Poverty Denialism in a Culture of Cruelty: Bashing the Poor as Right-Wing Amusement

The following is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, The Culture of Cruelty: How America’s Elite Demonize the Poor, Valorize the Rich and Jeopardize the Future (San Francisco: City Lights, 2015) This section explores the way that many (especially on the right) downplay or dismiss the problem of poverty and the hardship faced by the poor and unemployed. In coming weeks I will post a few more excerpts from the book, which is in the editing process currently. Note, there may be slight changes to the final text when it is released in book form. 

In 1981, Texas Senator Phil Gramm lamented: “We’re the only nation in the world where all our poor people are fat.” It was, to Gramm, clear evidence of how exaggerated the problem of economic hardship in America was, and how horrible the nation’s welfare state had become. Apparently, poor people aren’t really suffering or deserving of much sympathy until their ribcages are showing and their eye-sockets have all but swallowed their eyes. If the poor are fat, it’s not because so many of the cheapest and most readily available foods in poor communities are high in empty calories, sugar and non-nutritional ingredients—or because, in general, the U.S. food supply is overly-processed and unhealthy—but rather, it must be because poor people have it too good and are able to do a lot of fancy eating at public expense.

America’s culture of cruelty has long been fed by this kind of thinking: namely, the belief that the poor and unemployed really aren’t suffering that badly. This “poverty denialism” rests on three claims: first, that America’s poor are fabulously wealthy by global standards and thus, should essentially stop complaining; second, that the poor buy expensive food with their SNAP benefits and have all manner of consumer goods in their homes, which means they aren’t poor in any sense that should cause concern; and third, that large numbers of welfare recipients commit fraud in order to get benefits, and then misuse the benefits they receive. In short, these are not the deserving poor—their pain is not real.

The Fallacy of Global Poverty Comparisons

As for the idea that the poor in America are not really poor, one can almost understand why this notion might seem persuasive even to those who are not particularly callous or cruel. Someone who has worked in the Peace Corps for instance, or the military, or has merely traveled widely and witnessed the kind of abject deprivation that is common in much of the world, where billions of people live on less than a dollar a day, might find this part of poverty denialism compelling. Most all of us have seen at least one if not several late-night infomercials seeking charitable contributions to bring running water and vaccinations to the globe’s poorest inhabitants. By comparison to the poverty highlighted by such efforts, one might not find the moral claims of America’s poor to be particularly pressing.

That said, to diminish the real hardship faced by the poor in the United States, solely because it is usually not as crushing as suffering elsewhere—and I say usually, because in some poor counties of America, conditions and life expectancy actually do rival those in some of the poorest nations on Earth—is neither a logical nor ethical response to that hardship. Even though in absolute terms it is true that America’s poor are not poor in the same way and to the same extremes as say, Sri Lanka’s poor, such a reassurance is likely not much comfort for America’s struggling masses. After all, Americans are not Sri Lankans, and they are trying to stay afloat and compete in a society against other Americans. This is why the international standard for evaluating poverty is not simply a set dollar equivalent amount, since poverty in a poor country is by definition different from poverty in a rich country, but is determined by looking at what percentage of a country’s citizens live at half or less of the nation’s median wage. To be at half or less of the median in any society, no matter what that median might be, is to be at a significant disadvantage relative to others in the job market, housing market, in terms of the quality of education your children will likely receive, and in terms of the health care you can access. If the median income is well above your own, you will be effectively priced out of the market for any number of opportunities; as such, even if you are objectively richer than someone in Bangladesh or Ghana, the life you will be able to carve out for yourself in the place you actually live will be far removed from the mainstream there.

This is why the reassurances of economics blogger Catherine Rampell at the New York Times, to the effect that “the bottom 5 percent of the American income distribution is still richer than 68 percent of the world’s inhabitants,” or that “America’s poorest are, as a group, about as rich as India’s richest,” are vapid to a point that would be laughable were the subject matter not so serious. Contrary to Rampell’s breathless excitement at the chart demonstrating these fun facts—which she found in a book by World Bank economist, Branko Milanovic and to which she refers as an “awesome chart” that “kinda blows your mind”—there is nothing awesome, mind-blowing, or even remotely relevant about the statistics in question. Nor are the protestations of Sean Hannity—who assures us that “poor in America is not poor like around the rest of the world”—helpful in understanding the real face of need in the United States.

