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Blaming the Poor is as American as Apple Pie

Jamelle Bouie wrote a really interesting post called “Poor Bashing: the New American Pastime.” The post provides a good window into one of the most shameful aspects of our nation’s political culture: The callous attitude toward impoverished citizens.

An excerpt:

Not to belabor the point, but it really seems like there is a growing callousness and hostility to the poor and disadvantaged in our society….What’s strange, and offensive, is this belief that we should cut unemployment benefits because, in Sen. Diane Feinstein’s words, “how long do you continue [unemployment benefits] before people just don’t want to go back to work at all?” Conservatives have joined in on poor-bashing too; Sen. Orrin Hatch has proposed mandatory drug tests for those receiving unemployment insurance — because everyone knows that unemployed people are drug addicts — and there’s been a recent spate of conservative writers attacking food and nutrition aid to poor kids.

Exactly, the real problem isn’t the long-term unemployment crisis — which could leave a huge class of people without the necessary skills to work — it’s those bums too lazy to save their jobs from the financial crisis. If those people didn’t want to be unemployed, they should have never worked in the first place, and if those kids didn’t want to be hungry, they should have had the wherewithal not to be born so damn poor, or something.

My only quibble with Bouie’s piece is that blaming the poor for their condition isn’t a “new pastime”. Here is an 1809 explanation for poverty from the puritanical Humane Society: “by a just and inflexible law of Providence, misery is ordained to be the companion and punishment of vice.” One hundred years later Baptist preacher Walter Rauschenbusch proclaimed that providing aid only hurts the poor: “But when they have once learned to depend on gifts, the parasitic habit of mind grows upon them, and it becomes hard to wake them back to self-support.”

This attitude remained a powerful current in the American understanding of poverty up through the New Deal. But even FDR, the president who did more for the poor than any other paid homage to the traditional belief. “Dependence upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber,” he proclaimed in his proposal for the Works Progress Administration, which kept millions from poverty during the Depression.

Now, in the midst of the fallout from the Great Recession we are choosing to shunt them aside instead. The “blame the poor” explanation is going strong. A recent article in the Philadelphia Inquirer An April 2009 Pew study showed 72 percent of those polled agreed that “poor people have become too dependent on government assistance programs”. Meanwhile, Rush Limbaugh recently proclaimed that people on food stamps "buy Twinkies, Milk Duds, potato chips, six-packs of Bud, then head home to watch the NFL on one of two color TVs and turn off their cell phones, and that's poverty in the U.S." (Of course food stamps can’t be used to buy alcohol; but this is Rush, so accuracy isn’t a concern.)

The reality reflects a deeply unflattering aspect of our national character. In reality, we have a child poverty rate above and beyond any other industrialized nation (it’s higher than twenty percent, while our closest “competitor” barely passes fifteen percent). When those kids grow up, the vast majority of them will stay poor. Not because they didn’t try hard enough, but because it is hard to life oneself up by the bootstraps, particularly when your fellow citizens refuse to offer a helping hand. In reality, our unemployment rate is projected to be around 8.6 percent in 2012! Do we really believe that all those men and women are parasites who simply don’t want to find a job? These people are citizens of the wealthiest nation in the history of the world. The fact that we aren’t doing more to help them is a national shame.

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