Why We Can't Stop Hating The Poor
A T-shirt that says "I HATE POOR PEOPLE" is considered unsuitable attire for most occasions. That's because it's a sentiment most non-shitheads won't express out loud. What we will do instead is make snide comments about the girl with fucked-up teeth, or bad hygiene, or poor grammar, or "trashy" clothes. And we'll positively seethe when we see somebody on the internet doing a GoFundMe to pay off medical bills, only to notice in the next video that they seem to have gotten their hair done.
The reality is that, well, we kind of do hate poor people. And there's a reason for that.
We Have Laws Designed To Make The Poor Look Like Assholes
If you showed up at a restaurant and saw a big sign over the kitchen saying "REMINDER: IF YOU PUT YOUR DICK IN THE FOOD, YOU WILL BE FIRED," you probably wouldn't eat there. It's not the rule you object to -- it's a pretty sound rule -- but the fact that the rule was needed at all. Clearly there were enough incidents that somebody had to go through the trouble of making a sign, right?
Well, laws can have this effect too. When states pass bills saying they're going to drug-test welfare recipients, the average citizen figures that this must be a huge problem, the poors squandering their welfare checks on meth and meth accessories. Otherwise, why would they need the law? Now, at the risk of coming off as a cynic, I would dare say that this message is the true purpose of the law, that it is in fact just a backhanded insult. It's the equivalent of making a big show of locking your car door when a black person walks by.
So when the Trump administration recently proposed cutting food stamps in half and replacing them with boxes of canned goods, I would say that maybe, just maybe, that's being done for the same assholish reason. You know, to imply that those food stamps are currently being wasted on things other than food. Never mind the logistical nightmare that is figuring out dietary restrictions, allergies, organizing the deliveries, etc. Even if the proposal goes nowhere, it has accomplished its goal, which was to send the one message they need the rest us to internalize:
The poor are morally inferior, and therefore deserve their poverty.
I think this sentiment is the bedrock upon which our whole system rests. Solidifying it in the minds of the public matters much more than any individual policy. Therefore, you get states requiring able-bodied people to work for Medicaid (government healthcare) benefits, to imply that they could work if they really wanted to. One red state governor supporting the change straight up said that the able-bodied have a moral responsibility to work if they're getting benefits, which means that if they're not doing it, they are therefore immoral and thus deserve our scorn.
This programming starts early, by the way. Nearly half of school districts have some process for publicly shaming children who can't afford school lunches, including stamping their hands.
One school would make a show of dumping the meal in the trash if a kid got behind on their account. Message received, assholes!
Note: The article continues below, but if you don't like to read and instead want to hear me discuss this subject with former Cracked editor John Cheese, you can listen to this week's podcast:
The Hate Comes From Some Unexpected Places
Here's an awful question: What percentage of poor people would have to waste the help you give them before you'd stop helping the poor altogether? Like if you were running a food bank, and found out that some recipients were selling the food for profit, or trading it for drugs, or just throwing it away because they thought it was funny. How many times would that have to happen before you shut down the operation and turned away the deserving ones?
Some of you probably say you'd keep the operation afloat if even one honest family depended on it. But in practice, I've known lots of people who stopped giving money to panhandlers based on a single anecdote in the other direction ("I gave a homeless guy money for food, and the next day I spotted him buying coffee at Starbucks! I should have been asking him for change!"). We usually give them about one chance to screw up before we declare that their own choices put them in the gutter.
In surveys, about 42 percent of people say the poor are to blame for their poverty. That number is actually higher among Christians. Among atheists and agnostics, only 31 percent say that (as opposed to saying the poor are victims of circumstance). I think there's a reason for that difference, we'll come back to it in a moment.
If you're now silently asking yourself how you'd answer that survey, keep these numbers in mind: The able-bodied unemployed only make up about 30 percent of the poor in the USA. The rest are children (31 percent), elderly, disabled, or have a job and simply don't make enough money. I guess you could decide some of those are still victims of their own dumb decisions ("Maybe he'd get more hours if he didn't keep putting his dick in the calzones!") but you get the idea.
Others might be thinking that all of these resentful jerks need to be taken to a poor neighborhood to actually meet the targets of their scorn, but I've got news for you: Polls show it's other low-income people who are more likely to say the poor prefer welfare to work, and that government assistance has made the problem worse. This is why my left-wing friends are endlessly confused about Trump's support among poor whites. As regular readers know well, I grew up in poor white Trump country, and the people who were scraping to get by hated the "dirtbags" who were cashing disability checks to get drunk in their trailers all day. No one saw them as fellow victims of globalization or whatever; they saw them as the actual face of the problem.
I heard far, far more complaints -- and church sermons -- about how society was being dragged down by the lazy drug addicts than I ever heard about greedy bankers and CEOs. America, they said, was rotting from the bottom. Part of that sentiment is due to a very uncomfortable truth ...
Poor People Smell Bad
Every young, idealistic person who has volunteered at a shelter or soup kitchen has had a dispiriting moment when they realized some poor people are just awful to be around. In the name of rejecting the "Welfare Queen" stereotype, they had imagined noble single moms with dirty but well-behaved kids, honest people just trying to get by. Then they run into the homeless guy who is rude, or entitled, or abrasive, or racist, or who tells outrageous lies. In that moment, it's very easy to think, "See, this is why they're poor! Because they're a bunch of smelly dickheads!"