If anything, to be poor in a rich country, where one’s worth is sadly too often presumed to be linked to one’s possessions (unlike in a poor country where people still know better) is to create a particularly debilitating kind of deprivation. To be poor in a place where success is synonymous with being rich is to find oneself marked as uniquely flawed. To live in a place where wealth is not only visible but flaunted, where the rich make no pretense to normalcy, and where one can regularly hear oneself being berated on the airwaves as losers and vermin and parasites precisely because you are poor or working at a minimum wage job, is to be the victim of a cruelty that poor folks in poor nations do not experience. The poor of Vietnam, for instance, do not have to listen to those who are doing better than they put them down on a daily basis. And why? Because those who are doing better than they, for the most part, are not the kind of people who would bash them for their poverty. The culture of cruelty is not as well developed there. It’s quite an American thing, which unlike most American things we haven’t yet exported to the world. So in a poor nation, the poor are still viewed as belonging to a common humanity, unlike in the United States, where the humanity of poor people, and certainly their right to full citizenship is increasingly under attack.

Ultimately, the politics of comparative suffering is always a losing and amoral proposition. It’s the kind of argumentation that would justify telling a Japanese American who was herded into an American internment camp during World War Two that they have nothing to complain about and should actually be grateful: after all, they could have been in Tokyo when we firebombed it, or in Hiroshima or Nagasaki when we dropped the atomic bombs. It’s the kind of position that would rationalize saying to someone who survived the Holocaust of European Jewry that they had no legitimate complaint against the Nazis, since had they lived in the Soviet Union they may well have perished in Stalin’s gulag (or for that matter, the reverse of this argument). To forward this kind of position is like telling an African American during Jim Crow segregation to get over it, since King Leopold killed roughly ten million Africans in the Congo under Belgian colonialism. In other words, this kind of comparison between the suffering one is currently experiencing and the much greater suffering one could theoretically experience elsewhere lacks all moral and practical relevance.

Not to mention, there is something ironic about this kind of argument coming from elites who regularly push for greater tax breaks so they can have more money with which to “do great things,” or just because they think they’ve earned it. After all, to whatever extent the poor in America are rich by global standards surely the wealthy in America are obscenely, disgustingly, perversely rich by the same; and yet they always seem to want more. They don’t seem satisfied with the kind of wealth that would allow them to literally buy entire countries outright, and which certainly dwarfs the wealth of the so-called rich in less wealthy nations, but yet they have the temerity to lecture poor people about gratitude?

Consider a recent commercial paid for by the Charles Koch Foundation that seeks to remind Americans how good they have it by noting that even if one earns only $34,000 a year, that’s enough to vault one into the top one percent of the world’s population in terms of income. Or consider the remarks of Bud Konheim, CEO and co-founder of fashion label Nicole Miller, who recently said those who are poor or working class in America should stop complaining since their incomes would make them wealthy in India or China. To whatever extent one finds this kind of thinking even remotely persuasive, shouldn’t the logic of such an argument run both ways? Shouldn’t the rich in the U.S. stop complaining about their taxes? The regulations they have to put up with? The minimum wage they have to pay employees? Talk about ingratitude! If they lived in any other industrialized nation the taxes they paid would be higher, regulations would be just as strict or more so, and their workers would have far greater protections and safety nets than in the United States. So when it comes to shutting one’s mouth and being grateful for what one has, perhaps the rich should lead by example.

How Dare You Have Air Conditioning! TVs, Cellphones and Right-Wing Resentment

One of the more prominent tendencies within the modern culture of cruelty is to chastise the poor for possessing any material items remotely connected to middle-class normalcy, as if somehow the possession of modern conveniences like refrigerators, microwaves or televisions demonstrates that the poor in America aren’t really suffering. In a segment from Bill O’Reilly’s FOX program in July 2011, he and fellow talking head Lou Dobbs joked about the “stuff” one can find in the homes of the poor. Citing a report by the Heritage Foundation, which has long forwarded this kind of argument so as to undermine support for safety net programs, O’Reilly noted, incredulously:

Eight-two percent have a microwave. This is 82 percent of American poor families. Seventy-eight percent have air conditioning. More than one television, 65 percent. Cable or satellite TV, 64 percent…Cell phones, 55 percent. Personal computer, 39 percent. So how can you be so poor and have all this stuff?

