I recently had a conversation with my father. Or rather, I was driving my father somewhere and for no apparent reason, he mentioned that a lot of people just live on welfare their whole lives. I brushed it aside, saying that wasn’t true. But he pushed it, no doubt thinking that it was just my liberal way to think that everyone is basically good. He really should know better than to push a political point with me. It would be one thing if it caused me to yell at him. But it’s much worse than that: I use it as an excuse to educate him.
I explained that there was this president named William Jefferson Clinton. And he ended “welfare as we know it.” And as a result, there are great limits on how long any person in the country can get welfare — just a few years. So the idea of some guy getting on welfare out of high school and riding it out for the rest of his life is just not true. It might have been true in the 1970s, but it hasn’t been true for about two decades. The whole thing made me really angry, but I didn’t let it show.
Here’s why it made me so angry: no conservative change in policy ever matters. Clinton savaged welfare in this country. In so doing, he made us a much worse and un-humane country. He made us a far more conservative country. I don’t like any of that. But okay: he did it and America doesn’t seem to care. But conservatives never change. Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act on 22 August 1996. But conservatives made the same complaints in the decades before that as they have after that. But I’m not so much mad at people like my father as I am people like Bill Clinton. Because he really should have known it would turn out like this.
But after I got done with my lecture, I felt a bit bad about it. Even with all the facts on my side, I could tell that he wasn’t buying it. Like conservatives everywhere, he just “knew” what the truth was. This is because for the conservative, the fantasies created inside their minds (think: welfare queen) are far more vivid than anything in the real world. And it isn’t surprising. Most conservatives have no real experience with people on welfare. It’s always easy to vilify people who you don’t know.
One thing I admitted to not knowing much about was disability. My father took this as explaining it all. Obviously, all those lazy welfare recipients have just transferred over to disability! Note to self: never admit ignorance to a conservative because they will assume if something isn’t known, it must prove what they “know.” But Paul Krugman provided some great data on this issue in an article over the weekend, Jeb and the Nation of Takers. It turns out that the number of people on disability are increasing. But there are two reasons for that. First, our population is increasing. Second, our population is aging. The older a worker is, the more likely she is to be disabled. That hasn’t changed. So if you take both of those factors into account, what you find is that the number of people on disability has actually been falling modestly over the last two decades.
But I’m not planning to run to my father with this information. Krugman was exactly right, “But none of this will, of course, make any dent in the right-wing narrative: they just know that the rising number of bums on welfare is a problem, even though there basically isn’t any welfare and there are no more bums than there ever were.” Anyway, my father is well into his 80s now. And I think he was having a bad day.