Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Undeserving

My wife is having great fun connecting to people on Facebook; friends from high school and college and some former work mates. To some extent most of their pages reveal we share similar interests and values between us; others are somewhat on the opposite end of the political spectrum. The people who use their social networking to promote their differing political and/or religious views do give her some concern, though she mostly remains silent and so she does not write her differing opinions on their walls. But my wife is not without opinion, most of which ends up falling on MY poor ears.

I am of a different mind, though, and rather than remain silent, I feel compelled at times to present an opposing view in the (often vain) hope of perhaps swaying an opinion. As these issues often weigh heavily on my mind, I found myself continuing to mull over the comments left on one my earlier blogs where I voiced my criticism of the Tea Party Movement. Within the repartee between this commenter and myself, there seemed to run a consistent underlying premise: that through some malfeasance or failing on their part, certain people in this country are “undeserving”, they have not “earned” the right to enjoy the benefits others are apparently entitled.

This concept that many believe that certain segments of our population are "undeserving", I am beginning to feel, is what is behind this denouncing as "Socialism" any benefit from society that people feel is undeserved or unearned. My conclusions are drawn from my own personal observation and experience over recent years.

For example, a while back I heard an article on National Public Radio about a woman who was recruited to conduct public meetings to discuss health care reform. This presenter thought contacting churches would provide a receptive audience, speaking to congregations about the need to extend health care to those who were under, or not, insured. The salient point here was that this presenter assumed that church and religious organizations would eagerly embrace the concept of providing medical services to those in need. After all, religion supposedly promotes charity, compassion and helping the less-fortunate; she truly believed that their religious spirit would appeal to their hearts and their sense of humanity. WRONG! Instead these supposed Christians were completely affronted by the idea of extending benefits to people who hadn’t earned the privilege – and especially not if such benefits might cause THEIR taxes to increase.

Then yet another piece of the puzzle, drawn from my own personal experience: During the first half of my career I worked in the banking industry. I was brought up in a staunch Republican household, so as banker and businessman, the policies of candidate Ronald Reagan resonated strongly with me and therein went my vote. Yet within a short period following, major changes happened in my life – layoff, divorce, debt and poverty, then remarriage and later a completely new career. I married a woman who had been a single mom on Welfare but who had worked her way out of poverty. My new wife actually worked FOR the state Welfare department at the time we met. Freshly unemployed myself, I recall telling her one day “There’s no way I could EVER do your job”. Well, never say never - my second career found me as a Welfare Caseworker.

Previously as a suit-and-tie Republican banker I recalled having held strong opinions about the “work ethic”, self-sufficiency and personal responsibility. I had a low opinion of the “lesser classes” in our society with whom I had little to no contact with. Now as a caseworker, I was deeply and intimately involved in understanding how the other half of society in this country lives. It was a very harsh lesson in reality. I had to release a lot of myths I had held about this segment of the “undeserving” in this country.

In my recent conversation on my Tea Bag post, the commenter repeatedly asserted that through some act, or lack of action or being responsible, was the alleged reason my relatives did not have adequate medical coverage. The allegation was that these members of my family (which clearly he was projecting on society at large) had made some type of bad decision or poor choices which resulted in the source of their deprivation. Not so; illness, death, disability, layoff and unemployment, events all completely beyond the control of my family (and again, society at large) were the reasons.

These completely naive and ignorant assertions, tabulated along with many similar experiences as a Welfare Worker, and in my understanding about the resistance to any sort of health care reform, solidified a belief which I now strongly hold:
There exists a large proportion of our population who are absolutely terrified that someone is going to get something that they don’t deserve, some benefit that they didn’t earn and to which they should not be entitled.
Though I would like to lay this set of beliefs squarely at the feet of Conservatives, I think this is likely pervasive throughout the social and political strata. Somebody is afraid that if someone else gets “more”, then there will be “less” for the them and they are angry as hell about that prospect.

Having lived in both economic extremes, I can sympathize with the mind set that ours is a country of opportunity; that through hard work and diligent effort, one can attain a good life. But people often forget that the “good life” can be transitory; things can change in an instant and with no warning. That troubling lump on your body you wake up to one day could have a very chilling diagnosis or you could be one of the 40,000 people a year who hop in their car and drive away from their house and never come home. No one is immune from random unforeseen events of tragedy, some life choices are made for us with neither our approval nor warning.

