We should thank John Grasso, the gentleman from Glen Burnie, for expressing an American ideal: That, with hard work and prudence, grit and determination, anyone can own a nice house and a fine car. "Work harder," the Anne Arundel county councilman said last week.
Who can argue with that? All of us should work hard, even harder, to build a good life. It's fundamental to the American Dream. Thank you, John Grasso, for the reminder.
Of course, in chamber statements and a subsequent interview with The Capital, the chronically outspoken Grasso went further, calling people on public assistance "freeloaders" and saying those who cannot afford to live in Anne Arundel County should take their needs for shelter elsewhere.
He compared the desire to own a house in Pasadena to the desire to own a Mercedes-Benz — if you can't afford one, too bad.
"You save your money and if you can't afford it, you can't live there," Grasso said. "I was raised in a family that says live within your means. It is unfair for people to turn around and dump their way of living on top of people that have already earned their way of living."
Grasso told The Capital he had little sympathy for low-income people with kids. "Who told them to have children?" he said. People "use children as a crutch to describe laziness."
Even by Grasso standards, that's insulting stuff — retro Ronald Reagan welfare queen stuff, with an apples-to-truffles comparison of a house to a luxury sedan. It shows profound ignorance of what life is like for millions of Americans, including many of Grasso's constituents.
Context: These comments came as the County Council considered something that frequently sparks controversy in the suburbs — a development that, with government support, would provide affordable housing for low-income families. Some call it "workforce housing."
Concept: Allow developers to build more houses and apartments in areas usually zoned for single-family houses. Building more units makes these projects feasible. And these projects make housing affordable for the working poor — in this case, households that earn 60 percent or less of Arundel's median income.
But, according to The Capital, the council voted against the so-called "density bonus," effectively killing the Pasadena project.
That 84-unit project, The Capital reported, had been "staunchly opposed by area residents who argued it would change the character of the upper middle class community."
We've heard that one before: Adding townhomes or apartments to a suburb of single-family houses will change the area's "character." The subtext is certainly class prejudice and, in some cases, racism.
Two years ago in eastern Baltimore County, there was a perfectly fine proposal for a 50-unit development on 10 acres in Rosedale. It would have allowed people who made 60 percent or less of the county's median income to rent homes at below-market rates under lease-to-purchase agreements; they could be homeowners in 15 years.
After hearing the usual warnings of increased crime and congestion, the County Council killed the proposal.
What the councils in both Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties missed was this: There are now more poor people in the suburbs around Baltimore than in the city. From an analysis of census data, the Brookings Institution found that poverty in the counties grew 58 percent between 2000 and 2011, with the number of poor in the counties surpassing the city by nearly 10,000 in that period.
Poverty happens more often than Grasso and his fans in the 'burbs might want to believe. Research from Washington University in St. Louis in 2013 showed that increasing numbers of Americans — between 40 percent and 55 percent of those of us between 25 and 60 years old — are likely to spend at least a year below the official poverty line ($23,550 for a family of four) or close to it.
In Glen Burnie, where Grasso lives, 11 percent of the population was below the poverty line in 2013, according to the census.
The charge that people are in poverty because of laziness or because they've chosen to play the government for welfare sounds convincing in anecdote, but it has been refuted by other research that Grasso evidently missed.
"Welfare," as we once knew it, was the subject of bipartisan reform nearly 20 years ago; it limited benefits and required recipients to find jobs.
But even when people find jobs, most do not make enough to get out of poverty.
An Economic Policy Institute study published last year showed that, since the mid-1970s, periods of increased productivity and growth did not result in declines in poverty. That goes against conventional thinking, but the EPI confirmed and explained it: "The failure of wages to grow for the vast majority is the leading reason why progress in reducing poverty has stalled over the last three-and-a-half decades."
When Grasso insults struggling people who need a break from their government — for an affordable place to live, not a Mercedes — he insults more working people, and more of his own constituents, than he might realize.
Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.