Tuesday, November 8, 2011

From Joseph Mitchell to Rob Ford to Herman Cain. They Just Don't Get It.

The Canadian Manifesto: How the American Neoconservatives Stole My Country

In 1960, the city council of Newburgh, New York, looking to clean up the slums created by migrant workers, who made the area a permanent home, hired Joseph McDowell Mitchell as City Manager.  Mitchell had earned a reputation as a hard nose "fixer" and he immediately ordered a survey of their relief program.  Thirty borderline cases were cut off and the food relief allotment reduced, to help pay for snow removal.

Then concluding that the city was too generous to the terminally lazy, Mitchell drafted thirteen measures in an attempt to not only limit welfare expenditures, but also drive the mostly black unemployed out of town.

They included a three-month limitation on relief payments, except for the physically handicapped and the aged; unmarried mothers who bore any more illegitimate children would be cut off from assistance; whenever possible, food and rent vouchers would be issued instead of cash; able-bodied males on relief would have to work 40 hours each week for the city building-maintenance department and newcomers who settled in Newburgh without specific job offers would be limited to one week of relief payments. (1)
However, the State Board of Social Welfare, which reimbursed Newburgh for 33% of its relief costs, concluded that at least two provisions—the three-month cutoff, and the discrimination against unwed mothers—violated both state and federal standards.
When the national media picked up the story, alerted by Mitchell himself (2), there was overwhelming support for his program, and the more that the media denounced Mitchell, the stronger the support.  He made it OK to hate poor people.
Encouraged, Newburgh's rising star, began grandstanding, challenging the State's position and making life even more miserable for those barely living.  In one publicity stunt, he sent letters to all welfare recipients stating "Your welfare check is being held for you at the police department.  Please report to the police department and pick up your check there."  A reporter from the local newspaper described the scene:
At 2:15 P.M. yesterday there were approximately 60 persons standing in a Y-shaped line at police headquarters waiting for their [welfare] checks. They were interrogated in a small, drab back room which ordinarily serves as a communications center and fingerprinting room. Each applicant was asked to produce proper identification. They were questioned about their marital status, the number of their dependents, their address, and when they last worked. (2)
In other words, they were treated like common criminals.  The Republicans took notice, including Barry Goldwater, who sent Mitchell a personal note, applauding the Newburgh program "as refreshing as the clear air of Arizona ... I would like to see every city adopt the plan. I don't like to see my taxes paid for children born out of wedlock." (1)
Thirty years later conservatives were still extolling Mitchell, despite the fact that he would eventually lose his job, not for his Draconian welfare clean up, but for taking bribes.
According to Sam Roberts in a 1992 piece for the New York Times:
When Mr. Mitchell was driven into political oblivion from his job as City Manager of Newburgh, N.Y., leaders of the welfare-rights movement heaved a collective sigh of relief. Fully 30 years later, though, he haunts the national welfare debate that he briefly dominated ... What is so striking about the 13 welfare regulations he sought to impose three decades ago is not how Draconian they seem in retrospect, but how many of them have been adopted, proposed or rationally discussed in recent months by Republicans and even than a few Democrats.

Before Mr. Mitchell's regulations were voided by the State Supreme Court in 1962, they transformed Newburgh from an obscure Hudson River city of 31,000 into a national symbol of revolt against Federally mandated welfare programs, benefits that critics maintained redistributed wealth from productive taxpayers to an expanding and parasitic dependent class. (4)
What Mitchell's crusade accomplished  was the idea that "it is a suckers game to spend one's money on the weak element in society."
The evidence displayed during the Newburgh controversy that many good Americans who contribute regularly to their Community Chest, donate their clothing to flood victims, and sponsor Christmas parties for orphans scorn those on relief shocked many welfare officials secure in their semi- private world of forms and statistics. A large segment of the public despises, even hates the poor. (2)
And neoconservatives have been exploiting this hatred for decades.  Mike Harris built it into his platform in Ontario, secure in the belief that his overhaul of the welfare system could proceed with little public opposition.  In fact, like Mitchell, he had many fans, and the more the progressives complained, the stronger the support for the Harris government.

When FDR implemented the New Deal, critics claimed that people didn't want to work, and relief payments would only exacerbate unemployment.  He proved them wrong.  In Ontario, many people on welfare voted for Harris because they thought that his tough stand meant that he would find them the jobs they were unable to get on their own.  What they found instead, was that they were cut off if they were able to work, despite the fact that the unemployment rate hindered their ability to work, in the same way that a physical handicap might.

When Harris was asked about the rise in the use of foodbanks, he shrugged and said that it was a good organization, and that he and his wife had just dropped off a bag of groceries.

When his government released a monthly food plan for those whose benefits had been slashed, Harris justified it by saying that he knew what it was like to live on beans and tuna.  His embarrassed parents told the press that Mikey's silver spoon had never so much as touched a bean.

The cartoon at the top of the page is from a 1944 book by B.A. Trestail: Stand Up and Be Counted, written to discredit the CCF (now the NDP) and State Socialism.  It was hyperbolic, but written at the time when the conservative movement was getting started, and the doctrine of individual responsibility, was being chiseled into their stone tablet.

And yet it is not unlike ads being used by neoconservatives today.

Republican presidential hopeful, Herman Cain, when speaking of the Occupy Wall Street movement, suggests that if people would just work harder, they too could be among the top 1%.

If all it took was hard work; labourers, teachers, nurses, food service workers, construction workers, bricklayers, police officers, fire fighters, social workers, paramedics, bus drivers, truck drivers,  et al, would all be billionaires!

Rob Ford's father was in Mike Harris's caucus, and his son has developed a similar attitude, as mayor of Toronto.  Currently, he is threatening to gut union contracts, even training managers to operate heavy equipment.  Joseph Mitchell may have tested our commitment to social justice, but Ford's initiative could backfire, if it means that traffic in Toronto is brought to a standstill, or garbage lines the streets.  People like Don Cherry may say "I love what yous guys 'r doin'", but others may take a different view.

A report released in the United States, shows that 45 million U.S. citizens are now on food stamps and 1 in 15 Americans are living well below the poverty line.  And there is not only a growing gap between rich and poor, but also between young and old.  There is little out there for people graduating from college or university.

Does Cain really believe that they just need to work a little harder? And how will this impact future generations?  Socialism may not be the enemy of capitalism.  Capitalism will kill itself, if this is the best it can do for those living under it.

B.A. Trestail used cartoons to get his message across in several pamphlets and books, so maybe we need to develop neocon cartoons and joke books.  They provide so much good material.  Their bumper sticker slogans have not changed in more than half a century, so we just need to tweak a few classics.

Like the neoconservative who was undergoing surgery, and worried about the lasting affects of the anaesthetic.  He asked his doctor: "How long after I take this will I be able to think clearly and intelligently?", to which the doctor replied: "I think you are expecting too much of the anaesthetic."


1. New York: The Welfare City, Time Magazine, July 28, 1961

2. The Despised Poor: Newburgh's War on Welfare, By Joseph P. Ritz, Beacon Press, 1966

3. Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, By Rick Perlstein, Nation Books, 2001, ISBN: 0-8090-2858-1, p. 131-133

4. METRO MATTERS; Spirit of Newburgh Past Haunts Political Present, By Sam Roberts, The New York Times, March 09, 1992

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