The conversation went something like this:
“Alabama is beyond hope,” she said. I didn’t know her.
“It is,” I agreed. It had been a bad day.
“Nobody wants to work,” she said. “There’s no pride. You know what I mean?”
“Alabama is in trouble,” I said.
“They sit around collecting handouts,” she said. “They want us to pay for it. They have cellphones and computers and food stamps. I’m behind this woman in line and her kids are out of control and she has a new car outside and they have potato chips and Coke in their cart and they pay with food stamps, you know?”
“We’re in a mess,” I said.
“Who do you think is paying for it? For their potato chips and their car and their big-screen TV? It’s us,” she said. “We’re paying. Nobody gives me anything. I work hard. And I pay my taxes — that’s my money, you know, I earned it — and I’m paying for their potato chips and their car and their TV and their iPad.”
“Big problems,” I said.
“I saw this thing on Facebook,” she said. “The Department of Agriculture hands out food stamps, right? And it also runs the national parks.”
“I’ve heard that,” I said.
“Well in the parks, they have these signs. ‘Don’t feed the animals.’ Because the animals get dependent. They put up those signs, and then they hand out food stamps. More and more food stamps. It makes you think, doesn’t it?”
“Not really,” I said.
“See, we’re making them dependent,” she said. “We keep giving more and more. Our tax dollars, you know? I could use that money. And we keep giving it to them and they just sit on their butts. Sorry about ‘butts,’ it just makes me mad. I keep working harder and harder, and they keep buying their potato chips and TVs and Netflix. You agree?”
“I agree,” I said, “that Alabama is in trouble.”
“‘Don’t feed the animals,’ right? I told you it would make you think.”
“I don’t think they’re animals,” I said.
“Yeah, but you see Alabama is in trouble, right?”
My answer probably was not articulate — and as I recall, she left before I was done — but here’s my revisionist memory of it:
“It’s in trouble,” I agreed. “Not because of them, but because of you.”
Her eyes narrowed. “What?”
“That woman in the grocery line, with the potato chips,” I said. “If she has two kids and a husband, she gets $400 in food stamps if the family income is $900 a month. She gets $660 if she has no income at all. If she’s recently unemployed, she may get $200 a week in unemployment.”
“That adds up,” she said, “and we’re paying for it. We’re making her dependent.”
“What does it say about her options,” I asked, “if the best one available is food stamps and unemployment payments that soon will run out? And if she’s trying to hold down a job, how is she taking care of those out-of-control kids?
“You’re the problem — we are — because we’d rather blame her than look for solutions,” I said. “We’d rather assume she is an animal, content to take our crumbs, than think about how we can fix a society that leaves millions of people without hope. Would you settle for food stamps if you had better options? What makes you think she would?
“You have not known desperation, and you assume you would react to it differently.”
I thought about this conversation the other day while reviewing the federal budget proposal of U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
Ryan’s budget does not increase tax revenue, actually decreasing taxes for the wealthy. Instead, it makes massive cuts in health-care programs and income supports for the poor.
Last year, in his response to the State of the Union address, Ryan expressed fear that we would “transform our social safety net into a hammock, which lulls able-bodied people into lives of complacency and dependency.”
America used to have confidence both in its economic system and its people. The economy would provide incredible opportunity. The people would work hard to take advantage of that opportunity.
Most would agree that something fundamental has changed.
We know there have been changes in the economy. Polarization has increased dramatically, with the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. The loss of a middle class means much of our population has lost the ability to accumulate capital, and thus lost access to entrepreneurial success.
Ryan is too polished to talk about “feeding the animals,” but he is saying the same thing: The people are content to rely on handouts, so we need to cut the rations.
It may be that we have not found the correct balance in our safety net. Maybe we need to place people closer to the point of starvation if we are to awaken their entrepreneurial spirit. Maybe Americans would rather live on the dole than expend the effort to pursue the financial opportunities that await them.
Or maybe those opportunities no longer exist. Maybe the accelerating transfer of capital from the working class to the wealthy has finally taken its toll.
I do not think Americans have changed. Rather than worrying that the people are too comfortable in their hammocks, I wish Mr. Ryan would look for ways to repair an economy that no longer offers hope to many Americans.