Blaming the poor

A conservative philosophy that’s all the rage among Alabama politicians is that the poor are to blame for the costs they impose on society.

It’s a convenient philosophy, but it ignores the reality: Especially in Alabama, changes in the economy are creating a growing class of people who cannot escape poverty because the only available jobs pay too little to sustain them.

While the blame-the-poor philosophy misses the source of the problem, it accurately assesses the burden poverty places on taxpayers. The growing costs of welfare programs increase the deficit and place pressure on lawmakers to raise taxes. Those mired in poverty are its primary victims, but it weighs on all Americans.

The rationale for blaming the poor is that welfare benefits are creating a culture of dependency. People who receive more and more welfare benefits have no incentive to work, the argument goes.

Our nation is creating a class of “takers,” according to many Alabama politicians, of people willing to luxuriate in a safety net that has become a hammock.

It’s a philosophy that provides comfort for politicians and others who have found financial success, but that ignores the reality faced by a growing percentage of Americans.

The July jobs report, released last week, was a reminder of that reality. What the report showed is that people are desperately trying to find work, but the jobs they are landing do not pay enough to sustain them. More than 65 percent of the jobs added in July were part time, providing low wages and few benefits.

The unemployment rate has dropped since the recession, but most of the growth has been in low-paying industries. A trend that began in the 1970s has accelerated with the economic turmoil of the last five years. For most Americans, real wages are dropping. Important benefits, like health care and retirement pensions, are disappearing.

This is a positive development for corporate shareholders, who enjoy more profit as labor costs drop. It is catastrophic for many hard-working families, especially in high-poverty Alabama.

The cost of providing food assistance to the working poor is increasing not because the programs are more generous, but because more people are having to settle for jobs that don’t pay enough for them to feed their families. Nearly one in five Alabamians — 910,000 people — have income so low they qualify for food stamps. More than 600,000 have no health insurance.

The consequences of growing poverty also are seen locally. Financially stressed parents must work longer hours to support their children, which means they have less time to be with them. Teachers see the unfortunate results at school.

Emergency rooms are overrun as people who cannot find a job that provides health insurance must resort to the only option they have.

Blaming the poor is a popular justification for cutting welfare benefits, but it ignores structural problems in the economy that are forcing more people into poverty.

Blaming the victims of poverty may be comforting for those who have so far avoided their fate, but it is a fiction that prevents real solutions.


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Filed under Poverty, Welfare

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