Let’s talk about charity.
What should the federal government be doing to help those less well off? It’s an appropriate question as the nation enters the season of giving, when even the grumpiest among us silence the inner Scrooge and drop a few coppers into the donation kettle.
The Congressional super committee’s recent failure to reach compromise on how to trim the national debt, be it by raising taxes on the wealthy, cutting spending or some combination of the two, provides the perfect backdrop.
Government, Republicans endlessly intone, should do less, not more for the unfortunate. Leave the food pantries and the homeless shelters to the churches and the do-gooders.
This is wishful thinking, and judging by new polling data, most Americans seem to see right through it. Seven in 10 Americans oppose cutting funds for social programs aimed at helping the poor, according to a new poll by the Public Religion Research Institute. Moreover, 67 percent of those polled said that government should do more to narrow the gap between the haves and the have-nots.
Can I hear an “amen” for charity?
True, Republicans and Democrats answered such questions quite differently. Nevertheless, if the GOP candidates are looking to replace the current occupant in the White House, they might want to dig deeper into the poll’s findings.
Independents tended to side with the Democrats on taxation and social spending questions. Moreover, the poll found that majorities of respondents of all religious groups, ages and education levels agreed that the government should do more to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor. Eight in 10 polled agreed that the gap between the rich and the poor has increased.
One telling detail was that 60 percent of white evangelicals, a historically Republican group, favored raising taxes on those who make more than $1 million a year to help eliminate the federal deficit. This same group was also heavily opposed (58 percent) to cutting federal aid to the poor.
Jim Wallis, leader of the evangelical group Sojourners, offered an astute interpretation of that finding: “Many evangelicals, and especially their younger generation, now see poverty as fundamental biblical issue and believe budgets are moral documents.”
In other words, young evangelical Christians — a demographic the American right surely counts on to remain in its fold — are thinking about key social issues more in line with groups like African American Democrats and liberal whites.
The GOP presidential candidates — and, indeed, the entire conservative establishment — are misinterpreting the public’s appetite for moralizing about debt, deficits and fiscal responsibility. Most Americans have a murky grasp of macroeconomics — heck, most practicing economists do, too. So we shouldn’t expect consistency in opinion polls or the voting booth. The same voter/poll respondent will say yes to balancing budgets but no to cutting his entitlements and to raising his taxes. It’s really a matter of self-interest.
What the Public Religion Research Institute poll suggests is that Americans of all descriptions view the economic playing field as tilted — and not in their favor. Yet they also believe the federal government can play a role in leveling it.
However, before we jump to too many conclusions, let’s consider two more findings. First, among all respondents, 29 percent said their values were represented by the tea party movement, and an equivalent proportion said the same of the Occupy Wall Street protesters. These are both movements that present American democracy as in crisis, under attack by an “elite” (although each side presents a bogeyman of opposite description). Three-fifths of Americans more or less agree with one version or another of this complaint.
Another detail unearthed in the poll: Seven in 10 Americans believe that the poor have become too dependent on government assistance. This might seem at first seem to contradict the majority support for the notion that the government maintain the social safety net.
In fact, what these responses reveal is that Americans understand that the federal government is already constantly exerting influence in the economy and enforcing a “social compact” among the various classes and interest groups. And it’s doing it wrong. What we’ve been getting for too long is favoritism for the few, dependency for worst off, and the shaft for the many.
In this winter of discontent, politicians of both parties would do well not to stint on relief for the poor, the unemployed and the over-mortgaged. More importantly, if they want to restore faith in our political system, they must commit to recovery above all else, and build it on a foundation growth and prosperity for all. That is not charity. That is good government.