For a little while now, I’ve tried to figure out what it is about the current political discourse that so deeply disturbs me. There are all of the obvious things on the surface: the ceaseless stalemate, the fiery (and unfruitful) rhetoric, and the growing divide among our everyday neighbors. Perhaps worst of all, most cable networks fan these flames as a means to boost their ratings. Yet it goes further than that.
In recent months, almost all legislation (and accompanying debate) has centered around wealth. Those who don’t have it want the government to help them, and those who do have it argue for their right to choose where their wealth goes – obviously wanting to retain the right to distribute it as they see fit. Health care, taxes, Social Security, and the infamous bailouts all find their roots in wealth-based politics.
Every human being has certain rights, and one can easily argue that each person should be able to determine his or her own path. No handouts, no unfair advantages, and certainly no forced wealth distribution. Each of us should be, quite simply, what we make of ourselves. Obviously we don’t have have the same starting point as we arrive into this world, so there is an unspoken exception: that we should be able to inherit the hard work and/or wealth of our parents and grandparents. This seems fair enough.
When trying to understand the dilemma of whether or not to help the have-nots, though, there are two questions that come squarely into focus:
- Do they deserve it?
- Does it matter if they deserve it?
The answer to the first drives most of the discussion. It has become convenient to make the freeloading welfare mother the posterchild of the poor, and by extension cement the notion that most of these people do not deserve our assistance. Why would we continue to bail out such a lifestyle with our hard-earned money? Many would say this is senseless and pointless, and in almost all cases they would be right. But this not the question that matters – not really.
The question has always been: what happens to the people that truly do deserve our assistance?
This is where things get difficult. Let’s assume – for a moment – that 80% of the poor are more or less freeloading and deserve the situation they’re in. These are people that do not deserve any more of our aid than we’re already giving them, and recent cutbacks in government programs may actually spur them to step up to the plate. So be it. But no matter how we look at this, there remains the other side of the coin: the stay-at-home mother whose husband suddenly passed away, the man whose factory just closed due to outsourced jobs, or the family that can’t come close to covering the hospital costs of a son with cancer. Not to mention the tragic situation that everyone always overlooks: those unfortunate enough to be born with a lack of intelligence, which is something that cannot be overcome at any cost. At the end of the day, all of this leads to the one question that this really boils down to: is it worth helping these people, if it means that we have to help some of the freeloaders along with them?
Even at the low estimate of 20%, based on the number of Americans in poverty (a family of four with less than $22,000 in total income, or $11,000 as an individual) this would mean that approximately 8 million Americans would fall into the category of the deserving. Yet the idea of helping the undeserving poor is so repugnant that we continue to pull back from helping any of them. The discussion is boiled down to the ever-simple “yes” or “no” to government programs as opposed to trying to make them better.
So again, we have to decide – as a nation – to what extent we’re willing to help the undeserving as the price of helping the deserving. Many Republicans want to cut back as much government spending as possible, because they believe in the central philosophy of Every Man For Himself. Democrats want to improve the country from the bottom up, taxing the wealthy as a central means to do so. Yet largely caught in the middle are the millions of Americans who fall victim to both chance and the system – and through little fault of their own never really stood a chance to make a solid living for themselves. They are the casualties of our own internal war.
Perhaps it is as simple as this: the fact that the most deserving of these people are Americans should mean something. It should mean that they’re afforded rights, but it should also mean that their fellow citizens lend a hand when they hit the very bottom. It should mean that they don’t have to be terrified of getting sick, or know with certainty that their children will receive a terrible education. And most of all, it should mean that they’re not consistently looked down upon by those in power, with little regard for – or time invested in – their individual situations.
On a personal level, this is why I vote the way I do – because I see it as a necessity, not a choice. I’m not willing to sacrifice the deserving poor (whatever the percentage might be) until we build a system that gives them a chance.