Will economic conservatives learn any lessons from this crisis?

Merits and analysis of Obama’s housing plan aside, I’m particularly interested in this bit of Republican rhetoric I’m seeing.

From Politico.com:

The GOP, perhaps predictably, was less enthusiastic. House Republicans released statements, suggesting Obama’s plan rewarded irresponsible borrowers at the expense of the vast majority of homeowners who pay their monthly bills on time.


He objected most to the main theme of the foreclosure plan – using monetary incentives to spur lenders and borrowers to do the right thing.

“The biggest outrage is that the president’s plan actually will use taxpayer money to pay people to do what they are already supposed to do – pay their mortgage,” Shelby said. “It also uses taxpayer money to pay banks to do what they should already be doing – modifying mortgages.”

So the mass job layoffs aren’t their fault, but people who are struggling to pay their mortgages are “irresponsible” and aren’t “doing what they’re supposed to do” by paying their bills–in other words, their non-payment is “their fault”? I guess in their perspective, you ought to be able to pay your bills with or without a job!

The Republicans seem willing to say that the economic downturn (and thus layoffs, increased credit card rates, and lower lines of credit) is beyond people’s control, but the impact of the economic downturn (housing foreclosures) somehow isn’t.

Their rhetoric also removes any blame for the abusiveness of the mortgage industry on the industry and solely in the hands of “irresponsible” Americans.

I also find it interesting that they claim that this is what the mortgage industry should be doing anyway, yet they don’t want any regulation making them do it and in the absence of such regulation, don’t want the government to incentivize good behavior they “ought to” be doing anyway? If it’s less advantageous to them financially, why on earth would they do it? Since when did the financial industry grow a conscience?

These statements are fascinating to me as well, because I have been wondering myself if our current economic crisis might change the way we think about, talk about, and approach public policy regarding the unemployed and working poor. Now that many “hard-working Americans” are being laid off “through no fault of their own,” will the Right rethink their stance on social services for unemployed and working poor Americans?

I suppose this is opposed to the “normal” unemployed and working poor who are in their state entirely through fault of their own. It seems that when structural economic hardships happen en masse, it’s not “their fault”, but when structural hardships perpetually happen to a good fifth of Americans, it is their fault? Or is it when the middle and upper class find themselves un-or underemployed (and thus can’t pay their overconsumption-induced bills), someone else’s is to blame, but when high-school educated, full time workers can’t even break out of poverty, they themselves are to blame? Do not both scenarios arise from corporate greed? Is not the health insurance through employment formula a major factor in both hardship situations? Do we only have sympathy for the middle class who become poor but not for the poor who can’t make it anywhere close to middle class?

It took my own personal struggles to break me free from the American Dream brainwashing I had received from my conservative upbringing. In the spring of 2003, I found myself a new college graduate, with several years in retail management under my belt, and a partner with a Master’s Degree. We moved back to our hometown because he owned a home there with no mortgage. Because we “voluntarily” moved back to the town where he owned a home rather than stay in the college’s town with our part-time minimum wage jobs, we could not qualify for unemployment–or any social service–when 3 months later, we were still unsuccessful in finding jobs in our fields. We shifted to looking for any job, which is more difficult than you think for two fairly educated people. No factory wanted to hire someone with a Master’s Degree. In the end I realized a few things:

  1. The system is degrading. It is not very empowering to sit at DSS and beg to be approved.
  2. It is not all that easy to obtain social services. You must own so little, or at least look like you do. (46% of all poor families receive no welfare)
  3. Our society has no short-term safety net–nothing that covers you between jobs or between college and employment. Unemployment is not so easy to get.
  4. Hard work and education does not mean good employment. Life outcomes are not the direct result of one’s self-making.

I share my experience because this is what it took for me to understand that (full, or even decent) employment is not a function of personal worth or hard work and that even if our social services are organized poorly, the idea of them–their necessity and our duty as a society to provide them–is non-negotiable.

While pessimistic, I wish that this economic crisis would be the jolt that conservative America needs to rethink poverty in America, to recognize it as structural, and to stop always “blaming the victim.”

(Cross-posted in two parts to The Reaction)

Published in: on February 19, 2009 at 2:15 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. Very true…what has also not been mentioned very much is the “creative” ways that people have opted to pay the bills due to the recession. By that, I mean using credit cards just to get by because of either job loss or underemployment etc. Chances are, many of these home owners are loosing their houses as a last resort, they have probably charged their credit cards to the max and now their last stand is their houses. Also, many many people cannot receive unemployment benefits due to their partner moving because of either job reassignment or moving because of a layoff etc.

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