Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Shirking For a Living

The Atlantic has an article on the White underclass in the United States, and one of the books it talks about is Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by J. D. Vance. They quote part of it when talking about the resentment people feel that others are "gaming the system" by living, apparently well, on welfare, rather than working.

Most of us were struggling to get by, but we made do, worked hard, and hoped for a better life. But a large minority was content to live off the dole. Every two weeks, I’d get a small paycheck and notice the line where federal and state income taxes were deducted from my wages. At least as often, our drug-addict neighbor would buy T-bone steaks, which I was too poor to buy for myself but was forced by Uncle Sam to buy for someone else.
I've been hearing about this sort of resentment ever since Ronald Reagan inserted the term Welfare Queens into the American lexicon, and it always struck me as odd. Not because I'm somehow unable to fathom how someone could come to resent a person that they perceive as a free rider, but because I never saw the alleged "free ride" as being all that great. The idea that people could simply afford to toss off money on better food, nicer cars and flashier clothes than my parents could afford - and do this on a regular basis, was simply never born out by reality as I saw it. And I didn't know anyone who thought that one could afford a decent life on welfare. When I was growing up, our assumptions about people who lived well with no visible means of support had nothing to do with them cheating the public assistance system. Instead, we assumed that they were up to something patently illegal, like dealing narcotics, burglarizing homes or stealing from more well-off family members; because while we might have seen enough of them to understand that they didn't have the sort of "9 to 5" jobs that "regular" people had, they still had plenty of time when they were out of sight, and the idea that they spent ALL if it being high never entered the picture.

And this strikes me as an interesting difference. Mr. Vance seemed unable to imagine that his "drug-addict neighbor" may have hit upon something criminal to do in their free time (even engaging in some level of outright fraud) that netted them the money to eat better than he did. And so he doesn't seem to imagine that welfare may not have been enough to make ends meet, let alone live the good life.

I remember looking at my taxes every year and grumbling about how much I was paying out, and feeling deprived for not having that money to spend. But in the world I grew up in, "Uncle Sam" was unable to properly provide for the deserving, let alone the undeserving, regardless of the money that never made it home with me. When I was a child-care worker, there were any number of families who paid only cursory interest in their children when they came to visit for events. They were, quite literally, only there for the food. We always looked the other way when they packed up leftovers to take home with them. And when I was a foster care caseworker, from time to time I would encounter foster parents who were upset because the checks they received to support the children they'd taken in (typically those of relatives) weren't enough to feed, clothe and care for a child and leave a profit over besides; and it would be all I could do to not ask them "What were you expecting?" The ideas that welfare could fund a decent life or that women had children because they were being well-paid to have them struck me a ludicrous.

Perhaps that's the effect of regular trips into the concentrated, grinding poverty of urban areas. I understood that there were poor people in the distant suburb that I lived and grew up in, but to see really Poor people, you had to do some driving. But I think that if the only poor people I'd ever met lived in the cheap apartments on the other side of town from my parents' house, I'd think that poverty in general wasn't really all that bad. After all, there was nothing like the graffiti and roach infestations that typified urban blighting. And there were never bars on the windows.

And maybe that's the difference. In the poor neighborhoods that some of my cousins grew up in, or that I had to take children into for home visits, the understanding that it was an environment shaped by crime was inescapable. I've gone into fast-food places that put more into physical security than most banks I've been in. Perhaps that's what makes the difference. When a place visibly protects itself from the people within in, you understand that they're not living well. Regardless of how little work one might assume they're doing to earn that living.

No comments: