John Kenneth Galbraith
Talks About “The Good Society”
The late U.S. Senator Hubert Humphrey once said that “the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life – the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”
Unfortunately, it seems that President Clinton and a majority of our elected officials don’t want anything to do with this vision of what government should be, a vision they dismiss as soft-hearted and soft-headed. As far as they’re concerned, no one in need is entitled to any assistance from the Federal government.
Welfare has become a code word for attacking women and minorities. The myth of the “welfare queen” who drives a Cadillac and buys vodka with food stamps still persists. The reality is that the national average for a monthly welfare grant to a family of three is about $400, or about 50 percent below the federal poverty line. That is probably why most families that sign up for welfare collect checks for two years or less.
Even this meager amount of help is considered too generous by many. The recently enacted federal welfare reform legislation has ended the original “Contract with America” that Franklin Roosevelt made with America’s poor in the 1930s. That simple contract – that every person in need would receive aid from the federal government – has ended.
Now, your benefits will be smaller and come with a time limit. If you are a legal immigrant in need, you will get nothing. If you are a single mother, you’ll have to stay in an abusive relationship to continue getting aid. And if your state runs out of money to fund social welfare programs, too bad. If you’re lucky, your benefits will be reduced. If you aren’t lucky, they’ll be eliminated.
Needless to say, the liberals who still believe in Humphrey’s definition of a moral government are disappointed with this version of welfare reform. One of those people is economist John Kenneth Galbraith. He discussed welfare reform during a talk regarding his latest book, “The Good Society,” in Newfane, Vt., on August 3.
Galbraith said “The Good Society,” his 31st book, is “an attempt to tell, in a world where everyone says what is wrong, what is right. I can’t say in the meantime that very much has been done to affirm the course of what I put down in the book”
The 87-year-old Galbraith has worked with every Democratic president since Roosevelt. He’s old enough to remember what life was like before the New Deal and is wise enough to know what life would be like if the social safety net is allowed to be destroyed.
“In a rich society, no one should be allowed to suffer from deprivation such as homelessness, starvation and illness,” he said. “This ideal is essential, not simply as a matter of human good, but as the price we pay for a measure of domestic tranquillity. We have sacrificed this with the passage of this bill. That we should have a new class struggle between the comfortable is regrettable.”
The programs such as AFDC, food stamps and housing assistance – programs that millions of poor people depend on – represent only three percent of the total Federal budget. The social costs of throwing millions off government assistance far outweigh any financial benefits, Galbraith said.
“President Clinton should not sign the bill. It is a mistake,” said Galbraith. “This bill is a cruel instrument in the war against the poor. I think he should promptly send legislation to Congress to correct (the bill’s) worst features.”
As an immigrant from Canada, Galbraith was particularly upset by the singling out of aliens in the welfare reform debate. “The sudden adverse attitude toward aliens distresses me a great deal,” he said. “Our country has its origin through immigration and the richness of this country has come through immigration. While the notion of the people who are here worrying about the culture and economics of the people coming in is a normal thing, we should resist it. We must not have discriminatory attitudes towards immigrants once there here. A large part of our economy depends upon them.”
The growing inequality of the U.S. economy also distresses Galbraith. Our country, he said, has the dubious distinction of having the most imbalanced distribution of wealth in the industrialized world. He believes it is a good thing that this inequality is starting to be noticed and discussed by citizens.
“It’s not a question of liberal versus conservative, but sanity versus insanity,” Galbraith said. “Some economists think that if we have a growing economy, the problem of poverty will take care of itself. It doesn’t. People always fall through the cracks. Republicans, like my friend Bob Dole, seem to think there is an inspiring quality in giving more money to the top one percent. When I hear this, I think of the `Horse and Sparrow’ theory of economics; that if you feed enough oats to the horse, some will pass through to feed the sparrows.”
Improved access to health care, increased investment in education and affordable housing and “a very strong social safety net that comes without a derogatory attitude toward the people who use it,” are the most important things that Galbraith believes will help remedy the inequalities in this country.
But, in Galbraith’s view, the biggest obstacle to accomplishing those goals is the presence of “a large (upper) class with a loud political voice and economic comfort. They vote and the poor do not.” This class, which has grown as our economy has become more advanced, has little incentive to do anything for the disadvantaged.
Galbraith maintains that the conflict between the poor and the privileged will shape our economic life for years to come. “This is the thing that must be understood and clarified,” he said back in 1994, before the Republican takeover of Congress. “We have to again create the means for upward mobility. It may not be popular politics, but it doesn’t mean that the rest of us have to accept that.”
Copyright © 1996, by Randolph T. Holhut, All Rights Reserved