August 11, 2011

Poverty, "Us" and "Them"

Mother Jones has a brilliant article by Barbara Ehrenreich called, Since When Is It a Crime to Be Poor?" which got me thinking about the things I was writing about yesterday.

She talks about policies - from national welfare programs to city laws - which end up punishing people for being poor. For example, TANF, or Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, is a welfare program for working families, which is based on the idea that there will always be enough jobs for everyone, even though the average length of unemployment is currently about 35 weeks - clearly, there aren't enough jobs. Unemployed people enrolled in the program are expected to apply for 40 jobs a week, but are given no assistance for things like gas expenses or childcare to help them get to turn in applications or get to interviews. And the entire process is slow and humiliating - "applying for welfare is a lot like being booked by the police," says an expert quoted in the article. Then there are city ordinances that make it illegal to sleep or loiter in public places - fair because the apply to the rich and the poor, say the lawmakers, but who's really going to get in trouble for that? Ehrenreich gives other examples, but you get the idea - rather than helping people, government actions seem to make life more difficult for the poor.

Which brought me back to what I was thinking about yesterday, about people feeling so disenfranchised by their community that they don't see any problem destroying it. Policies which treat poor people as lazy and potentially criminal aren't really likely to make people feel invested in their community. And laws that criminalize things like sleeping on park benches or feeding the homeless (yes, people have been arrested for feeding the homeless) create this narrative where Us, the good middle-class job holding people, need to be protected from Them, the lazy criminal immoral poor who could take care of themselves entirely if only they weren't so bad. But really, most of Us aren't that far from poverty - in fact, according to Ehrenreich, 29% of Americans live in what could reasonably be defined as poverty, even if they're above the national poverty line.

But that's a pretty clear message from the government to 29% of it's people, isn't it? "Once you're poor and/or unemployed, you're not the people we care about. In fact, we need to protect good citizens from you. Call us when you're back on your feet."

I can't really think of anything to tie this train of thought up in a cute little bow, but it seems like the idea of people not being invested in their communities and people being told that they're not worth much without a high enough level of income are pretty linked...

1 comment:

Foxie said...

The trouble is that, as I'm sure you know better than me, maybe, narratives are extremely powerful. You tell poor that they are criminal scum, you make that an all-pervasive narrative in society, and they start believing it, and then they start acting like it.

And there's the equally harmful problem of making people feel like a failure. If you don't have x, y and z then you are a failure. Once you start thinking you're a failure, then you have nothing to lose--you've already lost everything. When I was at school and struggling with exams, I realised that I was not going to get the results I was expected to. And I thought, well, fine. I'm not going to get a job, not going to have anywhere to live, not going to have anything. So I spent eight hours a day watching cartoons. The kids at Columbine High School did something else and if I had access to firearms, maybe I would have done too. I certainly thought about it. After all, it felt like that was pretty much the only way I was going to have an effect on the world.

So, we come back to urban crime and rioting. Why shouldn't failures and criminals behave like failures and criminals? It's the only way they're ever going to achieve anything in life, after all.