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Sunday, September 30, 2012

The 47% And Disdain for the Poor

Mitt Romney's recent remarks about the 47% of Americans who pay no income tax, where he essentially argued that nearly half of the country consists of lazy moochers, is extremely galling and upsetting.  For me, however, the frustration comes not from the fact that a candidate for president of the United States of America holds such views, but rather because his arguments speak to a larger, bipartisan truth: as a society, generally speaking, we disdain the poor.  This might come as especially surprising given the fact that 1 out of 3 Americans either lives in poverty or close to it--a fact that would seem to imply that many Americans loathe themselves!

But no, we don't live in a nation of masochists; instead, we live in a nation so swayed by the illusion of upward mobility that we can't see our own stagnation.  Even worse, by refusing to note that hard work and perseverance are no longer enough to make it into the middle class--and stay there--we pour our anger onto the 47 million of those that live in poverty.  We do this in a myriad of subtle and not-so-subtle ways.  For instance, we have a tax policy that favors the wealthy (loopholes, capital gains tax rates that are far lower than income tax rates, mortgage deductions, etc).  Or there's the fact that the poor are more likely to be audited than the rich.  Or a funding system for public schools based largely on local property tax revenues, ensuring that the wealth of those living in a community dictates the quality of a school and the likelihood of its children graduating from high school and college.  And so on and so on and so on.

Yet the problem is more insidious than we think.  Consider this: in Florida, the governor signed a law requiring that welfare recipients be drug tested.  Not surprisingly, only 2.6% of recipients tested positive--lower than the percentage for the general population, and not even enough to cover the cost of the testing.  But the real issue here is the attitude behind drug testing for the poor, which effectively says  :"You are nothing.  If you are going to receive a couple hundred dollars a month from the magnanimous taxpayers, then you must be subjected to drug testing because we assume that you are all filthy, drug-abusing animals unworthy of our support." And then there is another question: why do we focus our moral outrage on the tiny percentage of Americans that cheat or lie to get food stamps, welfare or other public benefits, and not on the the billions of dollars every year that the taxpayers lose to military contractors bilking, cheating or overcharging the U.S. Government?  Or the banks that did the same with the bailout? And why do we not focus on, for instance, the millions of Americans that are NOT in poverty today thanks to food stamps?

The reason, I believe, is that the poor represent the failure of the American dream and of our modern society, in the midst of great wealth, to foster equality of opportunity.  This failure does not sit well with us, does not fit in the story we tell about ourselves...And as a result, not only do we create victims out of our anger and apathy (yes, we both feel anger towards the poor and, at the same time, show incredible apathy towards them), but we blame them for their own victim hood by calling them lazy.  Or, we recall the one person we know that did not take advantage of a government or non-profit program, or who simply refuses to better his life, and shut out of our minds the dozens of people we know that struggle, day after day, to get ahead, only to be stymied by a system that has forgotten them.

Let's take a moment to consider what it's like to be poor in this country.  You are born to parents likely to be working several jobs, juggling the stress of financial difficulty, lack of access to health care, unsafe neighborhoods and unstable transportation with the imperative to be good parents.  As a result of this, combined with poor indoor and outdoor air quality and lower-qualities schools, persistent poverty has actually shown to impede cognitive development in children.  As the child grows up, she will quickly fall behind her wealthier peers in reading and math, while at the same time lacking access to the resources she needs to catch up.

 Every day, her world will be filled, not with the joy and wonder every child deserves, but rather crime, drugs, lack of greenery, broken-down public housing, arguments and noise.  She will soon internalize the sense that she is not important, that the world does not care for her. She may begin to develop depression or anxiety which, as they go untreated, put her at risk for alcohol or substance abuse or self-harm.  A lack of health care will prevent her mother from being able to take her to the doctor for frequent checkups.  She won't be able to partake in after-school activities--soccer, ballet, piano--because of cost and time and lack of transportation.  Her chances of graduating from high school are low--in fact, poor children are six times as likely as the non-poor to drop out of high school.

Without a college education, she will be forced to work in low-wage, low-skill jobs lacking in upward mobility.  She is more likely to get pregnant young, before she is ready emotionally to handle a child and before she has the income to give her daughter what she herself lacked.  The cycle of poverty will then continue.

Many people say that the poor lack a sense of responsibility for their actions and that society is not responsible for much of their poverty.  But anyone that spends time fighting for the rights of those lacking political power know what a vicious argument that is: on the one hand, we deny the poor access to all the things--good schools, clean air, health care, healthy food, beautiful buildings, safe streets--without which we would never have succeeded; and on the other, we blame them for the results of this bleak existence.  Yes, when someone gets pregnant at 16 or gets jailed for possession of drugs, they are making bad choices that others do not make.  However, these aren't choices so much as inevitable outcomes of a painful existence.  And even that does not convey the extent of the injustice: the war on drugs disproportionately targets lower-income people--predominately people color--creating system that one author, Michelle Alexander, has termed a new form of Jim Crow.'

The result of all this is that everywhere you look, the wealthier and whiter you are, the more you are able to benefit from the privileges of power, and the less likely you are to suffer a catastrophic fall into poverty from a single mistake.  In other words, if you are wealthy and try drugs, you are less likely to be arrested; if you cheat on your taxes, you are less likely to be audited; if you become depressed, you are more likely to be able to afford treatment; and so on.  So we have created a paradigm in which the margin of error for the most vulnerable among us is nonexistent, and when the inevitable happens and a person in poverty is arrested, or succumbs to depression, or drops out of school, we blame them while ignoring the circumstances of their life.

So yes, there are irresponsible people in all walks of life.  Yes, people have to take advantage of opportunities given to them.  But we cannot continue to countenance a grossly unequal society AND, to make matters worse, blame the victims of that inequality for their own plight.  For this strikes me as the height of intolerance, and it can only be remedied once we recognize the fatal flaw in our attitudes and begin the long, hard work of reversing an entire universe of programs and policies that perpetuate this system.