Aside from the bizarre implication that air conditioning is a luxury the poor should not enjoy, there are a few obvious holes in O’Reilly’s argument. First, it should be apparent to even the most casual thinker that most of the poor live in apartments pre-rigged with A/C whether or not they can afford to actually run it. Second, cable is necessary in most parts of the country in order for a television to get reception at all, so the mere fact that one has cable says very little about the quality of one’s television, let alone the extravagance of one’s entertainment habits. And finally, cell phones are no more extravagant than landlines, having more or less replaced the older systems for millions of Americans. To not have a phone would render the poor unable to remain connected to possible jobs, to family or to emergency services. Surely we do not expect the poor to be completely cut off from the world in order to deserve concern. Or perhaps for the Bill O’Reillys of the world, that is exactly what is required.

For Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation, the poor aren’t really suffering because average per person expenditures for the poorest fifth of Americans today are equal to the expenditures of the middle-class in the early 1970s. In other words, if today’s poor are able to live like the middle class did thirty to forty years earlier, they have nothing to complain about. Of course, it is also probably the case that the poor in the 1960s had “stuff” comparable to what middle-class Americans had in 1939, but so what? The poor today also doubtless have certain luxuries unknown even to the elite in the 1790s, what with indoor plumbing and all, but one wonders what the point of such a comparison is? Does anyone really believe that today’s poor live better than Thomas Jefferson did, just because the latter had to crap in a chamber pot or an outhouse? Apparently Rector and the folks at Heritage think so, as they have also made the argument that the poor in America today “live a better life than all but the richest persons a hundred years ago.” Though it should hardly need to be said, today’s poor do not live in the early 1970s, let alone the nineteenth century; they live in the present, where the ability to feel part of the mainstream (and to be part of the mainstream) requires one to be able to do things and have things that previous generations didn’t do or have. People didn’t “need” the Internet in the 1970s, for instance, because the Internet didn’t exist, but not having access to the web today can be seen as a pretty serious disadvantage. They didn’t need cars in 1837 either, but try finding steady employment today without one.

What Rector and others ignore is that the ability of the poor to purchase electronics—the prices of which have actually come down in recent years—says little about their ability to afford more important amenities. Televisions, microwaves or any other luxuries in the homes of the poor will tend to be pretty cheap. What you won’t as readily find is what really matters: namely, college degrees and high-quality preventative health care, the costs of which have far outpaced the rate of inflation. It is these things that the poor increasingly cannot afford, not because they have blown all their money on malt liquor and menthols but because they do not earn enough to purchase them, no matter the relatively cheap consumer goods with which they may entertain themselves, or at least cool the air in their apartments from time to time. The issue is not whether America’s poor are as poor today as the poor in Biafra, or as poor as the poor were at the time of the Nixon administration or the Gettysburg Address or the landing of the Mayflower. The issue is whether the poor are situated in such a way as to compete with others in this country at this time, and in such a way that might allow them to move up the ladder and out of relative deprivation. A dishwasher will neither suffice for those purposes nor by virtue of its expense get in the way of them, but the lack of health care or education most certainly will.

Notably, the common outrage over the possessions of the poor neglects to take heed of the obvious fact that for most, their consumer goods will likely represent items they were able to afford in better economic times before a layoff or medical emergency. Most poor people do not remain poor for long periods, but rather, slip into poverty after a layoff, medical emergency or temporary economic downturn. If a family finds itself transitionally poor and having to turn temporarily to SNAP (food stamps) after the layoff of a parent, it’s not as if the computer, the car or the Xbox they had before the layoff should be expected to disappear. Unless one wishes to suggest that upon a layoff one should pawn everything in one’s possession before turning to the very government benefits for which one’s taxes previously paid during periods of employment, expressing shock at the gadgetry of the poorest among us is absurd. And frankly, even if the poor did pawn every “luxury” item in their possession before relying on public assistance, the amount they would receive would hardly suffice to keep them from needing aid. Such items as video games or televisions might fetch them a few hundred dollars on Craigslist or at a pawn shop, but this wouldn’t be enough for even one month’s rent, let alone medical bills or groceries.

