The statistics of poverty in the United States are jarring. An estimated 45,000 deaths in America each year are linked to a lack of health insurance. About 48 million Americans live in households that struggle to put food on the table.
We know that people have a hard time internalizing these sorts of numbers. In fact, psychologists have found that when potential donors are shown both statistics about poverty and an anecdote about a person in poverty, they donate less than when only shown the anecdote. Perhaps we numb ourselves when we realize the overwhelming scale of a problem.
I think something else is going on as well. When Americans, especially relatively privileged Americans, hear about the statistics of domestic poverty, they hear a big number and then think to themselves: “What did all those people do wrong?” I often find that Duke students feel more sympathy for the poor abroad than the poor here at home—operating under the mistaken assumption that there is no real poverty in the United States or that following the rules and working a 40-hour week guarantees an American entry into the middle class.
Most Duke students can make a few mistakes in their lives and brush themselves off without too much damage. Students caught on campus with drugs are likely to get off with disciplinary probation, no more than a slap on the wrist. If a Durham Tech student gets caught the chances are much higher that he’d face jail time and a criminal record that could cause him a lifetime of employment difficulties.
As a Duke student, whether your starting salary upon graduation is $100,000 or $30,000, you can buy the things you need—food, shelter, a way to get to work—and still have money leftover for pleasures and to save for emergencies. If over your lifetime, your salary never crosses the $30,000 line, however, the calculus of putting kids through college, saving for retirement and leaving enough aside in case you lose your job, becomes much trickier.
I’m not here to argue that the poor never make mistakes, but rather, to argue that we all make mistakes and that a person shouldn’t have to be perfect to deserve help.
The structure of federal anti-poverty programs reveals how entrenched conceptions of the “worthy poor” versus the “unworthy poor” are.
For example, we consider children the “worthy” poor; they’re the ultimate innocents. Right-wing rhetoric about “personal responsibility” sounds ludicrous when applied to a toddler. Almost all federal and state assistance cuts off at one’s 18th birthday. In North Carolina, a child in poverty qualifies for CHIP, or “Children’s Medicaid,” but as soon as they turn 18, they are out of luck if their employer doesn’t provide health insurance. Out of luck, that is, unless they have a child themselves. The sharp discontinuity implies that once you turn 18, you are completely at fault for your own poverty. You had 18 years to make it into the middle class, buster; if you failed, do not pass “go,” do not collect $200. It is odd, and perverse, that an adult can only “regain” their eligibility for most anti-poverty programs by having babies. We’re creating this weird incentive structure where we actively encourage poor adults, who might not otherwise feel ready, to start having children. Everyone—children and adults, childless or otherwise—should have access to food and healthcare. As it stands, our anti-poverty programs tell adults, “We really don’t want to help you, but if it’s the only way to protect your cute baby, then I guess we’re stuck.”
I’m not here to argue that there is zero fraud and zero abuse in our anti-poverty programs; almost every large initiative by the public or private sector will result in some waste, and a few people will violate the spirit or letter or the rules. Our paranoia about fraud prevents us from thinking rationally about how to build the middle class. We’ll tolerate countless cases of tremendous need to prevent one case of a trickster gaming the system. In many instances, states will implement a measure to prevent fraud—for example, requiring food stamp participants to get fingerprinted—whose total cost far exceeds the estimated costs of the fraud itself.
Too often we begin from the premise that the poor are criminal. Many states drug-test recipients of unemployment insurance, but we’re not drug-testing the recipients of TARP or of farm subsidies or of the mortgage-interest tax deduction.
We also implicitly assume the out-of-work are unemployed by choice. For many programs, like Medicaid and welfare, eligibility is mostly restricted to the working poor. When jobs are bountiful, this assumption isn’t so crazy; when jobs are scarce, our assumption that the jobless are lazy is ludicrous.
We should be making sure that everyone has opportunities to achieve a comfortable life instead of assuming that “equality of opportunity” only applies to children, that most poor people are crooks and that job loss results from a failure to accept “personal responsibility.” It’s time for us to stop blaming the poor and to start questioning the institutions and structures that perpetuate poverty.
Elena Botella is a Trinity senior. Her column runs every Thursday. You can follow Elena on Twitter @elenabotella.