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Darwinism and the debt limit fight
Is the push to cut aid for the needy a challenge to humans' natural kindness, or a cold calculation of fitness to survive?
Darwin posited that humans were instinctively compassionate. Was he right? (Photo by Hulki Okan Tabak on Unsplash)
Nature is often unfair to the weak. Scientists studying animal behavior have noted that predators — ranging from mountain lions on the Front Range of the Colorado Rockies to peregrine falcons on the Spanish island of Mallorca — ruthlessly take advantage of weakness in their prey, pouncing on the aged, the feeble and the young. It’s an element of the theory of evolution that Charles Darwin laid out in 1859, which came to be described as “survival of the fittest.”
A lot of people figure that notion applies to humans, too — that only the toughest thrive, and that it’s actually good for society if some less able people can’t quite make it. In the decades after Darwin published “On the Origin of Species,” the idea gained ground, and was labeled social Darwinism. Yes, the advocates of social Darwinism said, we may well pity those who don’t have the emotional or physical strength to win advantage for themselves, or who by birth were disadvantaged, but humankind, no less than other species, advances by culling. By that reasoning, we’re not so different from the victims of the mountain lions and raptors, those unfortunate deer herds in the Rockies and the yellow-legged gulls of Mallorca.1
Notably, though, Darwin didn’t come up with the phrase “survival of the fittest,” and he didn’t buy the notion that his theories would apply in that way to humans. In fact, he argued that our species advanced because of kindness, not mercilessness. “Those communities which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members would flourish best and rear the greatest number of offspring,” he suggested.2 Researchers in many fields over the past century and a half have produced evidence that human evolution depended less on raw strength and cunning than upon community.
Yet there remains a strong current of social Darwinism in America, and we’re seeing it these days in the negotiations over raising the debt ceiling. Capitol Hill Republicans are refusing to agree to pay the nation’s bills unless Democrats give in to their demand for sharp federal spending cuts — including food aid and healthcare for Americans in need. It’s couched in terms of imposing new work requirements on aid recipients, but taxpayers would save money only if millions of people fail to meet those requirements and thus get stripped of the aid that in some cases may make a difference between life and death.
If that sounds like a cold move, it leads to an even colder assessment — namely, of what might be gained or lost by leaving some of those who aren’t as able as others to fall by the wayside. Would the culling strengthen our herd? Or would our community be diminished?
About one in four Americans get their healthcare through Medicaid, which was created to help people who are poor or who have disabilities, and 42 million of us — almost 13 percent of the population — draw stipends to pay for food through SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which used to be called foodstamps.3 Both programs are involved in the debt ceiling talks, despite strong pushback from Democrats.
We shouldn’t have arrived at this point, in any case, because there’s no real link between the debt ceiling, which covers previously-authorized spending, and the future spending that the Republicans want to cut. The debt cap needs to be raised because of decisions Congress already has made — including $7.4 trillion in new debt that was added during the single-term presidency of Donald Trump, with the support of most current members of Congress. As a percentage of the nation’s economy, the debt was higher at the end of Trump’s term than ever before in the nation’s history. Republicans voted three times during the Trump years to raise the debt ceiling.4
But now that the White House is home to a Democrat, Speaker Kevin McCarthy and his Republican colleagues say they won’t allow the United States to cover that debt they agreed to run up unless Democrats cave in and cut future spending. McCarthy says a “red line” for Republicans — something they must get President Joe Biden to accept in exchange for their votes to avoid a national debt default — is a new set of work requirements for those who receive federal aid.
Some people see a clear moral logic to McCarthy’s stance: Able-bodied people ought to be willing to earn their own way, and letting anybody draw federal dollars without working invites laziness. "What work requirements actually do — help people get a job," McCarthy told reporters earlier this month.
Except that’s not true. SNAP already requires able recipients from ages 18 to 49 to prove that they’re working at least 20 hours a week, and 19 separate research studies have concluded that those requirements have had “no or little positive impact on employment,” according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research. That’s because, according to the studies, most people who can work already are doing so, and those who aren’t working are often providing care to children or older family members, or have health problems, either physical or mental. The false narrative that federal aid is going to millions of people who could hold a job but refuse to do so has been a staple of conservative political arguments for almost a half-century. It’s being touted now in support of specific work requirements advocated by Republicans that would cut spending on SNAP and Medicaid by $120 billion over the next decade.5
Does that sound like a lot of money? Do the math: It is 1.6 percent of the debt added during the Trump administration, which included a tax cut mostly benefiting higher-income taxpayers and corporations. Most of the Trump tax cuts expire in 2025, and a new Congressional Budget Office study estimates that not extending them could cut the future debt by $3.5 trillion.6 When a reporter asked McCarthy during a press conference this week if the party would consider reducing future deficits by raising revenue — like, say, agreeing to let the Trump tax cuts expire — the speaker ridiculed him.
People who receive Medicaid and SNAP benefits often confront extraordinary challenges in trying to find work. As unskilled workers in low-wage jobs, many tend to cycle in and out of employment. A police record makes it even harder to win a prospective employer’s trust. Limited transportation options and learning disabilities can make even the application process onerous. To qualify for SNAP, a would-be recipient starts with a 26-page form asking detailed questions about medical history, living conditions and finances. Myriad factors may make some people all but unemployable, but are we comfortable with concluding that people who can’t hold a job should go hungry, or lose healthcare coverage?
Too, work requirements add an administrative burden to a program that is already overwhelmed. By law, SNAP applications are supposed to be processed in 30 days, but a recent investigation by New York Focus, a non-profit newsroom emphasizing accountability journalism, found that one-third of applications at the end of last year in the New York counties outside New York City were illegally late, and that it can take months before qualified families get cards that help pay for groceries.7
In fact, no research supports the idea that kicking people out of aid programs makes them better able to help themselves. To the contrary, recent studies suggest that the longer families receive stable and predictable support, the better they do — and the better the next generations does, as well.
“It’s time to bring our beliefs about dependency into line with the data,” Rema Hanna, a researcher at Harvard University’s Kennedy School, wrote in 2019, after studying aid programs worldwide and finding no evidence that they deter achievement. “More broadly, we should focus less on policing ‘freeloaders,’ and more on giving poor families the type of dependable financial assistance that will allow them to make substantial long-run investments in the health and education of their children.” 8
That’s a practical assessment from the realm of social science, but the moral imperative is clear from a religious standpoint, too. Both Judaism and Christianity embrace a clear declaration from Psalm 82: “Defend the poor and the orphan; deal justly with the poor and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” The third pillar of Islam is zakah, which requires Muslims who earn enough to give a percentage of their income to help the poor and needy.
All of this suggests that we ought to demand that our political leaders pay more attention to who we aspire to be as caring humans. Perhaps, in fact, our current strife arises in our alienation from that wholesome notion. Charles Darwin posited that compassion was “the almost ever-present instinct” among humans. If the selfishness of the Republican approach to the debt ceiling is actually contrary to human nature, surely it can’t stand.
Compassion may be, in the end, what elevates us above the predators of the wild, enabling us to advance our civilization toward realizing its higher goals. Just now, however, there’s reason to worry that political ambition is a stronger force than our compassionate instinct.
NEWSCLIPS FROM THE UPSTATES
Dispatches from our common ground *
Wherein each week we look around what we call the nation’s Upstates — those places just a bit removed from the center of things — to find illumLinating news and intriguing viewpoints, which you might not otherwise see.
This week, we share reporting published here:
Green Bay, Wisconsin. (Green Bay Press-Gazette, greenbaypressgazette.com)
Worcester, Mass. (Telegram & Gazette, telegram.com)
Montgomery, Ala. (Montgomery Advertiser, montgomeryadvertiser.com)
Salem, Ore. (Salem Statesman Journal, statesmanjournal.com)
NOTE: The complete “Newsclips from the Upstates” section, and The Upstate American Midweek Extra Edition, which is sent to email boxes each Wednesday, are available only to paid subscribers. Thanks for your support!
Why would a city in Wisconsin be the best place to live in America?
In the Green Bay Press-Gazette, reporter Jeff Bollier explained how U.S. News & World Report reached the conclusion that Green Bay should be No. 1 in the annual “Best Places to Live” rankings. The magazine cited the "perfect mix of big-cities amenities complemented with a Midwestern, small-town feel" in the metropolitan area of 320,000 people, and noted Green Bay's proximity to waterways, its position as a shipping center, variety of recreational opportunities, boutiques spread from downtown Green Bay to De Pere, and the area's thriving craft beer scene. Yes, the NFL team that plays in Green Bay also figured in the calculations.
