Okay – I’m not for enslaving the poor.
But there are some people who seem to be, given the rise of stories that increasingly paint recipients of welfare as lazy, wasteful profligates. Even the Australian mine heiress Gina Rinehart (who notoriously received her fortune by virtue of selecting the right parents) has gotten in on the fun, telling the poor that the secret to wealth is to “spend less time drinking, or smoking and socializing and more time working.”
The basic impulse behind this argument is the feeling that if someone else is receiving assistance paid for through tax dollars, then they shouldn’t spend their time on frivolous things or their money on luxury goods or vices. Although cigarettes and alcohol are most often the cited materials that welfare recipients shouldn’t buy, sometimes proponents of this line of attack also cite objects of fun: Xboxes, computers, iPhones, and musical devices are also targeted as flashy, unnecessary wastes of the taxpayer’s hard-earned money.
It might be worth investigating what people think is worthy of taxpayer assistance, then. This Rasmussen poll is enlightening. 83 percent of people believe, for example, that welfare recipients should be working. 69 percent of people believe that too many people on welfare should not be receiving it. In a 2001 NPR poll, 35 percent of Americans thought that the poor had it easy.
Let’s unpack this a bit, shall we? First of all, a staggeringly high number of Americans seem to resent or even envy the poor, as if they would be willing to accept the lower quality of life, healthcare, and status if they just didn’t have to work. Second, there is a perception that the poor are that way because of their bad spending habits. However – and this one is shocking – the underlying assumption is that poor people should work full time at awful jobs and still need welfare.
There really isn’t any other way to defend the idea that the poor shouldn’t get aid unless they have jobs. If they have jobs they shouldn’t need aid! If available jobs pay less than is needed for food and shelter, then we have a serious problem in our society.
But it gets worse. Direct welfare payments are the most often criticized program. But food stamps are also a target, on the grounds that they allow the poor to divert any income that they do have into non-essentials. If food is paid for by Uncle Sam, then the poor are free to use their money on unimportant crap.
But this reveals something even weirder about the anti-welfare mindset: according to this view, the only things that a poor person should be doing are eating to survive, sleeping in a bare-bones shelter, and working. This is honorable, and doesn’t burden society with the responsibility of caring for its vulnerable members, or something.
It’s also slavery. If anti-welfare activists are willing to criticize the poor for not working constantly and spending all of their money on absolute essentials, then they are in fact insinuating that labor is worth only the bare essentials of survival, a concept also known as slavery. It appears that anti-welfare activists are comfortable with slavery, so long as it is inflicted by the market instead of the government. The poor not beasts of burden for retail and service jobs – they are also human beings, which brings me to my next point.
Rather than just attack the position of anti-welfare activists, I’m going to lay out two positions for why we do engage in welfare. The first is primarily humanitarian: we provide welfare to raise the minimum standard of living for all Americans. If you can’t work, or are working in a job that can’t cover your necessities, then society believes that as a human being you have a right to certain comforts anyway (i.e., your human value is not equivalent to your economic productivity). This being America, the government prefers to let you decide which comforts are most important to you by handing you a certain amount of purchasing power. Some welfare recipients will doubtlessly choose leisure time, luxury items, or even small, unhealthy comforts that would otherwise be outside their reach.
The second reason is economic: welfare directly stimulates demand. The economy needs more than a handful of people buying cars and light pickups – it also needs lots of people buying candy bars and packs of gum. Putting a small amount of semi-disposable income into the hands of the poor ensures that some things will be purchased that come back to providing everyone else with a job – not only beer and cigarettes but also consumer electronics and musical instruments and things of that nature. Although it’s true that this is artificial demand, the presence of more consumer goods in the hands of consumers does mean, again, that the standard of living rises for everyone.
I’m not saying that it’s a good thing that more and more Americans are becoming enrolled in SNAP, WIC, and other government assistance programs. But I am hesitant to lay the blame solely on the shoulders of the poor through an unconvincing narrative of laziness and stupidity. Rather, the problem seems to me to stem from historic inequality, concentration of wealth, and a shrinking pool of jobs sufficient for the education, nutrition, and – yes! – leisure time that signifies success.