Robert S. McElvaine’s _Down and Out in the Great Depression_ is a fascinating look at America during the Depression. Compiled from letters written to Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover, it presents Americans in their own words, saying what they thought was most important in the Depression. Besides the pleas for help and the accounts of the situation on the ground, there was a profound anger at those who needed help. “Paddle your own canoe or sink” one letter wrote. A “Poor Southern Arkansas Woman” wrote that she felt she was a slave required to carry thousands of idle men on her back. While others wrote about stealing coal from the railroad to keep warm, and about not being able to eat even on relief payments, overwhelmingly those not on relief wrote of their anger at the thought that others were taking advantage – their hatred is palpable, along with their sense of betrayal.
I thought of this when I read Zuska’s latest post which links to this article from the Philadelphia Inquirer. It documents that Americans are overwhelmingly angry at the poor, which is not news, but that that anger may be rising (the increase seems to be within the statistical margin).
Last month, Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer of South Carolina said that when the government helps the poor, it’s like people feeding stray animals that continually “breed.”
And just last week, Colorado state legislator Spencer Swalm said poor people in single-family homes are “dysfunctional.”
Both statements riled some Americans from the Piedmont to the Rockies and underscored a widely held belief: In tough times, people are tough on the poor.
In an April 2009 poll by the Pew Research Center in Washington, 72 percent agreed with the statement that “poor people have become too dependent on government assistance programs.” That’s up from 69 percent in 2007.
“The economic downturn has made the middle class less generous toward others,” said Guy Molyneux, a partner at Hart Research Associates, a Washington firm that researches attitudes toward the poor. “People are less supportive of the government helping the poor, because they feel they’re not getting enough help themselves.
Prejudice against the poor is nothing new – it is mixed with racism (despite the fact that the average welfare recipient is a white woman) and a whole lot of assumptions, but at its root, both in the past and present is this fear – that other people are taking advantage, and getting more than you. And this anger – the idea that you are working and struggling and others aren’t.
I’ve opined in the past that I think that concern with perceived fairness (as opposed to actual fairness) is a huge psychological issue for most people – many people will act against their own interests in order to make sure that things seem fair. As more and more people get poorer, that anger and fear – the sense that others are taking advantage (and undoubtedly some do – I’m no advocate of the fantasy of the noble poor) gets more and more overwhelming.
I can sympathize with the anger a poor working family feels when their taxes push them over the edge. But what’s fascinating to me is that the anger then gets passed down to someone else poorer – it rarely goes up. It doesn’t matter that the military budget for engagements that do nothing to keep you safe takes a much bigger hunk of one’s paycheck than all the welfare recipients in your state together. The target is always down the hill, never up.
And the working poor, the becoming poor and the deeply poor *are* pitted against each other. I completely grasp the sense of betrayal of someone like Tammy, who posts here, and who is struggling to take care of her severely disabled child, getting minimal help and support from her state, and seeing her kids’ resources pitted against other children, who may need it just as much. As long as the language works that way, as long as we set things up as though we have very limited resources to help people in need (which is false) and ample ones for building bridges and imperialism, then people will be forced to fight over who gets what scraps. This is evil, and it is important to realize that the judgement that people have against the poor is created by the way the discussion is framed and organized in our society.
I’ve posted this before, but I think it bears posting again – it is a brilliant and clear analysis of what it is like to be poor, written by a friend of mine who was on welfare for a while because both she and her husband were unemployed. She writes about the profound hostility towards the poor that she sees, and the rules for not attracting that hostility:
With this in mind, I’ve compiled a simple list of rules (or perhaps, “guidelines”) to help minimize the embarrassment and discomfort of taking public assistance. This list has been created based on my own experience and the experience of friends. Please note that contravening any rule in any way does grant legal rights for every person who sees you to judge you (out loud or, if desired, in print) on any or all of the following: your lifestyle choices, your parenting, your personal hygiene, your laziness, your education, your intellect, your lack of patriotism/apparent Frenchness, your very existence as signaling the certain decline and fall of our entire civilization, or any other topic of choice. So please do be careful out there!
…4. Never possess any item which could be construed as you spending money. This rule is a bit confusing, so examples might serve well here: do not let your SIL give you a manicure for your birthday, or fix your hair in any fancy way. Do not dress in business clothes, even purchased secondhand. Do not borrow your parents/in-laws nice car to go to run errands. Never dress your children in the expensive clothing purchased for them as gifts by loving relatives. Do not use public aid to buy your child a birthday cake and soda, which was the only thing they asked for for their birthday. Obviously, if an upstanding, tax-paying citizen sees you in a grocery store with nicely done nails & hair, driving a nice car, and buying a cake and soda, they are entitled to decry loudly (and post everywhere possible online) how abusive you are being of the system. Just because they have no idea how or why you have these things is no excuse–it is your responsibility as a poor person to never make taxpayers have to think about, well, much of anything.
4a. To maintain the personal moral indignation of the taxpayer to our situations, it is acceptable to on occasion breach rule #4 in limited fashion. This allows the taxpayer to continue with their prejudices, which is crucial for our status quo.
5. Only purchase things deemed appropriate by the surrounding consumers. Again, the guiding principle here is that you are poor, and obviously incapable of making educated decisions (otherwise, again, you wouldn’t be poor now, would you?). You must only buy products that other tax-paying people think are appropriate. As this can vary somewhat sharply by area, it is often helpful to pass out a brief questionnaire to other shoppers before attempting to shop yourself.
6. Maintain an acceptable number of children. This number will vary between zero and 4, depending on your location–please find out what is appropriate for your own area. But the core here is that, as a poor person, and a person on public assistance, it is inappropriate for you to make childbearing decisions on your own. Poor people attempting to actually bear and raise children is considered an unconscionable affront in many places. It is immaterial that poor people are just as capable as taxpayers of raising happy, well-mannered, well-educated children. In our society, poverty is a sign of moral failing–if you can’t buy your child a PS3, what business do you have raising children at all? If you need help paying the cost of children, no matter how loving and wonderful parent you might be, and no matter how unlikely it will ever be that you’ll be in “an appropriate financial position” to have children, you must not do so. If you already have children, use various methods for hiding them while in public.
If you follow these simple rules, you should lead exactly the joyless, grinding, depressing life you are meant to lead, while simultaneously having any sense of self-worth or pride expunged from you forever. Remember, if you work very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very hard, you may be able to get a job that will allow you to pay taxes, and then you can decry all the other people on public assistance for not “taking every opportunity to get yourself out of that mess like I did!” If you work even harder than that, you might someday be able to afford your own health insurance!
You’ll definitely want to read the whole thing. The reality is that because our anger always rolls downhill, we can keep up this stigmatization until the very day that the last of us becomes poor – there will always be someone poorer to hate. And this, of course, prevents us from actually creating conditions that make things better. Because for that, the poor have to be allies, rather than enemies.