Hating On The Poor

Welcome, Crooks & Liars! And hugs to Mike Finnigan for including me in today’s round-up.

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Every time I do a post on taxes someone comes along to complain about the “freeloaders,” “moochers” and irresponsible people who suck up our tax dollars, looking for “someone else to pay their way.” It happens without fail.

Usually these folks are talking about the poor, people who benefit from things like food stamps, the people they see as taking handouts. Which is puzzling to me, because I’m trying to think of who gets a free ride in this country and it’s not usually the poor. Nothing is free. Public housing ain’t free, folks–it’s subsidized, meaning you pay what you can. But no one pays nothing. And if you don’t keep up on your utilities you’re out on the streets faster than you can say “the check is in the mail.”

I’m sure there are some poor folks looking for someone to pay their way, just as there are middle class folks and wealthy folks looking for the same deal. This is why Publisher’s Clearinghouse is in business and I’m still getting phone calls offering me a free vacation at a Las Vegas resort if I’d only listen to a two-hour sales pitch.

But when I think of someone living large off the taxpayer teet it’s not usually the single mom with four kids working two jobs who still can’t make ends meet. Or the senior citizen (usually a veteran) living on a fixed income in one of our senior citizen high-rises in the Edgehill neighborhood. I think of people like Dick Cheney, Riley Bechtel, Erik Prince, and Michael McConnell: folks profiting handsomely off the taxpayer-funded war in Iraq which they dragged us into in the first place.

But maybe that’s just me.

We live in an era where things have been devalued to an extraordinary degree, including people. Recently I picked up the book Natural Capitalism: Creating The Next Industrial Revolution; despite it being about 10 years old, I find it transformational. I urge everyone to pick up a copy.

A few brief items culled from Chapter Three, “Waste Not”:

People are often spoken of as being a resource — every large business has a “human resource” department — but apparently they are not a valuable one.

[…]

In a world where a billion workers cannot find a decent job or any employment at all, it bears stating the obvious: We cannot by any means — monetarily, governmentally or charitably — create a sense of value and dignity in people’s lives when we are simultaneously creating a society that clearly has no need for them.

Wow. That just blew my mind. Of course! That, in a nutshell, is the Western capitalist mind-set. Industrialization and globalization have created a world where people have been devalued, are superfluous, and discarded by the privileged class as “moochers” and “freeloaders.” If only they would just go away, right?

But even Jesus said “the poor you will always have with you.” I have to think that this was as much an indictment of human society as stating a simple, eternal truth. Regardless, our challenge for thousands of years has been to find a way to accommodate the poor, the infirm, the elderly–what one of my commenters, in an effort to be inflammatory, calls “human debris.” And the way we’ve gone about it in the past is not working any more (if it ever truly did).

The problem is that the fruits of industrialization and globalization are a devaluation of all people, including you and me; the poor are just the most visible victims.

I wrote about how my own work has been devalued here. But all of us find we are working harder yet earning less. Again I quote from Natural Capitalism:

Just as overproduction can exhaust topsoil, so can overproductivity exhaust a workforce. The assumption that greater productivity would lead to greater leisure and well-being, while true for many decades, may no longer be valid. In the United States those who are employed (and presumably becoming more productive) find they are working one hundred to two hundred hours more per year than people did twenty years ago.

[…]

From an economist’s point of view, labor productivity is a Holy Grail, and it is unthinkable that continued pursuit of taking it to ever greater levels might in fact be making the entire economic system less productive. We are working smarter, but carrying a laptop from airport to meeting to a red-eye flight home in an exhausting push for greater performance may now be a problem, not the solution. Between 1979 and 1995, there was no increase in real income for 80 percent of working Americans, yet people are working harder today than at any time since World War II. While income rose 10 percent in the fifteen-year period beginning in 1979, 97 percent of that gain was captured by families in the top 20 percent of income earners. The majority of families, in fact, saw their income decline during that time. They’re working more but getting less … […]

Today, companies are firing people, perfectly capable people, to add one more percentage point of profit to the bottom line. [NOTE: I wrote about Macy’s and Smurfit-Stone last week.] Some of the restructuring is necessary and overdue. But greater gains can come from firing the wasted kilowatt-hours, barrels of oil, and pulp from old-growth forests and hiring more people to do so.

Western economies are wasteful by nature, none more so than the United States. We value the bottom line, the P&L report, the short-term profit, the immediate rise in share price. But we are looking at just a piece of the picture, not the entire painting. Instead of looking at people who need assistance as “human debris,” “moochers,” and “looters” and dismissing them with an admonishment to get a job, we need leaders who are interested in looking at the systemic problems that have created this situation in the first place. Our profit and growth oriented value system has put our entire society out of balance. Nowhere except in economics is constant, unrestrained growth considered a good thing: in medicine, it’s called cancer.

