Welfare queen. Lazy, shiftless lay about. Taker, moocher, over-entitled – Seems there is no shortage of crude, callous or spiteful language that so many of those at the top of the American socio-economic food chain are eager to use to shame and dismiss those in the struggling lower classes.
Certainly, given the aggressive nature in which many of the richest Americans relentlessly pursue and support government policies which protect their concentrated wealth at the expense of those “beneath” them, there would seem to be some built-in contempt for those of lesser means or income. But when one compares much of the modern right wing rhetoric and the policies promoted and supported by 1% standard bearers like Paul Ryan, to the stark and increasingly difficult realities faced by poor and working-poor Americans, cannot help but to raise the question as to where such thinking comes from and how ingrained it is in the minds of those who promote such.
In a recent column in The Atlantic, author and researcher Barbara Ehrenreich analyzed the issue, by taking something of a historical perspective on the matter. First considering and referencing Lyndon Johnson’s efforts to launch a “War on Poverty,” Ehrenreich examines the nearly immediate hostility, opposition and distraction which led this war on poverty to become an outright war on the poor.
Citing the sudden and rapid escalation of the war in Vietnam, a tightening budget and the deeply ingrained classism of more conservative politicians, as the causes for such a shift, she goes on to examine the nitty-gritty of modern poverty, comparing in general terms just what a minimum wage means in an age of an ever-increasing cost of living.
Now, we’ve all heard the endless avalanche of nonsense from the right about how those at the bottom merely want luxury cars, plasma TVs and drugs, and that it is their greed and desire which drives their calls for increased wages and greater public support. Yet in an age where the minimum wage, or even a wage some few dollars above it, is increasingly just barely be enough – and more often, not enough – to support a single adult with worries like rent, food, fuel, clothing and basic necessities, one is forced to consider just what burden American families are experiencing, especially in light of the rapid conversion of the American labor market to one a service sector, rather than any real professional level landscape.
Pointing out that something as simple as a burned out head light can be enough by way of repairs and/or the writing of a ticket by police, can be enough to financially cripple a working person making minimum wage, Ehrenreich calls into question whether the stated need and desire for an increased wage is indeed a matter of greed, or one of simple survival.
Indeed with rents climbing, the costs of food and fuel skyrocketing and states and municipalities consistently looking to fee hikes to help balance budgets in lieu of any tax increases (which those of wealth and power ardently oppose) it is impossible not to note the proverbial deck being stacked consistently against those in need and in favor of those with greed.
So how can it be then, that in a time where increasing numbers of ordinary Americans are finding simple survival harder and harder while those of wealth and privilege enjoy an ever-expanding favoritism in the halls of power, that such broken logic such as the myth of the “welfare queen” and the demonizing of what has been callously mislabeled the “entitlement society” have been able not only to continue, but to flourish throughout the conservative movement?
The answer, as Ehrenreich eludes to is two-fold: Time and rhetoric.
Hatred for the poor and needy by those of wealth and power is nothing new. Throughout western history there have been countless justifications for the suffering and plight that can be associated with social and economic stations, ranging from the older concepts of feudalism, in which those in power claimed to enjoy such by divine right, to more modern contrived philosophical and economic justifications for such.
The rise of Calvinism in the 15th and 16th centuries offered a theological justification for wealth inequality and the suffering of the poor, declaring that such was simply “God’s will” and stating that those of wealth and comfort enjoyed such as they had been chosen by God to do so.
Later, following the 1776 publication of Adam Smith’s “Wealth Of Nations,” further makeshift justifications for poverty were made, claiming that the suffering one experiences in the lower stations of society were good motivators for the poor to work harder for wealth and success. In both of these theological and economic theories, poverty was regarded first and foremost as a natural precondition of the individual and class, as something one was cursed with due to either theological damnation of some kind, or a confluence of rightful birth and self-determination.
These thoughts however, about poverty merely being a condition one suffers either by divine decree or according to a broken theory about social structuring, found ready homes later in the 20th and 21st centuries, with the contrived logic of Smith’s competition theories being combined in a sense with Jonathan Swift’s “Modest Proposal” in the form of what we commonly view as market libertarianism, or Randianism.
Stemming from the works of Ayn Rand, which took greed and self obsession out of the realm of being a mere factor in society and into that of a proposed virtue, the philosophies of greed and selfishness which justify concentrated wealth and power found its most ready marketability in what would become the legacy of President Reagan. It was he who brought the term “welfare queen” into common debate, beginning a new cycle and variety of political demonizing of the poor, while catering policy agendas to the highest bidder.
Since then, the expansion of the effective buying power of the corporate establishment and wealthiest Americans has charged on, accumulating more power, more influence and more security for both, while achieving riches and wealth unlike any that has been seen in the history of the world.
