Helping nation’s poor

The American Affluence Research Center, based right here in Alpharetta, tracks the mood and spending plans of the nation’s wealthiest 10 percent — defined as households with a minimum net worth of $800,000 — and sells that data to companies that market luxury goods to that demographic. As AARC likes to point out, that top 10 percent accounts for almost half of the nation’s consumer spending.

So what’s the mood among the affluent these days? Pretty good and getting better, it seems. In its fall 2013 survey, AARC reports that its “index of current business conditions” rose 22 points since spring and is up 40 points from a year ago. In fact, “this is the highest reading for this index since Fall 2007 and indicates good potential for increased spending by affluent and luxury consumers.”

That should surprise no one. We already know that the top 1 percent has captured 95 percent of the post-recession income growth, and that the Dow and S&P 500 are at record highs. However, I can’t help but contrast the optimism reflected in the AARC survey to the dismal mood elsewhere: the plight of the long-term unemployed; the frustrations of young Americans trying to gain a foothold in this economy; those many millions working harder for less. We all know that the economic divide has been growing for several decades, but in recent years it has clearly accelerated and taken a more brutal edge.

Trying to address that divide through government policy is complicated, with some on the right taking the position that it’s wrong to even try. Those conservatives who do acknowledge the problem seem to believe that the divide is caused by policies that treat the poor, the working class and middle class too generously. We’ve spoiled them and ruined their work ethic, the theory goes, a point of view that suggests there are jobs out there for the taking that Americans have become too spoiled to fill.

Maybe it’s just me, but that doesn’t match the reality I see out there, not with hundreds of applicants for each job opening.

Many conservatives also argue that the best approach to closing the gap between the rich and the rest is to gut food stamps, deny health insurance to lower-income Americans, and reduce spending on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid and other safety-net programs while cutting taxes that support such programs. That’s the crux of the GOP’s economic message in Washington these days.

That sounds like a doctor telling you that the best way to treat your broken ankle is to let him cut your foot off. And even some on the right are beginning to acknowledge that absurdity.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican with a long conservative pedigree who grew up in a working class suburb of Pittsburgh, recently criticized his Republican colleagues in Washington for indulging in “a war on the poor, that if you’re poor, somehow you’re shiftless and lazy.”

In contrast to his counterpart here in Georgia, Gov. Nathan Deal, Kasich has allowed the Obamacare expansion of Medicaid in Ohio, giving some 275,000 lower-income Ohio citizens access to health insurance for the first time. He said he did so for “the lady working down here in the doughnut shop that doesn’t have any health insurance — think about that, if you put yourself in their shoes.”

“When you die and get to the meeting with St. Peter,” Kasich likes to say, “he’s probably not going to ask you much about what you did about keeping government small. But he is going to ask you what you did for the poor.”

That’s a far cry from the argument that the best thing we can do for the poor is to punish them further.