Tag Archives: poverty

Government Social Programs

I don’t think these are new results, but this post about government social programs gave me a slightly new perspective on them.

The research shows that people who are receiving financial help from the government will, in significant proportions, report that they “have not used a government social program”. A quarter of people on food stamps or welfare, over a third of Medicare users, and fully half of those with student loans will deny that they’ve had any monetary support from the state.

Putting aside for a moment the problems of the underlying inequality behind the need for these programs, I think this study tells us something interesting beyond the extent of people’s ignorance as to the details of how these programs are run.

Many people have an idea in their head of what state hand-outs look like, and the kind of people who take them. It’s free money that the government gives to lazy moochers like them, having taken it right out the pockets of hard-working, decent citizens like us.

It might only be a minority who see things with quite so little nuance, but a similar attitude seems to be disappointingly prevalent. When thinking of government hand-outs, it’s apparently hard to see the recipients as being as fully human as ourselves, and as potentially deserving of help as we feel that we are, particularly when there’s a risk of our own financial benefits being taken away.

Nobody wants to see themselves as a moocher, but if you’re going to be consistent, it’s important to remember that other people have their own difficult circumstances to deal with as well. If you’re morally justified in accepting these benefits, then maybe the other people who receive help from these programs are human too.

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Follow-up: Drug testing

A quick follow-up to yesterday’s post:

As has been recently highlighted by The Daily Show, the proportion of people in Florida failing drugs tests as part of the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) screening process is, in fact, significantly lower than the estimated proportion of drug users in the population of Florida as a whole. The stereotypes being perpetuated by lawmakers, depicting welfare users as drug addicts or otherwise unworthy of help, is abjectly failing to show any correspondence to reality.

And it’s clear that a negative stereotype of the poor is exactly what this program both depends on and exacerbates. As the ACLU point out, no such requirement is made of other demographics who also rely on taxpayer funds for support – such as politicians.

It should be noted that the number mentioned in this article, for how much the program is costing the state, is rather lower than the number I quoted yesterday. But it’s still clear that this targeting of poor people is of negative value in every respect.

Edit: A commenter from the drugsandotherthings blog mentions some other important points that didn’t occur to me while originally writing this up: the TANF program fails to take into account the effects of tobacco and alcohol on a person’s lifestyle, and their subsequent suitability for government aid, and simply looks at illegal drug use alone as the sole indicator of worthiness; it’s liable to end up closing down future prospects for people struggling with drug problems even further by removing a potential lifeline; oh, and it may well be an illegal violation of the Fourth Amendment, since these personal searches are being conducted without any probable cause.

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Disability and poverty

Having discussed the way people claiming benefits are not, in fact, an undeserving and contemptible drain on our resources, it’s worth noting that attitudes toward the poor or the disabled show little sign of improving.

When a family member or close friend is struck with some illness or other major life inconvenience, most of us would probably drop everything to help them as much as we were needed. We’d do our best to see that the people we care about got the required care from others, and that professionals in fields like health services did their jobs well to look after our loved ones.

But upsettingly often, we don’t seem inclined to treat strangers with the same compassion, or even with basic decency.

A number of disability charities and organisations have warned about increased abuse directed at disabled people. They say that much of the media and many individuals in government are perpetuating a damaging worldview, in which people with disabilities or claiming benefits are undeserving, don’t contribute to society the way “we” do, and are somehow responsible for the financial hardships that the rest of us face.

It seems like people are letting the indignation they feel at the thought of being cheated by “scroungers” overwhelm them. This fear is blocking their capacity to behave with compassion to other people in need, and they’re choosing instead to be harsh and judgmental as a first resort.

There’s little doubt that a lot of misleading media coverage is fuelling this kind of attitude. The continuous portrayal of feckless scroungers as representative of benefits claimants in general actively encourages many newspaper readers to see these people as part of a hated outgroup.

The situation is also not improved by the shockingly ignorant assertions made by some government ministers, such as Maria Miller. Frighteningly for someone in the role of the UK’s minister for disabled people in the Department for Work and Pensions, her concern for the people she’s supposed to be representing and helping doesn’t seem to stretch as far as looking at the facts; the 400,000 jobs on offer that she’s so proud of doesn’t look so impressive when compared against 2.68 million unemployed people (let alone those already in work but looking for another job). To blame the problem on a lack of “appetite” for work is ludicrous.

Across the pond in the US, the Governor of Florida has been pressing on with his own efforts to vilify the poor, by demanding drug tests from those in line to receive welfare. The project is estimated to cost $178,000,000 this year, and it currently looks like the savings will amount to less than 0.1% of that amount. They’re not turning out to be a shower of crackheads at quite the rate he predicted, and this supposedly money-saving scheme is becoming immensely wasteful.

I can’t see into Governor Rick Scott’s mind and determine why he’s been keen to spend so much of his taxpayers’ money on a scheme that serves only to demonise a demographic least able to defend themselves. There are probably political pressures weighing on him, and it’s possible he rationalised himself into thinking that it was a good idea. He’s a complex human being himself, and doesn’t deserve hatred.

But it’s clear that civilised society has a long way to go before we can stop othering the disabled and the poor, stop finding reasons to hate them and dehumanise them to assuage our guilt about their situation, and start treating everyone in a way that befits the values we claim to aspire to.

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