Beinstein column: Helping the poor shouldn’t be a political divide
President Donald Trump says the happiest people he knows are the ones with good families, not those with the greatest assets. Barack Obama often said after securing a middle class income, there’s not much else you need. And, in his first inaugural, President George W. Bush paraphrased scripture and said we should all put out a helping hand to anyone who is struggling on their walk to Jericho.
Reaching out to the poor, in short, knows no political party or ideology.
There are certain unassailable conservative truths to poverty. Families that stay together are much likelier to avoid financial ruin. The same is true of people who at least attain a high school degree.
By definition, the harder and longer somebody works, the greater their financial prospects will be. And savings are really critical to reducing poverty. Because we unfortunately tax income, and not consumption, we incentivize reckless spending.
If our revenues came from consumption, the most profitable businesses would be able to keep more of their profits, thereby increasing investment in society’s most fruitful ventures, helping to increase opportunities here by broadening exports abroad.
On a related note, it would help the average consumer focus on purchasing goods that are absolutely necessary. With the extra tax, people on the margins would be much more careful in what discretionary products they bought, which in turn would increase savings, a chief objective of slashing poverty.
The inequality in schools also contribute to poverty. The harrowing book Savage Inequalities applies equally to today — a child born into a wealthy family in the suburbs will have access to much greater education than a child born in the slums or rural poverty. And, our economic system seems more aristocratic now than ever before.
The late 19th century tycoons like Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and Cornelius Vanderbilt were all born into poverty, had no college degree, and worked as early as 13. But, through great industry and mastery of their field, they reached the pinnacle of success.
If you look at our era’s economic titans, all seemed born into wealth and privilege. Jeff Bezos is the son of a corporate executive, Bill Gates a corporate attorney, and Warren Buffet a congressman. All, too, at least partly attended an Ivy League school.
There’s nothing wrong with any of these things. In fact, they can be quite helpful and tremendously positive, but they do beg the question: What if you aren’t born into privilege, as is the case with most impoverished people? Is forcing a bunch of young people to take on loads of student debt, without any guarantee of success, very equitable?
The days of apprenticing, in which the young apprentice isn’t forced into immediate debt, should be revisited. And, of course, could you imagine Vanderbilt or Rockefeller getting a federal bailout if their businesses failed? Creating a two-tiered capitalist structure, in which some business owners face the rigors of the marketplace and others on government guarantees, crushes the spirit of individual initiative and the belief in the American dream.
The question then is: Can there be a broad, sustained political movement that really reaches out to the poor and dispossessed? The right will always focus on culture and personal responsibility, the left on opportunity and a rigged system.
But, what if both sides are right? And what if buzzwords like Christianity and the Constitution no longer divide us but unite us? And what if instead of using race as a way to divide us, we remain faithful to Dr. King’s dictum that character, and not the color of your skin, should remain our eternal destiny.
The scriptures teach us, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Whether we are materially blessed or not, we should always imagine ourselves as the other. And when we do, the world will require very different things of us.
What if that homeless person was my son? What if my brother returned from war with missing limbs? What if my mother was addicted to opioids?
When we think like that, this world might begin to feel like heaven.
Happy New Year.
Alex Beinstein is a millennial who grew up in Aspen, lived in Carbondale for a while and now writes from Washington, D.C. His column appears monthly in the Post Independent.