Public workers discuss threats, ask for protection
Bus drivers, youth sports officials and nurses have told Massachusetts state legislators that they’re increasingly subject to threats. Kinga Borondy reports in the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester that a dozen people in such jobs testified to their fears in a hearing on a proposed law that would stiffen penalties for assaults on people in such public positions. Laws in 22 states offer protection to sports officials. “There’s something wrong in youth sports now,” said one citizen, who officiates at girls high school basketball games. “If we don’t change the culture, there will be no officials to call games.”
Here come the cicadas — and there are billions of them
There are 3,390 species of cicadas in the world, and 190 in the United States, with more being discovered each year. In the Montgomery Advertiser, reporter Marty Roney explores how people feel about the insects that provide the soundtrack of summer across so much of the country. If you like the raspy hum, then you’re in luck, because cicadas aren’t usually a problem: They don’t sting or bite, they feed on plant fluid, and they aren’t venomous. While some cicadas emerge annually, there are other species that appear only every 13 or 19 years — but those periodic cicadas that are set to emerge in 2024 are showing up a year early in many places. Cicadas are a boon to wildlife, because they are a meal for birds, snakes, raccoons, foxes and opossums.
Mom and son fined for shooting two bear cubs
A 52-year-old woman and her 29-year-old son were fined $15,000 and barred from hunting in Oregon for three years after being convicted of killing two 8-month-old bear cubs, reports Zach Urness in the Salem Statesman Journal. There are regulations for hunting bear in Oregon, but it is illegal to hunt bear less than a year old or sows with cubs that age. The hunters left the dead cubs to waste, but were caught because poaching is such a problem in Oregon that the state has a Turn in Poachers tip line. “This is a loss to Oregonians and to those who respect, value, enjoy, and manage our state’s wildlife resources,” a state wildlife biologist noted.
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Revisiting the Trump town hall
In the Endnote of last week’s edition of The UPSTATE AMERICAN, I offered some thoughts on CNN’s live town hall featuring Donald Trump, which was widely viewed as something of a disaster — because Trump was, well, Trump: Moderator Kaitlan Collins was unable to fact-check quickly enough to keep up with Trump’s incessant lies, and the live audience of Trump supporters cheered when Trump belittled her. The issue is still reverberating in journalism circles, including just this week, when CNN’s chief international anchor, Christiane Amanpour, publicly voiced her dissent from her employer’s decision to air the show as she spoke at the graduation ceremonies for Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
Since I’m the school’s alumni board chair, I spoke at the ceremony, too, and sat on stage with Amanpour during the two-hour event. It gave me a chance to chat with her about what she considers the responsibility of journalists in covering the uniquely perverse presence that Trump represents in American politics. No other candidate is as mendacious or as vicious. I’m convinced that while journalists can’t refuse to cover Trump, since he is now the leading candidate for his party’s presidential nomination, they also can’t sit idly by and allow him to lie with impunity.
That’s because the responsibility of journalism is truth-telling, not platform-building. It’s not our job to showcase Trump, but rather to give news consumers a true view of what lies beyond their own experience. Truth-telling requires treating Trump differently from any other candidate, because nobody else presents as serious a threat to democracy.
Amanpour and I agreed that it’s a mistake for any network to air Trump in a live performance before a partisan crowd, and that a live, partisan audience only adds to the atmosphere of the Roman coliseum that Trump loves. She suggested to the Columbia audience that there was a parallel with the experience almost seven decades ago when Sen. Joe McCarthy’s lies about communist infiltration were finally stopped “Maybe we should revert back to the newspaper editors and TV chiefs of the 1950s,” she said, “who in the end refused to allow McCarthyism onto their pages.”
I’m not sure that’s possible, given today’s multitude of media outlets and the avid partisanship of faux-journalism sites. But I surely agree with Amanpour’s conclusion: “There is a 100 percent connection between a robust, independent, free and fair press and a functioning democracy, and the advance of human rights and justice.” She added, “We need to seek to provide and defend the truth.”
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