The New York Times headlined a recent article, “Biden’s $6 trillion budget aims for path to middle class, financed by the rich.” But is it possible to confer middle-class status on individuals just by giving them a handful of unearned money? Is it possible for someone to say, “I’m middle-class because I’m getting checks from the government”?
Most thoughtful observers will recognize the absurdity of this notion, but it doesn’t seem absurd to Biden or his progressive supporters — just as it didn’t seem crazy, back in the 2000s, to gift a middle-class home to those who could not pay for it, or today that one can transform a mediocre student into an Ivy Leaguer just by adding points to his application based on race. Or, for that matter, that one can confer health on the poor by buying them health insurance, or that one can end illegal immigration by destroying American energy independence in the name of climate change.
The problem with all of these expensive boondoggles is that self-improvement requires effort. Individuals do not “become middle-class” just because they receive $30,000 or $40,000, or more, from the government. Actually, they become less middle-class, because one of the key middle-class values is responsibility and the self-respect that goes with it. What Biden’s plan will accomplish is the gradual destruction of the true middle class — those who will be called upon to pay for the giveaways in his various “plans” for the poor.
Biden’s plan to purchase middle-class status for the poor goes to the heart of all that is wrong with progressive thinking. One’s “class,” as the word suggests, is earned through effort, intelligence, and training. It also has a lot to do with one’s background and especially the faith and hope that loving parents, or grandparents and others, confer. It has nothing to do with an extra $3,600 per child or an expanded program of tax credits. Respectability is the key to being middle-class, and receiving welfare payments — like the expanded childcare tax credits starting up this month — doesn’t make one any more respectable.
If one wants to learn the true path to the middle class, one might read Clarence Thomas’s autobiography, My Grandfather’s Son: A Memoir. As Thomas writes of “Daddy,” the maternal grandfather who raised him, social class is not simply a matter of money. Daddy’s character and values became a model for the grandson, and it was these that served as a path to the middle class for Clarence Thomas.
Per child tax credits of $3,000 or $3,600 per year also serve as a “model,” but the wrong sort. They are a throwback to the old “welfare mom” mentality of the past, and they teach only dependency and self-contempt. And all too often, this climate of dependency is the path to gangs, drugs, and failure. It was not Justice Thomas’s mother, living in squalid public housing in Atlanta, who taught him self-respect — it was his strong and independent, though poor, grandfather.
According to Bureau of Justice statistics, 5.1% of Americans will be imprisoned sometime during their lifetime, based on 1991 rates. For black males, the rate is 28.5% (for all males, 9.0%). Clearly, there is a problem, but the problem is not poverty itself any more than it is “overrepresentation” or police bias. It is that those who have learned dependence in childhood are more likely to become criminals and so be sent to prison.
It is perverse to imagine that putting people on welfare will make them middle-class. Moving people into public housing, paying for their food and health care, providing a small annual income on the condition that they do not work will not transform them into middle-class citizens; it will perpetuate the opposite.
Biden’s American Rescue Plan and American Families Plan promise to “lift more than five million children out of poverty this year” by “helping families cover the basic expenses that so many struggle with now.” This plan, at a cost of $1.8 trillion, promises free preschool childcare, two years of free community college (with an additional $46 billion earmarked for traditionally minority institutions of higher learning), expanded Pell Grants for low-income college students, comprehensive paid family leave, and expanded government-paid health care and nutrition assistance, along with making permanent the “emergency measures” of the American Rescue Plan including larger child tax credits, earned income tax credits, expanded health care tax credits, and child and dependent care tax credits.
By some accounting magic, Biden promises that one dollar “invested” in these welfare schemes will produce up to $7.30 in benefits to the economy. If that’s the case, all we need to do as a nation is to print trillions more, and we’ll all be rich. But somehow, the welfare schemes of the past never produced $7.30 in benefits — they produced $0.00 in benefit, or less, for every dollar spent.
As Wendy McElroy points out, “social status refers to a person’s standing in a community. It refers to how highly others in society value a person.” One of the casualties of government assistance has been the family, black and otherwise. As McElroy stresses, “the single most important cause of black impoverishment” is “the decline of the black family, for which government bears much responsibility.”
Now, under Biden, government is doubling down in its assault on the self-respect of the poor. Millions have now received a series of COVID relief checks, federal unemployment checks, and child support payments, and shown little inclination to better themselves — for example, by graduating from college. Biden wants taxpayers to pay for two years of free community college, but only 13% of community college students graduate within two years. That “investment” has all the makings of a boondoggle.
Biden exhibits gross ignorance on how one becomes middle-class. The path to the middle class derives from the values of discipline, hard work, prudence, self-responsibility, and persistence. Government assistance destroys these values, as every study of the welfare state from Daniel Moynihan to Deirdre McCloskey has shown. It is hard to believe that Biden’s advisers are not aware of this fact. One can only conclude that their real intention is to destroy the path to the middle class and replace it with the road to serfdom.
Jeffrey Folks is the author of many books and articles on American culture including Heartland of the Imagination (2011).