For months, Republicans have been saying that the Democrats' so-called "War on Poverty” is a failure, and that it is time for conservatives to break liberals' "monopoly" on the issue by joining the debate. Because they disagree about the fundamental causes of the problem, however, it has been impossible to have a reasonable dispute over solutions. GOP leaders routinely describe government as the very source of poverty—a "hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency, that drains them of their will and their incentive to make the most of their lives," in Representative Paul Ryan's words. And though other countries spend far more on social welfare and have much less indigence, Republicans believe this spending has created a "tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work,” as Ryan put it in March. Thus in the name of helping the poor, anti-poverty conservatives advocate cutting and privatizing the safety net.
Liberals have attacked them as racist and uncaring, but, as Ta-Nehisi Coates reminded us, Democrats have often described the problem in near-identical terms. Numerous works have shown that the cultural explanation of poverty is ancient and goes well beyond partisan and ethnic-racial lines. Even during the Great Depression, many Americans blamed laziness for the joblessness and hardship abroad. Making the case for work over "the dole," Franklin D. Roosevelt called welfare a "narcotic" that would "induce a spiritual and moral disintegration to the national fiber" if made permanent. (Congress expected the small and heavily means-tested "relief" program they created at his request to disappear quickly.)