election in 2012.

    Hope-against-hope is that Bob Kerrey will run for the Senate seat, which he held before Nelson.

  9. Joan,
    I don’t remember Bob Kerrey anywhere nearly as fondly as you do.

    But then, you live there and know him better, so I’m probably wrong.

    Though, truth be told, someone would have to go a long, long way to be worse than Ben “Edict Arnold” Nelson.
    Though that doesn’t seem to slow down any of our Democratic Senators, who, I’m sure, will leap at the opportunity to take his share of sand and throw it into the gears – as long as the money’s right.

  10. maha,
    In NYC, “Diver Dan” was usually mixed in with the “Felix the Cat” cartoons.
    You remember Felix, don’t you?
    ‘Felix the Cat,
    The wonderful, wonderful cat.
    Whenever he gets in a fix,
    He reaches into his bag of tricks?’

    At first, the enemies who always wanted to snatch Felix’s magical man-purse were “The Professor” and his nephew, “Poindexter.”
    Felix’s main nemesis later on was “The Master Cylinder.” When I was little, this caused me to almost wet myself in fear when our family mechanic told my father the master cylinder on our Impala needed to be changed. My poor Ukrainian father wondered what I was babbling on and on about in protest. I thought “The Master Cylinder” would now come after US! The thought never occurred to little old me that we barely had any luggage as a family, let alone any magical bags of tricks.

    God, did I misspend my youth…

    • I remember Felix the Cat, but I think I mostly remember the old silent ones with music and sound effects dubbed in. No bag of tricks in those days.

  11. Felicity: Most American utility companies are privately owned; for example, Consolidated Edison of New York, Tucson Electric Power in Tucson, San Diego Gas & Electric, Duke Power, National Grid. There are municipal owned utilities; for example Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, Sacramento Municipal Utility Department, one in Freeport (NY), one in Washington State, NY Power Authority, and, of course, Tennessee Valley Authority. But these municipals are the not the majority of utility companies. The are out numbered by the privately investor owed companies

  12. Yeah, I remember those, too.
    But these were new “adventures,” and included a new bag of tricks. Probably loosely based on the Soviets and Chinese attempting to steal our atomic and technological secrets, and was some sort of child propaganda at the height of The Cold War.
    Ok, I made that last part up, but it sure sounded good didn’t it?

    And are we sure “Flipper” wasn’t some show with dolphins trained by American scientists and Navy SEALS to track Soviet subs, while also providing wholesome family entertainment at the same time?
    I always wondered where Ol’ Flipper was while everyone was getting into trouble? And how did he know they needed help when they did, and it was time to save them?
    I’m afraid, that’s for greater minds than mine…

  13. Just for shits and giggle – for the kind of crazy you just don’t see everyday, but was the kind of crazy that generations ago, everyone in the family denied there was a birth, and the raving lunatic was kept in a padded basement, lest the attic not be soundproof enough, I bring you Victoria Jackson:
    It includes this instant classic, “This new al-Qaida magazine for women has beauty tips and suicide-bomber tips! Gimme a break!”
    Pray tell, what’s the title of this new al Qeada womens magazing, “GlamourBomber?”
    And what beauty tips do you give to a woman who is about to blow herself up? “Put on extra lip-gloss to make the men really miss you even more as you spread yourself and Mohammeds message by pulling the detonator.” Maybe, “Try extra henna and olive oil in the hair, for that moist, lustrous look. But not too wet ladies, lest we impede the explosives!”
    Published where? No, Victoria, that says ‘Under a rock.’ not the country we just left.
    And published by whom? Number 3, now number 2 with a bullet?

    And why does Huffington Post publish this tripe?
    Maybe because an idiot like me has nothing better to do during a slow blog week and decides to read how the people in “Crazytown” live.

  14. About privatization-it would not surprise me to learn the real reason Congress required the US Postal Service to pre-fund benefits (the real reason for the US Postal Service’s financial hemorrhage) was to destroy the postal service. Sadly, I am not sure the general public will wake up to the privatization debacles until our once-functioning government is completely outsourced to private entities.

  15. Victoria Jackson has a point, I mean Arabic numerals dominate our world, Al-Gebra confounds many Americans, and she is zaney (Zane is an Arabic name)

  16. Victoria Jackson is like Glenn Beck in drag. Same eye glasses, same stupid conspiracy theories. Same bag of shit…just different packaging.

  17. Somewhat related, The Big Lie, by a thirty year Wall Street veteran:

    …There will be violence, mark my words. Houses burnt, property defaced. I just hope that this time the mob targets the right people in Wall Street and in Washington….

    At the end of the day, the convulsion to come won’t really be about Wall Street’s derivatives malefactions, or its subprime fun and games, or rogue trading, or the folly of banks. It will be about this society’s final opportunity to rip away the paralyzing shackles of corruption or else dwell forever in a neofeudal social order. You might say that 1384 has replaced 1984 as our worst-case scenario.

    I have lived what now, at 75, is starting to feel like a long life. If anyone asks me what has been the great American story of my lifetime, I have a ready answer. It is the corruption, money-based, that has settled like some all-enveloping excremental mist on the landscape of our hopes, that has permeated every nook of any institution or being that has real influence on the way we live now. Sixty years ago, if you had asked me, on the basis of all that I had been taught, whether I thought this condition of general rot was possible in this country, I would have told you that you were nuts. And I would have been very wrong. What has happened in this country has made a lie of my boyhood…

  18. Kudos to c u n d gulag for actually knowing the Little Lord Fauntleroy story and that he was an admirable little boy! 🙂

  19. After being off topic most of yesterday, today, I abandon the reservation completely with this OT comment:

    I have to admit that this was a shock to me!
    I always assumed every animal I ever saw in movies or TV when I was a kid was long, long dead. You know, like Lassie, Rin Tin Tin, Flipper, ALF.
    But I was wrong – Cheetah was still alive until recently, when he died at 80 on Christmas Eve.

    Who knew?

    I must admit that the only reason I ever watched those movies when they were replayed on TV was to see the breathtakingly beautiful Maureen O’Sullivan in a short-short skirt.
    What a set of gams!!! She had legs that went from here to there, and back again!
    O’Sullivan could turn any man into an ape-man!

    RIP Cheetah.
    I wonder if any of the elephants in those movies survive him?
    They didn’t mention…

  20. I don’t remember Bob Kerrey anywhere nearly as fondly as you do.

    As Nebraska’s governor in the early 1980s, Kerrey was very good. As a U.S. senator, his performance was mixed but (I thought) generally good. As president of the New School (was it?) in N.Y.C., he was controversial at best. Unfortunately, if we want to keep that Senate seat a (D), Obi-Wan Kerrey is our only hope.

  21. Words have meaning beyond their intended utility. “Aid to the poor” means aid to White people; “welfare” means aid to Black people. And then the selection bias comes in.

    It’s a repeat of the old English separation of the “deserving poor” from the “undeserving poor,” and equally charged with prejudice.

  22. Mr. Gulag,
    The story was corrected shortly after reported: the chimp who died was not nearly old enough to have been in those movies. Be wary of Huffington Post stories – they often don’t check before repeating them.

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