This depressing article in today Philadelphia Inquirer relates a familiar tale: The poor are being vilified for taking government money, blamed for having made bad choices, called “breeders” for having kids they can’t support (with an icky overlay of moral disapproval for having many of these children out of wedlock). As the story points out, much of the anger is diffused and untroubled by facts: welfare rolls have been slashed mercilessly since the so-called Welfare Reform Act of 1996; the payments are so meager that no one would seek this as a viable means of support (and it lasts five years, max, anyway); most of those receiving assistance are children.
The anger is sometimes startling, as when South Carolina Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer recently compared the poor to “stray animals who breed,” or when pandering, no-nothing politicians make symbolic shows of making life even more humiliating for people who can’t get by:
Pennsylvania State Rep. Garth Everett (R., Lycoming) has tried for a year to pass a law that would have [Temporary Assistance to Needy Families] recipients drug-tested and fingerprinted, a practice in some states. “People’s wallets are tighter these days, and they don’t want funds going to folks with drug problems,” he said.
Asked to back up his claims, Everett said, “I don’t have evidence that people are using it [TANF money] to buy drugs. I do get feedback from a significant part of my constituency that they have the feeling that folks on welfare are using drugs.” He added that his proposed bill “is not going anywhere” because Democrats oppose it.
His constituents “have the feeling” that folks are using money — some of the very generous $403, per month, for a mother and two kids — to buy drugs. That’s enough for Everett, who can make a political show of his solidarity with the angriest elements of his constituency without having to deal with the consequences. Among them is the likelihood that the money spent on drug testing and fingerprinting would far outweigh any cost savings from denying benefits to those using drugs, and thereby end up costing the state more money. As a bonus, it would feed into the discredited view that drug addiction is a matter of choice and not a medical, public health issue that requires complex intervention.
Given that the poor take such a tiny percentage of the state’s money, the anger isn’t really about the money. It’s more the product of a deep and justifiable frustration by the broad swath of the increasingly left-behind middle class that they’ve done everything right, but can’t get ahead. Like a tire skidding endlessly on ice during our tundra-like winter here in the Mid-Atlantic, they work harder and harder and fall further and further behind. So to them, anyone who gets anything for “nothing” is bound to be the target of some vitriol. But would they change places with those they condemn?
No, they’d rather change places with the Wall Street bankers and financiers whose complex machinations were a significant contributing factor in the national and global meltdown that continues apace. But they know that’s not possible, and they’re too beaten down — and realistic — to think that people as well-connected as these modern-day robber barons (there! I said it! let the angry responses begin) will be brought to heel, or even asked to cut back by one yacht. Government is detested, but there, too, the problem seems too big and complex for them to have any effect.
This culture of fury and jealousy, whatever its understandable origin, isn’t healthy. I might want to blame right-wing talk show hosts like the morbidly obese Rush Limbaugh who, without apparent irony, recently wailed about how food stamp recipients are spending their money on unhealthy choices (including the outright lie that some of it is going to booze; it can’t), but the most accurate thing to say is that they’re only amplifying resentment and confusion that’s already out there. (If you want to make a symbolic stand against the worst (and most effective) offender, join this Facebook group).
As Sarah Palin understands (and she doesn’t understand much), there’s a fortune to be made in tapping into this anger. Obama, meanwhile, has the more difficult responsibility of connecting with our deeper but often less accessible sense of community and collective responsibility. He’s not always done this effectively, unfortunately, but this is the area in which we really need that “hope-y, change-y” thing. Otherwise, I fear that “the centre cannot hold.” While I’m on Yeats, here’s a tired but apt close:
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.