And yeah, lots of people in poverty do waste windfall money and struggle to think long-term (living paycheck to paycheck will do that). Statistically, lots of them do commit crimes (and are also crime victims). Lots of them do have abrasive behaviors and/or bad people skills, if not outright personality disorders, for reasons that include everything from PTSD to chronic pain to just never getting enough sleep. The poor are more likely to use illegal drugs (which are just about the best bang for your buck when it comes to maximizing the pleasure you can get for limited cash).
At this point, we can get sucked into an argument about whether these behaviors are a result of their poverty or a cause of it, as if that will finally tell us how harshly to judge them. But that's the whole nightmarish trap in a nutshell: It's both. We're repulsed by somebody with rotting or missing teeth, to the point where we won't hire them for any job that requires working with customers ... which means they can't afford dental care. The kid who smells bad in kindergarten doesn't have friends, so never really figures out how friendships work. Society is like a sports league where the losers draft last.
What bothers me the most is that the "Is it their fault?" discussion already starts from the unspoken assumption that the poverty itself isn't enough of a punishment for these behaviors. Yes, one of the guys at the homeless shelter turned out to be a creep. If his gross personality is what keeps him from finding steady work, then he is a victim of his own creepiness. Is the idea that society is still taking it too easy on him? On all of them? This is a guy who will drink himself to death at age 45 to dull the pain of an infected tooth that has eaten away half of his jaw. Isn't that enough?
No, it isn't. I heard it constantly growing up. "I wish I could sleep all day and collect food stamps!" "Then why don't you?" "Because I believe in working for a living!"
Ah. You know what? I think we're starting to get closer to the root of the problem here ...
The Poor Remind Us That Sometimes The System Is In Fact Bullshit
Let's say you're a low-income single mom working at some restaurant for 30 hours a week, and were let go from your second job because you weren't on call for additional shifts due to, you know, having a first job. Last night, you paid for the bus and a babysitter, and then got sent home from work after two hours because the restaurant wasn't busy enough. You come back home and there's your neighbor, Darryl, hanging out with some of his worthless friends. They appear to be giggling while poking a dead squirrel with a stick. You think, "I have to put up with getting jerked around by my boss while he gets to sit on his porch drinking beer all day?"
You tell yourself that you're doing it because you're sure that at some point you'll make manager, or build up your resume enough to get a better job, or maybe take night classes. But none of that has happened, or shows any signs of happening, and you know people who had that plan right up until they died of old age. Then you see your neighbor who isn't even bothering, and has roughly the same lifestyle as you. The system has clearly gone wrong, somehow. The incentives are set up to encourage this guy to do nothing!
Is that what you're mad about, though? Or are you really mad that incentives aren't set up to encourage you to do something?
Then you think about the deadbeat family down the street who declared bankruptcy ("They borrowed money and then didn't pay it back! That's like stealing!"), or the co-worker who last week quit without a notice ("How can you just screw over the people who were putting food on your table?"). Your scorn comes from the fact that they don't seem to feel the same shame you do. But ... corporations declare bankruptcy all the time, and your job sure as hell isn't going to give you notice before cutting you loose. They're certainly not ashamed of it. And you start to have that sneaking feeling that maybe you're the sucker.
Then you think about the time you got enraged because your jobless sister-in-law won $50 on a scratch-off ticket, and then spent the money on a butt tattoo of a penis with angel wings. How can she live with herself, when she could have used that money to pay off the $250 in overdraft fees the bank charged her because she forgot to write down a check that one time? How can she think it's better for her to have a tattoo than for, uh, Bank of America to add to its $100 billion in yearly revenue?
And then you realize that you're out here policing her behavior for ... who? The bank? Its shareholders?
Who are you fighting this battle for?
We Have To Believe People Deserve What They Get
This, I think, is what it all comes down to. Notice I didn't use the word "want" up there. We have to believe this.
I said earlier that Christians are more likely to judge the poor harshly, which I guess makes sense. Christians believe in a just God, and that people tend to get what they deserve (despite the fact that their own Bible explicitly says otherwise dozens of times). But it's also human nature. We want to believe that only bad people suffer, because otherwise something bad might happen to us! Whatever I think about the filthy guy living on the sidewalk, the one thing I can't think is that it could be me.
The system needs us to believe that, just as it needs us to believe that the slob who didn't bother paying his mortgage wasn't just screwing Wells Fargo, he was screwing us. After all, what if everybody stopped paying their mortgage, huh? What then? You know, that incredibly plausible apocalypse scenario in which everyone spontaneously decides they prefer poverty, because we weren't mean enough to the impoverished?
They need us to hate the poor because they need us to believe in a fair system, that anyone who fell through the cracks must have just done it wrong. If automation really is going to make all of the low-end jobs go away, then there will be more and more of these people, clamoring for our help. Everyone thinks this is coming, and if it does, then there is going to be a blame game. "Who caused this?"
Not the people at the top -- the system is already inoculating us against that idea. No, it's the ones at the bottom, with their lazy habits and greasy hair and bad manners and deviant sexuality. The word the "alt-right" uses is degeneracy. You're going to hear that a lot in the coming years. See, it's the degeneracy that's spreading, an epidemic of laziness. That's why half of your neighbors are suddenly out of work. It's definitely not the system that finally figured out how to write human labor out of the equation altogether.
Add it all up, and I'm thinking we're maybe five years away from a Christmas Carol reboot in which Scrooge starts off as a softy who's going bankrupt from his charity, and slowly learns to treat poor people like shit. "I'm repossessing this goose, you shiftless turd. These are for people who work on Christmas."
If you want to hear David Wong talking about this subject with Alex Schmidt and John Cheese, check out this week's Cracked podcast!
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