And yet history is rife with revolutions and bloody uprisings, more often than not spurred on by these very same conditions: A ruling, disconnected wealthy elite class, and an exploited and densely tiered series of underclasses, who despite their best efforts and almost destined to remain struggling endlessly for what little they can make and keep and below them, a base line of utter poverty. Governments which are effectively bought out to serve the whims and desires of those atop this food chain and numerous angst and anger driven public protests of the same.
So how is it that since having adapted in terms of becoming more sophisticated, these tricks of power and wealth consolidation and the shaming of the poor haven’t changed much over the centuries, that we now find ourselves collectively faced with an old and obvious challenge that we seem too entrenched to really address?
The answer here is as simple as it was for Reagan. For while the true social struggle may be between the rich and everyone else, it becomes the go-to maneuver for those on top to effectively pit the classes which rest below and support their own, against each other.
For the comfortable upper-middle class home with some disposable income, messages are filtered down about how brilliant they’ve been to manage their money and how everything they have is exactly what they deserve. From here, any beneath them who do not have as much as they, are clearly not trying hard enough and are lazy to degrees observable by the amount of money and possessions they have.
The trickling down of this shame continues then onto the working middle class, who especially in light of recent economic troubles, have both shrunk in number and hardened largely in their general outlook. Now feeling themselves pinched between basic survival and aspirations of social mobility, they too are encouraged to pat themselves on the back for having worked very, very hard to acquire what little, important material goods and wealth they have. For though it may not be much, it’s their’s, they earned it, it was hard work and if nothing else, at least they’re not like “them.”
In coming to “them” we reach the true pinnacle of poverty shaming. The trickling has trickled down. Down from the economic and financial masters of the land, who use their own wealth and their rudimentary understanding of struggle and frustration to assure themselves they deserve it all.
From there, those of limited or comfortable means, who may or may not aspire to transcend to the next level, feel secure and stable in their homes and occupations, thanking their luck and hard work for allowing them to be better off than others. Those below them, as they punch in and punch out of jobs which may only just help them and their families get buy, take solace and pride in the fact that they are at least able to keep it all together with their own two hands.
With “them,” the poor, the takers, the moochers and welfare queens; with them, comes the tragedy and scorn of all of this, wrapped in a scarlet “P” so as to point them out to the world above as being those in poverty and as such, being those who are to blame.
For as they “exploit” public services like welfare to purchase frivolous luxury items such diapers, gas, food and clothing, it is clear they’re only after a free ride. As they take pubic transport in lieu of buying a Lexus, it’s clear they have no interest in improving themselves, as poverty is, as any wealthy person knows (apparently) a luxurious and comfortable social position to be in.
And yet it is within, behind and beyond this rhetoric though, that this trickle down of shame and it’s truest purpose is best observed, as it has been by the harnessing of polarized partisan divisions and the invocation of aging cold war sentiments about capitalism versus socialism, that one will find the trickle carrying with it more than shame, but hate, distrust and blame.
The upper middle class manager could be among the very rich, were it not for the lazy blue-collar worker below him, demanding livable wages and benefits. Step down a rung and our blue-collar, punch-in punch-out worker knows, from what he’s heard on the television, that it’s his taxes that are keeping him from making it to that comfortable suburban home his boss owns. Those taxes going to support those, yep, you guessed it, poor, entitled moochers.
All the while, at each step, while one’s position is said to be a result of their own works as well, this shame and blame game which forces the eyes and attention downward is a distraction from upward moving conveyor belt bringing the results of the labors below and the savings from keeping wages at abysmal lows to those who effectively built the systems of struggle and blame in the first place.
There is always something noble and true about the virtues of hard work and determination in relation to success and one would be hard pressed to find anyone who would argue the basic merits of the respective values or labor and management.
However as the paradigm we’re faced with as a nation continues to evolve further into one which seeks to regress to antiquated, Calvinist or Randian notions of everyone simply getting what they deserve without a mention or mere acknowledgement of the crooked gains which have brought about the struggles working Americans presently face, much is lost in regards to just what that struggle really is, or how it affects not only the individuals in the midst of such, but everyone else by way of economic and social ripple effects.
In the modern age, obscene wealth is used to justify obscene poverty. The wealthy, who often inherit or are appointed by some means to their positions of wealth and power, are celebrated, not for what they’ve done, but for what they have.
The poor, who likewise inherit much of their socio-economic predisposition, though hampered from rising from their position, are nevertheless demonized for their lack of wealth and stability, and demonized further for the very basic efforts to gain such.
Until these and the plethora of other dynamic, elite-supporting structures in both business and popular psychology are addressed, the odds of the brewing class struggles working themselves out in any peaceful, serene or beneficial manner are dodgy at best.
But when society wakes up to the reality that the majority of us share more in common with the lives, hopes, aspirations and struggles of the very lowest of us than we do with the bankrolled wealthy celebrities and executives above, then perhaps we as a nation might have a hope of moving back towards the just, verdant and equal society we’ve struggled to realize throughout our modern history.