When I was a banker in my three piece suit, I thought that people who didn’t have what I had simply needed to just pull themselves up by their own boot straps. But when I later shed the suit for Dockers as a Welfare Caseworker, I learned that some people don’t have boot straps.

I thought I would present a few “fast facts” about the welfare system and welfare clients.
  • ~ The original program I worked with was called ADC (Aid to Dependent Children). It is now called TANF (Transitional Assistance to Needy Families). Most welfare recipients are children (the money goes to the parent, of course). Only a very few states provide cash benefit assistance to childless adults. To be eligible to receive benefits, the household must suffer “deprivation”, insufficient income. One cannot cause their own deprivation; for example, one cannot intentionally quit a job to be eligible for welfare.
  • ~ Most state welfare programs require participation in job placement or work search activities unless the dependent child is an infant. (Personally I always chuckled at the hypocrisy that society expected middle-class mothers stay home and raise their kids but expected welfare mothers to go to work).
  • ~ About 5% of welfare recipients receive benefits for very short periods of time. These clients generally have higher education, work experience or other skills that make them readily employable. Often their deprivation is due to temporary setbacks such as job layoff or divorce. Another 45% of welfare recipients may be employable but need assistance with job skills, education, training, clothing, housing, transportation, child care or other issues which may be barriers to employment. The remaining 50% of welfare recipients have major barriers to employment such as drug and alcohol addiction, physical and/or psychological problems, suffer physical, mental or sexual abuse, may be involved in the criminal justice system or have issues which otherwise make them unlikely to be employable. In most cases several of these issues are factors in the families lives.
  • ~ Welfare grant amounts have increased only fractionally in comparison to the rate of increase in the cost of living and inflation to where today the amount of a welfare grant allotment seldom provides sufficient funds to meet any of the most basic needs such as rent, utilities or food; households must also seek housing assistance, Food Stamps and other forms of community assistance to survive.
  • ~ Welfare clients receive medial care as a component of their welfare grant eligibility through state administered Medicaid programs.
  • ~ Welfare costs represent roughly 1% of the federal budget.


Charlie said...

Robert, this is an excellently-written and well-thought-out essay. It is an amazing piece of work.

With some rocky times in between, you have been lucky enough to be an actual participant on both sides of the have/have not fence. Unlike the idiot teabagger spouting off nothing but hot gas "theories", you speak from experience.

I am often confused by all the "isms" that exist, and socialism is one of them. I looked up the definition in Merriam-Webster and I think this is the most apropos to what people are afraid of:

"3 a stage of society in Marxist theory transitional between capitalism and communism and distinguished by unequal distribution of goods and pay according to work done."

To think that health care reform, the details of which no one knows yet and most likely will lead to less than more, will result in communism is asinine. And don't tell me, Mr. Teabag, or any of you "compassionate conservatives", that you won't avail yourselves of unemployment benefits, social security, or Medicare when the need arises. There is a big difference between principles and practice, and it's called hypocrisy.

In my view, the sole job of government is to care for its citizens based on nothing more than equality as humans. If this is communism, then so be it; it will never happen, though, because the compassionates, fat cats, and corporate lobbies will not allow it.

Charlie said...


Robert the Skeptic said...

Charlie You have illuminated several interesting points. In banking we had no union membership, primarily because the bank (until later anyway) treated it's employee's fairly well. Conversely, we were unionized in State employment because caseworkers were forced to work under oppressive conditions with low pay and impossibly high caseloads. The point being that I chafe when I hear businesses complain about unions -- if you don't like unions, don't CREATE the conditions where unions NEED to form!

Likewise to these morons who decry Socialism; Great, but then at least provide for basic human needs... because if you don't (in the view of some Sociologists) when 20% of the population has nothing more to lose, social order can be (possibly violently) disrupted!! It might be good to remember that, unlike the underprivileged in most other countries, OUR “not-haves” have guns. We as a society might well live to regret taking a Marie Antoinette stance with a “let them eat cake” attitude toward the less privileged.

Charlie said...

Armed revolt is far from unheard of among the "disenfranchised." Young males with no education, no job, no prospects, and a lot of anger while sitting on their asses are primed for violence.

An example? Gangs in every city in America.

And despite what the rosy economists feed us, people are still losing their homes and jobs. There are a lot of desperate folks at their wit's end out there, and many of them have weapons.

