Kurt Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron" takes us to the year 2081. New amendments have been added to the U.S. Constitution to impose equity and equality upon the entire population. The Handicapper General is assigned the task of making sure that no one has an advantage or a disadvantage. Those possessing facial beauty are required to wear masks. Bright people have their thoughts disrupted every 20 seconds by loud dissonant sounds that are fed directly into their ears. The physically strong must wear heavy sandbags around their necks to restrain their movement and slow their speed. Those who violate the limitations imposed by the Handicapper General suffer swift punishment in prison or worse.
In 2014, political conservatives are quick to point out that while they believe in equal opportunity, they oppose the idea of equal outcomes. Faced with the extreme possibilities in Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron," it would be hard to find anyone who would welcome a Handicapper General to impose such limitations, both physical and mental, in the name of equity and fairness. In that sense, both conservatives and liberals should be comfortably united behind the hope that people create productive and fruitful lives unfettered by government interference.
That said, the dividing point is how we define equal opportunity and government interference. Some view poverty as a serious disadvantage and support programs to offset that disadvantage. For example, they consider Head Start as critical. Others view such programs with disdain, preferring instead that citizens overcome their circumstances and challenges without government financing and intervention. They argue in favor of "rugged individualism." I have difficulty understanding how a 4-year-old child living in financial and experiential poverty is supposed to demonstrate "rugged individualism."
There is a growing tension between those who want to maintain and even expand programs to help citizens and those who would like to reduce and even eliminate them. The battle over unemployment benefits is a case in point. As of Jan. 1, 1.3 million Americans will no longer receive unemployment checks. Congress took no action to continue this program. Those who oppose unemployment benefits argue that such support creates dependency and prolongs the problem. Others view the loss of that program as a blow to the economy. With 1.3 million spending less, businesses will most certainly be negatively affected. In addition, those unemployed who require this support to make mortgage payments and pay for other essentials will soon join the growing number of homeless.
If you oppose the continuation of unemployment benefits, then you may also believe that the unemployed have chosen their path as "takers" rather than "makers." However, the unemployed include thousands of veterans who fought for this nation, and millions who worked hard throughout their lives only to lose their jobs through no fault of their own. Judging all of the unemployed as chronically lazy and unproductive is a convenient rationalization that has no basis in fact.
Those arguing that the unemployed refuse to fill hundreds of thousands of job openings around the nation ignore two critical details. Some are high-paying jobs that require such technologically demanding skills that even U.S. college graduates are considered unqualified. Many of these jobs are filled by highly educated foreigners. On the other side of the equation, many are part-time jobs that do not offer enough money to support one person no less a family of three or four. In addition, unemployed Americans outnumber the available jobs by a four-to-one margin and we don't factor millions of the long-term unemployed into that ratio.
Donald Lathrop's "The harsh numbers of the minimum wage" (Dec. 30 Eagle op-ed) convincingly made the point that even a wage of $15 per hour falls short of adequately supporting a family of four. Mr. Lathrop did not include big-ticket items such as child care, college tuition and nursing home care.
As to the argument that private charities, synagogues and churches should feed, shelter and clothe those in need, the charitable efforts in which I have been involved only help a small number of people at a time. Many churches are hard-pressed to cover their operating expenses and many shuttered houses of worship dot the landscape. It is totally unrealistic to expect these institutions to replace critical government programs that serve millions of Americans.
I sincerely hope that those political leaders who insist that highly profitable oil companies must continue to receive government subsidies will extend the same consideration to unemployed Americans who wait patiently for the government to put programs and policies into place that create desperately needed jobs. I do not advocate for equal outcomes, but I do hope that resuscitating our economy becomes a higher priority than reducing and/or eliminating critical safety nets.
We must end the practice of converting victims into villains to justify ideology. Such scapegoating is like blaming a community for choosing to be in the path of a devastating hurricane.
Edward Udel is a frequent Eagle contributor.