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Why the poor will always be with us


DURING the last presidential election there was little to choose from in the positions of George Bush and Bill Clinton on welfare reform.

At a time when the economy threatened to pauperize millions of Americans previously able to scrape by, Mr. Bush made a great show of advocating welfare reductions, while Mr. Clinton championed limiting welfare recipients to no more than two years assistance.

Mr. Clinton, having succeeded in his quest for the presidency, is still advocating such a limitation. Though other elements of the president's domestic agenda have stimulated controversy, a proposal to limit welfare will sail through Congress with bipartisan support. If there is one legislative initiative sure to unlock the congressional grid, welfare limitation is it.

In a country where diversity renders social consensus an occurrence of surpassing rarity, opinion polls make it abundantly clear that most Americans want something done about welfare -- and what they want is for welfare recipients to have significantly fewer benefits.

This mean-spirited public stinginess is rooted in a conception of welfare recipients that, despite its erroneousness, is accepted by conservatives and liberals alike: that welfare recipients and poor people in general are shiftless malingerers, content to indulge their impulses at the expense of the hard-working taxpayer.

The persistence of this myth is a function of the way most of us live our lives. And unless we radically change the way we live, many of us will continue to believe it because the myth of the shiftless welfare-poor is a psychological necessity born of our fears about ourselves.

To appreciate this you have to understand that it is tougher than one might think to be an American, even an American who is relatively advantaged. Being an American means being burdened with a culturally determined belief that there is above all else a necessity to "make something" of ourselves -- and a corresponding belief that if we don't, we have only ourselves to blame.

The affluence and relative openness of American society often make it appear that personal success, particularly in the marketplace, can be achieved by each of us. All we need is talent and character.

Making a success of ourselves is a moral and a psychological imperative. If we eschew the value of personal ambition, our families chastise us for not trying hard enough, our teachers call us underachievers and -- if we happen to be poor -- our case workers remind us that there are plenty of opportunities for those willing to work.

To accept the belief that we should "make something" of ourselves, however, can be even more troubling than rejecting it. Those who reject it may suffer loss of esteem in the eyes of others. But those who embrace it make themselves equally vulnerable to a loss of self-esteem.

If we believe there are few significant constraints on our potential for success other than those imposed by our own lack of talent or character, failure to realize our aspirations is likely to be intensely threatening.

If the ethos of the open society blinds us to the reality of the external conditions that impede realization of dreams (e.g. discrimination, structural changes in the economy), those who fail to achieve are likely to experience great personal anxiety.

The persistence of the welfare myth can be understood as a result of the desperation many of us feel when we confront our own failed aspirations. Because we dread recognition of our ordinariness, we employ a kind of inverted logic to render our commonplace achievements praiseworthy in contrast to the presumed failures of the abject poor, whose predicament reassures the rest of us.

Thus the welfare myth, which is but one manifestation of our culturally induced propensity to denigrate the poor, must be understood as a necessary product of the American experience. It will not be rendered inconsequential by the presentation of contrary facts because too many Americans have too great a psychological investment in its "truth."

No doubt we will have welfare reform. Those who speak for us in the halls of Congress will give the president the victory he wants -- and, whatever else we may feel about his agenda, the victory we want him to have. Access to welfare benefits will be further restricted. But that won't "improve" the welfare system. It will only make the rest of us feel that, by contrast, we "are somebody."

Michael Lewis is professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts and author of "The Culture of Inequality."

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