Posted by Jay Livingston
My mother used to tell the joke about the story written by a girl from a rich family, a third grader at a fancy private school: “Once upon a time there was a very poor family. Everybody was poor. The mommy was poor, the daddy was poor, the butler was poor, the maid was poor . . . “
The recent Pew survey (here) doesn’t use the words rich or poor. Instead it talks about “financial security,” a new measure of the same concept. The financially secure have bank accounts and IRAs; the financially insecure have food stamps and Medicaid.
The basic finding is that the well-off have no idea what it’s like to be poor. More than half of the financially secure think that “poor people today have it easy because they can get government benefits without doing anything in return.”
I’m curious about the 29% of the least financially secure who also agree with that statement, but Pew provides only the basic statistical breakdown.
If you have that perception of poor people and government, the policy question is a no-brainer: Don’t spend any more government money on the poor.
The top two groups* are far more likely say that the US government can’t afford to do more for the needy. A Washington Post writer, Roberto Ferdman (here) looks at the data and asks, “Why the surprising lack of compassion?”
Lack of compassion, yes. But surprising? Don’t WaPo writers know about the Tea Party? Or the GOP victory two months ago? Much of that success was based on the idea that the government should do less for the poor in order to reduce taxes on income for the non-poor. (The biggest tax breaks in the actual proposals would go to the very richest, though the GOP doesn’t advertise that in its public statements.) The poor often have incomes that, after deductions and credits, are so low that they fall below the threshold for the income tax. The Wall Street Journal famously referred to these poor people as “lucky duckies.”
We choose perceptions that fit with our ideologies. WSJ sees the poor as lucky, the Tea Party sees them as moochers. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for compassion.
It’s hardly surprising that the financially secure** have no idea of what it’s like to be poor. The lives of the different social classes rarely intersect, and even when they do, it’s unlikely that the relationships are close enough that people would talk about their financial problems. Instead, we get a TV news reporter showing that he can buy caviar and lobster with food stamps.
Maybe what’s surprising is that aid to the poor has survived at all. Policy is up to politicians, and politicians get far more votes from the financially secure than from the insecure. The Pew report is called “The Politics of Financial Insecurity,” and one of the basic political facts is that poor people don’t vote.
The poor also do not think much about political issues, so they do not have much of a coherent political ideology.
If politics and voting are ways of securing interests and ideas, those who have no firm point of view will give politics and voting a low priority (unless there is some single issue that stirs them). The financially insecure have little motivation to sense of connection to electoral politics. Asked which party they support, they are more likely to say they’re “unsure” than to pick the Democrats or Republicans.
|Since I’d been restricting my media only to what Mike and his friends read and watched and heard, I couldn’t follow conversations about current events, and learned to be silent during any political discussions lest I embarrass myself.|
Goffman is educated (very well educated), White, and financially secure. Yet living in the world of the insecure, she gradually acquired their view of politics, which is almost no view at all. In that world, politics is unknown and unseen.
* The top two levels comprise perhaps 35-40% of the population. That’s a guess because the Pew report gives no information on the middle groups. It says only that the top group is about 25% and the bottom group 20%.
** In the 2012 presidential campaign, Anne Romney in an interview talked about her and Mitt being poor in the years as young marrieds, this despite Mitt’s wealthy father. My mother must have been looking down from above and remembering her joke. In any case, the advantage of Pew’s variable is that it distinguishes between income and financial security. The young Romneys may have had a low income, but they were not financially insecure.