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Why We Vilify The Poor

April 11, 2017 - Comments

There has been a campaign in the United States—since the 1940s—determined to undermine public opinion of the poor, and it’s had a noticeable effect. The propaganda campaign to vilify America’s most vulnerable population goes back to Barry Goldwater’s “law and order” campaign for the presidency in 1964 to President Nixon’s declaration of a “war on crime” and call to “clean up the welfare mess.” Reagan’s infamous invention of the Cadillac-driving “welfare queen” and empowering law enforcement for a new “war on drugs” to Bill Clinton’s “end welfare as we know it” where he abolished the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program and signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act. The not-so-subtle title make the insinuations towards the poor clear.

It continued with Paul Ryan, who said: “We don’t want to turn the safety net into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency, that drains them of their will and their incentive to make the most of their lives”—a claim when denigrating the poor is typically presented without evidence. Mitt Romney, who demonizes the 47% of Americans who simply don’t earn enough to pay a federal income tax, accusing them of being “dependent upon government” and that they “believe they are victims”. Obama and Jason Chaffetz both accused the poor of being irresponsible with their finances for owning smartphones.

Why is there so much contempt for the most vulnerable in society? Why—when there’s a discussion of fiscal responsibility—are the programs meant to offer support the focus of scrutiny?

The reason we vilify the poor is two fold. First, it cures any guilt of inaction and shifts the burden of responsibility from society as a whole onto the ones directly affected by an inequitable system. Those who also happen to be the ones with the least power in changing it. It also let’s us justify cruel and heartless spending cuts from programs and institutions which actually play a vital role in alleviating poverty and providing some support and relief to the “undeserving” poor. It justifies the humiliating regulations to welfare recipients that only serve to discourage claims and push a desperate low-skill workforce into wage jobs that only perpetuate their plight.

One attempt to denigrate the poor is by passing baseless restrictions on how welfare recipients are allowed to spend their money. Banning the spending of public aid on jewelry, tattoos, massages, spa treatments, lingerie, tobacco, movies, bail bonds, arcade games, visits to swimming pools, fortunetellers, amusement parks or ocean cruises. Not to mention the banning from Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) for lobster, cookies, chips, energy drinks and steak.

You might get the impression from these restrictions that the poor are simply taking lavish cruises and spending afternoons in jewelry stores in between their meals of lobster and steak with their pittance of welfare benefits. It makes you wonder why similar restrictions weren’t also applied to the billions in taxpayer bailouts given to the banks in 2008. A scale of welfare to the opulent that puts to shame any program aimed at alleviating poverty. The fact is these restrictions on the poor aren’t solutions to real problems; simply political theater and a way to shift blame and to humiliate the most powerless in our country.

There’s no need to actually provide evidence that the recipients of a monthly $220 spend their benefits unwisely, that’s just accepted without justification. “Of course they are irresponsible” they might say, “why else would they be poor?” No need to actually look at the facts—for example, in 2016 nationally the SNAP program provided food security to recipients who were 68% families with children, 30% families with members who are elderly or have disabilities and 44% who are working poor—meaning those who work but earn such low wages that it doesn’t lift them above the poverty line.

To quote Sanford F. Schram and Joe Soss from an article published in the Jacobin Magazine:

“These are among the grandest of red herrings in our national treasury of rhetorical wealth, indispensable for the neoliberal age of American capitalism… Now as in the past, elites have rolled out tales of a parasitic and undeserving poor to deflect public anger from themselves. Lazy and criminal “takers” who abuse the goodwill of hardworking taxpayers are offered up as a handy scapegoat for the new hard times and a ready explanation for fiscal shortfalls.”

Which brings me to the second and maybe more important effect of vilifying those in poverty; To distract and divide the working class and the poor. It’s not surprising that the genesis of these accusations come from the wealthy elite, especially when they have been the real winners of economic boons for decades while wages of the working class have remained stagnant or declined. It cultivates a public understanding of poverty that alters the political landscape, creating a divide in those who should be allies in the fight for equality and economic justice.

Instead, we’re told that we should attack those who are already crushed by an economic system they had no role in creating. The poor have become the convenient scapegoat for the affluent in distracting the true benefactors of inequality. It’s the classic example of victim blaming that has become a staple in American political discourse.

Since the 1950s, political policy of both parties have been focused on concentrating wealth and power to the top fractions of a percent. The result of these policies has been the push of state governments into a constant fiscal crisis. Direct cuts to social programs are the obvious remedy and preferential to political donors, but they tend to be very unpopular. So it’s necessary to employ the “manufacture of consent” by framing reforms with the language of “limiting fraud” and “regulating bad-behavior” of public aid which often achieve the same goals as cutting funds directly.

One example is the call for mandatory drug testing—a policy that has been repeatedly exposed as a sham. Usually resulting in a very small number of welfare recipients testing positive while the costs to taxpayers exceeds any savings from those denied benefits. In worst cases, there are few who do benefit from these reforms. As Sanford and Joe note in their article: “…one of the most notorious cases, Florida Gov. Rick Scott transferred his $62 million worth of shares in Soltanic Corp. to his wife just three months before mandating that welfare recipients and state employees undergo drug-testing procedures provided, in substantial part, by the very same Soltanic Corp.”

In 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt launched a set of federal programs in response to the disaster of the Great Depression known as The New Deal. This social policy took the form of economic recovery, job creation, investments in public infrastructure—most of which is still in use today—and created a floor for economic security that millions of Americans rely on, namely Social Security. These programs were so popular, that even Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower said “anyone who does not accept New Deal programs doesn’t belong in the American political system.”

Poverty is a social issue and it requires a social response. This was well understood up until the former half of the 20th century. It’s why the Great Depression was dealt with in the manner it was and why ultimately was ended because of the biggest government program of all—World War II.

There are many myths and stereotypes about poverty: “they don’t want to work”, “benefit levels are too generous”, “welfare removes their incentives to work”, “benefit fraud is out of control” or “they can’t actually be poor because they have a tv and mobile phone”, etc. When confronted with these claims, it’s important to talk to those effected by poverty directly and the institutions and workers who dedicate their lives to this issue. Having a better understanding of the causes of poverty is the first step in working on meaningful and pragmatic solutions. But the thing we must dispense of first are the dangerous lies that paralyze us from compassion and solidarity for our fellow man, regardless of their economic class.

“Do you not know that a multitude of your brethren die or suffer from need of what you have in excess and that you needed express and unanimous consent of the human race to appropriate to yourself anything from common subsistence that exceeded your own?… It is contrary to the law of nature that a handful of men be glutted with superfluities while the starving multitude lacks necessities.”

—Jean-Jacques Rousseau


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