I work with a population the vast majority of whom live below the poverty line in one of tougher zip codes this side of the Rockies. I won’t say it’s the least stressful job I’ve had, but for all sweat shed and sleep lost, if nothing else you get an up close look at a part of life most people don’t want to even acknowledge exists.
Let’s talk about the poor of America, and how you’ve got a lousy attitude about them.
Now you might be thinking “Geez, stop the presses, a Commie is ranting about the treatment of the poor.”
However, while I’m not the first in line to carry the banner of class warfare into battle, don’t for a moment think that this is some blanket bemoaning of the weary, huddled masses. There are lazy poor people and lazy rich people- this post is not about either of them.
It’s about us-
I. Getting Ticked Off At A Poor Guy With A Smartphone
It’s a complaint I’m hearing more and more commonly. “That guy’s begging for change, but just the other day I saw him on an iPhone.” “That lady using her EBT card [used for food stamp transfers] for groceries? Texting on an Android the whole time we were waiting in line.”
What people don’t get about those living in poverty is that the lower rungs of the social ladder don’t typically have access to computers or the internet. If you’re lucky, you use the computer for a couples hours somewhere, but if you’ve tried putting an application in via the internet recently, you know that it takes someone who can type fast a good couple hours to slog through even two or three applications.
Let’s face it, internet access is pretty dang integral to functioning in today’s society. Job applications are online. Communication is online. Bills are online. You name it. For many, smart phones are the only viable option for staying connected- not to mention that they tend to be a bit easier to use for those who didn’t grow up with computers.
II. Getting Ticked Off At A Poor Guy In A Nice Car
Again, a grumble of “How is it he on welfare and driving around a Mercedes?” can be heard more and more often. Again though, this complaint doesn’t have a ton of ground to it. Let the facts be faced- public transportation is not this country’s strong suit.
There’s limited space and limited buses, and a trip that would take me about twenty minutes with traffic would take a bus well over an hour. How are people supposed to rush around town on interviews if a massive chunk of any given day is spent moving along at a brisk 15 miles an hour? Buses, by the way, aren’t cheap. A monthly pass here in Vegas costs $65.00- depending on where you drive and how often, gas isn’t all that much more expensive.
But why’s the car gotta be nice?
Think of it as an investment of sorts. Firstly, a nice car is going to tend to be reliable- as someone who just had to do some repairs on his own car, let me tell ya, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Secondly, it’s easier to sell a new car for a better price than a hunk of junk that’s on it’s fifth owner. Times get tough enough, that fancy new car can be cashed in for way more than some rust-bucket.
III. Getting Ticked Off At Food Stamps and Red Bull
On the subreddit r/rage about month back, someone had posted a picture of a grocery story fridge full of Red Bulls. An ad had been stuck against the glass, declaring that Red Bull could now be purchased with an EBT card.
People were pretty upset. “Why should people on welfare be spending money on energy drinks?”
How meager do the poor have to live for it to be acceptable? Do you want to chew ’em out for buying a can of soup 2 cents more expensive than another? Do poor people not get tired just like the rest of us?
What people don’t understand is that while your food stamps do roll over into the next month, if your food card accumulates too much on it, you’ll be seen as “no longer needy” and your benefits will get cancelled entirely. The poor, who don’t decide how much cash is or isn’t allotted to ’em, are forced to maintain a certain amount of spending- is it really the end of the world if they get a Red Bull?
“But what if they spend all their money on Red Bulls?”
Then what? They’ll have no more money left. You don’t just get more funds out of the air- if you blow all your grocery money in one day, that’s it.
IV. Drugs and Alcohol and Begging
I’ve probably heard this admonition the most in my life.
“Don’t give money to that beggar- he’s just gonna use it for drugs and alcohol.”
I’d retort to this, but I’m gonna turn this over to the late comedian Greg Giraldo. I’m not a Giraldo fan, but I really don’t think you can hit the point home better than he does in this bit- it’s been 5 years since I first heard it, and I can still quote it pretty much verbatim:
(The only version I could find is this remix- skip on to 3:30 for the bit)
Let’s be brutally honest- is your job really that much more productive to human freedom and prosperity than the guy begging for change? I’ve got a job helping people get jobs and I’m wondering that question all the time- is this actually progressing anything?
And if you’re angry at the fact that you can make decent money off of begging, why is that? Should a panhandler take a paycut to flip burgers for $7.25 an hour when he could be making 9 an hour and not have to scrub up human excrement? You can’t tell me you’d be doing any differently, can you?
V. Getting Ticked Off At The Poor For Being Poor
…And at the poor for attempting to be anything but poor. The recent attempts by McDonald’s fast-food workers to raise their wages to $15 and hour, and the subsequent backlash by many, kinda illustrates this. Attempt to rise above your station, and you get called greedy. Go around town with a car or a phone or clothes “too nice” for you, and you get called materialistic or short-sighted (and that’s not to say that doesn’t exist, but again, we’re not talking about that).
Inversely, if you stay where you are, you get called lazy, a welfare queen, a parasite, and a bum. Live in a dump, and people will sneeringly comment about how you’ve become dependent upon the system.
There’s just no winning.
For many of us, the poor exist as a caste in and of themselves. We don’t want ’em moving up into our social circles, and we can’t stand them where they are either. It’s almost like we expect our poor to act like characters out of a Dickens novel- kind, patient, uncomplaining martyrs who know their place in the world.
At least, that’s the plan.
We keep getting angry at people who miserably live in weekly and monthly rental housing, or who stand in line for hours to get a simple hearing with a social worker. The homeless guy with leathery skin and most of his teeth missing- we have the nerve to get ticked off at him. You want to be ticked off at people getting money for nothing- go shout at the Waltons to get a job.
So long as poor people are snarling at poorer people, we’re going to playing right into this social totem pole. Even if you’re not awaiting the (inevitable) socialist revolution that will sweep away the millionaires, politicians, and priests in one mighty wave, you’ve got to understand just how ridiculous it is that we get upset at the little pleasures enjoyed by those with nothing.
Shame on us all.
I thought you brought up some really good points. When I worked at a convenience store I most often saw EBT cards being used to buy junk food and my coworkers often grumbled about that. But I thought your rebuttal was excellent.
The one thing I would add to the conversation is that I think we get mad at the poor because we know the system is broken. By and large poverty is a problem we’re just throwing money at. And because of taxes people say “that’s my money you’re throwing at the problem” and get indignant.
My own personal thoughts on this issue is not that we are putting too much tax money towards poverty, but that we are not putting enough time or attention into the issue. Food stamps and subsidized housing treat the symptoms of poverty, that is hunger and homelessness, but very little is done to actually try to end poverty. Many people with EBT cards do not know how to budget. Many unemployed don’t know how to network or even how to dress or speak in a job interview. We need an increase in educational programs for the marginalized and “poor.”
People want to be angry at the poor. I want to respond saying “if the poor piss you off, why don’t you actually do something to eliminate poverty?” You can’t make poor people go away. You can help them stop being poor.
I remember taking a sociology class that looked at this issue and I found it really interesting that people living in poverty aren’t perpetually trapped the way we tend to assume. If I remember correctly the majority of “the poor” hit a low point for a period of a year or two and the governmental social support is often the boost needed to get them on their feet. So I’d have to disagree with you Chris that food stamps and subsidized housing only treat the symptom because that statement presupposes that it is always the same people taking advantage of those subsidies. In reality the majority of “the poor” using these programs are just normal people who hit hard times and there are a lot of different people cycling through those safety nets.
As for the poor we tend to picture (individuals living on the street for a long term basis) I would be interested to know how often mental illness is a factor.