And Fox "News" and hate radio don't help, but rather incite their idiot followers.

Gorilla Bananas said...

I hope you still have a few warm feelings left for Ronnie Reagan, who was quite a card in his time.
I sent him a campaign song for the '84 election. He sent me a note of thanks but said he wouldn't be using it.

Who fiddled his tax returns and laughed at the law?
Who organised a cover up in 1954?
Who spent a week in bed with a whore?
Not Ronnie Reagan, that's for sure!

Robert the Skeptic said...

Charlie I hear you... there is a growing "other" America that we choose to ignore. We have the highest percentage of our citizens in prison of any country within the "civilized" world.

According to the International Centre for Prison Studies at King's College in London, more people are behind bars in the United States than in any other country. China ranks second with 1.5 million prisoners, followed by Russia with 870,000.

We're full! We ignore these people at our peril.

Bananas You are flirting with disaster, my simian friend... Ronnie and friends have sent Nicaragua Death Squads into the jungle motivated by much smaller transgressions.

Penny said...

I feel quite humbled reading your essay. I confess that I've been guilty of "pull yourself up by your bootstrap" opinions. Probably people who've been shielded by family or community (as in the church folk referred to)are less sympathetic not through lack of awareness at the "reality" of life for many, but because their own parachutes are fully deployed. So what they don't understand fully and/or sympathise with is that for many there is no parachute.

To use my own family as an example: my dad died when I was young and mum, a nurse, went to work to put food on the table for 5 kids at a time when nurses weren't well paid. But there was dad's life insurance, so we had a house. My mum's family (who were farmers) rallied around with financial help, taking us kids in for holidays, food (we had honey, eggs, meat and some fruit provided) and so we didn't exactly suffer. Sure, I had to work my way through university, but so do a lot of people.

I've done voluntary work - meals on wheels, and teaching English as a Second Language to new immigrants and refugees, so I've seen a tiny bit of the coalface up close and personal.

It's easy to dismiss the plight of others, the homeless for example, when you've got support yourself. I suspect this is behind the lack of sympathy shown by many. However I do, and always have, supported a fully functioning welfare system. My quarrel (writing as a sheltered middle class person) with such a system is in the details, the bits that are broken and how best to fix them.

Anonymous said...

Don't get me started. I can't agree with you more, and I have more for you. But I can't get started on it all, because I feel like I will explode in frustration. Suffice it to say, that children who are not cared for when they are young, will not grow to be positive members of society. The conservatives are hellbent to "protect" the unborn, but say "hell no" to those who are then born.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Penny Many of us are fortunate to have family or friends to be that all-important safety net to rally and step up when tragedy happens. They are indeed the fortunate ones.

Many people can find "empathy" with the plights of others. But for some, their empathy is conditional; empathy for people just like "us", for example, but little to spare for "them"... and they are blind to the contradiction. It is difficult to reconcile the double-standard.

BackRow Your last sentence resonates with me profoundly. My wife, having worked in Child Protective Services, saw first hand the toll that society pays for unwanted children brought into this world. If one wants to advocate for the unborn from a position of morality, then that moral imperative demands that advocacy continue on from the point of birth through childhood.

Mary Witzl said...

Amen. How sad that the churches the NPR people visited didn't have real Christians in them.

I wish some of the people who are so terrified of socialized medicine and its implications could experience the British National Health Service. Even with its problems, it is such a superior system to what we have in the States, ensuring that people who draw short straws in the health lottery don't end up in financial ruin. Health care reform has been way overdue in the States.

The sad fact is that many people don't think, and they lack imagination -- except when it comes to paranoid delusions of losing their own comfortable lifestyle. They hear of a handful of people who milk the system and imagine that the welfare department is riddled with mismanagement and fraud; they see people who are mired in poverty, ill-educated and without hope, and wonder why they lack the motivation to make something of themselves.

Middle class Americans are already so privileged and blessed. It's crazy that people are so terrified of missing out that they can't afford a little compassion and empathy.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Mary Undoubtedly there are Christian communities in this country who are progressive in their thinking who would, of course, support extending medical care to those who do not have it through work or cannot afford it if they don't. The point of the comment was the surprise that ANY among the Christian population who would not support that view at all is mind-boggling.

