The Left

Not Poor Enough

Homeless man
Homeless man
Photographed by Lee Jeffries: Obviously I don't photograph every homeless person I see, I have to recognize something in the subject. I can't explain it. It's something I fee - an emotion they're giving me. | Photo: Lee Jeffries | Homeless, Poverty, Mental Health, Beard, Eyes, Lee Jeffries,

If the poor don't suffer, where's the fun?

It used to be the poor were worthless because they were supposedly lazy bums who sat around and lived off hard-working Americans' tax dollars.

But like so much conservative rhetoric in the 21st century, hate for the poor has gotten more extreme. Now the poor worthless because they aren't miserable enough to deserve pity. Some of them have halfway nice things. They occasionally have fun. Some of them even enjoy sex.

I've heard lots of anecdotes to this effect over the year, all of which amount to the same thing: the narrator saw a poor person the other day, and she had nicer stuff than he thought she should. A cell phone. A fancy handbag. A TV at her house. A car. And yet the government gave her food stamps! So obviously as the alleged poor person hasn't sold everything she owns and moved into a tar-paper shack, she must be cheating the government, which is cheating all us hard-working taxpayers.

The teller of this tale never digs any deeper or ponders any questions that might undercut the point. Like, could the handbag be a lookalike knockoff? Or maybe a gift? I can attest that even when dead broke, people sometimes get nice presents. What if the car was on its last legs (been there, driven that)? What if she's hanging on to her cell phone because without it she can't get temp assignments? Or she's only going to be on food stamps for a few months, so there's no point in selling the phone used, then having to buy a new one later.

Thinking about those possibilities would spoil everything. How can the tale-teller feel superior if he considers that somebody might be genuinely struggling or genuinely needs help?

Or consider New York Times pundit David Brooks, who's written multiple columns on how the real reason the poor are poor is that unlike rich people, they're disgustinglyimmoral (a popular theme on the right). And unlike the good old days, poor people keep having premarital sex and popping out babies.

This, you see, makes the poor unlike the rich who can afford abortions and good birth control ... oh, wait, no, Brooks doesn't go there, instead he paints the rich as more moral (does he imagine rich people don't Do It until the ring's on the finger?). Rich people's big moral failing is that they're not judgmental enough about those filthy rutting poor people.

Brooks says he writes this stuff because he's worried about the impact of single parenthood on poor families (the column I link to above provides examples to prove how children in those situations grow up horrible moral voids). No question, an unplanned pregnancy can be a devastating financial blow when you're poor, especially if you're flying solo. But if that's the problem, there are lots of ways to address it. Providing financial help. Making it easier to obtain contraceptives or abortions. Giving sex ed classes that offer actual education, not just Don't Have Sex lectures. Brooks, however, disapproves of the poor living for "short-term pleasure" so I guess those options are off the table.

The same logic has encouraged Brooks to find the upside of 9/11 and the 21st century's recession: under pressure, Americans will become more moral and less focused on money and career. Or at least some Americans: Brooks has enough money to buy a $3 million house, but he obviously doesn't feel it's hurting his moral focus.

No surprise: rich people are always judged by a different standard in these diatribes. Rich people, you see, are hard-working job creators driven to make money which is why the slightest decrease in their take-home pay will cause them to lose all interest in earning a living. Whereas if the poor get money, food or pretty much anything, they'll lose all interest in working. That's why dealing with these peasants properly requires making their life a living hell if it isn't already. That's why it's more important to cut food stamps for the poor than welfare for millionaire farmers.

If the homeless can go to shelters instead of freezing to death, they have no incentive to work. If people buy good food with food stamps, they're not thrifty enough. If they have sex before marriage, they're not moral enough.

The poor can't have nice things, because then it spoils the fun of condemning them.

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Updated May 6, 2017 5:51 AM EDT | More details

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