WOOTEN COLUMN: Beware of a poor pretense for fiscal folly
“For ye have the poor with you always, and whensoever ye will ye may do them good: but me ye have not always.”
— Jesus Christ, according to Mark 14:7, The King James Version
Two thousand years later, the poor are still with us.
So is this hard-nosed — and hard-hearted — interpretation of that gospel passage:
What's the use in helping poor folks if they will always be with us?
But before buying that every-man-for-himself pitch, don't forget that “whensoever ye will ye may do them good” line.
And regardless of your religious faith or lack thereof, doing good for those who have it bad often produces this uplifting win-win: Both sides of the equation come out ahead.
However, relentlessly expanding the official definition of “the poor” — and government's increasingly unsustainable obligations to them — is a losing proposition. So is stretching the demands of what government must do for the poor — and for the rest of us — past the fiscal breaking point.
Under the paradoxically titled Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Medicaid eligibility will be expanded next year to include families at or below 133 percent of the federal poverty level.
Some Republican governors, including our state's Nikki Haley, are resisting signing onto that long-term sucker's deal.
Some other GOP governors, though, including New Jersey's Chris Christie, Florida's Rick Scott and Ohio's John Kasich, recently folded under the short-term pressure of losing federal Medicaid funding.
Meanwhile, “the poor” are with us in ever-greater numbers: During the last four years, the number of Americans on food stamps has soared from 32 million to 47 million.
A longer view:
Since 1965, American workers — and their employers — have paid into a Medicare system now speeding toward a fiscal train wreck.
Simply put, the decline of the payers-to-beneficiaries ratio has too many dollars going out and too few coming in.
Since 1935, Americans have been paying into Social Security, also endangered by that basic math — and economic — problem.
Along the dependency-solidifying way, Americans have understandably come to expect those programs to fulfill their promises.
After all, our entitlement mentality has been nurtured by Washington taking a lot of money from us — and from our employers in our names — for a lot of years.
Too bad that even all of that entitlement loot won't be enough to cover the crushing costs of Baby Boomer retirements — a process that has already begun.
Meanwhile, the puzzle of how to help the really poor hits home again in this newspaper today with the final installment of “Forgotten South Carolina.” Doug Pardue's insightful and downright gripping four-part series has delivered a comprehensive look at chronically poor South Carolina counties.
It spells out how rough times are there and how they got that way, tracing a “Legacy of Shame” marked by slavery, racial discrimination and educational neglect. It proposes ways to move forward from that poor past toward a richer future for all South Carolinians (see our editorial on the facing page).
Still, before casting government as an all-powerful Robin Hood, remember that Vietnam wasn't the only war which didn't turn out the way President Lyndon B. Johnson planned.
From his 1964 State of the Union speech: “This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America.”
In the nearly half century since Johnson sounded that Great Society battle cry, the percentage of the federal budget devoted to social spending has soared, along with our national debt.
Yet the poor are still with us.
At least America remains a land of opportunity with considerable upward financial mobility.
With unemployment still painfully high, though, downward mobility seems more prevalent these days.
Thus, the intensified urgency of our task in helping the poor — not just because it's a righteous endeavor, but because it's a practical one.
Just beware of how inefficient — and demotivating — government can be while running up the taxpayer tab (and that national debt) on the premise of assisting the downtrodden.
No, this isn't a 21st century variation on “Let them eat cake.” That haughty dismissal of the poor's plight has been attributed, albeit without convincing evidence, to 18th century Queen Marie Antoinette, who literally lost her head in the French Revolution.
No, this column isn't a commitment to refusing public assistance if my own fickle fortunes take a tough turn.
This is another alarm that the modern Welfare State's bottom-line perils stem from making government wards of us all — not just “the poor.”
It's also a call to heed words of wisdom uttered in 1976 by the woman who eventually became the United Kingdom's longest-serving prime minister of the 20th century (1979-90).
As Margaret Thatcher warned:
“Socialist governments traditionally do make a financial mess. They always run out of other people's money.”
Frank Wooten is assistant editor of The Post and Courier. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.