Anger at Poor People – posted 5/25/2015 and published in the Concord Monitor on 6/3/2015
This piece appeared in the Concord Monitor on 6/3/2015 under the title “The art of hating the poor”.
Being hostile to poor people is a long American tradition. Historically, the American people have fluctuated between a desire to help the deserving needy and an alternating desire to castigate and punish the undeserving poor. The tension between these conflicting desires lies behind public policy disputes about poverty and what to do about it.
Nationally, in the state legislatures this session, it would appear that anger at the unworthy poor had the upper hand. Here I am thinking about a new Kansas welfare law signed by Governor Sam Brownback that restricts Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) recipients from accessing more than $25 of their monthly benefit money per day from ATMs.
The Kansas law contains many other restrictions including a prohibition against spending TANF cash assistance in retail liquor stores, casinos, tattoo parlors, massage parlors, body piercing parlors, nail salons, lingerie shops, movie theaters, swimming pools and cruise ships.
Kansas is not the only state that introduced legislation like that. A Missouri bill introduced by Republican state Rep. Rick Brattin outlaws the use of TANF funds to purchase chips, energy drinks, soft drinks, seafood and steak. The Missouri bill has not yet passed.
Questions arise about these restrictions. How are TANF recipients, who often do not have bank accounts, going to pay rent or utility bills if they can only take out $25 at a time? What about ATM fees? Won’t TANF recipients get hit up on every withdrawal so they are losing precious and needed dollars? And as for purchases, is buying seafood bad? How about paying to go swimming? I guess the worst thing you can be is a welfare swimmer who loves tuna fish.
The laws do wreak havoc on lingerie-wearing, tattooed, energy-drinking TANF recipients who are getting massages, gambling, and watching movies on cruise ships. If you are from Kansas, I can understand that you would want to go on cruises.
Seriously, these type laws, whatever their intentions, reflect a mean-spirited mentality. The view is not one that sees poverty as a result of misfortune or social class. It is about bad persons. Poverty is seen as a willful result of personal deficiencies, laziness, and vice.
In his book The Undeserving Poor, the historian Michael Katz fleshes out the long historical consistency of this view. He quotes an 1834 sermon preached by Reverend Charles Burroughs, who spoke at the opening of a new chapel in the poorhouse in Portsmouth, New Hampshire:
“…Pauperism is the consequence of willful error, of shameful indolence, of vicious habits. It is a misery of human creation, the pernicious work of man, the lamentable consequence of bad principles and morals.”
The anger in this view is palpable and it is still with us today. Many Americans direct their anger downward on the poor rather than upward at the superrich. Possibly that is because most Americans are physically closer to poor people whether in supermarkets, other stores or nearby neighborhoods. They personally observe the poor. The superrich live apart in a rarified world beyond direct personal observation. It is easier to be mad at someone you see and experience than people you may envy who are a distant abstraction.
Overlooked in the welfare discussion is the national decline in the number of people on TANF. States everywhere have dramatically pared down their welfare rolls. Yet, an almost irrational hatred of welfare lives on. In its new legislation, Kansas also lowered the lifetime limit recipients could stay on TANF from 48 months down to 36 months. The original 1996 welfare reform legislation allowed states up to 60 months.
I would suggest that anger at the poor reflected in the Kansas and Missouri welfare laws is misdirected. Whatever their faults, the poor have minimal power to shape our political world. The same cannot be said of the superrich. Their wealth translates into inordinate political power . They buy politicians to do their bidding and their priorities do shape our world.
So why do the poor get blamed so much? I think there is a lack of understanding of social class and our class structure. Many are uncomfortable with talking about it but class is the dirty secret of American life. Even with our increasing economic inequality, talking about it is a little taboo. I do think that class has a pervasive influence on the way we live, work and think.
Americans are conditioned to think we are all middle class. Maybe there are some really rich people and some poor people at the ends of the spectrum but most people are alleged to be in the middle. This view is part of the mythology of America. I would argue that most Americans are working class. Unlike Europeans, we do not generally look at the world through a class lens and class consciousness is not recognized as a virtue.
This is too bad because, among world views, I think class provides a powerful tool for making sense of the world. Not everybody starts in the same place in this life. The prep school-attending child of great wealth is in a way different place than the inner city, public school-attending poor child. The advantages for the child of extreme wealth are profound, multi-faceted, and lifelong.
Those born into a family on welfare are near the bottom of the class structure. Focusing on their vices obscures their social class position. It is their class position – not their personal qualities – which largely dictate their life opportunities. One unfortunate feature of our increasing economic inequality has been the decline in social mobility. While there always are exceptions, class is a more important determinant than has been recognized.
I know there are different ways to define class. I should say that I am defining class based on the power and authority people have at work. Working class people typically have little control over the pace or content of their work.
Over the last four decades, the American working class has experienced lower real income, longer hours at work, and fewer protections by unions and government regulation. Big business shipped many of the formerly good paying manufacturing jobs overseas as they sought cheaper labor elsewhere outside the United States.
If you consider the 2016 presidential candidates, with the notable exception of Senator Bernie Sanders, the candidates have precious little to say about our class system. Republicans usually say people who mention social class are promoting class war. They ignore the reality that our Big Business class is far and away the most class conscious about pursuing its interests. When Big Business advances its interests at the expense of labor that is not called class war. That is business as usual.
While the Republicans are a coalition of interests including Big Business, social conservatives, and libertarians, from a class viewpoint, they consistently reflect the interests of the superrich.
Democrats generally do not talk about the working class any more. Now they talk about appealing to the middle class. I do not think it is an accident that Democrats have lost some appeal to working class voters. If your appeal is more to rich yuppies and professionals, working people notice. To their credit, the Democrats do offer some support for raising the minimum wage and addressing income inequality.
The writer Michael Lind once wrote:
“The American oligarchy spares no pains in promoting the belief that it does not exist, but the success of its disappearing act depends on equally strenuous efforts on the part of an American public anxious to believe in egalitarian fictions and unwilling to see what is hidden in plain sight.”
Demonizing and being angry at the poor reflects a deep misunderstanding of American politics.