Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Don't Think the Rich Benefit from Public Assistance? Think Again.

I see this topic pop up all the time on various forums, in my Facebook newsfeed, in discussions with family. Those darned poor people, leeching off the gubment. Why can't they just get a job? I don't want to pay for their poor decisions.

Oh yes, you really do. And here's why.

Depression Era Poverty, Resurrected

You've probably seen some pictures of what was going on in this country during The Great Depression. You probably have some idea of what it was like to be poor before welfare was a thing. If not, it isn't hard to imagine. You're a person who, for whatever reason, cannot pay for food or shelter. That's it. There's no help for you, you just can't buy food or shelter. Sometimes churches will take you in, sometimes you get lucky and land a shit job that will pay you next to nothing for hard, often dangerous, physical labor, but mostly you just languish, panhandling for your dinner, until your luck changes or you die of exposure, preventable illness or starvation. That happened in this country. Even scarier, it could happen again.

If you're a parent in that situation, you're likely to be separated from your children, your family torn apart, because people take pity on innocent children. There are places for them to get a full belly and a roof over their heads, and you want that for them more than anything. But they don't take in whole families. That's too much of a burden, and would just be encouraging you to be lazy.

Bad things happened all over the world in a time before welfare. In Shadows of the Workhouse, Jennifer Worth chronicles the struggles regaled to her by her elderly patients during her time as a ward nurse in London's East End. Horrific is the only word I can use to describe them. As in America, orphanages were available for the children of the destitute, but it meant a life of neglect, abuse and the destruction of families.

Mrs. Worth tells the story of a young couple, beginning their lives. They and their two children lived in a tiny apartment, barely scraping by on his salary as a dockworker. When tragedy strikes, and he is killed at work, there was nothing for it, but for his wife to leave their two young children unattended at home while she earned a living cleaning offices.

When the mother in this story fell ill, she couldn't seek medical care. Nor could she afford to miss work. She slipped and fell while carrying a bucket of mop water down a flight of stairs, and froze to death in the puddle at the bottom, unable to move in her weakened state.

The fate her children suffered was, in some ways, more tragic and awful. They were resigned to the protection of the workhouse, wherein they were separated, neglected, abused (including being flogged nigh unto death), and used for cheap labor.

And if you are cold hearted enough not to care too much about the very real tragedies of families living without a safety net, think about what it meant for the wealthy.

Laundry, Laundry Everywhere (and Shit and Pandhandlers and Barnyard Animals)

The price of living in a civilized, clean, relatively happy society is paying to uplift the destitute.

Even for those who could afford their necessities, exposure to abject poverty was a daily occurrence. On your way to buy food, on your way through the countryside for a Sunday drive, on your way to work, on your way to buy medicine for your sick child, you'd have seen people living in conditions that we would not tolerate today. Filthy children, running naked and barefoot through the streets. Women and older children hanging laundry on any line they could rig up, chickens and ducks and goats, even larger livestock like cows were commonplace in the poor sections of town.

And it reeked. Raw sewage, body odor, the stink of chicken manure and the products of slaughter, poor waste management and the inability to pay for electricity, running water or indoor plumbing meant a serious lack of sanitation available to the poorest of the nation. I'm certain that when the wind blew right the Governor could smell the poorest of his constituents.

The clever poor folks, or those able to obtain transportation, made their way into the wealthy sections of town in order to panhandle. You know that uncomfortable moment, when the panhandler on the corner makes eye contact, and you know you're going to have to tell them you don't have change? Every day. You'd have to do that every day without welfare. At every street corner.

Poverty is uncomfortable. Not just for the poor, for society as a whole. Even if you resent the poor, even if you believe that their own bad decisions have led them to this crossroads and it is not your responsibility to bail them out, you still want to pay for their necessities. If you don't, you can look forward to a lot more of this.

The ghost of destitution past haunts us, still. We can go back to that. We can cut away the safety net, you can keep your welfare tax money, but are you willing to pay the price?

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