One of the constant tropes of the conservative populi is some variation of the bread and circus argument. The idea that liberals and Democrats, to lure people to vote for them, will simply offer more freebies to their base so that they become “dependent” on the government for food, shelter, and social services and that this will create a class of people who are incapable of independent thought let alone the ability to care for themselves. As a result conservatives are taking the more principled stance that requires tough lessons in self-responsibility. It’s bullshit masquerading as wisdom. We are all still trying to figure out what the secret donor tapes from Mitt Romney will do to his electoral chances, but one thing that should be clear is that he meant what he said to that group of donors, and many conservatives feel this very way too.
We Don’t Talk About the Poor
As I’ve pointed out in the past more than 80% of the country earns less than $100,000 per year. Yet when we talk about who is rich, we argue weather $250,000 dollars a year can really be considered rich. This ignores the important question of who is poor. This month has actually been an exceptional time for information about the poor. I mentioned earlier this week on the Disengage Autopilot Facebook page that Up with Chris Hayes on MSNBC had a remarkable 2-hour long discussion on what it means to be poor in this country. The first hour discussed the effects of poverty on learning, education, and schools, while the second hour on the ability to find jobs, and be productive in society. Much of this discussion came as a result of the Chicago teacher strike. This American Life, based in Chicago, also devoted their hour show this week to discuss poverty and its effects on education and life advancement. All this is remarkable because this rarely happens. When we talk about the poor in this country, we give numbers. In 2010 25% of the population was at or near poverty. What does that mean? Well it means a family of 3 earning less than $26,000 dollars a year. Again what does that mean? It’s just another number, what does that mean for someone’s life?
The Young and Poor
Over a year ago I posted a piece outlining why the middle class should identify more with the poor as many of the problems that hurt the poor, also hurt the middle class. Things like quality schools, access to healthcare services, and affordable housing are issues for the poor and middle class not the wealthy. It turns out I’m not alone in thinking this way. A recent study shows nearly 40% of young adults identify as the lower-class. This is not surprising, given the amount of debt the average young adult has due to student loans, and the scarcity of jobs that will afford them the ability to move out of their parents homes, let alone begin building a family of their own.
Access to commodities is a bad indicator of poverty
Before 1970 very few cars came with Anti-Lock Braking systems, now it’s virtually standard in all road vehicles. Hair dryers since 1991 are required to have ground fault circuit interrupters, so it is now very difficult to accidentally electrocute yourself with a hair dryer. This is a mark of societal progress. Yet in conservative circles similar marks of progress are used to show that the poor aren’t really that poor, and if they made better choices they could simply stop being poor.
You see since the poor have microwaves, cable, and cell phones, just like the hard working “earners” in this country (more on that in a moment) our poverty problem isn’t that bad, and all we have to do is get the poor to stop being lazy, and making bad financial choices and the poverty problem goes away. Judging if someone is poor based on what stuff they have in their house really misses the point of what being poor actually means, nor does it acknowledge the economies of scale that forces prices down for commodities. In the 1980s no one except the extremely wealthy had access to cellphones because the technology was so new that it was extremely expensive to have. 40 years of manufacturing progress has made owning a cellphone a standard of living in this country, just like buying a car with ABS, or a hair dryer with ground fault protection. And not just this country in many third world countries, given the tremendous expense of laying and maintaining cables across vast swaths of land, cellphones have increasingly become the phones everyone uses. These commodities are not indicators of wealth. It’s like saying in the 1800s most of the poor didn’t have toilets in their homes since the poor now waste money on places with toilets all we have to do is teach them to stop spending money on toilets until they are no longer poor and can afford that luxury.
Poverty in the industrialized world
One reason judging if someone is poor based on the amount of modern stuff they own is inaccurate is that the modern world does not work the same way as the world worked 50 years ago. As if to illustrate the point during the evening while I was writing this article the power went out on my block. It was raining hard and something tripped a cable. Thankfully I was only without power till the morning but it made me realize that unlike previous generations it is extremely difficult to live without electricity. While the power was out the only things I could use was the shower, sink, and toilet. Everything else, the stove, the refrigerator, the telephone, everything required a power connection. Thankfully I have a cellphone and was able to call Con Edison to report the issue, and thankfully it didn’t only affect me so the response was relatively quick. But what if it wasn’t? What if I just couldn’t afford to pay my bill? In my refrigerator I have a reasonable amount of food, if I lost power for any significant time I could lose at least a hundred dollars. This is a cost I could absorb, but a family living on the edge cannot. Not only that, if I can’t get the power back on my life, what I can eat dramatically changes for the worse. If I think back to the classic TV show the honeymooners, I realize they had an ice box, not a refrigerator. This means there was someone who came by the house regularly and brought them a giant block of ice which was far less expensive to run than a refrigerator. This simply does not exist anymore and as a result the world no longer works a certain way.
I lost power for about 10 hours, in practical terms this is nothing, but the stress of thinking of all the things I may need to do if the power didn’t come back made it difficult to sleep. If you’re poor you have a constant stream of things like this to worry about; are you safe in your neighborhood, will you make enough to cover the rent, have your kids eaten enough? The point is living at the extremes of society bares no resemblance to the resort life some would like you to believe, living of the fat of the government. And let us not forget what it actually takes to receive assistance from the government. Because of our distrust of the actual suffering of the poor any assistance they receive requires hours of time filling out forms, providing reams of documentation proving that they are indeed suffering and need help. It’s like making a rape victim prove they have been violated before you agree to help them.
Earners vs Moochers
Ayn Rand really poisoned the well for thoughtful discussion of poverty in this country. Thanks to her and her objectivist acolytes, there is a constant characterization of the poor as leeching off the hard working earners in this country. Despite the fact that a lot of the poor work (therefore pay payroll taxes), and most often more hours than the wealthy. The welfare reform of the 1990s was supposed to “reward” work, but there is a systemic problem with the program in that the work it rewards rarely does little to actually lift people out of poverty. Single mothers without access to day care are often stuck between working and caring for their children. The jobs they are able to obtain are often low wage part time positions that do little to change their status and cost them more money in day care then they earn. Bringing up single mothers of course brings up the “lack of values” that “causes” single motherhood. This ignores the glaringly obvious fact that money problems are one of the number one causes of divorce.
The Liberal Agenda
The liberal agenda is not to placate the masses of Americans living at the extremes of our modern society with bread and circus to get votes from them. Rather it is an acknowledgement that those living at those extremes will likely remain there for generations without aid. This is not a radical idea, one cannot pull oneself up by one’s boot straps without boots to begin with. It is the foundation of virtually every welfare program in the world. It is not liberal to want to give away free stuff to the poor. What liberals try to do with the programs they promote is create a foundation from which people can build success from. Making sure food, health care, education and housing are available, accessible and affordable is not about winning votes, it’s about building a society that does everything it can to make sure its members are as productive as possible. Liberals believe in this not because it will win them votes but because it will improve the lives of the people these programs reach, and improve the country we live in. It is not to provide entitlements, It is a pursuit of progress.