Social Darwinism Returns

By Conniff, Ruth | The Progressive, July 2012 | Go to article overview

Social Darwinism Returns


Conniff, Ruth, The Progressive


This year marks the I fiftieth anniversary of Michael Harrington's great and influential book, The Other America, which brought the "invisible poor" to the attention of the nation.

What a different time we live in now, compared with the "affluent society" of the early 1960s.

Americans were in such a generous mood, so confident in their own futures and such believers in eternal economic expansion, that Harrington's book could prompt Presidents Kennedy and Johnson to undertakethe War on Poverty and actually talk about eradicating all hunger in America.

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Today, the wealthiest in our society have a larger share of the national wealth and income since any time since the Great Depression.

And the poor are not invisible anymore.

Instead of denying that the poor exist, Republican leaders boldly argue for rolling back the programs that combat poverty, saying "dependency," not hunger, is the real problem.

They have moved from attacking welfare queens to taking on public school teachers and other unionized members of the middle class--arguing for a kind of go-it-alone society that abandons any sense of responsibility to children, the elderly, the poor, or even workers with the decent wages and benefits won by the labor movement's struggle to build the American Dream.

Congressman Paul Ryan, star of the Republican Party, in his first, infamous budget plan, targeted Medicare--the most successful antipoverty program, along with Social Security, in the history of the nation. Thanks to these two programs, we no longer have mass poverty among the elderly in America.

At Ryan's town hall meetings, where he tried to sell his budget back in his own district, large gatherings of grandmothers in tennis shoes came out carrying signs to tell him exactly what they thought of his plan.

It's obvious, even to Republicans, that attacking Medicare is bad politics.

So Ryan redrafted his budget plan, backing off the Medicare cuts.

In order to make up the money elsewhere, the new Ryan budget focuses on food assistance, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and other programs that have had a profound effect on alleviating poverty.

Picking on grandma was a political loser--so Ryan trained his sights on an even more vulnerable segment of the population.

No one has done a better job of shining a light on the immorality of Ryan's budget than the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The bishops wrote to Congress to explain that "a just framework for future budgets cannot rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor persons."

Ryan dismissed the bishops' critique, falsely claiming their letter didn't represent "all the bishops," a point the U.S. Conference media office immediately dispatched.

Then, Ryan went to speak on the Georgetown University campus. Before he arrived, ninety Georgetown University faculty and administrators sent him a letter, quoting the bishops, and taking him to task for his misuse of Catholic social teaching in defending his budget cuts for the poor.

"Our problem with Representative Ryan is that he claims his budget is based on Catholic social teaching," said Jesuit Father Thomas J. Reese, one of the organizers of the letter. "This is nonsense. As scholars, we want to join the Catholic bishops in pointing out that his budget has a devastating impact on programs for the poor."

"I am afraid that Chairman Ryan's budget reflects the values of his favorite philosopher Ayn Rand rather than the gospel of Jesus Christ," Reese continued. "Survival of the fittest may be OK for Social Darwinists but not for followers of the gospel of compassion and love."

Michael Harrington, who came directly out of that Catholic social justice tradition, would have appreciated that point.

As it happens, the War on Poverty programs Ryan seeks to destroy are exactly the programs Harrington, and his book The Other America, inspired John E Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson to enact.

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