Are there poor people who don’t deserve help?
On the whole, Americans’ answer is Yes. There are deserving poor, those who are working hard to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and then there are the rest of them. The lazy ones, the scheming ones, people who could support themselves but prefer to live parasitically off the public’s naive generosity.
A new study proves that those people we condemn aren’t lazy; usually, they are stuck. Boots haven’t come with bootstraps for a very long time. Yet studies confirm that we still believe our country is a meritocracy, and in a meritocracy, people who work hard rise to the top, while the people at the bottom are down there because they aren’t as worthy. It’s their own fault that they are poor.
The truth is that 40 percent of families stay in the quintile they started at. Another 39 percent move by one quintile, but that movement could be up or down. Together, those two groups cover more than three-fourths of the population.
Other countries have pulled ahead of the United States in meritocracy — lefty countries that do radical stuff like provide universal socialized health care: Denmark, Canada and France. France is beating us at our own game.
In addition to their own misery, Americans who are stuck at the bottom represent an opportunity cost for the rest of us. They are a talent pool we don’t tap. When women were allowed into the workforce only to teach or take shorthand, the intelligence and ability of half the population was unavailable to the economy. This is the same thing, though for a smaller number of people. They tend not to get educations that help them identify and develop their talents or exercise their intelligence. Potentially meritorious though they may be, they lack the skills and resources to pull themselves up by the bootstraps. They don’t even have the boots, i.e. textbooks, computers, mentors, role models, etc.
Americans now are taking their elitism out not only on perceived freeloaders, but also on people once deemed deserving of help. State governments are cutting unemployment insurance, a benefit available only to people who had been working, lost their jobs through no fault of their own, and are now looking for new ones. This is not about laziness.
“Folks aren’t looking for a handout. They’re not looking for special treatment. There are a lot of people who are sending out résumés every single day, but the job market is still tough,” said President Obama. On the other side is North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory, who said he heard multiple employers describe applicants turning down job offers because they didn’t want to work until their jobless benefits ran out.
Who you believe tends to hinge on your political leanings. Liberals are more likely to see honesty and effort where conservatives see lies and scams. It puts me in mind of an E.W. Howe quote: “A thief believes everybody steals.” And George Berkeley: “He who says there is no such thing as an honest man, you may be sure is himself a knave.”
Under McCrory, North Carolina cut its jobless benefits from a maximum of 73 weeks to 20. The New York Times tells the story of a North Carolina woman who worked for 26 years, then lost her job. Her unemployment insurance ran out before she found work. To support herself and her 14-year-old son, all she has now is food stamps.
The federal government has also cut jobless benefits. It had a program to pay extra weeks of benefits for people who had been out of work for a long time, but the program expired and Congress wouldn’t renew it. The whole country is leaving people out in the cold (and it is really cold these days) who were laid off and need a hand while they look for work. If they aren’t the “deserving” needy, who on earth is?
The GOP’s fear of getting ripped off by the unemployed echoes their proclamations that we must defend against rampant voter fraud. It turns out that they are pretty much the only ones with voter fraud on their minds; in reality, it is “extremely rare” — approximately as rare as getting struck by lightning.
What we need is a little more trust. Investigating before penalizing isn’t gullibility or naivete. There is no weakness in embracing “trust, but verify“; to the contrary, those are the words of Republican saint Ronald Reagan — inventor of the welfare queen trope.
Investigating welfare fraud reveals that, in 2002, only 1.9 percent of claims for unemployment insurance were fraudulent. The other 98.1 percent of jobless people and their families are suffering because of the right’s irrational terror of that 1.9 percent. If politicians and others looked at the evidence, they would find that needy people are generally working much harder to find honest jobs than to rip off taxpayers. We should be working harder at helping them.
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