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The latest indignity

Dignity is a sort of agreement between people. A decision to grant that a person, or body of people, deserve respect. That they possess agency, the capacity and the right to make their own decisions. To determine their own lives.

America has agreed, implicitly, that poor people have no dignity.

If we as a nation could just acknowledge this, that would be something. But nope, because we are a nation firmly in the grasp of the just world fallacy, we can’t. We have to insist that poverty is something people choose, a failure of character– laziness or ineptness generally– and/or that the poor are cheats, trying to take advantage of society’s good will.

Which is really just another way of accusing them of laziness. The assumption is not actually that hard work leads to success (otherwise known as the American dream), but that success means hard work has already been done. In other words, that successful people must have earned their success, and as a corollary, so have the poor earned their poverty.

This is how a state representative came to think it was a good idea to propose legislation banning Americans from using EBT (electronic benefit transfer) cards to buy “cookies, chips, energy drinks, soft drinks, seafood, or steak”:

“I have seen people purchasing filet mignons and crab legs” with electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards, the legislator explained, according to The Post’s Roberto A. Ferdman. “When I can’t afford it on my pay, I don’t want people on the taxpayer’s dime to afford those kinds of foods either.” 

First– lies. There is no way that Rick Brattin, Missouri House Republican formerly known for proposing that women shouldn’t be allowed to get abortions without permission from their husbands unless they were raped, and it was “legitimate rape” (yes, he used those words), can’t afford to buy crab legs and/or filet mignon at the grocery store.


Third–  if anyone’s eating good meat and seafood, don’t we want it to be poor people?! The cheapest food in America is also the worst for you. It’s high-calorie– if you go to the store with the goal of getting the most caloric bang for your buck, you will be best served by buying lots and lots of cheap foods which have loads of calories but are otherwise not very nutritious. Those calories will come from fat and/or some variety of sugar, increasingly the high fructose corn syrup kind.

A filet mignon is the leanest cut of steak. It’s actually the only cut of steak I like, because frankly I hate the texture of fat (this is medium rare (har) case of the healthier food, at least in terms of my personal preferences, being the tastier one).

And yes, I don’t buy it very often, because it’s expensive. But it’s not crazily expensive, And a big part of the reason it’s more expensive is because it’s cheap for farmers to produce fatty meat. Why? Because they’re receiving welfare. Yes, it’s called farm subsidies, and they are specifically geared toward corn and corn-produced products (such as the aforementioned HFCS), which make food fatty. And fatty foods are, in turn, cheaper for the consumer.

So yeah, that’s how it works. A government which gives welfare to farmers to produce fatty foods which are cheaper for consumers wants to, in addition to thereby making the fattiest foods the most affordable, actively prevent the poorest of consumers from being able to afford less fatty foods.

It’s difficult to imagine a way to more effectively deny the dignity of a group of people than to take every possible measure to prevent them from being healthy, and then say that if they’re unhealthy, it’s their own problem. As is, of course, their poverty– which couldn’t at all be unrelated to being unhealthy (Note: Obamacare also opposed).

This is an effort to humiliate the poor– to deprive them of dignity.

It’s also a double standard, as Washington Post columnist Emily Badger points out:

Sometimes these laws are cast as protection for the poor, ensuring that aid is steered in ways that will help them the most. Other times they’re framed as protection for the taxpayer, who shouldn’t be asked to help people who will squander the money on vices anyway.   But the logic behind the proposals is problematic in at least three, really big ways. The first is economic: There’s virtually no evidence that the poor actually spend their money this way. The idea that they do defies Maslow’s hierarchy — the notion that we all need shelter and food before we go in search of foot massages. In fact, the poor are much more savvy about how they spend their money because they have less of it (quick quiz: do you know exactly how much you last spent on a gallon of milk? or a bag of diapers?). By definition, a much higher share of their income — often more than half of it — is eaten up by basic housing costs than is true for the better-off, leaving them less money for luxuries anyway. And contrary to the logic of drug-testing laws, the poor are no more likely to use drugs than the population at large. The second issue with these laws is a moral one: We rarely make similar demands of other recipients of government aid. We don’t drug-test farmers who receive agriculture subsidies (lest they think about plowing while high!). We don’t require Pell Grant recipients to prove that they’re pursuing a degree that will get them a real job one day (sorry, no poetry!). We don’t require wealthy families who cash in on the home mortgage interest deduction to prove that they don’t use their homes as brothels (because surely someone out there does this). The strings that we attach to government aid are attached uniquely for the poor. That leads us to the third problem, which is a political one. Many, many Americans who do receive these other kinds of government benefits — farm subsidies, student loans, mortgage tax breaks — don’t recognize that, like the poor, they get something from government, too. That’s because government gives money directly to poor people, but it gives benefits to the rest of us in ways that allow us to tell ourselves that we get nothing from government at all. Political scientist Suzanne Mettler has called this effect the “submerged state.” Food stamps and welfare checks are incredibly visible government benefits. The mortgage interest deduction, Medicare benefits and tuition tax breaks are not — they’re submerged. They come to us in round-about ways, through smaller tax bills (or larger refunds), through payments we don’t have to make to doctors (thanks to Medicare), or in tuition we don’t have to pay to universities (because the G.I. Bill does that for us). Mettler’s research has shown that a remarkable number of people who don’t think they get anything from government in fact benefit from one of these programs. This explains why we get election-season soundbites from confused voters who want policymakers to “keep your government hands off my Medicare!” This is also what enables politicians to gin up indignation among small-government supporters who don’t realize they rely on government themselves.

For further reading on the refusal to grant dignity to the poor, please see If Someone Ever Complains About Welfare Collectors, Show Them This. But only if you’re okay with the rage it may inspire. May it be a productive rage.

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