V for Vilifying Victims

     Virtually everyone agrees that there are people abusing our system, enjoying an expensive lifestyle, living large off the work of others. It’s a real problem, but where should we focus first, on the top or the bottom?

     Let us start with those who take the most. When holding a group’s spending, leisure, and sense of entitlement up to scrutiny, our attention should be not on the poor, but on the super rich. They receive money grants, tax breaks, and other corporate welfare, and pay back only a tiny percent of what our society has helped them to accumulate. Yet they are celebrated, while the less fortunate are offered up as scapegoats.

     A post has been making the rounds, lamenting that tax funds go to the poor. The argument goes: “So that’s why I work so many hours, so you can collect welfare, wear pajamas in public, and have an iPhone.”

     If all, or even most of one’s income went to taxes, part of that argument might hold water. But no one in the U.S. pays so much as 50, or even 40% of their income to the IRS. In fact, our personal tax rates are much lower, below those of most industrialized nations. This clearly leaves the majority of your income for you and your family, and not for the less fortunate.

     Still, the misconception persists. Commonly given are anecdotal examples of mothers spending their welfare checks on hair weaves, nail salons, fancy gadgets, and luxury cars, rather than on their children. Even many of the poor believe that they themselves are having to work harder only because all others are scamming the system. You hear, “I think my mom was the only one who made sure that the kids got what they needed first.”

     When all it takes is one expensive emergency to bankrupt an entire family, while the middle class is thusly shrinking, it’s surprising that anyone could still perpetuate such stereotypes of the less fortunate. 

     The cry comes, “But it’s not a stereotype! I’m not talking about all people on welfare!”

     Indeed not. One’s self, or one’s family, has already been listed as the statistically insignificant exception. That leaves the majority. A generalization about the majority of a group is a stereotype. 

     As the backpedaling fails, another argument takes its place. A sense of entitlement is projected upon any poor person receiving aid. This notion is somehow coupled with another common misconception, that the wealthy have earned everything they have through their own sweat alone, and so should not be taxed. This goes hand in hand with the false impression that those on top work harder than everyone else.

     Some were born into undue privilege. They’ve inherited wealth and connections that are closed to most who struggle to realize the American dream. It should be obvious that it’s an unjustified sense of entitlement held by those who acquire power by legacy. So instead, let’s look at the justification of those who run conglomerates. 

     In truth, they do not work harder than a migrant farm worker, yet they enjoy the fruits of that underpaid labor. The wealthy ride on roads paid for by taxes, built by people who know real work. Even the conglomerate employees must work harder, and still live under the constant threat of their position being downsized, or outsourced to cheaper labor oversees. There are more poor people competing for work than there are actual jobs. Delegation of such work, and similar decisions, can be made not just in an air-conditioned high rise, but on the golf course, where the wealthy don’t work as hard as their caddies. They don’t even work harder than welfare mothers, for the most wealthy can afford to hire a nanny, cook, maid, chauffeur, and so on. The idea of poor people being exceptionally lazy is clearly misdirected.

     Wealth is built on other people’s labor. Those workers need healthy food, but find that junk food is closer to their budget. They need shelter, but often live cramped in spaces much smaller than any one room found in a mansion. (Yes, the poor reproduce. It is a basic human drive.) They need healthcare, but often suffer and even die of treatable conditions, for lack of coverage. Their basic necessities of life are not being met. Many fall through the cracks of society, and literally can’t live within their meagre means. 

     Yes, some at the bottom spend frivolously, buying their way deeper and deeper into debt. Depression and poor education can lend themselves to such foolish decisions. As Steinbeck said, “…the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” When society tells people that being poor is deeply shameful, and entirely their own fault, it can be no wonder that some may splurge on the appearance of affluence.

     No matter how unseemly some welfare moms may appear, the few at the top abuse and benefit from the system far more than those at the bottom ever could. While an unemployed person might wear pajamas all day, the cost of any given suit in a wealthy person’s walk-in closet is beyond a poor person’s entire wardrobe. A member of the wealthy elite owns not just an expensive car, but a fleet of them, or even an entire auto company. They don’t just have a iPhone. They own communications companies, and ad agencies, through which they can convince people of what to think far more effectively than any poor person with a shoddy net connection. They don’t just vote, they can buy political influence, reducing their own share of taxation, well below what you or I might judge to be just. Their predatory greed dissolves jobs, and pushes families out of their homes, increasing the number of people so desperate as to require assistance. 

     When holding anyone accountable, we must start with the over-privileged super rich. They leech more than all the poor mothers combined.

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