The War on the Poor: Let Them Suffer A Bit

In the 1960s LBJ launched a “War on Poverty.”  Over time this war has gradually faded from view, to be replaced by a bipartisan “war on poverty-stricken people.”  The elites don’t much like poor people, indeed they regard them as slightly sub-human.  As a result the elites have enacted a whole range of policies that are premised on the inferiority of the poor.

1.  It’s well known that the poor receive inferior medical treatment in ERs. This report shows that things are likely to get even worse:

Yesterday, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and city officials unveiled a new initiative to limit supplies of prescription painkillers in the city’s emergency rooms as a way to combat what they described as a growing addiction problem in the region. Some critics, as documented by The New York Times, however, felt the move would unnecessarily hurt poor and uninsured patients who use emergency rooms as their primary care doctor. Needless to say, Mr. Bloomberg was not swayed by this line of argument.

“The city hospitals we control, so … we’re going to do it and we’re urging all of the other hospitals to do it, voluntary guidelines. Somebody said, oh, somebody wrote, ‘Oh then maybe there won’t be enough painkillers for the poor who use the emergency rooms as their primary care doctor,’” the mayor said on his weekly radio show with John Gambling. “Number one, there’s no evidence of that. Number two, supposing it is really true, so you didn’t get enough painkillers and you did have to suffer a little bit.

I have witnessed people suffering excruciating pain (kidney stones)  in an ER in a low income area due to lack of painkillers—and that’s before Bloomberg’s policy was put into effect.  Torture for thee but not for me.

2. Reason magazine has a great article on the war on sex workers:

A prostitution charge will haunt these women throughout the interlocking bureaucracies of their lives: filling out job applications, signing kids up for day care, renting apartments, qualifying for loans, requesting passports or visas.

Not all people who do sex work are women, but women disproportionately suffer the stigma, discrimination, and violence against sex workers. The result is a war on women that is nearly imperceptible, unless you are involved in the sex trade yourself. This war is spearheaded and defended largely by other women: a coalition of feminists, conservatives, and even some human rights activists who subject sex workers to poverty, violence, and imprisonment—all in the name of defending women’s rights.

Read the whole thing, I particularly liked the paragraph that described how Gloria Steinem opposes health and education services for poor Indian prostitutes.

Elite men with their mistresses can generally avoid these laws, it is poor women who are disproportionately targeted.

3.  Then there is the “War on Drugs” (AKA war on poor drug-using Americans.)  The laws are set up to target the poor, by giving much higher penalties to drugs used by the poor (crack) than virtually identical drugs used by the middle class (cocaine.)  The laws are especially tough on people who sell drugs, who tend to be disproportionately poor.  And as I pointed out in this recent post, the rich generally don’t have to serve prison time for their addictions (unless they are as dumb as Linda Lindsey Lohan.)

4.  As cigarette smoking has become increasingly concentrated among the lower classes, the war has intensified.  It’s increasingly difficult for low income smokers to find a job that allows them to smoke.  The tax (plus quasi-tax) has risen to absurd levels–up to $10 a pack.  If you take $3000 a year away from the budget of a poor single mom, how does that affect the amount and quality of food she can provide to her children?  This tax is a far bigger welfare issue than whether the rich pay 35% or 39.6%. Yet how often does one see the anti-inequality crusaders at elite papers like the NYT take on this shamefully regressive tax?  That’s right, approximately zero times.

5.  Gambling.  The affluent fly to Vegas and gamble in casinos that take 5% of each bet.  The lower classes buy lottery tickets, and the government takes over 50% of the money wagered.  Another highly regressive tax ignored by our anti-inequality crusaders.  And please don’t expose your ignorance by uttering the term “voluntary tax.”  All taxes are voluntary in the sense that you don’t have to do the thing being taxed, and mandatory in the sense that you must pay the tax if you do the thing being taxed.

6.  Occupational licensing laws.  Most affluent people have the credentials needed to earn a good living.  Many of the poor do not.  Even when they try to do jobs where a college education is not required (cutting hair or driving a taxi or operating a food truck) they are often frozen out by absurd occupational licensing laws.  And yet with the notable except of Matt Yglesias, most progressives also ignore this source of unemployment and poverty.

7.  Car inspection laws disproportionately impact low income people who drive beat up old cars.  (I support pollution controls, but not the rest.)

8.  As more and more of the rich and powerful breeze through TSA checkpoints with special passes, the agents feel freer to treat the rest like cattle.

9.  Brutal sports that lower income people like to watch are increasingly outlawed.

10.  The government subsidizes the arts and media, but only those arts and media outlets that are consumed by the highly educated elites.

11.  The NCAA.  BTW, ever notice that the media calls poor blacks that go right into pro football or basketball at age 18 “foolish”, but affluent whites who go right into the golf or tennis circuit are given a pass?

12. Many elites live in safe neighborhoods where they don’t need guns to protect their homes.  They then favor guns laws which will tend to divert criminal activity away from affluent suburbs, and toward the newly-disarmed residents of inner city neighborhoods.

13.  Government bureaucracies often treat the poor with contempt.  Yes, the affluent may face the occasional petty humiliation at the DMV, but the poor have far more experience dealing with the petty tyrants in government bureaucracies.

14.  In my city (Newton), low income families have a very difficult time finding apartments due to lead paint laws.  Meanwhile the affluent are free to buy a 100 year old Victorian house full of lead paint, and live there with their toddlers.  The government has no regulations on single family homes, just rental units.  And don’t get me going on zoning laws.

The bottom line is that the elites don’t much like the poor.  Of course they are careful to avoid saying so, steering clear of racial stereotypes.  Instead they mock the consumption habits and religious/social attitudes of poor whites.  Poor minorities are not criticized, even though they have similar lifestyles and cultural attitudes.  This makes the elites feel progressive.

It’s not that the elites hate the poor; I would describe their attitude as “condescending.”  They wish them well in much the same way that they favor animal welfare.  They support programs that help the poor make the “right choices,” like food stamps and Medicaid, while cutting back on poverty programs that provide money which could be spent on drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, prostitution, gambling, etc (i.e the 1996 welfare reform.)

And of course the War on Poverty-Stricken Americans is a fully bipartisan effort.  The aging baby boomers (my generation) are particularly ruthless in their anti-poor efforts.

PS.  Off topic, a few months back I pointed out that the GOP talks like they hate high income tax rates, but many conservative states have fairly high top rates.  Almost immediately afterwards there was a flurry of activity in a number of conservative states aimed at cutting income tax rates.  This means one of two things:

1.  I’m highly influential.

2.  Much more likely I was flat out wrong about the GOP.  They really do hate income taxes.

Now let’s see states like Texas go after all those occupational licensing laws.

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About Scott Sumner 492 Articles

Affiliation: Bentley University

Scott Sumner has taught economics at Bentley University for the past 27 years.

He earned a BA in economics at Wisconsin and a PhD at University of Chicago.

Professor Sumner's current research topics include monetary policy targets and the Great Depression. His areas of interest are macroeconomics, monetary theory and policy, and history of economic thought.

Professor Sumner has published articles in the Journal of Political Economy, the Journal of Money, Credit and Banking, and the Bulletin of Economic Research.

Visit: TheMoneyIllusion

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