April 1, 2010
Contentment; or, blaming the poor for the wrong things entirely
I was having yet another debate with an old friend this week via facebook; it’s been a common occurrence in the wake of the passage of the health care bill. The debate quickly turned from my instigating question to the subjects of socialism and the dangers, and advantages, of welfare. My friend said,
“There are too many people that work very hard to make a living to just give everything they have worked for to people that have not. When a society makes everything equal, the country begins to not be as productive, because people loose a sense of working hard to earn a living.”
I don’t mean to single her or her views out for judgment, because they are far from unique, at least in my recent experience as I wrote yesterday. After I argued that in the first place, that’s not what socialism is, and secondly, it isn’t happening, she told me of a family she knows from the school where she works: neither parent works; they’re both on disability, and can’t seem to stop having children. All five of their current children have some degree of mental or developmental disability and are all receiving disability payments. And in this school, which largely serves low-income families, this family is far more representative of the norm than the exception.
My sister, a registered nurse, when she works overtime, sees close to half of her paycheck withheld in taxes and FICA. Who does she get angry at? The military; the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? The crimes of Wall Street and the bank bailouts, the fraud that toppled the world economy? The sheer numerical fact that there are more baby boomer retirees than there are younger workers supporting them? George W’s unprecedented level of deficit spending, largely on tax cuts for the richest?
Nope: the welfare mothers and illegal immigrants on the neonatal ward.
Okay, I said–even if these parents are not really disabled or too mentally ill to work, and are therefore committing social security fraud and getting away with just not working…even if it’s true that the illegal immigrant teen mothers brag about being able to take advantage of the welfare system…look at their life. Would you want it?
I don’t necessarily mean materially, because they probably do have a car, computer, television, cell phone, DVD player, whatever. But look at their real quality of life. Is it really a life that you’d want to live? Is it a life that you’d trade places to have?
Or do you think that the government does too much for people, protects them too much from the natural consequences of bad choices? Look around your city streets on a cold night. Are there no homeless people? A third of them are veterans, and a quarter are severely mentally ill. Don’t worry; the world is still more than capricious enough that the wrong choices, or simple lack of resilience, can devastate lives. NYC has had an increase of one third in the homeless population this year alone. I promise you, that surge is not made up of people who just decided they’d rather not work anymore.
So be content. They’ve made their choices, and the consequences of those choices, I think, are punishment enough for them. You’ve made yours, and if you have a life, and work, and family that you’re proud of, there’s nothing at all that you need to envy or resent from the poor.
I just don’t understand this kind of vitriol towards people who have so much less. I really think that a lot of revulsion towards the very poor, the homeless, people dependent on government aid, comes from personal fear, that we ourselves could’ve been in such a position, if things had been a little different, if we’d been born into a less fortunate situation. Every time I see a bag lady on the street, I know that that could’ve been me, and the confrontation of that knowledge is both chilling and humbling.
So the next person who thinks that the poor are getting away with something, that you’d be happier about your income tax return if you made a lot less money, that it’s easy or carefree to need public assistance or that the poor have too much given to them, this is my invitation to you: sell your car and move here, to NYC. Get a rent-stabilized apartment in Washington Heights and a café job for $7 or $8 an hour. Good luck getting your landlord to deal with the rats or fix the bathroom ceiling when it caves in, and oh yeah, they’re raising subway fares again this year at the same time they’re drastically cutting back service, which is going to make it a lot harder to get to your opening shift at 4:45 AM. Fantastic, you’ll be poor!
Sound good? If not, think about why not. Because you do actually have the enjoyment and appreciation of the things you’ve worked for and earned in life. Because you know that you are fortunate.
I’ve been reading Henry David Thoreau’s Walden this week, and at the conclusion of the book, as he looks back on his experiment with simple, deliberate life in the woods (where he actually only lived in his tiny, hand built cabin for about two years; he wasn’t a hermit or misanthrope), he gives much of the most eloquent advice in the book, urging all of his readers not necessarily to do as he’s done, giving up every superfluous comfort, but to wake up to the realities of their own lives.
It’s easy to misread much of the ranting in Walden as a condemnation of a materially comfortable existence, but it isn’t; it’s a condemnation of the illusion that life is what we acquire, of a life lived in material riches and comfort, but without meaning, hospitality, reflection, or purpose. Someone who has those things within himself, Thoreau says, is always richer, and far more of a whole person, than someone without them. Stop worrying about how badly other people conduct their lives, and make what you truly want of yours, because someone who has set out deliberately to live the best life they know how, never has anything to envy from those who have not.
Except that I envy anyone whose bathroom ceiling doesn’t cave in every 6 months……