by Ken Gorrell,
Weirs Times Contributing Writer
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan wants you to know that he’s sorry, so very sorry. Speaking to a group of House interns a few weeks ago, the Speaker again renounced the “makers vs. takers” meme from the failed 2012 Romney-Ryan ticket:
“There was a time when I would talk about a difference between “makers” and “takers” in our country, referring to people who accepted government benefits. But as I spent more time listening, and really learning the root causes of poverty, I realized I was wrong.”
He was wrong then. He’s also wrong now.
The Left pounced on the makers/takers rhetoric as mean-spirited and inaccurate, further proof that Republicans were out of touch with the realities of American life. Some on the Right cringed at the sound of those words coming from rich, urbane Mitt Romney, assessing correctly that, regardless of the truth in that clumsy formulation, appearing to blame the victim makes for bad politics.
The error in 2012 was using “takers” to label the 47 percent of Americans who owed no federal income tax. (The estimate this year is 45 percent.) Many hard-working Americans pay no income tax because the tax code permits it. No one should be blamed for filing taxes correctly. Some non-payers are retired, with low taxable incomes. Other citizens have fallen on hard times through no fault of their own or were born with abilities that limit their participation in our economy. They “take,” but only because we believe in certain social responsibilities and have set up a system to “give,” or in political parlance, “redistribute.”
Many workers who escape the clutches of the federal income tax pay other taxes, such as payroll taxes (partially funding Social Security and Medicare) and state and local taxes. But there are Americans who can rightly be labeled “takers.” We and our political leaders shouldn’t shy away from stating that truth and recognizing its moral implications.
Far too many Americans make choices that limit their ability to contribute to the functioning of a healthy society, or, worse, act in ways that detract from society. Yet they are “entitled” – by law and by mindset – to the earnings of others. Paul Ryan should have acknowledged that the root causes of poverty include people making bad decisions with easily-predictable consequences. There’s nothing wrong with “blaming the victim” when the victim’s status is the result of his own actions. We used to call this making a moral judgement. Now it’s considered the cardinal sin of judgementalism.
The Brookings Institution, no hot bed of conservative thought, published an essay by Ron Haskins, Co-Director of the Center on Children and Families, titled “Three Simple Rules Poor Teens Should Follow to Join the Middle Class.” Bottom line: At least finish high school, get a full-time job, and wait until age 21 to get married and have children. A distressingly large number of teens don’t heed that advice.
Haskins’ research showed that only 2 percent of people in families that followed all three rules were poor, while 76 percent who followed none were poor. Nearly three-quarters of those who followed all three rules were at least middle-class. Of course there are a lot of complicating factors. Many students are forced to attend schools that are little more than failure factories, with high drop-out rates and low proficiency scores. Marriage was once considered a sacred bond, making the choice of one’s partner extremely important. (My future father-in-law pointed out during our engagement that I was marrying well, and of course he was right.) And sadly, parenting is no longer constrained by social norms that tended to protect children’s welfare. But these are not valid excuses for failing to make the effort and play the odds. It should surprise nobody that single people with low skills and children have a hard time finding full-time work and can’t support themselves.
Speaker Ryan’s apology included this line: “Takers” wasn’t how to refer to a single mom stuck in a poverty trap, just trying to take care of her family. Most people don’t want to be dependent. I shouldn’t castigate a large group of Americans to make a point.” Nice sentiment, but only to a point.
In the Entitlement Age, the idea of “dependency” has been stripped of the shame it once had. Opprobrium shouldn’t be heaped on those who acknowledge that fact. It belongs squarely on the shoulders of those who make themselves dependent. And all of them are part of that 45 percent.
Ken can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org