Perceptions of the Poor

On my regular mnpACT blog, I have had a commenter of late who has been voicing his displeasure at government spending.   He’s actually a thoughtful person.  He has the obvious biases you might expect…but then, I have my own.

A recent comment he made illustrates the feelings that a lot of the right have about welfare and the poor.  Here is a portion of what he said:

Care for the poor? I’m an advocate of caring for the needy. The two groups often coincide. But there is a difference. If by the poor you mean those that for any one of a number of reasons is unable to navigate life, physically handicapped, mentally ill, people in a perfect storm of life circumstances, absolutely help them.

If by the poor you mean the lazy, then no. If by poor you mean those lacking education, then I say give them an opportunity to get smart. If by the poor you mean 3rd generation welfare recipients with 7 kids from 7 fathers, then I say there needs to be a better approach. If by the poor you mean the mother of 3 who lives with the father of her children, then I say there needs to be a better approach than just dumping money into their laps.

His opinion is not an isolated one.  I am a pharmacist and deal with Medicaid issues and recipients all the time.  And, though this may surprise you, a lot of people on welfare share my commenter friend’s viewpoint. 

There are many welfare cheats.  Any system that involves bureaucracy and a lot of paperwork can be manipulated.  People who game the system will game any system.  Dishonesty isn’t limited to taking advantage of a system for the poor.   As we all well know, Wall Street bankers can do the same thing on a much larger scale.

But what has always surprised me is that people who are very poor and end up on government subsistence always see their own situation as very different from other welfare recipients.  They see themselves as down on their luck….(and they often are)….and in their situation through no fault of their own. 

But to them, other people are taking advantage of the system.  The “others” are what’s wrong with welfare.  These people who are in terrible financial difficulty often end up talking like, and voting for, Republicans.

It is an unfortunate characterization that has been perpetuated for many election cycles.  Marty Seifert always uses it to pump up Republican anger at the “waste” in government.  And it doesn’t take much looking to find examples of fraud, waste, and abuse in the system.

But it is also evident in all aspects of society.  Tom Petters and Denny Hecker lived lavish lifestyles by defrauding other people.  Bank employees embezzle money with tricky accounting gimmicks.  Some get caught…some don’t.

Politically, it is easier to discredit government programs by pointing out criminal behaviors in people we are supposed to be helping.   It angers people and rightly so. 

But it still is a very small minority of the people who receive these benefits.  We can’t completely eliminate the “bad apples” here any more than we can expect to eliminate the greedy excesses of Wall Street.

People still need help.  It really is that simple.  And only the collective resources of all the rest of us can provide the necessary assistance.

Bad things happen to good people.  And bad people can denigrate good intentions.