There are a lot of people complaining these days about lazy welfare queens leeching off the government and bankrupting countries. Society doesn’t seem to have much sympathy for anyone on welfare, actually. Even poor people who have minimum wage jobs and don’t qualify for welfare are sneered at by the upper class for not working harder and turning their lives into rags-to-riches stories. When the poor aren’t being sneered at they’re just forgotten. Every morning I watch a few minutes of a morning “news” show, and from the fluffy, feel-good topics they talk about you’d think there wasn’t a single person in the world suffering and the biggest problem facing society is deciding what to buy for Christmas.
The problem with the world isn’t that poor people are all lazy and greedy. The problem is that people who have never been poor have no idea what it’s like to be poor. They can’t even imagine it. So they fill in the blanks with their own experiences and end up convincing themselves that they live in a happy world where the poor enjoy all the luxuries of life without having to work for it and every job is a window of opportunity that leads to the promised land.
That perspective is so far from reality that it constitutes insanity. If rich people with an inaccurate perception of reality run the country it should come as no surprise that income inequality is getting worse. Income inequality is also getting worse because so many poor people are born, live and die in poverty never knowing any other kind of life. So they become institutionalized and take poverty (and its causes) for granted as the natural way of life.
I’m going to try to dispel some of the confusion and explain what it’s like to be poor and why the world should be talking about poverty more than celebrities and sitcoms.
Every once a while you’ll see someone buying steaks with welfare stamps. That pisses some people off, but hating poor people for buying stakes implies that they don’t deserve to eat good food. That’s heartless, and it misses the point. There’s enough food in the world for everyone to eat well. You should be mad at the system that only lets poor people eat steaks every once and a while, because the rest of the food they eat is the cheapest, most generic processed crap the government will approve for human consumption.
Poor people don’t eat cheap food because they’re too stupid to know it’s unhealthy or they’re too uncivilized to want to eat fresh fish and truffles. They walk past rows of savoury food every time they go to the grocery store and stare at it longingly as their stomachs grumble. When they leave the store they pass by aromatic bakeries, cafes and ethnic restaurants and wish they could afford to splurge for a $7 cup of coffee and a salmon quiche. When they do eat at a restaurant their eyes dart immediately to the price and look for the lowest numbers and then decide which of those items they’re going to order. Poor people only order steaks at restaurants but maybe once a year. They won’t even buy steaks at the grocery store except on special occasions. So if you see a poor person buying stakes with food stamps you should be happy for them that they’re taking a break from eating hot dogs and cereal and getting to eat like a real human being for one day.
It’s especially meaningful when a poor person gets to eat steak, because if their bodies aren’t malnourished from the nutritionless boxes of food they’ve been eating, they’ll be drained from the hard work they have to do. The cruellest lie ever told about the poor is that they don’t work. For every poor person who doesn’t work there’s ten million poor people who work all day every day as fast as they can at dangerous, tedious jobs where they’re permitted as few breaks as possible and are given as few amenities to accommodate them while they spend their entire lives trapped at work.
How do you think food gets from the field to the grocery store all packed up in boxes? Where do you think all the clothing and gadgets at the mall come from? They’re processed, assembled and stocked by people working all day for barely enough to survive. Every day they’re fighting for survival. Work is a life and death struggle for them, and if they can’t keep up the pace or grovel before their bosses reverently enough they’ll lose their job and die. Everything is always on the line. The stress and anxiety that causes is soul crushing. You can’t spend your life that way without breaking. Something inside you has to die in order to keep going.
Those who do survive will never earn enough time off or money to take vacations. A backyard BBQ is the closest they’ll come to a vacation. If they save their pennies for long enough they might be able to take a trip to a beach resort, but they won’t have enough money to rent jet skis, go scuba diving, get a massage or eat more than one gourmet meal. And they’ll come back home broke and have another few years of unrelenting work before they can take another whirlwind vacation….assuming no unforeseen expenses pop up before then.
Life is disastrous though, and the system is designed to take all your money. You can’t go a month without having to pay some kind of fine, fee or bill. And everything is as expensive as possible, especially health care and car repairs. That’s why insurance exists, but poor people are too poor to afford insurance. So they don’t get to go to the hospital. If you break your finger you just tape two popsicle sticks around it. When poor people do go to the hospital because they’re bodies are broken and battered from relentless work they have to pay their life savings to get better. If they can’t afford vital medical attention they certainly can’t afford cosmetic ones. Rich people can afford to have wrinkles removed. Poor people can’t afford to have warts removed from the bottom of their feet. Poor people don’t even get to go to the dentist regularly because it would cost too huge of a percentage of their life’s savings.
