On conservative contempt for the poor

In 1976, when Ronald Reagan ran (unsuccessfully) for the presidency, his campaign crafted an ad that has inspired a generation of conservatives: the 'Welfare Queen'. Focused on Linda Taylor, who defrauded the government for hundreds of thousands of dollars, it was intended to show how the welfare system was being exploited so that the 'poor' could live like royalty off of the tax returns of hard-working middle-class people. (Incidentally, NPR did a fine write-up on the facts behind her story, which highlights how misleading Reagan's campaign really was.)

This narrative is still in effect today in conservative media. Numerous stories from conservative media and think-tanks have cited the ownership of appliances as a sign that the poor in America are actually pretty well-off. Popular conservative commentator Ben Shapiro chalks up poverty to people being "bad with money." It's been over four decades since the Reagan's "Welfare Queen" campaign, but the effects of framing poor people as government moochers who already enjoy many modern luxuries (like refrigerators, apparently) are still very contemporary.

Insidiously, this narrative erodes sympathy for the poor. It's difficult to feel bad for people who are just exploiting the system instead of working hard and earning their place in middle-class America. But more than just eroding sympathy, it fosters contempt for the poor. After all, the government handouts purportedly being exploited by the poor are paid for with the tax dollars of hard-working middle class families. A middle-class working family, so the narrative goes, earned their amenities and financial security. Why should their tax dollars go to people who would rather sit at home and collect government benefits?

The race factor

It's impossible to have these conversations without talking about race. African Americans and Hispanics both experience poverty at twice the rate of whites. In an article on school segregation in America, The Atlantic found that minorities faced an overwhelming proportion of minorities attend poor schools and are exposed to concentrated poverty. Reagan's "Welfare Queen" campaign portrayed an African-American living off the largess of taxpayers, and research has shown that these kinds of campaigns have both fueled negative stereotypes about African-Americans and eroded support for welfare programs. These negative stereotypes, and negative views of social welfare programs, perpetuate the isolation and segregation of poor minorities. 

Not long ago on Facebook, an acquaintance of mine complained about a person buying what he perceived to be luxury items using food stamps. He commented, "My white privilege is my JOB." The narrative is clear: middle-class white families are hard workers, and their tax dollars are subsidizing minority-race government moochers who are simply too lazy to do any better. 

In fairness to the racial sensibilities of these middle- and upper-class white people who chalk up poverty to haphazard money management, they may view government programs like welfare as perpetuating a culture of laziness, and argue that if we stripped away this support that people would be more likely to work. However, the census data on welfare recipients contradicts this narrative (notably, "welfare" consists of several programs including SNAP, TANF, and Medicaid). Most welfare recipients who can work, do (1, 2). Those who don't—including over a  million veterans who use SNAP—are generally children, the elderly, or disabled. 

Countering a decades-old falsehood

I think the conservative narrative about the poor stems from a denial of sorts. Conservatives want to believe in the American Dream, that anyone who works hard can prosper. Self-actualization is a fundamental conservative value. They don't want to believe that the system which has allowed them to flourish has done so at the expense of millions of others. From the segregation of schools to the concentration of poverty to the very placement of highways and suburbs, middle-class Americans have long benefited from inequality. It's easier to stigmatize the poor as lazy government moochers than to own the reality that one's own relative wealth was built in part on the backs of millions of poor. 

I'm reminded of my father in law, who is relatively conservative. He's currently a high-ranking executive at one of the nation's largest energy corporations, but it wasn't always that way. In his younger years, when my wife was a child, they lived in a trailer home and didn't have much. He often uses this story to reinforce the conservative narrative that hard work can overcome poverty. However, he leaves out important details—his trailer home was on his parents' sprawling property in a relatively affluent suburb. They didn't live in a poor urban neighborhood where access to health services or functional infrastructure (like clean water) was ever something to worry about. They didn't have to send their daughters to destitute schools. This shows that there is a difference between "poor" and "poverty", just as there is a difference between "wealth" and "income".

It's this detachment from the reality of poverty that has allowed contempt for the poor to flourish for more that 40 years, influencing a host of public policy decisions that continue to make opportunity elusive for the poor. Millions of Americans live in extreme poverty. Statistically, the greatest predictor of one's lifetime wealth is the class into which they were born. Until we recognize that middle- and upper-class Americans have thrived on the backs of the poor and that being poor is not reflective of someone's work ethic or value as a human, little in our country will change. 


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