Guaranteed minimum incomes are, many economists state, precisely what some people need to have upward mobility — they are drivers of it, not inhibitors. Trump’s assumptions about the relationship between work and poverty are typical of her father’s administration’s obliviousness to the needs and circumstances of Americans who are struggling financially. Trump, her father, President Trump, her husband, Jared Kushner, and many of their colleagues — Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, etc. — who claim to be acting on behalf of the working classes behave as if they’ve never encountered members of that particular economic stratum.
That’s because for the most part, they haven’t. Aside from the service workers they encounter and people they employ in working-class jobs, they spend the bulk of their time around other wealthy elites. But worse, none of them has experienced the conditions that lead people to need basic income guarantees or how dangerously close many Americans are to poverty even when fully employed. When the government shut down for a record length of time earlier this year, Ross suggested that furloughed federal workers just take out loans to cover expenses for things such as food and housing, then pay them back once salaries resumed. (His own agency’s credit union was offering short-term loans at 9 percent interest.) In a country where 40 percent of American households are one paycheck away from living at the poverty level, Ross said he didn’t “really quite understand why” federal workers were going to food banks after going a few weeks without pay. For a rich guy, of course, who cares if the cost of the shutdown and Trump’s inability to negotiate gets dumped on the workers, in the form of interest and fees the government has no intention of reimbursing them for, to cover the sudden disappearance of the salaries they were due? Let them eat cake, Ross argued, and let them pay extra for it because we’re all out of bread, and it’s their fault, somehow.
Why are members of the Trump family and the Trump administration — indistinguishable in some cases — so oblivious to the needs and lives of poor and struggling Americans? One reason is that they all view themselves as essentially “self-made” despite having grown up with wealth that has enabled them to get much further ahead than the Americans whose work ethic they judge. In fact, they started out ahead. President Trump portrays himself as a successful bootstrapped businessman, although his father gave him what he calls a “small loan” that amounted to $60 million. Ivanka Trump wrote a book titled “Women Who Work” that’s mostly an exercise in self-congratulation for holding down a job in her father’s corporation while supported by a small army of nannies and household help.
I’ve experienced this personally with Kushner, who was my boss at the New York Observer several years ago, when he was still ostensibly a Democrat. I mentioned in the course of conversation that my dad had been a local lineman for Alabama Power and had worked as a contractor on the side to make ends meet — entrepreneurialism by necessity. Kushner replied that he could relate because he thought of himself as “self-made” in a way. When I asked him to elaborate, he conflated entrepreneurialism in general with bootstrapping and waxed about his first real business: buying up residential real estate in Cambridge, Mass., during his tenure at Harvard (admission secured by a generous donation to the university) and flipping it.
Even though this line of thinking is utterly appalling, I have to cut Kushner some slack because I’ve heard it in various incarnations from many people who have gobs of family money that they’ve used to capitalize entrepreneurial ventures. It is not unique to Kushner. It’s endemic to a certain type of wealthy person, who will not or cannot acknowledge, even to themselves, that they’ve started the marathon we’re all forced to run well rested at mile 25. It’s too ego-bruising, and an acknowledgment might force introspection and realistic evaluation of one’s own abilities. If you’re at the top of the heap with the smart people and genuine high achievers, it’s deeply flattering to state that you’re there because you, too, are a smart high-achiever and not because you had access to an education you didn’t work for and were raised in a way that afforded you safety and security and took care of your needs (however expansively defined). And if you’re white — which, statistically speaking, most of the richest people in the United States are — you’re afforded a second layer of advantages in that no one will question your competency, underestimate your pain or view you as a threat solely because of your skin color. It is easy for the Trumps, Kushner and others in the administration to delude themselves into thinking that they earned their places at the top of the pile, that much of it wasn’t just handed to them.
But when they entertain these self-delusions, it negatively affects their orientation toward other people.
Trump and his crew have never been in danger of facing dire economic situations, and not only because they’re fully employed. There are things that ruin people’s lives financially every day that have nothing to do with work ethic — and that could never happen to a core member of the Trump administration. No one close to Trump will get thrown into jail for a couple days because they were wrongly entered into a gang database solely by virtue of living in a specific part of public housing or wearing the wrong color shirt, then lose their job because they didn’t show up to work. None of them will ever have to face the possibility of medical bankruptcy while working 60 hours a week. None of them had to drop out of high school or college to care for a sick parent. None of them have to worry about not having access to abortion if birth control fails and being saddled with a child they can’t afford or spending thousands of dollars in medical expenses for carrying a fetus to term and giving the baby up for adoption (which is the only available trajectory that Republicans and the Trump administration want women in this situation to have).
None of the people who face these scenarios deserve to be poor, and we have no meaningful safety net for them. Where there are assistance options, people in this administration worked to make them so onerous that the most vulnerable can’t meet impossible eligibility requirements.
So when Ivanka Trump says that there should be no minimum guaranteed income because people want to work for their money, there are two possibilities: One is that her imagination and sense of empathy are so egregiously stunted that she cannot envision the large and not exactly invisible portion of the population who cannot just work their way out of poverty and genuinely need basic income as a result. The other is that she knows these people exist, and is callously indifferent to whether they live because it doesn’t affect her one way or the other. She can render them abstract because she’s never been personally exposed to the circumstances they face, and barring a giant reversal of her own fortunes, she’ll never have to face or understand their problems.
And of course, she didn’t cultivate this mentality in a vacuum. It comes directly from her father, the president, who’s already demonstrated that he’s willing to damage our entire democracy for personal gain because in his mind, he is the only person who truly matters. And it’s reflected in other members of the administration. Ross doesn’t have to worry about missing a paycheck, so he doesn’t worry about other people missing theirs. White House aide Stephen Miller’s ancestors are immigrants, but he’s in no danger of being deported, so he’s happy to pull the ladder up. Trump’s close circle does not appear to state they have any obligations to other Americans who don’t have their advantages and are suffering because of their policies. Those people just need to get to work.
But telling people to pull themselves up by the bootstraps — an expression that originated as a way to describe an impossible or absurd act — is not a policy prescription. It’s the useless advice of someone enjoying the view from a higher altitude who’s wrongly convinced themselves that they climbed there.