So, in America, we have something we like to call “the American dream.” It’s the idea that if you work hard enough, you can drag yourself out of even the lowest gutter and become rich, successful, and happy, all while a chorus line of anthropomorphic apple pies wave little American flags and sing the national anthem while fireworks explode behind them (or something like that).
And hey, that’s a beautiful dream to have, but it’s also probably one of the most damaging aspects of our society. And here’s why.
We’re brought up to believe that hard work = success, and thus we tend to believe that the inverse must be true, too. If you’re not successful – if you’re poor or stuck in a bad situation – it must be because you’re lazy or just not working hard enough. That association of poverty equating to laziness is one of the most devastating ideas we have, as it allows us to (a) condemn the poor, (b) avoid helping them, and (c) make sure that they and their families stay exactly where they are and never rise above their current state of poverty, thus throwing us all into a never-ending cycle of wasted potential.
Because, hey, the only reason they’re poor in the first place is because they’re not trying hard enough, right? It has nothing to do with what area they grew up in, or how good their schooling was, or a system that works very hard to keep certain types of people from moving up in the world. No, in fact, the only reason poor people are poor is because they deserve to be poor, and if we give them handouts via welfare or Medicare or Obamacare, surely that will only be rewarding their laziness and encouraging them to be even lazier, amirite?
Well, in fact no, am is not rite about that at all. That popular defense of “giving people things just makes them lose motivation” is pretty much the opposite of true when it comes to this issue. For one thing, government assistance in this country isn’t particularly cushy, and getting food stamps or government-subsidized health care really only gives you the bare minimum you need to get by (if that). The vast majority of people living on or below the poverty line are generally working harder and longer than everyone else (and for a lot less money), and after they finish putting in their 12-hour day of hard labor, they can go home and eat a meal scraped together from whatever their food stamps can pay for, which usually isn’t much.
But we want to encourage them to get out of that life! you cry. Minimum wage jobs are supposed to be a temporary stepping stone to better things, and if we make it too comfortable for them, they’ll want to stay there forever!
To which I say: If working all day every day at a thankless job that may or may not leave you smelling of french fry oil doesn’t motivate you to want to move up in the world, I can’t imagine what would. The problem is almost never that people working minimum wage jobs don’t want to move up – the problem is that they often can’t, because of that whole keeping-poor-people-exactly-where-they-are quagmire we talked about earlier.
Anyway, allow me to segue into my own experience for a moment here, so as to give us some perspective on this whole thing. I am a white person with a middle-class upbringing and a Bachelor’s Degree, and after spending four years teaching English in Japan, I returned to the U.S. and started my own ESL Tutoring business. I did decently well (though, sadly, not well enough to quite support myself), and in my pursuit of The American Dream (just keep working hard, and you’ll definitely succeed!), I ended up putting myself $15,000 in debt.
When I finally decided that it was time to cut my losses, go to a debt consolidation agency, and try to get another job, I had a heck of a time finding a position that would even come close to allowing me to pay off my debt. Finally, I ended up securing a temping job that pays $14 an hour, which means that after taxes, I’m receiving about $401 a week, which gives me somewhere in the vicinity $20,000 a year.
My debt payments are $300/month, and because I’m only a temp (and thus don’t get company benefits), I’m also paying around $115/month for medical and dental insurance – and that’s including the government stipend the Affordable Care Act offers. (Pre-Affordable Care Act, I was paying around $200 a month for the bare minimum of health care.)
With this, my rent, and all my other bills (gas, electricity, internet, phone, all of which I’ve reduced to the bare minimum), I’m left with between $30 and $50 a month left over to pay for luxuries like groceries and toilet paper. And if anything out of the ordinary happens (such as my cat needing to go to the vet, or me needing to go to the doctor, or missing even a single day of work), I have no choice but to run up my debt even more.
So, yes, in my current situation, I literally cannot afford to buy groceries, and even with that being the case, I’m not eligible for food stamps or any kind of government assistance. I’m a hard-working person who owned my own business for three years, and now I’m working a full-time job, spending zero money except on necessities, and I’m still not able to keep my head above water.
And the scariest thing about all that? I’m much better off than a lot of people.
Now, I know I’ll be okay in the end. Eventually, I’ll pay off my debts and land on my feet again, and thanks to the above-and-beyond generosity of family and friends, I thankfully won’t starve in the interim.
But what about people who don’t have that support system, or are working minimum wage jobs that give them a lot less than I’m making? I’m a single person with no one but myself and a debonair feline roommate to support, but what about the people who have kids, or elderly parents they need to take care of, or medical conditions they have to treat using substandard healthcare that barely covers anything? There are people out there who legitimately need help feeding themselves and their families and covering exorbitant medical bills, and I know this is a radical idea, but they should be able to get that help.
But people abuse the system! you shout, this time peppering your monitor with little flecks of blood because this liberal discussion of welfare is churning in your gut like poison. What about all these welfare queens who take government financial assistance and use it to lounge around eating food stamp caviar while someone fans them with a gold-encrusted palm frond (I guess)?
Well, that is a fine question, imaginary screaming conservative who should really see a doctor about that blood-fleck thing. Allow me to answer it thusly.
Are there people out there taking advantage of the welfare system? Possibly a few, though it’s kind of hard to imagine how they could, given what a measly amount they’re being given to start with. But even if they somehow are taking advantage of it, I think it’s safe to say that those individuals are by far the minority. So, let’s say that out of everyone who qualifies for government assistance (again remembering that someone like me, who LITERALLY CANNOT AFFORD FOOD, is making too much money to apply), a handful of them are taking advantage of it to some degree.
Is that really worth condemning the whole system, or getting rid of it altogether?
Let’s put this another way, by talking about another of my favorite subjects: Gun control. Now, I personally think guns are The Devil and should all be thrown into the nearest volcano, but I realize I’m in the minority here in Amurica.
With that said, it seems to be the case that most people who believe we should get rid of (or drastically reduce) our welfare system are the same people who are adamantly against gun control, even if in this case “gun control” just means increasing the thoroughness of background checks and making it slightly more difficult for crazies to get their hands on shiny new murder sticks.
You may have noticed, as of late, that there are quite a few people in this country who abuse the whole “safe use of guns” thing by shooting up schools, workplaces, and pretty much everywhere else.
So, we have a startlingly large amount of people abusing the system that allows us to have guns, and yet those on the conservative end of the spectrum tend to say things like, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” and then probably add something about socialism and Obama being a Kenyan Muslim; I don’t know. They say a lot of weird stuff.
But using the same logic that’s often applied to welfare, if some people are abusing the system, the system must go! So, farewell, guns! Volcano time.
Now, by this stage in our discussion, you may be asking yourself the point of this meandering rant. The point, my friends, is that sometimes (or, maybe, much of the time), working hard just isn’t enough, and we all need a little helping hand from time to time. It drives me crazy to see rich white man after rich white man get up on stage and speak about the evils of welfare, when it’s pretty clear that they don’t have even the foggiest idea of what life is like when you’re living on a low income.
What blows my mind even more is that the majority of these same people always, inevitably speak loud and proud of their Christian faith, and are willing to fight to the death to prevent gay marriage because THE BIBLE SAYS IT’S WRONG IN ONE OF THOSE CRAZY EARLY CHAPTERS, DAMMIT. And yet, they seem to have missed that whole part about Jesus helping the poor, and that “love thy neighbor” bit, and really everything in the Bible that’s actually worth reading.
And these same people – again, who are mostly non-minorities who went to the right schools, lived in decent neighborhoods, and often didn’t even have to pay their own college tuition – are usually the first ones to cite the American Dream as the cause for their success.
I worked hard, which is why I’m where I am today!
Well, probably you did work hard, but you also had a lot of other things going for you, and that’s why you are where you are today.
Now, I’m not saying we should discard the American Dream entirely – working hard and having hope, determination, and drive will generally lead you somewhere good, even if it doesn’t take you to the very highest, Mount Everest peaks of fame and fortune.
But we need to throw out, once and for all, the idea that wealth is some inherent sign of goodness, and people who have money have it because they deserve to have it. Being poor doesn’t mean you did something wrong, and giving help to people who need it doesn’t mean we’re encouraging them to be lazy. All it means is that we recognize that lifting up other people lifts us all up, and just in general makes the world a shinier, more awesome place for apple pies and American flags.
And really, what better mark can we leave on the world than that?