Crab Legs and Strip Clubs and Weed, Oh My! The Myth of Massive Welfare Fraud

Speaking of groceries, conservatives have long been preoccupied with what poor people eat, as with the by-now infamous stories that most of us have heard about persons buying expensive cuts of meat with food stamps or EBT cards. Tales of food stamp profligacy have been legion for generations and it is the rare person who hasn’t heard a story from someone who heard from someone else who heard from yet another person about the time they were standing in line and saw somebody pay for a choice cut of meat with food stamps, much as with Reagan’s campaign tale in 1976 about “strapping young bucks” buying T-Bone steaks with stamps.

Of course, the allure of the rather pedestrian T-bone has dimmed considerably over time, such that stories of culinary over-indulgence on the part of the poor now require a bit of an upgrade. Today, it’s no longer mid-range quality steak for SNAP fraudsters, but rather, King Crab legs, according to Texas Congressman Louis Gohmert. In a recent speech on the House floor, Gohmert relayed a story supposedly told to him by a constituent who was angered that while he could only afford ground meat for himself and his family, he watched the person in front of him pay for crab legs with food stamps. That the constituent said the individual paid with stamps is itself an indication that the story was likely a lie (since there are no more actual food stamps in use), but that didn’t stop Gohmert from repeating it and insisting that such a story proved why the nation should cut back on SNAP; this, despite the fact that the average monthly allotment for SNAP recipients is only $133 per person, and only $122 per month in Gohmert’s own state.

But contrary to claims that the poor eat like royalty on the public dime, the evidence shows that most SNAP recipient households are extremely thrifty with their food shopping. Far from blowing their benefits on crab legs or steak of any kind, they tend to shop inexpensively and responsibly to make the benefits last. According to a recent analysis of thousands of SNAP households, beneficiaries are bargain shoppers when they come onto the rolls and become even thriftier over time. Upon entering the program, nearly one in four households report purchasing food that is out of date or nearly expired, simply because those items are discounted; and this rate climbs to 30 percent for those same families after they have been on the program for six months. Likewise, eighty-five percent of new SNAP households buy food items on sale, and after six months of SNAP benefits about half of recipient households have learned to buy in bulk (so as to get discounts) and to clip coupons, neither of which practices afford one much lobster or very many premium cuts of steak.

Amazingly, Gohmert’s accusation about SNAP being used for crab legs is only the tip of an almost entirely unhinged right-wing iceberg. Lately, conservative criticisms of safety net programs have moved beyond culinary matters to even worse presumed wastes of taxpayer money. Recently, FOX hyped a report from a group called Colorado Watchdog, purporting to show that welfare benefits are being withdrawn at liquor stores, casinos and at least one strip club, and are even withdrawn in exotic vacation spots by Colorado’s poor. According to the report, Coloradans withdrew $3.8 million in cash welfare benefits from ATM machines in states other than Colorado over a two-year period. Although nearly $1 million of this amount was in bordering states, which could simply reflect that residents live near the border and work in a neighboring state or shop there, the rest was withdrawn farther away, including $70,000 withdrawn in Las Vegas, about $6500 in Hawaii, and $560 in the Virgin Islands. Although such anomalies make for plenty of right-wing outrage, they clearly are not representative of a substantial fraud problem. The entire amount withdrawn in states other than Colorado or its border states comes to only 1.7 percent of Colorado’s overall cash welfare budget under the TANF program (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, which replaced AFDC in 1996). The amount withdrawn in Vegas, Hawaii and St. Thomas combined amounts to less than five hundredths of one percent (0.045) of all state benefits. To hype this handful of cases is less about truly rooting out a pattern of program abuse and more about enraging a public already encouraged to think the worst of the poor and those on assistance.