We are losing ground, fast. For an idea of just how much ground we are losing, take a look at the Index of Social Health, which tracks indicators such as infant mortality, teen suicide, crime, food stamp coverage, and income inequality. It makes clear that as a nation we have been on the decline for decades, working more but getting less for our efforts, and creating all sorts of social problems in the process:

In 2007 (the last year for which complete data are available), the Index of Social Health stood at 56 out of a possible 100. The performance in 2007 represented an improvement of one point over 2006, but it marked the seventh consecutive year during which the Index remained in the mid-50s. Overall, between 1970 and 2007, the Index declined from 66 to 56, a drop of 14 percent.

Areas that showed improvement since the 1970s are:

• Infant mortality
• Teenage drug abuse
• High school dropouts
• Unemployment
• Poverty, ages 65 and over
• Homicides
• Alcohol-related traffic fatalities

Indicators which have gotten worse since 1970:

• Child abuse
• Child poverty
• Teenage suicide
• Average weekly wages
• Health insurance coverage
• Out-of-pocket health costs, ages 65 and over
• Food stamp coverage
• Access to affordable housing
• Income inequality

Looking at which indicators have worsened compared to those which have improved, it’s clear that we are all working harder and getting less. Telling people to “get a job” when there are no jobs, or calling someone who works two low-paying jobs and still can’t make ends meet a “moocher” is not helpful or productive because the problem is not with the people, it is with a system which has reached its limit.

We need a complete overhaul of how we do things. We need to create jobs for people which actually pay a decent wage, not expect people to be able to provide for their families working two or three part-time jobs, neither of which provides benefits. We must work to build a society that has a need for people, which values them. Because we’re all headed in that direction, as the indicators reveal.

18 Comments

Filed under economy, poverty

18 responses to “Hating On The Poor

  1. >Yea, i read Serr8d's predictable "by your own bootstraps" drivel on your taxes thread. I'm just floored by the mindset that says everyone has an equal chance and some just chose to waste theirs…9/11 really shook people and sadly, when a certain kind of person experiences fear, they tend to cling to it as it enables them to rationalize all kinds of anti-social behavior. Add more than a touch of xenophobia (and a little old fashioned racism) and you get people convinced they made it totally on their own. I pulled my money out of the stock-market when it became clear to me that by playing that game, i was betting against working people. We value those who invest over those that actually work, and that is a recipe for failure. Its only a matter of time. The French are finding this out, but what may ultimately save them is that they see the wisdom of providing health care basics to all.

  2. >Extremely good post, SB. Define moocher. Just this week I had someone express anger over the fact that they had too much money for their child to qualify for a college loan. Where did she direct her anger? Minorities. Define moocher. What about hiding one's assets so that the state has to carry the burden of paying for a parent's nursing home care? "He worked all his life for that money (savings) and he wanted me to have it".Define moocher. What about never adopting one's child so that the state will continue to pay benefits allocated for abandoned children?Define moocher. What about taking cash "under the table" to avoid paying taxes?Define moocher. What about accepting money from the federal government as a displaced auto worker, even though one has retired with a pension, AND allowing them to pay for retraining?All of these examples are in my immediate work area. All are white. All have more money than I've ever had or ever will have. All vote Republican. All scream about minorities being moochers and worse. P.S. All claim to be Christians.Please.

  3. >Such a wide-reaching post, which explains a lot of the problems which everyone can agree on.On a tangential note, I want to ask why poor people who know how to "work the system," are greedy leeches, but the leaders of corporations that hire legions of lawyers and accountants to maximize tax breaks and move their business operations offshore in order to maximize profits and minimize taxes, are fine, upstanding citizens.

  4. >willendorfVenus:It's quite simple, actually.See youse got your two kinds of GWBF's. The first type is George W. Bush's Friends. The second is Greedy Welfare Black Felons. Hint, think "color" and it will be crystal clear.

  5. >Excellent post, SB.Since 2007, I suspect "unemployment" has migrated to the other list.democom -For a lot of ordinary folk who call themselves conservative, I tend to agree with you. But for those who control the purse strings, I really think it's about economic elitism. Sure lots of black people are poor, so the groups overlap, but Condaleeza Rice, frex, got to be an insider in the highly elitist Bush Regime.Anyway, We're screwed.JzB

  6. >Michael Parenti says, for some sort-of-complex political economic reasons, that capitalism creates poverty.So, if we expect to perpetuate the sort of system that disproportionately rewards a small percentage of the population at the expense of a much larger percentage of the population, then the system itself has to accommodate the basic needs of the poor. After all, despite what many Xtians think, a system operating on crony capitalism is not ordained by God–it's a conscious choice to operate an economy in a certain way. Even Adam Smith said that nations have to protect the infrastructure and labor force that generate the nation's wealth.Anyone who thinks that the "freeloaders" are at the bottom of the economic pile has never read David Cay Johnston's Perfectly Legal and Free Lunch. There's a reason why the rich have gotten much, much richer in the last thirty years, and it damned sure wasn't because they were working so much harder. They were, in fact, lobbying for more and more preferential treatment with regard to taxes and government subsidies, and getting it.