Poor people might be able to afford preventative health care if they didn’t get taxed so much. When someone with no savings gets paid $1,000 and gets taxed $100 they’re paying 10% of their entire net worth. That’s not just inconvenient, that’s crippling. That’s the difference between being able to see the dentist or not. Rich people can afford to pay more in taxes and still eat steak every day. Poor people can’t afford the taxes they’ve got.
And poor people don’t get much back from what they put in. They don’t get health care. They don’t get to go to museums, national parks, airports or take long road trips. Some of them don’t even get covered bus stops. They do get to go to jail for not being able to pay the relentless barrage of fines and fees the police dole out for any conceivable excuse though.
Poor people don’t even get welfare. I walked into a welfare office once and told the case worker that I had no car, no home, no family, no friends, no job and $1,000 in savings. The case worker told me I didn’t qualify for welfare but if I applied to fifteen jobs and didn’t get hired then I’d get barely enough money to survive if I ate rice and beans every day. However, if I got a job then I wouldn’t get any money. So I’d still be financially destitute until my first pay check. Then I’d continue to be destitute for the foreseeable future while I saved up my pennies by not enjoying any luxuries in life and hoping nothing bad happens to me.
That’s not an extraordinary story. That’s the norm. That’s how much the welfare office helps. It’s not a safety net. It’s a toilet to flush the poor down. Even the welfare office I went to had a lock on the bathroom door. I went to use it, and a security guard told me to go back to my place and sit down. The welfare office won’t even let you use the bathroom. The poor don’t even get that for the taxes they pay.
I don’t know how you get money out of the welfare office, but even if you can, it’s not enough to live a stress-free, fear-free life, and sooner or later you’re going to have to go back to work at an inhumane sweatshop. The only other alternative is turning to a life of crime. Then you’ll have the time and money to live like a real human being… at least, until you go to jail, but at least then you’ll get three meals a day and won’t have to pay utilities or rent. You’ll probably still have to work in an inhumane sweatshop though. And you’ll still have dangerous neighbours, and you’ll have to address your superiors as “sir/ma’am” and follow orders…. Just like at a real job.
Rich people might be stamping their feet at this point shouting, “If it’s so damn bad being poor then why don’t you just get a degree and/or work harder and pull yourself up!?!” To that I would say, if poor people can’t afford to go the hospital they sure as hell can’t afford a higher education. And it’s impossible for them to work any harder. They’re already pushing the limits of human endurance. A lot of them have two or three jobs. All they do is work and recuperate from work. The problem isn’t that they’re not working. The problem is that it doesn’t matter how hard they work. The system is designed so that they never get ahead. Sure, there will be a few people who beat the system and go from rags to riches, but that’s the exception. Endless poverty is the norm.
Poverty imprisons you at work. If work paid well enough to save more money than it costs to live then people wouldn’t be poor. The working poor are poor because a predatory economy keeps them chained to work with expenses and debt. Our economy is an atrocity; it runs on human rights abuses. Until this is fixed, none of us are civilized.
The physical and emotional suffering caused by high prices and low wages are shameful enough, but poverty also has a profound spiritual cost. When you have no money you have no freedom. You can’t travel where you want. You can’t quit your job. You can’t pursue hobbies. You can’t be picky about where you live. You can’t afford to take classes or buy books. You can’t do anything but go to and from work. So you spend your life at a place you don’t want to be doing things you don’t want to do for people you don’t like. But you have no choice. So you do it. All day every day. In the end, all your life amounted to was a tool at a business. You were a machine, bound to follow orders and unable to make decisions for yourself or explore the world and find yourself. You’re not even allowed to express yourself by the clothes you wear since you’ll be forced to wear the uniform your superiors at work order you to wear, and you won’t earn enough money to buy high fashion after work; you’ll shop at thrift stores and wear the faded clothes of people richer and older than you.
Poverty robs the poor of their very identity, dooming them to be unable to give their lives meaning outside of work. Poverty defeats the purpose of sentient life. It kills the poor inside before killing their bodies. There’s no purpose of humanity existing if the rest of our history revolves around oppressing the masses so the rich can live like gods. The call to action there isn’t to have an apocalypse. The call to action is to build a better economy that isn’t based on inequality.
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