Mark Twain wrote, “Principles have no real force except when one is well-fed.”
Later, Abraham Maslow developed his Hierarchy of Human Needs model to describe human motivation. In simple terms it tells us that morality, responsibility, and other principle-based motivations arise only after basic human needs are met…food, shelter, safety, employment, etc.
The 1960s saw urban riots in Harlem, Watts, Detroit, and other major cities. I was in Washington, D.C., in April 1968 when five days of riots shut the city down. Crowds numbering in the tens of thousands overwhelmed the District’s 3,000-member police force. Burning, looting, and violence ran rampant until President Lyndon Johnson ordered in troops.
The key underlying motivators for these riots can be traced to persistent lack of resources for basic human needs in crowded slums.
Similar motivators spurred food and eviction riots during the early 1930s. These occurred in the face of 25% unemployment (with no unemployment benefits) and mortgage delinquency rates running near 50%.
With national unemployment at 9.5% and mortgage delinquency rates near 10%, the U.S. economy has not deteriorated to Depression era levels. However, as the events of the 1960s indicate, pockets of depression can lead to civil eruptions.
Our “social safety net” grew out of these events. Programs such as unemployment insurance, Social Security, food stamps, Medicare and Medicaid, subsidized housing, school lunch programs, and more were originally designed to meet the basic human needs of the most destitute. Congress, of course, expanded eligibility for safety net services over the years to the extent they now overburden the national budget.
“Transfer payments” is the term used to describe money given by government to citizens for safety net services. Mississippi heavily depends upon transfer payments. On average, 23% of each Mississippian’s income comes from transfer payments, second only to West Virginia’s 25%.
About 23% of Mississippians are Medicaid eligible. About 20% receive food stamps. In July, 11.5% were unemployed. But, in four Mississippi counties, Clay, Winston, Noxubee, and Holmes, unemployment exceeded 20%, showing economic conditions continue to deteriorate more rapidly in some areas than in others.
Without safety net services, swelling pockets of people, including many Mississippians, would lack the resources to obtain the basic human needs described by Maslow. Perhaps our well-fed politicians should study the consequences of no safety net in the 1930s and 1960s before voting on issues like extending unemployment benefits.
While the fiscal conservative in me fears out-of-control deficit spending, the faith and charity in me want basic needs met for the truly destitute. The Mayflower heritage and hope in me says political leaders with moral courage could get both done.
Mark Twain told us not to expect much moral courage, especially from politicians.