Self-Deportation From Poverty

If you read Brian Beutler’s review of Jeb Bush’s “big speech” at the Detroit Economic Club tomorrow, it’s obvious the former Florida’s governor’s idea of squaring conservative orthodoxy with a “right to rise” agenda for social mobility is to double or triple down on the idea that government assistance programs trap people in non-working dependence.

As metaphors for social insurance go, “spider web” sounds disgusting, but beats Paul Ryan’s idyllic “hammock” in that it at least treats beneficiaries as unwitting victims, rather than coddled malingerers. Ultimately, though, they amount to the same critique: When the government intervenes to support the poor and working classes, it captures them and saps them of ambition.

If you really believe people structure their lives around short-term money considerations, then anti-poverty programs, which by definition must phase down benefits as earned income increases, can easily look like traps, and conservative audiences who (a) don’t view the government benefits they receive as morally tainted, (b) resent having to pay taxes to support those people, and (c) bridle at any suggestion they might harbor prejudice, instinctively love this kind of “analysis,” implying as it does that abandonment is a sort of tough love. It’s kind of a general social-policy version of “self-deportation” for undocumented immigrants: make live less tolerable for the poor, and they’s get themselves out of poverty and perhaps even silently thank you for the encouragement.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.