By Sharon Jones
The last 7 years have seen the vilification of the poor in America reach new lows. Not only have essential benefits come under attack, a movement seems to have developed to actually keep people in poverty. The rhetoric from conservative media outlets has involved myths and near contempt at times. Needless to say, this rhetoric has also found its way into the halls of Congress. Sadly, placing blame in the wrong place threatens the very essence of capitalism.
In zenruption’s home state of Idaho, a bill has been sent to the governor for signing that prevents cities within the state from raising the minimum wage, even if by voter referendum. In Kansas last year, ATM withdrawals from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families were limited to $25, causing needless fees to be incurred repeatedly. Numerous states have enacted mandatory drug testing for welfare recipients that have ended up costing far, far more than the results they produce. Oklahoma and Louisiana have shifted tax burdens to their poorer residents as their experiments in pure trickledown economics have created massive state budget holes.
It is a combination of refusal to empower employees against industry to realize wage gains while also stripping benefits from the poor. The result is that people are falling into poverty instead of being pulled from it. The United States is ranked 17th in social mobility (the ability to go from poor to middle class) and has the highest amount of food insecure children of its peer countries, at 1 in 5. The poverty rate of 17.3% is the highest among its peer countries. Wealth inequality in the U.S. has reached levels seen in corrupt developing nations and again is far and away the highest among its peers.
The country that once defined the ability to move up in the world has all but destroyed it over the last 35 years.
The United States has always exalted wealth in a way, with the dream that anyone can make it to the big time. The myth has persisted despite the rough chance of any American becoming a millionaire is 1 in 120, but 1 in 2 if serving as a United States Representative. Starting in the 1980’s, the wealthy saw new justification in their existence with trickledown economics. Suddenly, wealth wasn’t just cool, but it also meant you were a job creator that was essential to moving the economic health of the country forward. Surely, the more wealth that was retained by the rich the faster the economy would grow.
That myth has been perpetuated ever since as tax burdens have continued to fall for the wealthy through poor logic that has been sold to vast swaths of the American public and accepted even when it goes against their best interest. The mouse has been voting for the cat.
The last 7 years of the Obama presidency have seen the attacks against the poor increased. Certainly there were always rumors of welfare queens living high on tax payer funded benefits, but the mythos has increased to the point that even many citizens living on the edge of poverty themselves, see those in need of assistance as “takers” with no redeeming value.
The logic in place says that the poor in the United States are not truly poor if they have Internet access and cell phones. It isn’t enough that they live on the edge, they should have to eliminate things that have become modern necessities as well. Might it be only a manner of time before the outrage extends to the fact that the poor have shoes?
A common belief is that those on benefits are takers that don’t wish to work but instead live like kings on the public dole. They are taking from those that work so they may live without working. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities states that, "Among SNAP households with at least one working-age, non-disabled adult, more than half work while receiving SNAP—and more than 80 percent work in the year prior to or the year after receiving SNAP. The rates are even higher for families with children—more than 60 percent work while receiving SNAP, and almost 90 percent work in the prior or subsequent year."
Also, children under 18 account for 47 percent of food stamp benefits. The elderly comprise another 8 percent of recipients. The numbers hardly reflect people living off the system, let alone the fact that welfare benefits in the United States are incredibly low in comparison to other countries.
The greatest share of welfare recipients in the United States are in fact the working poor. A 2015 study by University of California’s Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education, showed that of households receiving any types of benefits, at least one member was employed. Incredibly, the conservative media has vilified low income working Americans. The push over the last 7 years has resulted in actual cuts to the food stamp program by Republicans with further cuts proposed. Millions could lose access to SNAP, further pushing them into poverty, while corporate subsidies and wasteful spending elsewhere go unaddressed. SNAP benefits are only a small amount of the Federal Government’s budget, but yet receive special attention from conservatives.
It now matters more in America who you are born to than any other factor as a predictor for success. We created this mess by valuing the wealthy and corporate interests above all else. The Federal Minimum Wage of $7.25 / hr., is a travesty. While economists have agreed that an immediate increase to $10.10 / hr. would have no noticeable effect, conservatives have waged a war on the very concept of a living wage. Thus the Idaho (one of the reddest states) bill to prevent increases in the minimum wage at the city level.
The low minimum wage has made Wal-Mart the largest indirect benefactor of corporate welfare for years, to the tune of $6 billion a year that was paid to keep the company’s employees fed. A company needs to have employees that are fed, rested and able to work. That the U.S. tax payer has to provide that for them is ridiculous.
The net effect of this vilification of the poor and the legal maneuvering meant to keep them there, is an existentialistic threat to capitalism and the economy itself. Money has a velocity which is defined as how many times a dollar is used to purchase goods and products in a given period. The American consumer makes up 70 percent of the economy by producing this velocity with the middle and lower classes accounting for the greatest amount of consumption as greater shares of their incomes are spent. Pushing our middle classes into positions closer to poverty with stagnating wages, reduces velocity and threatens the very companies that keep wages low. The net effect of social programs to assist the poor is actually a form of stimulus to the economy.
It is time that America end its vilification of the poor and exaltation of wealth. While this author does not advocate the elimination of disparity, the assistance to our poor is essential not just to our economy but our moral leadership in the world. It is once again time for the United States to resume leadership in upward mobility and regain our compassion.
Sharon Jones is a contributor to zenruption and has her degree in political science. She shares a desire with the entire zenruption staff to see the United States regain our compassionate leadership in the world. We at zenruption believe it can happen and it starts with each of us.
Feature photo courtesy of Flickr, under Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial license