In a time when poverty is reaching its highest level in decades and mid-level jobs are increasingly hard to find, it would seem like helping out those less fortunate would be a national priority.
Instead, America has been turning its back on the poor for the past 30 years. The United States has an unfortunate way of looking at poverty. Our national discourse has a unique quality among the world’s many cultures in that we that don’t just overlook our poorer compatriots, but openly denounce them. This attitude, mixed with shrinking opportunities for the lower class, jobs moving overseas, increasingly expensive education, record low funding to public education and a skyrocketing income disparity in the United States creates a poisonous environment for those Americans who are struggling to achieve the “American Dream.”
Politicians and media figures alike have undertaken a campaign to demonize the lower class. The word “welfare queen” became a commonly used word in the 1970’s, coined after a famous speech by then GOP presidential candidate Ronald Reagan in reference to a nameless woman from the South Side of Chicago who allegedly had 80 different names, had illegitimate children simply to gain more checks and collected veterans’ benefits without ever having served. The woman, however, was later found by Chicago officials to be completely fictional.
This fabricated story used to enrage the masses to take action against those in need of a helping hand seemed like an obvious ploy to gain voters. That made no difference to those seeking scapegoats in a time of turmoil. Regardless of the intentions involved, the war on poverty quickly became a war on the poor.
When Paul Ryan was swept into the national spotlight after being named the GOP’s pick for vice president, he also got a huge new audience for his own plan to cut the nation’s deficit. One of the centerpieces of his plan is the issue of welfare reform.
Conservative pundits and politicians alike have championed the cause of drastically cutting programs aimed at aiding lower income Americans, including unemployment benefits, children’s nutritional assistance and social security. Right wing heavyweights from The Heritage Foundation to Rush Limbaugh to Bill O’Reilly have spent countless hours trying to discredit and demonize underprivileged Americans who receive aid from the government. Anti-poor activists have done everything from concocting studies on how poor families owning refrigerators should be ineligible from receiving food stamps, to suggesting that if poor Americans are suddenly forced to live without any government safety net they would magically lift themselves out of poverty. Additional studies have been conducted blaming inner city schools for failing standardized testing despite having their budgets cut year after year.
S.C. Lieutenant Governor Andre Bauer even said that we shouldn’t help poor people because “we don’t want them to breed”. Why would any decent person treat millions of people like animals? “Fiscal responsibility”, apparently? It appears that those on the far right are willing to say or do anything to eliminate programs that help the needy.
But what does welfare really cost American tax payers?
The numbers say it all. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the Federal Government spends $59 billion on traditional social welfare programs per year. While the number seems staggering, comparing that to the $964.8 billion the U.S. spent on the military in 2011, puts it into perspective (). Social welfare programs only make up about 3 percent of the Federal Budget. Another less publicized budget figure shows that $93 billion goes directly towards corporate welfare; this accounts for 5 percent of the federal budget.
None of the so-called deficit hawks of the right wing seem to care about eliminating tax loopholes, and even handouts, to companies that are often running record profits. The previous figure doesn’t include the $53.9 billion in tax breaks or $16.3 billion in handouts to oil companies the federal government provides yearly. It’s clear that aid to the poor isn’t our biggest problem when it comes to government spending — it’s aid to the rich. It should be considered logical to give money to those who need it instead of those who don’t. Then why do we act as if social welfare, not corporate spending nor even the military industrial complex is the biggest strain on our budget?
The answer is simple: Poor people don’t have money. In this post-Citizens United world where anonymous donors can spend unlimited money to support a candidate and lobbyists rule Washington, many politicians have decided to find a comfy place in the back pockets of corporations. So instead of letting voters see their tax money getting funneled into sweet deals for fat cat CEOs, the Ryans, Mitt Romneys and their right wing media counterparts find other things to distract us with.
What could be more enraging than hearing about lazy poor people living off of your hard earned tax dollars? Maybe shady back room deals giving undeserving corporations billions of dollars. But the rich and powerful don’t want you talking about that; just hate the awful poor people who conveniently lack Super PACS and lobbyists.
It’s time for us as a nation to put aside our anti-poor bias and fix our broken system. Money shouldn’t run Washington the people should. And while many act like people are just bank accounts, we know corporations aren’t people. The millions of underprivileged Americans who are struggling to get by deserve to be treated as people instead of anonymous Super PACs.
Eric Smith is a Collegian contributor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.