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The politics of poverty

I. Louisiana moves to make panhandling illegal. The state will join other cities and communities that have criminalized the act of begging for money on the streets. No one has, so far as I can tell, proposed making it illegal for rich people to ask for contributions for their causes or for political parties to solicit for funds or charities to ask for support. If any state were to even consider such a move they would be reminded of uncomfortable things like the 1st Amendment.

Some might argue (as Louisiana legislators have) that they’ve targeted the panhandlers because they bother regular folks with their pleas. Perhaps they do but if they looked at the number of emails that arrive every day in my inbox or sift through the pounds of petitions and promotions in the regular mail every day they might wonder just what form of solicitation is more annoying.

Some might also maintain (as Louisiana legislators have) that panhandlers just spend the money given to them on (depending on who’s making what claim):

a. drugs and booze

b. cell phones and computers

These are commonly held myths about poor people — harking back to Reagan’s assailing of “welfare queens” scamming the government — but the studies that have been done reveal nothing of the kind. These desperately poor people are, in fact, spending what little money they can scrape up begging on food and, if there’s anything left over, housing. Besides, all those “legit” organizations that constantly have their hands out typically spend a far smaller proportion of their income on their claimed goals with numbers running as low as 10% and rarely above 80%.

II. Congress announced they will hold meetings on poverty in America without any input from anyone in poverty. Paul Ryan (R-WI) will chair these and, as chair, will decide who testifies. Those invited are well-heeled politicians, policy advisors and executives in various poverty-related organizations. The several organizations that offered to have actual poor people come to the hearings were told to have them just write a statement and send it in. This latter gambit, of course, let’s Ryan and his group off the hook. They can now tell the press that they took testimony from X number of poor people — providing that the word “took” in that sentence doesn’t imply read, understood or gave a rat’s ass about.

III. The Senate filibustered the minimum wage bill. While this is hardly a surprise, having Republicans accuse Democrats of staging a show vote they knew would never pass was a jaw-dropper. This sentiment, I hasten to add, came from the party that voted to repeal Obamacare 52 times! John Cornyn (R-TX) got one thing right. “This is all about politics,” he said. “This is all about trying to make this side of the aisle look bad and hardhearted.”

Indeed. The truth begins to hurt when others learn it. Increasing the minimum wage is the single most popular notion in the land with over 75% of the population supporting it — and that includes a majority from Cornyn’s own party (58% in a recent poll). Moreover, as standard macroeconomic analysis shows, every dollar that goes to a poor or working class person generates between $1.10 and $1.22 for the overall economy because every dollar that a poor person has gets spent and spending drives the economy. As a group of distinguished economists including seven Nobel Prize winners concluded the long-range impact of raising the minimum wage is positive with little or no evidence of job loss.

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