The poor are people too

By Erica Motter
Co-managing Editor

February 28, 2013

“I work hard so millions on welfare don’t have to.”

This obtuse oversimplification of a complex social dilemma can be seen all over my Facebook newsfeed, posted by people who I assume don’t know the individual circumstances of 99.9% of people receiving government assistance.

I encounter these carelessly-flung condemnations just about every day of my life, and as a member of the working class who wouldn’t be in college without government grants, I’m utterly repulsed by them.

Most of these judgments are based on flawed anecdotal evidence. It’s easy to point out someone who abuses the system in some way, like having children to receive more benefits, but statistics show that these sorts of practices are usually not the general rule. And yet, the myth of the “Welfare Queen” persists, while email chain letters convince recipients that more and more people are jumping on the welfare wagon just to get out of work. It’s become almost a societally-accepted “fact” that a large segment of the population receiving assistance doesn’t need it—they’re simply lazy.

But shouldn’t we be hurling some of these judgments at our nation’s multi-millionaires? Who works harder, the office executive or the auto mechanic? The CEO or the coal miner? It can be argued that these management positions receive higher pay because they required more education—you put money in, you get money out

But the plain fact is that our nation’s wealthiest are not just “comfortable.” They are disgustingly, excessively, and totally unnecessarily wealthy. A 2012 study by the AFL-CIO found the average chief executive’s pay to be $12.9 million, about 380 times that of the average worker.

I can’t even wrap my head around the idea of bringing home a six-figure salary, let alone $12 million.

The point is, how can someone who makes even a million dollars a year begin to comprehend what it’s like to survive on $20K or less, probably while raising children or working a labor-intensive job at the same time? Does anyone really need that much money, and isn’t it damaging to protect those people while simultaneously scorning citizens who collect a measly welfare pittance and live in the piss-stained projects?

Is it really tantamount thievery to heavily tax someone who makes millions of dollars? Did they actually work harder to earn it than wage slaves? How much would a higher tax rate damage the quality of life of a multi-millionaire, and how much would it improve the life of an undereducated, undernourished family living in a ghetto somewhere?

Contrary to the popular media mythos, you’d be hard-pressed to find many people who want to live the rest of their lives on government assistance. Some money from the government each month might put food on the table and clothes on your back, but it doesn’t fulfill you or make you feel like a worthwhile person. Our welfare recipients aren’t living in mansions, either—and even the ones who “abuse” the system still have a relatively low quality of life compared to middle and upper class citizens.

And that sucks. Even if you’re not impoverished to the point of homelessness or starvation, being poor just plain sucks. Every day brings a new anxiety: “Will I be able to afford the bills this month?” “What if I get sick, when I don’t have health insurance?” Even small setbacks, like car trouble or a leak in the plumbing can ruin months of careful financial planning. Add to that the societal pressures about physical appearance, the stigma of being poor, and the untreated mental disorders that likely affect many poor people—and you’re looking at a pretty miserable existence.

So why then, do so many people seek to judge, ridicule and deride the poor, especially over the rich? To employ a worn but applicable adage, you don’t know anyone’s life until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. In every interaction, it’s always much better to exercise compassion towards others rather than condemnation. This is especially true when you’re making sweeping generalizations about an entire social class. We’re all humans with needs and emotions—and flaws. Unfortunately, for low-income citizens, their mistakes both have more dire consequences and receive stricter scrutiny from the public at large.

It seems to me, in any context, the biggest key to societal advancement is education.

But most of the poor don’t have the same opportunities as middle or upper-class citizens. K-12 schooling in most lower income areas is of a notoriously low quality, and parents are usually busy working or too uneducated themselves to provide the motivation for students to succeed in school. Students in these areas aren’t given the resources to advance, nor are they given any reason to believe that their lives will be anything more than a continuation of their parents’ lives.

And for the adults—if you’ve lived your whole life raised to mismanage your finances, and if you never received a formal education yourself, you’re going to have a lot of difficulty advancing your life and spending your money wisely. These people don’t have any base to jump off from. How are they expected to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” if they don’t have any boots to begin with?

It’s true; there’s a big problem with the welfare system. But the problem isn’t that it does too much for the unemployed in our country.

The problem is that it doesn’t do enough.

Instead of addressing the causes of poverty, we’re just assuaging its symptoms and then blaming the impoverished for not getting better on their own. And so the system remains broken.

Providing money for the less fortunate is important because it solves an immediate problem—starvation, namely.

But money doesn’t resolve the issues that lead people to need assistance in the first place: lack of education, lack of opportunities, lack of marketable skills, lack of budgeting education. It’s not fair to anyone to expect this money to do anything more than maintain the status quo.

Welfare reform is something that is being floated around Congress these days, but it seems to carry with it a negative stench that seems to emanate from anything involving the word “welfare.”

We need to stop looking at it as unnecessary or unfair. Administered more efficiently, welfare could achieve its goal of getting people off of welfare.

And in the meantime, love thy neighbor, especially if thy neighbor is struggling to make ends meet.

Stop treating the less fortunate like less-than-humans.

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