“They shouldn’t enjoy the same privileges that other people do, even in paltry amounts.”
“They shouldn’t have TV’s, cable, computers, cell phones or any other unnecessary thing.”
“There should be more laws to curtail their enjoyments and punish their irresponsibility.”
This kind of frequently repeated and often angry speech isn’t about prisoners, but about poor people. Especially those dregs of society who jump through flaming bureaucratic hoops for to receive a meager amount of food stamp assistance.
If you want to see a good portion of the middle-class get truly incensed, don’t show them the tax returns of companies raking in billions of dollars in profits while paying nothing—zero—in taxes. Don’t show them a 20-something trust-fund beneficiary who sleeps until noon and parties all night. No, show them a Walmart greeter with a missing front tooth paying for food with an EBT card and then shelling out $6 in cash for beer. Show them a harried working mother of two on food stamps who has the audacity—the nerve—to splurge on an $11 manicure once a month. These are the things that truly invoke the wrath of The People.
There’s a judgmental moral code for the poor which has no parallel in the land of the rich.
1) The poor should never be lazy, even if sick or underfed. They are to work hard, persevere, and overcome any and all obstacles that come their way, no matter how few or absent their resources.
2) The poor should always keep in mind that they are poor, and therefore undeserving of enjoyment, frivolity, or the keeping any bad habits (no weekend six-packs or potato chips).
3) The poor should suffer as much as possible until they have the good sense or fortune not to be poor anymore.
4) The poor are a drain on better, more upstanding members of society and should be grateful that any mercies exist for them at all. They should express this gratitude through sweat, frugality, and self-restraint. (After all, that weekend six-pack comes out to $312 a year — if that same amount was saved for ten years, it could buy 5.11 months of groceries for a family of four, and that’s one less family on the dole during that time.)
It’s always seemed odd to me that so many in the middle-class feel righteous about throwing bricks at those living in poverty, while extending no part of their moral arguments to the rich. The rich may be as lazy and self-indulgent as they please, even those that never worked hard (or at all) for the privilege. The rich are entitled to their excesses and forgiven for their bad habits. And, no matter how much a wealthy person might drain from society — by avoiding taxes, using up precious resources at breakneck speed, not paying fair wages to employees — it’s okay. At least they’re not on public assistance, right?
It depends on how public assistance is defined. Putting aside corporate welfare, and the stunning fact that two-thirds of the corporations doing business in the U.S. paid no taxes from 1998-2005, while collectively reporting $2.5 trillion dollars in sales, who do you think paid the Kardashian family over $65 million dollars in 2010? Backed by the great public — the same public that’s quick to tout the value of hard work to the poor and condemn them for being frivolous — corporations did, and then passed the costs onto us.
Let’s put just this one example into perspective. In 2011, 76.7B dollars in food stamp assistance was distributed. That equals the income of 1,180 Kardashian-type institutions. How many such shallow institutions does our society build? At what cost and to whom? How many untalented superstars are there? How much unearned wealth? How many people are there who don’t work hard (and perhaps have never worked hard) — and who have slid by in a society willing to grease them for little more than their pedigree, light entertainment value, or good looks? From these rarefied people, how little effort does society demand in return?
I tire of hearing people talk about the 46.4 million “welfare queens”, “lazy bums”, and other assorted poor as if they, with their average of $133 a month in food stamps, represent some powerful threat to the moral fiber and economic integrity of the country. As if the entire middle-class is suffering by being yoked to the approximate 2% of the federal budget that’s allocated for food stamps. (The federal budget for 2011 was 3.73T.) In more relatable numbers, if you paid $8000 in federal taxes last year after deductions, the plight of millions of poor people cost you $160, or $13.33 a month. The funny thing is that a whole lot of people doing the complaining didn’t pay even close to that amount after the benefit of tax credits (a different form of public assistance), but still act as if the poor are stealing the meat off their plate every night.
(As an aside, payments for corn subsidies in 2011 were $4.6B dollars in 2011, or roughly .12% about of the budget, meaning a person paying $8k in taxes contributed about $9.60 to this program. There’s no sense of outrage about that, even though it’s a controversial program, just as there’s hardly a grumble when billions of dollars in revenue are lost due to corporate tax avoidance. )
My point is that morality arguments fall short when certain values are applied only to one class of people — in this case the poor. If we believe that privileges should be earned, then all people should be held equally accountable for earning them. If we’re going to damn the poor for their lack of contributions, then we should damn with equal vigor those wealthy people and corporations who go out of their way to contribute as little as possible. If we believe in the tenets of hard work and perseverance — if we are disgusted by laziness, a sense of entitlement, a lack of circumspect behavior, or a failing of personal responsibility — then these precepts should apply to all classes of people: rich, poor and in-between.
Then again, I don’t believe that the harsh judgments against the poor are about morality at all — any more than I believe that Snooki is a major talent who is deserving of the $1.6M dollars she’s raking in this year. Rather, the poor, (much like and yet not at all like Snooki), represent easy targets in a society steeped in classist mythologies and a kind of backwards jealousy. The myths are too great to detail in one article — a whole book could be written on the myth of equal opportunity alone — but the jealousy, as trifling as it is, is as transparent as the seething resentment.
That is to say that many in the middle-class truly believe that they have worked harder, smarter, and more diligently than those in the lower classes. They’ve come to believe (largely through the uniquely American myth of the self-made man) that regardless of any good fortune they might have known — like a decent childhood, good nutrition, supportive family, high capacity for learning, or college education — that they alone, through the sweat of their brows, created their good circumstances — up to and including the ability to earn more than a living wage. It chaps their hide then that others can’t, won’t, or don’t. The “others” — the poor — are perceived as being full of flimsy excuses, like having no education, support, or personal resources to draw from. Under this foggy, but stubbornly entrenched belief of self-determination — which holds that each person is, or should be, a self-sufficient island — there’s little tolerance or mercy for those who need a hand-up or a handout. I’ve worked harder, smarter, and more diligently than you. I’ve made better choices. I’ve earned and deserve everything I have. If you have not achieved my same status it’s because you’re lazy, dumb, and irresponsible. I envy you for what I perceive as your ability to sit back, do less, and still collect a check, no matter how inadequate.
It’s a truism that no matter what a person’s life story may be, there will always be someone who believes they could have lived it better, but this applies most harshly to the poor and their ragged stories of poverty. That $7 per hour Walmart greeter wouldn’t be so poor if he didn’t buy that six-pack of beer. He wouldn’t be standing on his feet all day, on a cement floor, earning lousy wages, if he’d only worked harder, smarter, more diligently, and made all the right choices — like presumably everyone in the overburdened middle class has.
I understand that I’m in a minority, but I find the animus directed toward the working poor fundamentally disturbing, and not just because I’ve been in that class, but because the judgments come so readily and without any real thought or examination. It feels as if the middle-class is developing an (even more) itchy trigger finger when it comes people they perceive as being less-than, while at the same time they’re growing an affinity for even the most shallow, talentless, and dubious spectacles of wealth. Do we really live in a world where Snooki has more fans than Rachel Maddow? Where three million more people are following Kim Kardashian on Twitter than Oprah? Where the poorly written “50 Shades of Grey” has outsold — well, every other book published this year? We do, and if you don’t find that disturbing — especially given all the curses hurled at the poor, in a climate that increasingly demands they be given less and suffer more — than you’re in the majority.
I take small comfort in knowing that the majority isn’t always right. Sometimes, in fact, it is woefully, tragically in the wrong — and on the wrong side of reason, spirit, compassion, ethics and every other enduring human ideal. I believe, sadly, this is one of those times.
Follow up post: Two Photos Tell The Story.