As for withdrawals made in liquor stores, these too amount to less than one percent of TANF benefits withdrawn and involve less than one percent of households receiving benefits. As for casino withdrawals, which amount to about $75,000 per year, these could indicate that persons are gambling with their benefits, but could also represent low-wage casino employees who make withdrawals at their place of employment because there isn’t a closer or more convenient ATM around. When it comes to strip club withdrawals, there appears to have been a whopping $1,500 withdrawn at one Denver area club over the course of two years: disturbing but hardly evidence of a common practice. In all, making a public spectacle of these rare potential abuses of taxpayer monies ends up stigmatizing the ninety-nine percent or more of all recipients who play by the rules and don’t misuse benefits. While it might be worthwhile to figure out ways to sanction those handful who take unfair advantage, is it really so important to catch and punish these few that the broad base of TANF families should be stigmatized? Apparently in a culture of cruelty, the answer is yes: stopping a handful of abusers is so important on principle, that even if entire programs have to be stigmatized, chopped or ended altogether, the cost is worth it.

Likewise, commentators on the right have accused Colorado TANF recipients of using benefits to buy marijuana at the state’s newly-legalized weed stores; yet there have been only sixty-four cases of persons in the state using benefit cards to withdraw cash from ATMs located inside marijuana shops. This represents one-and-a-half-tenths of one percent (0.15) of all TANF-related withdrawals in Colorado during the month in which the usage was discovered; and the combined value of the withdrawals came to only $5,475, which is 4.4 thousandths of one percent (0.0044) of the state’s annual TANF block grant. Not to mention, the stores in which these ATMs were located dispense marijuana for patients who use the drug for medicinal purposes, so to ban them from using TANF benefits this way would be to deny them a valid and legal form of pain relief.

For many on the right, however, evidence is a luxury hardly worth indulging. It is virtually axiomatic for some that the poor are poor because of drug use. Bill O’Reilly, in one particularly disingenuous segment on his FOX program, suggested that because roughly thirteen percent of the population was poor and roughly thirteen percent of Americans currently use drugs, “maybe poverty is not exclusively an economic problem.” The implication was that the thirteen percent in poverty and the thirteen percent who use drugs were the same people. But of course they are not. Despite being nearly three times as likely as whites to be poor, African Americans use drugs at rates that are essentially identical to the rates at which whites use them. Latinos, despite being 2.5 times as likely as whites to be poor are less likely to use drugs than whites. And when it comes to drug abuse and dependence as opposed to mere recreational use, whites are more likely to abuse narcotics than people of color, despite being one-third as likely to be poor. If there were a correlation between poverty and drug use, suffice it so say that these data would look very different.

Sadly, some simply cannot relinquish their commitment to the notion that the poor and those on public assistance are irresponsible and dishonest, scamming the system and taking advantage of hard-working taxpayers. When the Department of Agriculture recently released a report noting that 2012 had seen the lowest rate of SNAP payment errors in history, conservative commentators went ballistic. FOX Business anchor Stuart Varney chastised the Department of Agriculture report, asking “since when has (a 3.42 percent error rate) been good?” In fact, such a rate is extremely good and is the lowest in the history of the food stamp/SNAP program. In fact, even that error rate includes underpayments (i.e., payments that were lower than they should have been, or payments that were not made at all to persons who applied and should have received them but were unfairly rejected). When underpayments are subtracted from overpayments, the net amount of overpayment in SNAP falls to only around two percent of program dollars: one-eighth the amount of projected fraud in the area of tax collection.

As for fraud by TANF recipients, there is no doubt that technical fraud occurs, meaning that recipients in some cases work for cash under the table by taking care of a neighbor’s kids or cleaning their house—income that would result in a suspension or reduction or benefits were it reported. But considering that the average monthly benefit from TANF is only $162 per person, and $387 per family—less than half the poverty line in every state and less than one-third of the poverty line in most of them—is such fraud really surprising? If benefits are set so low that even when SNAP is added to them the typical family on both kinds of assistance still remains below the poverty line, how is one supposed to survive without such side work? If anything, that kind of fraud speaks to the work ethic of the poor and their desire to earn income and take responsibility for themselves and their children. It suggests that the stereotype of lazy welfare recipients sitting around doing nothing is a complete contrivance.

