Saturday, April 3, 2010

Hating On The Poor

Welcome, Crooks & Liars! And hugs to Mike Finnigan for including me in today's round-up.


Every time I do a post on taxes someone comes along to complain about the “freeloaders,” “moochers” and irresponsible people who suck up our tax dollars, looking for “someone else to pay their way.” It happens without fail.

Usually these folks are talking about the poor, people who benefit from things like food stamps, the people they see as taking handouts. Which is puzzling to me, because I’m trying to think of who gets a free ride in this country and it’s not usually the poor. Nothing is free. Public housing ain’t free, folks--it’s subsidized, meaning you pay what you can. But no one pays nothing. And if you don’t keep up on your utilities you’re out on the streets faster than you can say “the check is in the mail.”

I’m sure there are some poor folks looking for someone to pay their way, just as there are middle class folks and wealthy folks looking for the same deal. This is why Publisher’s Clearinghouse is in business and I’m still getting phone calls offering me a free vacation at a Las Vegas resort if I’d only listen to a two-hour sales pitch.

But when I think of someone living large off the taxpayer teet it’s not usually the single mom with four kids working two jobs who still can’t make ends meet. Or the senior citizen (usually a veteran) living on a fixed income in one of our senior citizen high-rises in the Edgehill neighborhood. I think of people like Dick Cheney, Riley Bechtel, Erik Prince, and Michael McConnell: folks profiting handsomely off the taxpayer-funded war in Iraq which they dragged us into in the first place.

But maybe that’s just me.

We live in an era where things have been devalued to an extraordinary degree, including people. Recently I picked up the book Natural Capitalism: Creating The Next Industrial Revolution; despite it being about 10 years old, I find it transformational. I urge everyone to pick up a copy.

A few brief items culled from Chapter Three, “Waste Not”:
People are often spoken of as being a resource -- every large business has a “human resource” department -- but apparently they are not a valuable one.


In a world where a billion workers cannot find a decent job or any employment at all, it bears stating the obvious: We cannot by any means -- monetarily, governmentally or charitably -- create a sense of value and dignity in people’s lives when we are simultaneously creating a society that clearly has no need for them.

Wow. That just blew my mind. Of course! That, in a nutshell, is the Western capitalist mind-set. Industrialization and globalization have created a world where people have been devalued, are superfluous, and discarded by the privileged class as “moochers” and “freeloaders.” If only they would just go away, right?

But even Jesus said “the poor you will always have with you.” I have to think that this was as much an indictment of human society as stating a simple, eternal truth. Regardless, our challenge for thousands of years has been to find a way to accommodate the poor, the infirm, the elderly--what one of my commenters, in an effort to be inflammatory, calls “human debris.” And the way we've gone about it in the past is not working any more (if it ever truly did).

The problem is that the fruits of industrialization and globalization are a devaluation of all people, including you and me; the poor are just the most visible victims.

I wrote about how my own work has been devalued here. But all of us find we are working harder yet earning less. Again I quote from Natural Capitalism:

Just as overproduction can exhaust topsoil, so can overproductivity exhaust a workforce. The assumption that greater productivity would lead to greater leisure and well-being, while true for many decades, may no longer be valid. In the United States those who are employed (and presumably becoming more productive) find they are working one hundred to two hundred hours more per year than people did twenty years ago.


From an economist’s point of view, labor productivity is a Holy Grail, and it is unthinkable that continued pursuit of taking it to ever greater levels might in fact be making the entire economic system less productive. We are working smarter, but carrying a laptop from airport to meeting to a red-eye flight home in an exhausting push for greater performance may now be a problem, not the solution. Between 1979 and 1995, there was no increase in real income for 80 percent of working Americans, yet people are working harder today than at any time since World War II. While income rose 10 percent in the fifteen-year period beginning in 1979, 97 percent of that gain was captured by families in the top 20 percent of income earners. The majority of families, in fact, saw their income decline during that time. They’re working more but getting less ... [...]

Today, companies are firing people, perfectly capable people, to add one more percentage point of profit to the bottom line. [NOTE: I wrote about Macy's and Smurfit-Stone last week.] Some of the restructuring is necessary and overdue. But greater gains can come from firing the wasted kilowatt-hours, barrels of oil, and pulp from old-growth forests and hiring more people to do so.

Western economies are wasteful by nature, none more so than the United States. We value the bottom line, the P&L report, the short-term profit, the immediate rise in share price. But we are looking at just a piece of the picture, not the entire painting. Instead of looking at people who need assistance as “human debris,” “moochers,” and “looters” and dismissing them with an admonishment to get a job, we need leaders who are interested in looking at the systemic problems that have created this situation in the first place. Our profit and growth oriented value system has put our entire society out of balance. Nowhere except in economics is constant, unrestrained growth considered a good thing: in medicine, it's called cancer.

We are losing ground, fast. For an idea of just how much ground we are losing, take a look at the Index of Social Health, which tracks indicators such as infant mortality, teen suicide, crime, food stamp coverage, and income inequality. It makes clear that as a nation we have been on the decline for decades, working more but getting less for our efforts, and creating all sorts of social problems in the process:

In 2007 (the last year for which complete data are available), the Index of Social Health stood at 56 out of a possible 100. The performance in 2007 represented an improvement of one point over 2006, but it marked the seventh consecutive year during which the Index remained in the mid-50s. Overall, between 1970 and 2007, the Index declined from 66 to 56, a drop of 14 percent.

Areas that showed improvement since the 1970s are:

• Infant mortality
• Teenage drug abuse
• High school dropouts
• Unemployment
• Poverty, ages 65 and over
• Homicides
• Alcohol-related traffic fatalities

Indicators which have gotten worse since 1970:

• Child abuse
• Child poverty
• Teenage suicide
• Average weekly wages
• Health insurance coverage
• Out-of-pocket health costs, ages 65 and over
• Food stamp coverage
• Access to affordable housing
• Income inequality

Looking at which indicators have worsened compared to those which have improved, it's clear that we are all working harder and getting less. Telling people to "get a job" when there are no jobs, or calling someone who works two low-paying jobs and still can't make ends meet a "moocher" is not helpful or productive because the problem is not with the people, it is with a system which has reached its limit.

We need a complete overhaul of how we do things. We need to create jobs for people which actually pay a decent wage, not expect people to be able to provide for their families working two or three part-time jobs, neither of which provides benefits. We must work to build a society that has a need for people, which values them. Because we're all headed in that direction, as the indicators reveal.