The Universal Notebook: We are all on welfare

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If you work hard all your life you will be rewarded by financial security. That’s one of the Big Right lies of American conservatism.

As Republicans like Gov. Paul LePage and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., wage their war on the poor, blaming the victims and slashing social welfare programs, they would like us to believe that everyone who receives “welfare” is some kind of a fraud or freeloader.

Not so.

To begin with, most Americans are only one illness, accident, bad investment, divorce or job loss away from the need for some sort of public assistance. Hard work and individual initiative are necessary, but not sufficient, for success. You also need good luck in order to achieve financial independence, unless you were born into it. And, anyway, most poor people work a heck of a lot harder than people fortunate enough to just let their money work for them.

The Republican playbook these days calls for cutting programs such as food stamps, student loans, public pensions, child care and health benefits for the needy. We see it in everything the LePage administration tries to do and in the federal budget proposal developed by Ryan.

The amazing thing about this welfare witch hunt is that 96 percent of Americans receive some form of government benefits, not just in the form of food stamps and public assistance, but in things like mortgage deductions, tax credits, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and veterans benefits. In fact, since Republicans define “welfare” as any tax dollars spent on individuals other than themselves, we are pretty much all on welfare in this country.

LePage, for example, is paid with tax dollars while in office and will soon be on “welfare,” collecting some $26,000 a year in retirement allowance for life for only four years of public service. (Let’s pray it’s not more than that.)

The freeloaders in this country are not the indigent and unemployed, they are the oligarchs and corporations that don’t pay their fair share of taxes, hide their assets offshore, and benefit in innumerable ways from an economic system and tax code rigged in their favor.

Corporate welfare is a far greater problem in this country than social welfare. Direct subsidies to big businesses, tax incentives, interest subsidies, and revenue lost to tax shelters adds up to more than $100 billion a year, while social welfare programs cost about $60 billion.

The so-called free market is skewed in favor of the banks, investment houses and corporations. When someone tries to tell you that hard work is the key to success, remind them about all the hard-working Americans who lost their homes, investments and life savings due to predatory lending practices, corrupt hedge fund creeps bundling toxic mortgages then betting against them and precipitating economic collapse. Surely you noticed that the banks and investment houses got bailed out, but the homeowners did not.

Investing is a form of gambling. It’s not work. It’s a combination crap shoot and con game. In a just society, unearned income from investments would be taxed at a much higher rate than earned income, but the U.S. tax code is rigged in favor of speculators and profiteers.

There are millionaires in this country who pay less in taxes than you do. There are giant corporations that not only pay less in taxes than you do, they actually receive your tax dollars. It has been estimated that the average American family pays $6,000 a year in taxes to support corporations. The same family pays about $36 a year in taxes toward food stamps. Oh yuh, that food stamp program is a big problem.

The brilliance of the conservative war on the poor is that it keeps the angry middle-class white guys busy so they won’t notice that they are being robbed blind by fat cats and corporations. I am constantly amazed how people who work paycheck to paycheck can be so easily suckered into believing that conservatism has something to offer them other than pain. I guess they just want to believe that if they work hard enough they will be rewarded with riches. That’s the sucker mentality.

The other Big Right lie is that successful people deserve their success. In the meritocracy of the far right, money is the only way to keep score. But wealth is not a measure of merit any more than poverty is a moral failing.

One way or another, we’re all on welfare.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Yarmouth. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.