In her 2011 book, Cheating Welfare: Public Assistance and the Criminalization of Poverty, University of Connecticut law professor Kaaryn Gustafson notes that although technical fraud is common, other types—like someone filling out multiple claim forms so as to get excess benefits from the system—are exceedingly rare. In California, she notes, officials only identify about three such cases per month, only one of which has sufficient evidence of intentional fraud as to justify being referred for further investigation or prosecution. According to Gustafson, efforts to detect criminal fraud through mechanisms like fingerprinting of recipients, intended to spot persons with criminal records who are legally barred from most program benefits, have proven superfluous. Not only do such efforts not result in much weeding out of criminals but they also are anything but cost-effective. In Texas, fingerprinting efforts ended up costing taxpayers $1.7 million in the first seven months of operation, and nearly $16 million by the end of 2000. But in four years, there were only nine criminal fraud charges filed by state prosecutors. Indeed, serious fraud is so rare and expensive to detect and prosecute that anti-fraud initiatives typically exceed whatever amount of money is being lost from fraud in the first place.

Lying With Numbers: How the Right Slanders the Unemployed

For some however, presuming the worst about the poor and unemployed is so reflexive an act, they will quite purposely deceive the public about the slothful ways of the struggling with no concern for truth. Recently, right-wing talking heads from Limbaugh to FOX News personalities Bill Hemmer, Lou Dobbs, Shannon Bream and Charles Payne, all publicized what they considered “stunning new evidence” about the irresponsibility of the unemployed. Relying for their information on a popular right-wing website that naturally provided no links to its source, they trumpeted supposedly convincing data from the Labor Department to the effect that the unemployed spend more time shopping than looking for a job. In fact, the original article breathlessly exhorted its readers that the unemployed not only shop too much but also spend twice as much time during an average day in “socializing, relaxing or leisure” activities as they do searching for a job. They also seemed shocked and appalled that almost all of the unemployed manage to sleep in a given day, noting to close out the piece, as if this were indicative of how lazy the jobless are: “Nearly all of the unemployed—99.9 percent—reported sleeping on an average day. On average, they dedicated 9.24 hours to that activity.” Horrors.

But naturally, the article’s author and the right wing media figures who repeated that author’s claims got it wrong. Despite Payne’s suggestion that the data proves how welfare programs “do make people lazy. They make people comfortable. They make you want to take a chill pill,” the actual statistics say nothing of the sort. The data source in question nowhere used the term “unemployed” to describe individuals being examined, nor was it specifying anything about those persons; rather it refers to persons “not employed,” which is an entirely different thing despite how similar it may sound. According to the report used to make this claim (the Labor Department’s American Time Use Survey), those who are not employed include persons “not in the labor force,” and that concept includes not only people who have simply quit looking for a job and might be on public assistance, but also those who are retired, disabled, full-time students, and those who are stay-at-home moms or dads with partners who earn enough to support them on their own. According to Census data, of all persons who are not working, two in five are retired, one in five are students, fifteen percent more are chronically ill or disabled, and another thirteen percent are caring for children or other family members (this would include many middle class stay-at-home mothers). In other words, eighty-five out of a hundred people who are classified as not working or not employed fall into these categories. So the fact that only nineteen percent of those classified as “not employed” engage in job searches or interviews on an average day, while 22.5 percent of those “not employed” shop for items other than groceries on an average day, means nothing. Those doing all that shopping and luxuriating are mostly not the people the right would have us envision: rather, they are people who are not in the labor force because they haven’t the need to be due to a partner’s earnings, or else they have already retired or they’re going to school.

The stay-at-home mom who spends her days shopping and getting her nails done and whose husband makes millions on Wall Street may be lazy and self-absorbed, and the seventy-five year old Florida snowbird who sits on the beach all day may have been a horrible human being during his work years, but they are surely not the individuals being chastised by the right with this data, even though they are the ones who are likely to be showing up in it. This is just one more prime example of how conservatives routinely distort data to further a narrative of cruelty towards America’s most vulnerable.

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