“Heartless? Yes, I am heartless when some urban punk with $10 grand of rims, amps and gadgets on his car pulls into a convenience store with a food stamp card, buys junk food, beer, lottery tickets and smokes. BECAUSE THAT DOES NOT LOOK LIKE POVERTY TO ME. And yes, I saw that daily, dozens of times, at the convenience store across the street from the house that got burgled.” – Michael Z. Williamson
Some years ago, Mom took a temporary job at the local housing office, and her experience of poverty in America is very similar to that described in the post linked above. She saw many people who genuinely needed public assistance. She also saw many mothers who had perfectly styled hair and elaborately painted nails — and children who were dressed in dirty, ragged t-shirts and jeans. As you might expect, Mom felt very little sympathy for the latter group. Instead of spending money on your perm and manicure, Mom often thought to herself, why not buy some decent clothes for your kids?
As far as most leftists are concerned, Mom is a cold, heartless, judgmental bitch for even daring to suggest that people with meager incomes should live frugally. This recent blog post, for example, illustrates that attitude very well. Because we conservatives believe that there are limits to what public assistance can realistically achieve, “profkeck” concludes that we are meanies who want rob her life of all fun. “They would think that I shouldn’t take pleasure in life by going to a theme park with my family or attending a rock concert in celebration of my wedding anniversary. Instead, I should use my monthly income to cover all my bills, purchase health insurance, buy gas and groceries, and if there’s anything left, I should save it,” she writes, as if it’s the general public’s responsibility to ensure that her life is pleasant and stress-free. Please, please give me a break, “profkeck”. It is not moral to legally compel perfect strangers to bankroll your family trip to the amusement park. If you want those things, you are going to have to save up the money in advance through couponing or other cost-cutting measures — or you’re going to have to ask your family, your friends, or a local charity (like a church) for assistance.
(Also, “profkeck” betrays a distinct lack of awareness as to the reasons for her troubles. Gee, I wonder why people are struggling to pay for healthy food. Could it be because the government has interfered with the free market by subsidizing some food industries at the expense of others? That, my fellow blogger, is a bipartisan sin that many up-and-coming “tea-bagger” conservatives wish to correct.)
And I’m not saying all of this from a position of privilege, by the way. (Though I’m immensely thankful for what I do have and do not consider myself poor in any absolute sense.) From month to month, I pretty much live on the hairy edge of financial disaster. My credit rating is only okay thanks to some youthful indiscretions, and I am thousands of dollars in debt thanks to my student loans. I have what essentially amounts to a part-time job with no benefits. I also have a chronic medical condition, which means I pay sky-high premiums for my very basic, high-deductible individual health plan. God forbid I should come down with a serious infection or get into an accident. If that happened, I would be scrambling to cover the aforementioned deductible. And if my car should break down? A few months ago, my Toyota’s engine light blinked on, and for the next few days, I lived with the dread that I would be handed a car repair bill I wouldn’t be able to pay.
On the other hand, I do have a computer with internet access, a couple of e-readers, a respectable collection of books and DVD’s, and the means to go to Dragon*Con and CPAC every year. How am I able to indulge in such pleasures? Through the generosity of my parents, grandparents, and friends, mostly. (My parents, especially, have been a big help. I can never thank them enough.) For Dragon*Con in particular, I work on the volunteer staff so I don’t have to pay for my badge, and a good friend gives me a place to crash so I don’t have to pay for a hotel room. The upshot? At no point have I ever asked Joe Taxpayer in Kansas to foot the bill for my happiness. I suppose it would be nice, from the standpoint of naked self-interest, if richer tax-paying Americans covered my health care and student loan expenses, but I believe in looking past the end of my own nose and considering the likely unintended consequences of an expansive welfare state.
I do believe the government has a responsibility to establish a basic social safety net. And what does basic mean? It means that our tax dollars should in part be used to ensure that our citizens are not naked, starving, or homeless. It doesn’t mean that our tax dollars should be used to ensure that all of our citizens be spared the “stress” of patronizing Goodwill, the laundromat, or the discount store. No, it isn’t “fair” that some people have to budget extremely carefully in order to make room for something fun while others can remain blissfully unaware of how much everything costs, but “it isn’t faaaaaaair!” is the cry of a six year old, not a mature adult. A welfare program which promised, say, brand new clothes for all (and this is not a strawman example given the left’s overweening indignation over Bruce Caswell’s suggestion that Michigan’s annual clothing voucher be restricted to use at second-hand stores) would ultimately collapse in on itself and end up being a help to no one. Compassion without prudence is not compassion.
I understand all too well that the “extras” are part of what makes life worth living. No conservative, in fact, truly believes that a poor man’s existence should be entirely consumed by drudgery and toil. Come Christmas, I always try to scrape together a little money to buy a gift for my parish’s Giving Tree to help someone whose financial situation is even crappier than mine. I also put a few packets of sugar cookie mix into the food donation box. But this brings me to my final point: The federal government cannot competently handle the task of delivering said extras, but local community groups can. In fact, they do it all the time. How many churches out there have programs in place to deliver Thanksgiving dinners and Christmas gifts to the working poor? I’m guessing just about all of them. Once again, we need to remember that our government is actually a four-layered entity. The poor would be better served if we applied the principle of subsidiarity to our public policy. At the very least, they wouldn’t be treated like cogs in a giant impersonal welfare machine.