Would you believe me if I told you that America’s entitlement problem is not, at the end of the day, about unfunded mandates, changing demographics, out-of-control health-care costs, or marginal tax rates, but about shame? And for the sake of argument, would you further indulge the assertion that the year-end spending battle between congressional Republicans and the White House was not about the payroll tax or the Keystone XL pipeline, but about restoring a measure of shame to the welfare state? And if you’ve come with me this far, won’t you come a little farther in accepting that the key to understanding the role of shame in the American experiment isn’t found within a CBO report or a historical study, but in the first act of a good (though not great) Russell Crowe boxing movie from 2005?
Not convinced? Well, let’s elaborate, starting first with that last claim. The good-but-not-great boxing pic to which I refer is Ron Howard’s Cinderella Man, based on the life of Depression-era pugilist James J. Braddock, who went from dockworker to champion of the world in inspiring fashion. In it we find a standout sequence that elegantly and efficiently dramatizes the social and cultural value of shame, and demonstrates why we miss it so much today. Injury-plagued, semi-retired from boxing, and relying on scant work as a longshoreman, Braddock is depicted living with his wife and small children in a dingy tenement in New Jersey, splitting a single ham steak four ways for supper. But even then, he has too much pride to tap the government for help. It is only after the utility man shuts the heat off, and Braddock’s wife farms the children out to a relative for fear they are slipping into pneumonia, that the fighter relents.
We cut to the counter at New Jersey’s Emergency Relief Administration, where a woman whose very job it is to administer public assistance counts out $19, looks at Braddock with something between disappointment and pity, and says, “I never thought I’d see you here, Jimmy.” Braddock, eyes turned downward, collects his money and shuffles off. In the next scene we see Braddock in a smoke-filled saloon inside the old Madison Square Garden, where he begs a room full of boxing promoters, trainers, and suits — quite literally with hat in hand — for the additional few bucks he needs to turn on the heat. Some men turn their backs, others offer their two bits with a gentle condescension. One trainer, played by Paul Giamatti, tells Braddock (who is by now mumbling apologies and choking back tears) that he has nothing at all to be sorry for. And, of course, Giamatti’s character is right: Braddock owes no apologies for doing whatever it takes to keep his family together. But Braddock is sorry nonetheless, and more important, he’s ashamed. It’s a shame so powerful that it kept Braddock from looking for a handout until he had exhausted all other possibilities. And it’s a shame so powerful that by the end of the second act, with Braddock well on his way to the miraculous championship bout that gives the film its title and its central metaphor, he returns every cent of charity he ever took.
It’s an inspirational tale and a thoroughly American one. Or at least, it was a thoroughly American tale. Now I wonder whether the great crime of America’s entitlement culture is that it has killed all the Cinderella Men at just the moment it needs them most. Indeed, I was moved to rewatch the film on the occasion of the demise of the House payroll-tax plan that, although chalked up as a mere political miscalculation, attempted to do something far more important for the future of the country than any temporary tax holiday would: It tried — and failed — to reintroduce some small measure of shame long missing from our thinking about entitlements.
Against the backdrop of shameful anecdotes such as the one about the jet-setting Seattle couple in the $1.2 million house who have nevertheless collected more than $100,000 in welfare checks, the bill attempted to strengthen safeguards that ensure public assistance goes to the truly needy. Against the shameful backdrop of a recent CBO study showing that, over the last 30 years, the share of government transfer payments going to the poorest 20 percent of Americans has declined from 50 percent to 35 percent, while the share going to the wealthiest 80 percent has increased from 50 to 65 percent, the bill introduced modest means-testing for Medicare. Against the backdrop of a president who says, to his shame, that yet another extension of unemployment benefits will be better for the American economy than the Keystone pipeline, the bill took steps to gradually, responsibly reduce the maximum benefit eligibility from 99 to 59 weeks, checking the descent of that program from insurance to de facto welfare.
Each of these measures is long overdue, and each is at its core about shame, arguably the social virtue most critical to the success of the American project. For a limited government in which all are free to pursue their own ends requires a cultural counterbalancing to assure, as William F. Buckley Jr. once put it, that not everything that is legal is reputable. Shame provides such balance. And while we think of it as primarily deployed against undesirable personal habits — everything from sexual promiscuity to alcoholism — there was once in this country a great shame associated with dependence, with being on the dole.
At the start of the Great Depression, “welfare” was largely a private affair, administered by churches and charities, and it was in most cases reserved for widows and the infirm. That changed in 1930, when the federal government first waded into unemployment assistance, and again during the historic first term of Franklin Roosevelt, whose New Deal produced a litany of new “direct relief” programs. Still, the public was suspicious. While contemporary surveys showed Americans broadly supportive of the public-works projects that made assistance contingent on labor, welfare for the able-bodied continued to be seen as a shameful handout — a disreputable, if temporarily necessary, affair. Even the presentation of Social Security (as with Medicare a generation later) as a kind of investment from which one expected no more than a fair return couldn’t fully alleviate this shame. As none other than FDR himself announced at the beginning of 1935, “The federal government must and shall quit this business of relief.”
But things have changed. Due in part to the very acceptance and perceived success of the New Deal and its progeny, the taint of shame associated with being on the dole has long since faded. What’s worse, this moral change has coincided with demographic and actuarial changes that have made entitlements more lopsidedly redistributive, and thus unsustainable. Now, dependence on the federal government — not just by the poor, but by the middle and even upper classes — for everything from health insurance to home ownership, college to retirement, is so complete that most of us don’t notice the stream of subsidies until it is interrupted. And worse, we’re not even ashamed of ourselves.
Indeed the overriding characteristic of our bloated welfare state is its shamelessness. There is no shame in the Seattle couple, or the president who thinks putting people back to consumption is better than putting them back to work. Just as there is no shame in the Occupiers who starved coffee shops of business in New York or shut down productive ports in Oakland demanding that others pay off their student loans or their underwater mortgages. Just as there is no shame in the politicians who fear-monger on entitlements.
To note this is not, as some would no doubt imply, to argue for the wholesale dissolution of the welfare state. Just about everyone from Paul Ryan leftward agrees on a well-tailored safety net for those who cannot help themselves. And to be sure, the Great Recession, like the Great Depression, has seen a dramatic spike in their number. But the Depression generation remained possessed of a shame that helped both curb abuses of the welfare state and power the country into an unprecedented era of growth. Can we say the same of ourselves?
So long as we are shameless, our entitlement crisis remains as much moral as fiscal. The paradox we are left with is that the only society that can make entitlements work is one that doesn’t feel entitled.