Sunday, March 9, 2014

Who's Your Imaginary Poor Person?

There has been, in the past, plenty of intelligent thinking about poverty, from both liberal and conservative thinkers. But little of that is being touched these days. Current discussion of poverty mostly involves conservatives doubling (and tripling) down on Mitt Romney's super-efficacious comments about the Moocher Class. That's obviously not a very sophisticated approach.

In my "How I Outgrew Libertarianism" article, I noted how most Libertarians seemed to base their perspective on poverty around a cartoonish mental image of a lazy, unmotivated underclass ("hanging out smoking Pall Malls in front of the 7-11"). There's shocking naiveté out there. As I said in the article, "show me a Libertarian, and I'll show you someone with a sheltered upbringing."

And it's not just Libertarians. Most conservatives seem to mentally refer to a Cartoon Poor Person; a simplified model used to reinforce their opinions. Cartoon Poor People are virally disseminated, and the following are the two most common strains for this particular flu season:

Cartoon Poor Person #1: The once-noble poor person who's been morally crippled by Big Government and its wrong-headed approach of encouraging proud individuals to go on the dole.

This Cartoon Poor Person derives from an actual problem that once existed. But with the Great Society of the 1970s long gone, the problem's largely obsolete. For conservatives, it's still 1975 and none of the vast slashing (by Democrats and Republicans both) ever occurred. Cartoon Poor Person #1 is a caricature of a stereotype of an era long past*. But the disconnection hardly matters, because people who walk around with this Imaginary Poor Person in their heads are often trying to soften and justify a harsher image which less refined conservatives more openly acknowledge. Namely....

Cartoon Poor Person #2: The Atheists, Blacks, Hispanics, immigrants, terrorists, and abortionists who are not only screwing up MY country but also making the government steal money from MY WALLET!!

That's the root of it. That's why even a historically low tax rate upsets so many people. That's why a thin and tattered social safety net seems like the lap of luxury. That's how working poor - on the verge of needing food stamps themselves - have been co-opted into the economic vision of sharks desiring the entire pie. Deeper, darker fears and resentments are being cannily played, and that's no new thing.

Cartoon Poor Person #1 once offered some truth worth plumbing - and plumbed it was, leading to the dismantling of a great many inefficient and overblown government services and the rise of the American Right some thirty years ago. But Cartoon Poor Person #2 is nothing more than a strawman built from strands of paranoia, alienation, and racism, plus the general anger perennially felt by a sizable portion of the nation, and there's nothing truthful there, just a highly-manipulatable nexus of dark emotion. Cartoon Poor Person #2 is just the old Us-versus-Them. It's all about tribe. And there's nothing rational to be discussed when people go tribal.

It goes without saying that Liberals have Cartoon Poor People in their heads, as well; radiantly righteous, quietly wise woman of color with lots of turquoise-ish jewelry doing their noble best to provide for their families. Etc., etc.. That's too simple to be useful, as well. Poverty is not representable via any one image; there's infinite diversity in every parameter. So there's no use, in considering the issue, for passing one's thoughts through a ridiculously simplified mental model (liberal or conservative). All that does is stoke one's confirmation bias. Nearly everything I hear said about the poor these days is a straw man argument.

One way to make poverty feel more personal, without resorting to cartoonish models, is to mentally put oneself there. But if you do, don't forget to strip off your jewelry and medals first. As I wrote in the aforementioned article about how I outgrew Libertarianism:
One fateful night, I had a beer with a grimly untalented middle-aged musician. He was neither a druggie nor an alcoholic, but he was only barely functional. He walked with a limp and didn't think too clearly. I looked into his eyes, and realized, with overwhelming empathy, that this guy, who'd worked hard all his life, and who was a really good, conscientious fellow, was hanging by a frigging thread, and had lived his entire life with one foot in the abyss. No resourcefulness, no connections, no education. Crappy genes, crappy family. And none of it was his fault. He was truly doing his very best with what he had. By just plain being there, reasonably healthy and well-fed, he'd overachieved more than I ever could hope to.

The scales fell from my eyes and for the first time I saw all my unearned advantages. And I fell into a reverie, envisioning myself with a never-ending lifelong case of flu, with fever impeding my intelligence, judgement and energy. My parents and friends were gone. I was on the verge of eviction from my apartment, and had no savings or education. I'd dropped out of high school to support myself, and had nobody smart to call for help or advice. No lifelines, no backup plans, no connections. Dizzy, feverish, and disheveled, I could hardly think straight. Let's add a couple of children to the picture, as well. Ok, hotshot: what's your move? How would you make out in a society with no safety net? What would be your odds? "My God," I thought to myself, shuddering with terror, "what on Earth would I do?"

*I called the habitually on-the-dole parasite an obsolete stereotype from an era long past. That's not to say there are no remaining welfare cheats, malingerers or lazy bums. Every society has some; even in a Libertarian utopia, people will find ways to cheat philanthropy (and Libertarians, if they're intellectually consistent, will applaud such wily strategy!). But with government assistance having been so deeply pruned over the past 35 years, it's no longer the problem it once was, though edge cases can certainly be found. 

Errant cheaters are a handy bugaboo providing cover for other Conservative dark intentions, e.g. minuscule instances of election fraud used to justify measures clearly devised to make it harder for blacks and other minorities to vote.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A couple of years ago, I had a conversation with a young, moderately conservative Canadian (Newfoundlander). His attitude was that welfare cheats were a scourge BUT that he believed that they were a necessary evil. Canadians felt that all people should not go without adequate food, shelter, education, health care, etc. If a few gamed the system, well that was just a price that they had to pay to assure that the people who really needed the help were able to get it.

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