Poverty Isn’t a Choice
by Ted Miller
(originally published April 2017 in Tumbleweird)
We like to pretend that bad things only happen to other people and that somehow it is their fault, as if something they did or did not do made them deserve it. Bad karma. Because we all know that if we work hard and stay out of trouble, we can achieve the American Dream, whatever that is.
And so we blame the poor for being poor. They just need to make better choices, get a better job, stop being such a leech on society. They certainly don’t need a phone, a television or a car. They are just lazy and don’t deserve our help. Let’s test them for drugs to make sure they are worthy of our help. Let’s control what they can buy with their food stamps because they don’t deserve anything better than the leftover scraps from our table. Let’s make sure they are really living in poverty before we give them any assistance.
Maybe blaming the poor for their troubles makes us feel better about cutting social safety programs, but the reality is much different. Seventy per cent of government benefits that help non-elderly low-income households (like food stamps and Medicaid) go to working families. Yes, people who are working, sometimes two or three jobs, but who just can’t make a living wage. Millions of children in the United States don’t know where their next meal will come from, and many go to bed hungry every night. Many of those children are also homeless without a consistent place to sleep every day.
I don’t know why, but for the past forty or fifty years these myths about poverty have crept in to our social conscience. The so-called welfare queen who has everything taken care of by the government is a complete myth. The idea that people somehow choose to be poor and can just live off of the government, that all poor people choose to stay that way, is insidiously evil. And it leads to an implicit shaming of those who most need help. When I was a teenager, I remember that my grandparents, who were hard working Missouri farmers, being too embarrassed to go to the welfare office for food stamps because their neighbors would see them. I have a friend who walked a mile out of his way to school so his classmates would not know he was from the poor part of town. Because somehow being poor is something to be ashamed of.
But the shame should not be on the poor. It should be on the rest of us who look the other way and pretend that this isn’t a problem. We should be ashamed that in this land of abundance, ANY child should go hungry. That any working family would be considered homeless. That those who work just as hard as the rest of us are one medical crisis away from bankruptcy. Our public policy should help ensure that working families can take care of themselves. There is no reason that we can’t make a living wage possible for American families. It doesn’t require radical socialism, it just requires the political will to help those most in need; that food, housing and health care are considered a right, and that employers pay their employees a decent wage.
Today’s largest low-wage employers are in effect subsidized by the taxpayer. In 2014, Walmart cost the taxpayers $6.2 billion in public assistance for their underpaid employees. McDonald’s employees received $1.2 billion. There is nothing wrong with corporations making a profit, but when record profits are in part due to suppressed wages that are subsidized by my tax dollars, the market forces are not putting the costs where they belong.
Following the great depression of the last century, we came together as a country to create social programs that would work towards eliminating poverty and its terrible effects on our society. We need to protect those programs and continue the effort to take care of our neighbors. Social safety nets are an important part of our society and we should be working to strengthen them, not eliminate them.
You may ask why the government should be in the charity business, but what other means of helping the poor can be as efficient and fair? Churches and other non-profits are certainly a great help and I would not want to replace them, but they have not been able to eliminate poverty or help everyone in need. With thousands of individual charities across the country, efforts cannot be realistically coordinated to ensure no one falls through the cracks. And each charity has its own policies and requirements to decide who gets what assistance. The government shouldn’t mandate who receives help from an independent charity. Instead, the government has the ability to create policy and programs that will help all citizens. I believe we have a moral obligation to help each other, especially those who are the most vulnerable and those who try but cannot climb out of the poverty cycle without help.
Unless you are part of a religious order that takes a vow of poverty, being poor isn’t a choice. So let’s stop blaming the poor. Instead of telling the poor to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, let’s offer them a helping hand. And let’s tell our elected government that’s the kind of public policy that makes our country great.