By now there's already been a sufficient amount of rage (and no doubt some admiration) for Mitt Romney's snide dismissal of the lazy, self-pitying 47% of Americans who don't pay income tax. Nevermind the fact that income tax is different from payroll tax, that 82% of Americans pay into at least one of these systems, and that the remaining 18% are overwhelmingly elderly and/or poor. And I don't mean poor like can't afford a vacation. I mean poor like can't afford heating in winter. Poor like no amount of coupons will help.
I would argue that comments like Romney's, as well as a recent House bill looking to tighten welfare requirements are misguided solutions whose major downfall is rooted in a strange but persistent belief that the poor lack personal responsibility, that the poor are somehow content to tread water because of the welfare system. This school of thought would like to view poverty as the result of laziness, indifference, a lack of ambition, or some combination therein. As someone who worked in social services for several years, this was not my experience at all, and it's important to look at these assumptions and how they're hurting policy.
Poet Ed Bok Lee may have best captured this bitter, resentful sentiment toward the poor when he wrote about hatred of immigrants. At the start of “The Secret to Life in America,” Lee proposes that people sometimes look down on immigrants because seeing immigrants can act as a reminder of all the times they themselves have been left to sort out their own problems. To see someone else in need of help (or perhaps receiving it), then, recalls this sense of abandonment, recalls the very American idea of needing help as a sign of weakness, of weakness being a moral failings. Add that to your boss giving you four weeks of spreadsheet hell to deal with and mix it with your invented idea of a welfare recipient happily sitting at home enjoying a bag of Fritos bought on your dime, and you've got a recipe for misplaced blame and failed policies.
But the truth is that it's no one's dream to live on a tiny government stipend. That's why people who can save money do save money. They know an unemployment check or social security won't be enough. They know it's entirely unpreferable to live with crippling anxiety about the future, that sitting at home all day is actually its own hell, that working for minimum wage is often thankless and depressing. And yet the idea of the eating-up-my-paycheck and loving it, care-free poor sits side-by-side with the willing-to-do-anything, under-educated, just-can't-get-a-break poor.
We know this bitterness is built on lies because if being poor were so enviable, if poverty was so spectacular, people would quit their miserable jobs, get on the section 8 waiting list, and join the non-stop fun going on below the poverty line. Point being, the poor aren't sitting in a government subsidized day spa while the rest of the world claws at the sides of their cubes. There's no lack of motivation to be somewhere, anywhere other than down. The real issue, then, is not laziness or entitlement. The real issue is improving educational opportunities. The real issue is violence, both inside and outside the home. The real issue is stability. We know this, of course, but such vitriolic rhetoric tries to make us feel otherwise, to feel as though someone is getting something we're not. And it only makes us angry at the wrong people.