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Jun. 17 2010 - 1:32 pm | 1,833 views | 2 recommendations | 12 comments

Poor-Bashing: the New American Pastime

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When I was guest-blogging for Matt Yglesias a few weeks ago, I wrote a post criticizing the Washington Post’s Robert Samuelson for his claim that cell phones are indicative of rising living standards among the poor. I argued that cell phones are both very cheap — cheaper than a landline, in fact — and essential to navigating the world of low-wage service jobs. Without some way to contact employers (or vice-versa), it’s nearly impossible to find a job. Well, it seems that Samuelson isn’t alone in his belief that cell phones are an unnecessary “luxury” for the poor and working class. The Philadelphia Inquirer reports on an ongoing argument over whether better-off phone users should subsidize lower-income people for cell phones:

TracFone Wireless began initiating the phone giveaway in 2008, dubbed by some “welfare wireless” service. It also offers 68 minutes of free talk a month. People who receive food stamps, welfare, or other government assistance can qualify by applying to the company.

Such people are within the range of 100 percent to 150 percent of the federal poverty level. For a family of four, that runs from $22,050 to $33,075 in salary.

The idea that just by paying their phone bills customers are underwriting free phones for the poor rankles people.

“Oh, that’s the ‘Obama-phone,’ ” said Susan Lord, a leader of the conservative tea party movement in South Jersey. “It’s just another way to redistribute the wealth. The poor get helped, and the cost is passed on to working people, who get depressed.”

Matthew Brouillette, president and chief executive officer of the conservative Commonwealth Foundation in Harrisburg, said his fear was that the free-phone program would be “subsidizing texting and sexting” among the poor.

For people who are instinctively rankled by the sight of a poor person with a cell phone, I think simple ignorance is the culprit. In this world of iPhones and pocket-sized computers, it’s easy to forget that with less than $100, you can buy a fairly reliable phone and minutes for the month.

That said, if you fear “subsidizing texting and sexting among the poor,” your problem isn’t ignorance — or at least not that kind of ignorance — your problem is that you hold a pretty ugly view of the poor and poverty. For these conservatives, poverty is purely the result of individual behavior; if you are poor, you have obviously done something to deserve it, “Of course poor people would use phone-handouts for texting and sexting, they wouldn’t be poor if they didn’t have degenerate habits like communication, or sexual expression.” To repeat, cell phones are not a luxury. But even if they were, there’s nothing about poverty that disentitles you to enjoying your life. If you are one of the few people who don’t need a cell phone, but get one because it would improve your quality of life, that doesn’t make you any less “deserving” of help than someone who chooses to go without. This idea that we should control the pleasure of those on the bottom is both baffling and pretty offensive.

Not to belabor the point, but it really seems like there is a growing callousness and hostility to the poor and disadvantaged in our society. Just yesterday, the Senate voted against cloture for a $77 billion stimulus bill that would have provided needed funds to state and local governments, and extended unemployment benefits. Most of those voting against — like Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson — cited deficit concerns, “I’ve said all along that we have to be able to pay for what we’re spending, $77 billion or more of this is not paid for and that translates into deficit spending and adding to the debt, and the American people are right: We’ve got to stop doing that.” That’s completely misguided, but understandable.

What’s strange, and offensive, is this belief that we should cut unemployment benefits because, in Sen. Diane Feinstein’s words, “how long do you continue [unemployment benefits] before people just don’t want to go back to work at all?” Conservatives have joined in on poor-bashing too; Sen. Orrin Hatch has proposed mandatory drug tests for those receiving unemployment insurance — because everyone knows that unemployed people are drug addicts — and there’s been a recent spate of conservative writers attacking food and nutrition aid to poor kids.

Exactly, the real problem isn’t the long-term unemployment crisis — which could leave a huge class of people without the necessary skills to work — it’s those bums too lazy to save their jobs from the financial crisis. If those people didn’t want to be unemployed, they should have never worked in the first place, and if those kids didn’t want to be hungry, they should have had the wherewithal not to be born so damn poor, or something.


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  1. collapse expand

    Something else to keep in mind about cell phones: They’re not tied to a specific address. Let’s say you’ve lost your job, suffered foreclosure or eviction, and need a job. Your employer requires your phone number on the job application, and expects to be able to contact employees by phone as needed. Not so long ago, that would have put you in a difficult position – no address means no phone. Now, with a cell phone, you have a shot at getting the job.

  2. collapse expand

    Maybe Ben Nelson should pay for the replacement of all the pay phones that have quickly disappeared from our streets.

  3. collapse expand

    But how can there be hostility to the poor? Conservatives are the ones who say if you eliminate social programs and taxes, their charity will naturally take care of the disadvantaged.

  4. collapse expand

    It’s the gross misunderstanding of capitalism: the harder you work, the more highly educated you are, the more opportunities you create for yourself the wealthier you are … meaning the inverse surely must be true?

    The less you try, the less educated you are, the fewer opportunities you pursue the poorer you are and therefore you deserve it for lack of volition … true?

    It is this closed if-this-then-that thinking which makes most middle class folks (1) idolize the very wealthy and (2) assume poor people have no desire and just want free stuff. And it’s dangerous. One of the beacons of advanced civilization is that it cares well for its poorest.

    The rigid mentality of the middle class, literally, serves no one … not even them.

  5. collapse expand

    “If those people didn’t want to be unemployed, they should have never worked in the first place, and if those kids didn’t want to be hungry, they should have had the wherewithal not to be born so damn poor, or something.”

    I thought you said this well.

  6. collapse expand

    Economic discrimination is the new flavor of dividing citizens against one another. You get all the same feelings of superiority that come from being racist, sexist, homophobic, etc, and none of the downsides like being thought of as an ignorant, heartless fuck. The punchline is that compared to the oligarchs who runs this carnival, we’re all poor.

  7. collapse expand

    it’s easy to forget that with less than $100, you can buy a fairly reliable phone and minutes for the month.
    ———————
    Having worked in the cell phone industry I can tell you that for 50 dollars a month on some carriers you can get unlimited text/voice service. It is cheaper than you think. I do agree with you about cell service being much cheaper than a landline. I have not had a landline in years because of all the hidden fees and service charges. Cell phone use has gone up and again, you’re right that without a phone, or internet for that matter, you won’t get a technical job here in Seattle. Most companies feel that you should have a job before they even offer you one. These toolsheds that feel a phone is an unecessary luxury need to go on a survival trip and really understand what it’s like to live on nothing. They are complete idiots and are so out of touch with their constituents that they need voted OUT!

  8. collapse expand

    Unfortunately there’s nothing new about any of this at all:

    “America is a nation of poor. Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power and gold. No such tales are told by the American poor. They mock themselves and glorify their betters. The meanest eating or drinking establishment, owned by a man who is himself poor, is very likely to have a sign on its wall asking this cruel question: “If you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?”
    Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.,
    Slaughterhouse-Five

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    I am a blogger and occasional freelance writer. Usually, you'll find me here, but I occasionally contribute to PostBourgie.com, as well as Spencer Ackerman's blog (when he's away). At my old Wordpress digs, I blogged about progressive politics, public policy, nerdy things and food, and here at True/Slant, I intend to do the same. I'm all about the social media, so feel free to follow me on Twitter: jbouie, or friend me on Facebook (though I might make you wait awhile). And if you'd rather avoid social media, you can always email me at jamelle DOT bouie AT gmail DOT com.

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