Once, at a town hall in Wisconsin, someone asked me the following question:
“I know that you’re Catholic, as am I, and it seems to me that most of the Republicans in the Congress are not willing to stand with the poor and working class as evidenced in the recent debates about health care and the anticipated tax reform. So I’d like to ask you how you see yourself upholding the church’s social teaching that has the idea that God is always on the side of the poor and dispossessed, as should we be.”
If you’re ever in a position of power and trying to simultaneously cut taxes for rich people and benefits for poor people, you’ll get asked questions like this one a lot. To make sure you’re ready for it as the tax debate heats up, I’ve written a handy step-by-step guide on how to convince your constituents that the help-the-rich, whack-the-poor agenda is the only way to go:
1) Say you share the same goals. The trick here is to convince people that you’re with them all the way on the importance of helping the poor. You just disagree about “how to achieve that goal.” Start there and you’ve quickly turned things from a moral referendum on whether we should help the poor or the rich into what appears to be a reasonable disagreement over what works best to help the least advantaged.
2) Direct attention away from what it means to be poor. People who ask these sorts of questions think that poor people simply don’t have enough money to meet their families’ basic needs. You know better. Tell them what the poor really need is “upward mobility,” “economic growth,” and “equality of opportunity.” Not only do these airy concepts all sound really good – who could be against any of them? – they also let you pivot away from the obvious solution: giving people more of the resources they lack. True, your agenda doesn’t bring about the things to which you’ve shifted the focus. But don’t worry! The narrative that tax cuts promote economic growth is one that voluminous evidence to the contrary has thus far been unable to kill; likewise, the intimate connection between inequality of outcomes and inequality of opportunity is one very few interviewers will point out. People are often happy to ignore the large body of evidence on these issues and treat them as debatable.
3) Imply that poor people’s personal failings are what’s holding them back. You can’t pull off the enlightened nice-guy routine if you’re blaming poor people for their problems outright. So you need to do it subtly: say that what we really need is worker training and programs that encourage people to work (again, who’s going to be against that?). Never mind that there’s little actual evidence of a “skills gap” and that most people who can work already do. People are predisposed to believe that our success relative to those less fortunate is a result of our superior work ethic and talents (rather than a product of race, class, gender, and/or other forms of privilege and sheer dumb luck). The more you tap into that predisposition, the more people will oppose downward redistribution and support imposing burdensome requirements on the Have Nots instead.
4) Choose unrepresentative examples and statistics. People are always shocked to hear my example of “a single mom getting 24 grand in benefits with two kids who,” because of the way the safety net is designed,” will lose 80 cents on the dollar if she goes and takes a job.” They don’t need to know that very few single mothers ever face such a marginal tax rate, that marginal tax rates for low-income people are typically much lower than marginal tax rates for people with more money, that it pays to work even for the tiny group of people my example describes, or that reducing the marginal tax rates low-income people face without pushing them deeper into poverty would require investing more in the programs I want to cut, not less.
Similarly, I love to tell people that “our poverty rates are about the same as they were when we started th[e] War on Poverty,” which is more or less what the official poverty measure shows. That official measure excludes the effects of the very programs I say aren’t working, of course, and yes, there is a Supplemental Poverty Measure that refutes this claim and that analysts across the political spectrum agree is more appropriate to use, but the inconvenient truth that anti-poverty programs currently cut poverty nearly in half and have reduced poverty by 10 percentage points since the late 1960s isn’t exactly going to help us pass our agenda.
5) Hammer “focus on outcomes” rhetoric. Focusing on outcomes is popular in many fields, so this talking point – that “instead of measuring success based on how much money we spend or how many programs we create or how many people are on those programs, [we should] measure success in poverty on outcomes” – is very effective. The fact that nobody actually measures program effectiveness by how much money we spend or by the number of programs we create is irrelevant, as is the large and growing body of research showing that the safety net boosts the long-run outcomes of children growing up in poor families, as is the havoc the tax-cut agenda has wreaked on Kansas. All that matters is that people fall for this line, nodding their heads in agreement when you say it.
As long as you’re proposing to redistribute money from the bottom and middle to the rich, you’re going to get questions like the one I got at that town hall. There will always be those who oppose reverse-Robin-Hood-ism on principle. But if you stick to these steps, before you know it, you’ll have convinced a constituency (and perhaps even yourself!) that helping the rich is actually about helping the poor. At worst, people will just be too confused to know what to think.