by Paul Mero

Another interesting article about poverty from American Enterprise Institute scholar Arthur Brooks falls on the heels of Utah Congressman Jason Chaffetz lecturing the poor about making choices between cell phones and health insurance. You might recall that Chaffetz said during a CNN interview, “rather than ‘getting that new iPhone that they just love,’ low-income Americans should take the money they would have spent on it and ‘invest it in their own health care.’”

While our worse selves understand what Chaffetz was saying – in that ignorant, discriminatory kind of way – it’s hard to pass on the lack of logic involved. There is no way in hell that an iPhone costs as much as health insurance, especially for low-income, high-risk families. But, more so, it’s his attitude about the poor I find appalling. Acting personally, I only can assume he would be generous with his neighbors. Acting as a politician, all he did was reinforce the idea that he and his affluent neighbors are uncaring and unintelligent. But some of us are neither.

My friend, Arthur Brooks, just wrote about America’s “dignity deficit” for the magazine Foreign Affairs. In it he writes, “to feel dignified, one must be needed by others.” And then, after telling a story about how Lyndon Johnson traveled to eastern Kentucky to launch the War on Poverty where he met an impoverished man named Tom Fletcher, Brooks writes, “The War on Poverty did not fail because it did not raise the daily caloric consumption of Tom Fletcher (it did). It failed because it did nothing significant to make him and Americans like him needed and thus help them gain a sense of dignity.”

Brooks’ view of the poor is much different than Chaffetz’s view of the poor. For Chaffetz, the poor are objects – things to be manipulated, run over, moved aside or helped as long as there is a photo opportunity. But Brooks represents authentic conservatism in his desire to see others as he sees himself.

So let me really get on my soapbox. I realize many of you will think I’m behaving self-righteously instead of just righteous, but I don’t care. We live in Utah inhabited by lots of people who claim to be disciples of Jesus Christ. There are so many of us that law and culture, even among the non-LDS, permeate everything. We’re constantly referring to the “Utah way,” code for the “Mormon way.” We think highly of ourselves and, for many verifiable reasons, we have that right. Utah is exceptional compared to other states.

We donate charitably and volunteer more than any other state – by a lot. We claim a culture of truly caring for our neighbors. And yet, I received the following note from a close friend and conservative colleague after the story came out about Chaffetz. The note said, “Policymakers believe that our welfare problem is caused by the poor, when all along the entire mess has been created and sustained by their complete and total ignorance regarding both the poor and social welfare. They throw gas on the fire and then complain how hot the heat is from the fire. Policy ignoramuses like Chaffetz deserve the public [butt] whipping he is getting. His and their hubris deserve much worse. Every one of them should be fired for not taking the time to really learn how to solve the social welfare debacle in this nation—from welfare to healthcare and everything in between. Their incompetence has cost this nation trillions of dollars and ruined generations of lives.”

I concur entirely. The congressional GOP has had seven years to come up with a replacement for Obamacare only to suggest that the replacement is more of the same with now more shiny objects thrown into the mix. Total incompetence – not because Paul Ryan is stupid but because he and his colleagues often play ideological games, like healthcare, that never lead to real solutions.

Utah has to get it right when everyone else fails, but we’re never going to get poverty policies right until we change how we think about the poor or, at least, until we match our actions with our talk. Perhaps many poor people have brought on their miseries by themselves, although that is highly unlikely in a world where nothing happens by itself. It doesn’t matter. What matters is how the rest of us view the poor and poverty. How many times do we have to be reminded to see others as ourselves? How many times do we have to be shamed into understanding that we are the poor? Brooks talks about human dignity and it makes fellow conservatives uncomfortable. But all he is saying is that people need more than cold materialistic or impersonal programmatic assistance. People need to feel needed. And, yes, public policy can address that.

In my research around the state helping with intergenerational poverty, I’ve found that it’s the non-cognitive, non-materialistic aspects of life that condemn people to generations of poverty and that help contribute to many older white men simply giving up on the future. These people voted for Trump because they lack hope, dignity, love and resilience – and now so do their children.

We need to flip the script on our views of the poor and poverty we claim only applies to the other guy. Utah can get this right but to do so we have return to what we know to be true – we are all God’s children, no one better than the other, and everyone one of us in need of human dignity.

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