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On Inequality

Washington Post columnists George Will and E. J. Dionne both wrote about inequality last week. Not surprisingly, they had very different takes on the subject.

Dionne has taken note of how Congressional Republicans are increasingly turning to rhetoric usually associated with Democrats.

In a moment whose irony he noted, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) told a bunch of rich Republicans gathered by the Brothers Koch this year that those doing well in America were “the top 1 percent, the millionaires and billionaires the president loves to demagogue, one or two of whom are here with us tonight” while the “people who have been hammered for the last six years are working men and women.”

But Dionne is not ready to applaud today's conservatives as champions of the working class. He says they don't put their money where their mouths are.

Thanks to the House and Senate GOP budgets, we now know that conservatives and Republicans (1) aren’t serious about the plight of working-class and lower-income Americans and (2) would actually make their situations much worse.

Next year's budget--in either the House or the Senate version--reduces funding for Medicaid, food stamps, Pell Grants, and other programs that primarily benefit the poorest citizens. It increases funding for the Pentagon.

George Will takes a different tack, meandering through the correlation between college graduation rates and dog ownership, a surprisingly sexist quote from a Princeton graduate, and a rant about something called "privilege theory" before arriving at his main topic in the penultimate paragraph.

Although some individuals have advantages they did not earn, “very often someone else did earn them” — by, for example, nurturing children in a stable family. It is hardly an injustice — an invidious privilege — for nurturing parents to be able to confer on their children the advantages of conscientiousness. The ability to do so, says Pullmann, is a powerful motivation for noble behavior that, by enlarging society’s stock of parental “hard work, self-control and sacrifice,” produces “positive spillover effects for everyone else.”

He does make a valid point. Good parents do what they can to give their children a better chance at success. No government program can take what the most successful parents do and replicate it in every family. There will always be some people who, due to having the right parents, are more likely to succeed than their peers.

But Will misses the larger point. The goal of anti-poverty programs is not to create a magical utopia where parenting doesn't matter. These programs exist because in any normal distribution of families, the ones that give their kids the best chance to succeed will be counterbalanced by those that give their kids the greatest chance to fail. Somewhere in between will be the vast majority of kids who will grow up to have a pretty good life simpy by virtue of being born in a nation with a relatively high median standard of living.

The aim of anti-poverty programs not to completely flatten the bell curve; it's to help the most disadvantaged. For every family that can give their kids extra privilege, there is another family that leaves their kids at a serious disadvantage. It may be the result of chronic gambling or of taking a risk on a business that failed; they may be an abusive alcoholic or a soldier wounded in combat. Whether through their own actions or simply by circumstance, some parents will struggle financially and have trouble providing for their kids.

It would be wonderful if we all lived in the world Will imagines, where hard work always pays off, and thereby creates an incentive for parents to make the sacrifices that will ensure a better future for their children. Some lucky families live in such a world, but for many others it's just a dream, and for some it's beyond imagination.

The United States may have been founded on the ideal of a classless society, but two and a half centuries into this experiment, it doesn't seem to be working. Social mobility is lower in the U.S. than in Europe, and despite the common perception that it's getting worse, the reality is that it's been low for decades. We're just now starting to pay attention.

And that's why it's a shame that Congressional Republicans are moving now to cut social programs like food stamps, Medicaid, and Pell Grants. Better nutrition, better health care, and a better education give poor kids a chance to overcome the obstacles that were placed in their path by the circumstances of their birth. If these programs aren't achieving that end, a better case could be made for increasing rather than decreasing their funding.

By all means, let's applaud parents who, as George Will says, "confer on their children the advantages of conscientiousness." But we as a society can do that without abandoning the children who grow up without such advantages.

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