  7. >Look at the Tea Party members. A lot of them are older. They accept Social Security and Medicare. Remember the guy who said "Get your government hands off my Medicare!" Sometimes I wonder where these people left their brains. We all get government handouts. Think: mortgage deduction. I wonder about people who complain when someone buys a snack for their kid with food stamps. Are we really that petty? When President Obama was running, his wife was visiting a homeless shelter, homeless people were using their cell phone cameras to take pictures of her. I learned this when a right wing family member sent it to me with all kinds of outrage attached. WHY WHY DO HOMELESS PEOPLE NEED CELL PHONES WITH CAMERAS! I pointed out that they needed cell phones for job interviews and medical appointments among other things. Why CAMERAS? the person replied in outrage. I responded by suggesting that since most cell phones came with cameras, was it that big of a deal for a poor person to have a cell phone with a camera. It was probably the only camera they could afford. Doesn't everyone deserve a few luxuries now and then? EVEN poor people!

  8. >Great post, SB. Wonderful comment thread. For the second time today, I'll mention my 'conservative' colleagues– who also happen to be highly paid, unionized, taxpayer-subsidized public employees– who regularly whine about poor and vagrant freeloaders on the system, liberal 'do-gooders' (read, perhaps: 'nigger-lovers') ruining the country, and (since Obama's election) 'socialism.' I used to be politely quiet; then I tried somberly stating the facts; now I just laugh in their faces and invite them to go public with their attitudes, 'cause that will really help our ongoing contract negotiations.

  9. >Solid post. I've worked in Operations for the past 32 years in the Chicago area. It is brutally competitive and good jobs continue to disappear. I am pretty much worn out by the effort at 54 years old.

  10. >Montag, your Adam Smith quote is correct. For centuries, the ruling class and blue bloods in the US understood this. It's only been in the last thirty years or so that a great influx of mercenary mangers began to divest the infrastructure of the capitalist system itself, and the benefactors of this divestment have politicized and institutionalized their efforts.

  11. >At the federal level all programs that could in any way be called "welfare" combine for 1% of the budget. At the state and local level it's 2%. Eliminate all welfare programs today and no one's taxes would go down by so much as one dollar. Welfare simply ain't a government cost driver.

  12. >Re: Cellphones with cameras. I don't know if it's still the case but companies like Verizon (back when I worked for them) encouraged both employees and regular customers to donate their old cellphones to the "Pioneers" (a group of Verizon retirees) who would have the phones refurbished and then donate them to homeless shelters, abused women's shelters, etc. Many of those phones would be set up so that they could not be used to do routine calling.

  13. >Great post! Thanks for sharing this viewpoint.

  14. >A lot of companies do donate cell phones to homeless and working poor people. Ask any social worker — how else can you contact one of your cases about things like housing, if they can't be reached by cell phone? And even my crappy Motorola which is about 7 years old has a camera on it.Yes I remember the whole "ZOMG THE HOMELESS HAVE CELL PHONES WITH CAMERAS!" thing. It certainly showed how out of touch and petty the other side can be.

  15. >Dear SB,I think the name of the game here is denial. That's denial of normal human compassion and empathy, and denial about opportunities and priveliges in life that some get and others don't.Emotions that can't be faced get denied and hidden, then projected out onto others who must be controlled.I don't even see this as a Left/Right issue but rather Up/Down. People on the Right (or Anti-Progressives at the bottom) who deny their basic humanity and try to control everyone else's, isn't so Political as it is a mental health issue.

  16. ep3

    >my uncle used to talk about how he went in early (@3am) then work later (7pm) at his computer job at EDS (they do computer work for GM). He said his fear was that they were laying people off all the time at his company and by doing the extra work (off the clock of course), he was impressing his boss and helping to keep his job. Guess what, he don't work there no more.

  17. >Good post that lays out the problem. There is an organization that seeks a solution to this particular problem, USBIG (U.S. Basic Income Guarentee). USBIG seeks an unconditional and universal citizen's grant. This combined with what one earns in the free maraket creates a new negotiation space for the economy to operate in. Everyone would then be on salary plus commission.See several articles, including my own, at http://www.usbig.net My most recent article Excalibrator Logarhythmic Floating Cybercurrency describes a money system to achieve these goals.

  18. >Thanks for posting, arkiology, I will check that out … looks intriguing …