Take a breath.
Take a deep breath. Let your lungs expand. Let the air collect inside you.
Now exhale slowly. Feels good doesn’t it? You’d never realize there are hundreds of contaminates floating invisible in that air. Dirt, germs, pollution – all entering your body unnoticed but stopped by your immune system.
If only we had such a natural defense against prejudice. Racism, classism, xenophobia, sexism, homophobia – we take all that in with every breath, too.
It may not seem like it, but all these value judgments are inherent in American culture. They’re as much a part of life in the United States as the flag, football and apple pie. And to a greater or lesser extent, you have subconsciously accepted them to help construct your ideas of normality.
What does it mean to be a man? What does it mean to be a woman? How should black people be treated? To whom is it appropriate to be sexually attracted? What makes a person poor and why? All of these questions and so many more have been answered one way or another for us by the dominant culture. Not everyone accepts this perceived wisdom, but most of us have swallowed these solutions whole without thought, logic or criticism – and we don’t even know it’s happened.
Take our preconceptions about wealth and poverty.
Well paying jobs are drying up. Minimum wage work is becoming more common. Salaries are shrinking while productivity is increasing. Meanwhile the cost of living continues to rise as does the cost of getting an education.
Yet we still cling to the belief that all rich people deserve their wealth and all poor people deserve their poverty.
When we hear about someone on Welfare or food stamps, we sneer. The average conception is that this person is probably faking it. He or she could have earned enough to avoid public assistance, but he or she isn’t trying hard enough.
Moreover, we KNOW with a certainty that goes beyond mere empiricism that many of the poor still manage to buy the newest sneakers, have flat screen TVs and eat nothing but Porterhouse steaks.
You can hear this kind of story uttered with perfect certainty from the mouths of white, middle class people everywhere. They don’t mind helping people who are really in need, they say, but most poor folks are gaming the system.
Never once do they stop to consider that this story about impoverished individuals living better than middle class Americans is, itself, one of the most pervasive myths in our society. We know it the same way we know all Polish people are dumb, all Asians are smart and all Black people love fried chicken and watermelon.
However, none of this “knowledge” is supported by the facts. Look at the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). According to the New York Times:
Allegations of fraud, including an informal economy in which food stamps are turned into cash or used to buy liquor, gasoline or other items besides food have been used to argue that the program is out of control. In fact, the black market accounts for just over 1 percent of the total food stamp program, which is far less than fraud in other government programs like Medicare and Medicaid.
If you include erroneous payments because of mistakes on applications, overall loss to the food stamp program comes to 4%, according to the Department of Agriculture. Compare that to the 10% lost to Medicare and Medicaid – programs no one is calling to be cut or eliminated.
But figures like these don’t convince the average American. We’re so certain that all or most poor people are just lazy parasites. Everyone “knows” some low-income person they deem to be living too high for their circumstances.
And, yes, sometimes you do see an impoverished individual not wearing rags. Sometimes you do peek into an indigent person’s hovel and see new electronics or game systems.
How does this happen?
Credit card companies are waiting in the shadows to extend a line of credit to just about anybody. It’s a safe bet for these businesses. If they give you money today, they can charge exorbitant rates of interest – even more so with the highest risk clientele. But there isn’t much risk to these corporations these days when almost anyone can take a job as a state constable or bail recovery agent to hunt down debtors and bring them to economic justice.
When you see a destitute child with new sneakers, his parents probably bought them with plastic. When you see an X-Box in a needy person’s house, chances are that wasn’t paid for in cash. They used the charge plate and will end up paying for that game system many times what it’s worth.
It’s a problem not limited to the poor. Even middle class folks are drowning up to their eyeballs in debt. As wages have decreased, people have used their credit cards to keep a standard of living they expect. But they’re paying for it with huge portions of their paychecks going to these credit card companies. Yet even though we all do this, middle class folks look down their noses at people lower down the economic ladder for doing the same thing.
In fact, they refuse to even see that obvious truth. Instead they cling to the lie that poor folks are social parasites. We even begrudge them food. Those are my tax dollars going to pay for that penurious person’s free ride, they say.
Unfortunately, we don’t stop to consider how much of our taxes are actually going to help the less fortunate.
Let’s say you make $50,000 a year. That means, you pay $36 toward food stamps. That’s ten cents a day – the same amount many charities ask to help feed starving children in Africa.
If you add all safety net programs, the cost only goes up an additional $6 a year. That doesn’t seem like a huge chunk of my taxes. Honestly, do you begrudge needy people less than the price of a meal for a family of four at Bennigan’s?
By and large, your tax bill isn’t going to the poverty-stricken. It’s going to the wealthy. Over the course of a year, you pay $6,000 for corporate welfare.
You read that right. Six K. Six grand. Six thou. Those are your tax dollars at work, too. And it’s a much larger burden on your bank account than the $42 you shell out for the poor.
What do you get for that $6,000 outlay? It includes at least $870 to direct subsidies and grants for corporations. An additional $870 goes to offset corporate taxes. Another $1,231 goes to plug holes in the federal budget from revenue lost to corporate tax havens. Oh! And don’t forget a sizable chunk for subsidies to Big Oil companies that are polluting our skies and fueling climate change and global warming.
Most of your money isn’t going to feed hungry children. It’s going to recoup losses for giant transnational corporations like Apple and GE that hide their money overseas to boost profits and avoid paying taxes for things we all need like schools, police and fire departments.
This money subsidizes giant multi-national corporations that are already making billions and billions of dollars in profit each year. In the past decade alone, corporations have doubled their profits – all while reducing their American workforces and sending jobs overseas. Yet we only complain about poor folks using food stamps and buying new sneakers on credit.
Why is that? Why does it only bother us when poor people get help and not when huge corporations do?
Part of it is the media. We’ve been convinced that big business deserves its money and poor people don’t. Another part of it is that these facts often go underreported. Movies and TV shows love portraying the parasite poor person but rarely portray the corporate leech. Outside of “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “A Christmas Carol,” the wealthy are usually portrayed in the most positive light possible and not as addicts hoarding cash they don’t need to compete with each other in a childish game of one-upmanship.
Finally, there is the racial and sexual element. By and large, corporations are run by white males. The poor are mostly black, brown and though women make up a slightly higher percentage than men, it is often conceptualized as uniquely female. Take the term Welfare Queen. Why is there no Welfare King? How telling that our conception only allows for one gender in this role!
The reality is much different. The true Welfare Queens are Big Businesses. They make unprecedented profits and avoid paying taxes on them. They have tons of cash on hand but never can seem to get enough. And if we increased the corporate tax rate to what it was in the 1950s when the Unite States was more prosperous than it has ever been, these same corporations would still be Filthy. Stinking. Rich.
So the next time you hear someone blaming the poor for gobbling up your taxes, remember the facts. First, it’s simply not true. There is no widespread fraud by the poor. They are not gaming the system. They are not putting an undue burden on the middle class. However, big business IS – in fact – cheating you out of income. Business people are getting fabulously wealthy on your dime – and even if we stopped subsidizing them, they’d still be fabulously wealthy!
Finally, don’t ignore the racial component. Would middle class Caucasians still complain so vehemently about the poor if they weren’t mostly talking about Black people, Latinos and women? I doubt it.
We may breath in these prejudices but we’re not helpless. It’s up to all of us to dispel these myths, not to let them stand, to confront them every time they come up. And, yes, I mean EVERY. TIME.
The only immune system we have as a society is education, knowledge, wisdom. And once you know the truth, don’t let anyone get away with this kind of racist, classist bullshit.
NOTE: This article also was published in the LA Progressive and on the Badass Teachers Association blog.