Privileged that our American Middle Class is, their ranks are slipping. Median income is slipping and the costs of higher education, housing does not offset the benefit of cheaper consumer crap being available at Wal-mart. The tax code has been shifted to benefit the wealthier classes and shift more to the middle class. Medical costs used to be 100% deductible as were union dues and other work related expenses. Not so now, if they do not meet the new (higher) percentages of your income, your tax burden remains unaffected.

To those who decry higher taxes, they DO have a reason to argue. But to look for the solution by cutting programs for the least advantaged is both cruel and mindless.

The Mother said...

This is not the first time that the "Christian" community has found itself at odds with so-called "Christian" values.

Such is what happens when we mix politics with religion.

I still haven't found the passage in the Bible that says, "Thou shalt fight any regulation of any industry with thine blood."

Robert the Skeptic said...

Dr. Mom I try not to paint all of Christianity with a broad brush. There are those whom I term "Jimmy Carter Christians" who I feel embrace and practice the tenants of charity and compassion. On the opposite end of the spectrum - the "Christian Taliban".

My father-in-law is a PhD professor emeritus of Agriculture; hundreds of published papers all based on biological evolution. He vigorously speaks out against young earth creationists; he even teaches Sunday School for adults at his church, explaining why science knows the earth is billions of years old. - Yet he also believes he will see his deceased mother and wife in heaven when he dies.

I haven't found that Bible verse either... nor the one that condemns "abortion". I guess it depends on the outcome the "Book-Thumpers" desire whether they choose to ply the words literally or metaphorically. In either case, it's a man-made work of fiction and therefore has no relevance for me.

secret agent woman said...

I want to see truly universal health care. For ALL of us. Some people are boot strapless, and others just not employed by corporations that provide insurance. I'm under insured just by virtue of having a small business. It's wrong that my children and the children of people in any situation are penalized by our ridiculous system.

Robert the Skeptic said...

SecretAgent My daughter runs a small business but needs her husband's employer-paid health insurance.

I also have friends who are delaying retirement from government employment because they would lose employer-paid health insurance. Retires pay their own health insurance premiums... ours is good coverage, but we pay $1,200/ month.

I wonder if the Conservatives mull over what the ramifications for supporting small business in this country would be if health insurance were not the burden that it is?

Orhan Kahn said...

In my time the federal welfare system here (which we fondly call social security) has gone through two waves; twice ruled by the Labour government (our Democrats, sort of) and one under the Liberal government. I found myself homeless when I was 15 and with very little ID and whatnot I was placed on welfare. During the past near-15 years I've seen the system be very easy to take advantage of and it become extremely strict.

I've been on and off welfare payments for the most of 15 years. I've had secure work for the last 3 years and don't intend to go back. In fact, I'm in the process of trying to get myself a very important government job because I want to serve a country that has served me so well.

As you know, my girlfriend is American and has only been here 5 months and the things I've learned about the way-of-life in the US is just amazing. I thought I knew so much about America but I really didn't, and still dont. I do indeed feel evermore lucky now to be an Australian. And truly admire those in the lower classes who wouldn't want to be anything other than an American.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Orhan Homelessness is a big problem over here. Reagan de-institutionalized the mental health system here, as a result many of our homeless are mentally ill. We have a mish-mash of volunteer community and religious organizations who try to fill in the gaps.

A homeless 15 y/o here "might" be able to get Food Stamps (food assistance" if he could show he was an emancipated minor. Other than that, government would play no role unless it were to place a teen that age into Foster Care. Once in the foster care system, government medical assistance would be available.

We have this love-hate relationship here with individualism. For me, the underlying theme in the Michael Moore film Bowling for columbine" was that we are all in it alone! Total freedom of opportunity also means the freedom to fail as well. Americans don't like failure, we look at is as a personal weakness and the consequences are harsh.

kara said...


Where's the commenter now, eh?

Sydney said...

So glad you left a link to this post over at Mature Landscaping. This is a great post. The part about the gal going to talk to churches about healthcare reform reminds me of something I saw on one of my friend's Facebook posts this morning. Attributed to Steven Colbert: "If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn't help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we've got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don't want to do it."

Robert the Skeptic said...

Sydney Colbert's words strike to the heart of the matter. So many so-called Christians fail to act according to the tenets of their belief. The term for that is hypocrisy. Thank you for visiting