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Why do we demonize the poor and give a pass to the rich who exploit the system?

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“It is in our power to wipe out poverty. It simply isn’t among our priorities.”

That’s a line from a recent New York Times article by Ezra Klein, who makes a convincing argument that this country doesn’t eradicate poverty because too many people benefit from having a poor underclass.

One example: If wages are kept low, then that benefits both the people who own companies that dole outmiserly pay, but it also benefits consumers who enjoy lower prices, thanks to barely sustainable paychecks earned by the people who wait on us, clean up after us, and make products for us.

How much do we benefit? Not always as much as you might think. Chipotle officials estimated that the impact of a $15-an-hour minimum wage would be about a 4 percent price increase — or less than a quarter for your next burrito. Some might think that’s a small price to pay for lifting people out of poverty, especially when the price of gas more greatly fluctuates than that all the time.

Nothing this complex is that simple or easy, of course. Inflation would be a worry, and employers would rely even more on automation or outsourcing to offset labor costs. Prices would go up on a lot more than fast food. Still, do we not think there is room for improvement when the Waltons become the nation’s richest family off the backs of Walmart employees who make so little that they qualify for taxpayer-supported benefits?

Often in America, the recipients of welfare are merely portals of money transfers from the government to wealthy business people. In his ground-breaking book “Evicted,” sociologist Matthew Desmond tracks the lives of eight families facing eviction in Milwaukee. Most of those on government assistance are spending 50-80 percent of their income on rent. That includes the residents of a god-awful trailer park on the city’s south side, whose owner netted about $450,000 a year raking in pass-through money from the federal government while spending as little as possible on the 131 units, many without proper heat, plumbing, or insulation.

Since the days of Ronald Reagan, the myth of the Welfare Queen has shaped American political thought. Why, it is fair to ask, are the poor families seen as indolent and non-deserving, while it is the folks at the other end of the spectrum — we just learned that the richest of the rich basically aren’t paying any taxes at all — who are exploiting the system and living off the undervalued labor of the poor?

An easy answer is that those at the top own the politicians. Those facing eviction in Milwaukee surely weren’t contributing to congressional PACs. They don’t even vote. So politicians don’t think twice about demonizing or ignoring them. Most of us don’t fear — or even think much about — other peoples’ poverty. It is the specter of rising worker power, as Klein says, that shakes us up. For proof, look at how many states have jumped to the commands of Big Business and rejected increased workers’ compensation money. Can’t risk that the worker might have the option of turning down crappy work for low pay and no benefits.

This is a nation that prides itself on being exceptional. But how can we be exceptional and still have a scandalous share of our fellow countrymen living in poverty, struggling to avoid homelessness, and unable to access basic healthcare?

The solutions — affordable housing, universal healthcare, and livable wages — are within our reach. It’s not cheap, but neither was the Trump tax cut for billionaires. Nor, for that matter, is it inexpensive to give tax credits and generous capital gains exceptions to homeowners. These benefits reduce federal revenue by more than triple the amount a low-income housing voucher would cost. It might hurt a little bit, but it should hurt worse to live in the richest country of all time and ignore the fact that way too many children go to bed hungry.

There are multiple benefits to pulling people out of their low income struggle. They are more likely to become positive members of their communities, contribute to the greater good, improve their skills, spend more time as parents, and break the cycle of generational poverty.

And maybe if they didn’t have to fork over most of their income to their landlord, they could even afford an occasional night out with the family for some fast food — even if the burritos do cost a quarter more.

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1 Comment

  1. Wonderfully written piece. Thank you for keeping this inequity in our country in the spotlight. Its too easy to sweep it under the rug or to look the other way.

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