6 Ways the Rich Are Waging a Class War Against the American People
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
There hasn't been any organized, explicitly class-based violence in this country for generations, so what, exactly, does “class warfare” really mean? Is it just an empty political catch-phrase?
The American Right has decided that returning the tax rate paid by the wealthiest Americans from what it was during the Bush years (which, incidentally, featured the slowest job growth under any president in our history, at 0.45 percent per year) to what they forked over during the Clinton years (when job growth happened to average 1.6 percent per year) is the epitome of class warfare. Sure, it would leave top earners with a tax rate 10 percentage points below what they were paying after Ronald Reagan's tax cuts, but that's the conservative definition of "eating the rich" these days.
I recently offered a less Orwellian definition, arguing that real class warfare is when those who have already achieved a good deal of prosperity pull the ladder up behind them by attacking the very things that once allowed working people to move up and join the ranks of the middle class.
But there's another way of looking at “class war”: habitually vilifying the unfortunate; claiming that their plight is a manifestation of some personal flaw or cultural deficiency. Conservatives wage this form of class warfare virtually every day, consigning millions of people who are down on their luck to some subhuman underclass.
The belief that there exists a large pool of “undeserving poor” who suck the lifeblood out of the rest of society lies at the heart of the Right's demonstrably false “culture of poverty” narrative. It's a narrative that runs through Ayn Rand's works. It comes to us in bizarre spin that holds up the rich as “wealth producers” and “job creators.”
And it affects our public policies. In his classic book, Why Americans Hate Welfare, Martin Gilens found a striking disconnect: significant majorities of Americans told pollsters that they wanted public spending to fight poverty to be increased at the same time that similar majorities said they were opposed to welfare. Gilens studied a number of different opinion polls and concluded that the disconnect was driven by a widespread belief that “most welfare recipients don't really need it,” and by racial animus – “perceptions that welfare recipients are undeserving and blacks are lazy.”
That narrative ignores two simple and indisputable truths. First, contrary to popular belief, we don't all start out with the same opportunities. The reality is that in the U.S. today, the best predictor of a newborn baby's economic future is how much money his or her parents make.
It also ignores the fact that living in an individualistic, capitalist society carries inherent risk. You can do everything right – study hard, work diligently, keep your nose clean – but if you fall victim to a random workplace accident, you can nevertheless end up being disabled in the blink of an eye and find yourself in need of public assistance. You can end up bankrupt under a pile of healthcare bills or you could lose your job if you're forced to take care of an ailing parent. Children – innocents who aren't even old enough to work for themselves – are among the largest groups receiving various forms of public assistance.
Of course, there are always people who game the system, but they represent a tiny minority of recipients; a Massachusetts study found that fully 93 percent of all cases of “welfare fraud” were committed not by the “undeserving poor,” but by vendors – hospitals, pharmacies, nursing homes, etc.