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The Wrong “America Works”

eye on the news

The Wrong “America Works”

House of Cards borrows the name of a real-life jobs program that actually puts people to work. March 9, 2015
Arts and Culture
Kevin Spacey as President Frank Underwood in Netflix’s House of Cards

Most Hollywood fictions can be relied upon to rewrite conservative truth into left-wing fantasy. In real life, the staunch Cold Warrior president John F. Kennedy is assassinated by a Communist for the sake of Communism. At the movies, Oliver Stone turns Kennedy into a peacenik killed by a vast right-wing conspiracy. In real life, a married Democratic president faces credible charges of philandering and mistreatment of women. Onscreen, Michael Douglas magically transforms him into an unmarried man of integrity excoriated by the puritanical right for falling deeply in love with an accomplished woman his own age. In real life, leftists in the news media attempt to discredit a Republican president by creating a nonsensical scandal out of the Valerie Plame kerfuffle. At the multiplex, the scandal becomes deadly real and Vice President Dick Cheney (who had nothing to do with any of it) is somehow behind it all.

We’ve all become so accustomed to this leftward rejiggering of history that watching Netflix’s TV series House of Cards can be a weird and confusing experience. On the one hand, by dramatizing the rise of a corrupt, soulless Democratic pol willing to break any law, betray any principle, and literally throw his opponents under trains to acquire power—and by showing a Republican opposition too bumbling and cowardly to oppose his ruthless machinations—the series hews so close to the facts that it can hardly be called fiction at all. But when it comes to portraying the actual nuts and bolts of day-to-day policy making, the show sometimes seems to take place in an unidentifiable political Wonderland.

In the first season, House majority whip Frank Underwood—the soulless Democrat in question, played by the wonderful Kevin Spacey—seeks serious entitlement reform in spite of opposition from Republicans. He also stands up to the teachers’ unions in hopes of improving education. One can be forgiven for wondering on which planet this is taking place.

Then, in the present third season, Underwood, now risen to the White House, seeks to reform Social Security and other entitlement programs that are “sucking this country dry,” in order to fund a program that will get people off the welfare rolls and put them to work. When I heard those ideas come out of the mouth of a Democrat, I thought for a moment I had accidentally switched to the SyFy network.

But to add to the confusion, the name of Underwood’s $500 billion job proposal is America Works. Only it’s not at all like the real America Works, which actually works, but much more like Obamanomics, which hardly works at all.

Underwood’s America Works—as Jon Hartley notes in Forbes—looks a lot like Obama’s $787 billion America Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which was supposed to create 7 million new jobs and bring the unemployment rate down below 7 percent by 2010. None of that happened. In fact, the drop in the unemployment rate didn’t really get started until Republicans finally found the guts to put an end to unemployment benefits in 2013. This they managed to do despite the fact that Democrats like Obama and Nancy Pelosi kept claiming that unemployment insurance was actually creating jobs itself. By that logic we would have reached full employment once everyone was out of work!

The real-life America Works, however, was formed in 1984 as a response to the abject failure of government attempts to end poverty. In an Autumn 2012 City Journal piece, America Works founder Peter Cove described how his experience as “a foot soldier in America’s War on Poverty,” led him to create the initiative:

We know for certain that income transfers, the preferred tactic of generations of liberals, have utterly failed to end poverty . . . . I learned that if we helped welfare clients get jobs, even entry-level jobs, they would then attend to their other needs. By contrast, if the government gave them money and other benefits, they were likely to remain dependent.

The reasons should have been obvious all along. Work maximizes a person’s capacity to achieve economic self-reliance. Work socializes people and instills a sense of personal responsibility in them. Work connects behavior and consequences. And it permits people, especially men, to obtain the admiration and respect of their spouses and children by supporting them.

America Works set itself up as a job agency for state and local welfare agencies. It took payment only when it placed clients in jobs, and the clients held those jobs for at least four months. It claims to have taken more than 300,000 people off the welfare rolls and to have inspired the 1996 Welfare Reform Act. And still, Cove reports, the initiative is viewed with suspicion by those people whose ideology—and power—requires dependency and the big government that encourages it.

I suppose it’s realistic enough that the soulless Democrat Underwood would ignore a private America Works that works in order to propose a government America Works that doesn’t work. But it would have been nice if he hadn’t further muddied the show’s muddy politics by putting a good name to bad policy.

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