If you’re reading this, chances are you’ll be poor, or have already been poor, at some point in your life.
A long-term study called the Panel of Income Dynamics found that by the age of 60, nearly 8 in 10 of us will have gone through a period of economic hardship. And during this spell of unemployment or underemployment, you’ll likely want to do what Jeb Bush says American workers need to do: work longer hours.
But because of numerous decisions that are made for us by society and the multifarious ways that same society conspires to make being poor expensive, you’ll be surviving on unemployment insurance, food stamps or, if you’re lucky, the graciousness of loved ones.
Hopefully at some point, you’ll climb — or at least hobble — out of the economic darkness and be able to say, as Craig T. Nelson did once did on Fox News, “I’ve been on welfare and food stamps. Did anyone help me out? No.”
Author John Steinbeck once suggested that the reason Americans are complacent in the face of unnecessary poverty amidst extraordinary affluence is that “everyone was a temporarily embarrassed capitalist.”
I’d argue that this is the reason that conservatism has caught on in America, with the help of a massive infrastructure determined to spread the Gospel of Free Enterprise that marries the teachings of an atheist, abortion-loving immigrant named Ayn Rand with those of a socialist, Jewish rabbi named Jesus Christ.
Liberals believe that facts should be able to sway white workers from a philosophy that has engineered a massive transfer of wealth from middle-class Americans to the richest .01 percent, who have soaked up nearly all the gains in the economy since conservatism first took hold in the late ’70s.
In 2004’s What’s the Matter with Kansas, Thomas Frank described The Great Backlash that has motivated the dramatic shift of white working-class voters from the Democratic Party to the GOP. “Backlash ensures that Republicans will continue to be returned to office even when their free-market miracles fail and their libertarian schemes don’t deliver and their ‘New Economy’ collapses,” he wrote, years before the GOP would retake the House of Representatives in the nadir of the Great Recession that it either didn’t prevent or engineered, depending on your point of view.
In Kansas, in Louisiana, in Wisconsin, in America, conservative policies deliver predictable agony for workers and unimaginable rewards for millionaires. But workers keep putting Republicans back in office to twist the knife. The shift started in the ’70s when corporate America found that buying politicians was cheap and effective as long as it had an army of evangelicals to counter the power of organized labor. And as Democrats moved to the right to counter this assault, the results they’d delivered since the New Deal workers waned. Eventually the right’s aggressive reframing of American values around social issues and a dogwhistle campaign to tar government help as only beneficial to minorities drove a wedge between the left and its natural constituency that continues to this day.
Logic and facts won’t change this. Democratic presidents continually deliver greater and wider economic growth but Republicans are still seen as the party that best handles the economy. Nothing will change until workers understand what they get from conservative policies: weaker families, dimmer futures, and corporate governance that mocks their needs. Only the understanding that private good relies on public investment can ever reverse the damage of conservatism.
Here are five ways workers punish themselves by voting Republican:
1. Working longer.
More than 85 percent of American men and 66.5 percent of women work more than 40 hours a week. In exchange, we’re the only industrialized country on Earth that does not require paid maternity or sick leave. We also have less vacation time than any first-world nation.
Needless to say, conservatives widely oppose all of these policies. Every Republican in the Senate running for president voted against paid sick leave this year.
“Americans work 137 more hours per year than Japanese workers, 260 more hours per year than British workers, and 499 more hours per year than French workers,” according to the International Labour Organization.
But Jeb Bush is right—many of us would still like to work longer and can’t. But not because we need more work—we have plenty of that— but we need the economic freedom conservative policies deny us.
2. Working to death.
The retirement age for Social Security is already 67 for anyone born in 1960 or after. Jeb Bush would like to make that 68 or 70. He’d also like to privatize it and “phase out” traditional Medicare, presumably to phase in Paul Ryan’s Medicare voucher plan, which is opposed by everyone, including most Republicans.
Bush’s argument is solvency or saving these retirement guarantees. What he’s really saying is that he would never consider the much less painful and viable options: asking the rich to pay payroll taxes the same way the middle class does, and negotiating drug prices for Medicare the way we do for Medicaid and the Veterans Administration.
Bush and most Republicans make the argument that “people are living longer!”
“This sounds plausible until you look at exactly who is living longer,” The New York Times‘ Paul Krugman explains. “The rise in life expectancy, it turns out, is overwhelmingly a story about affluent, well-educated Americans. Those with lower incomes and less education have, at best, seen hardly any rise in life expectancy at age 65; in fact, those with less education have seen their life expectancy decline.”
So the workers who are voting Republican are again most victimized by GOP policies.
3. Working for less.
If facts could change minds, this graph would be all workers would need to see to never vote Republican again.
It’s almost impossible to directly connect the fall of middle-class incomes and the decline of labor unions, but the correlations are astounding. And wherever unions are busted or hindered by GOP policies, wages fall.
Jeb Bush has said he doesn’t even think there should be a minimum wage and opposes President Obama’s revised rule that would force employers to pay millions of workers for the overtime they are already doing. And they pursue these policies despite evidence showing their arguments against higher mandatory wages have been repeatedly disproved.
4. Working less safely.
The Occupation Safety and Health Administration was created under President Nixon and has radically transformed the safety of U.S. workplaces.
“In the past four decades, the number of deaths due to workplace accidents fell from 13,800 in 1970 to 5,657 in 2007,” David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz wrote. “The total incidence rate of private sector occupational injuries and illnesses plummeted from 10.9 per 100 workers in 1972 to 3.9 in 2008.” Some of this has to do with the decline of industrialized occupations in America. Most of it has to do with OSHA.
Still, in 2013, nearly 13 Americans died on the job each day.
5. Working for food stamps and Medicaid.
What do you call people who work 40 hours a week and are still on food stamps and Medicaid?
Republicans call them “takers,” even though it’s corporations that are really doing the taking.
“You’ve got this giant industry of free riders,” billionaire and anti-inequality activist Nick Hanauer said on Barry Ritholtz’s Masters of Business podcast. “McDonald’s pays their workers poverty wages and not one of the people in McDonald’s can buy the products [of the companies I start]. All of my employees can afford to go to McDonald’s every day, right, but not vice versa. All of my employees pay taxes. All of the McDonald’s employees, they don’t pay taxes. In fact, they need public services like food stamps and Medicaid that my employees pay [into]. And none of this makes any sense.”
It only makes sense if you want to keep wages unethically low and don’t actually care about the personal responsibility you preach. It makes sense if you think the people who should pay the costs of your extraordinary gains are the workers you exploit and the taxpayers you gouge.
It actually makes a lot of sense. What doesn’t make sense is that the votes of the people being exploited make this possible.
Photo: Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill Protest, 2011. (Mark Danielson via Flickr)