Why not blame the poor?

by Elias Blum

“In a few short years, the people with all the money – the ones that lost our money in wild casino-like gambles – have managed to convince the general public that the people to blame are society’s disadvantaged. We erupt with fury at a poor person with a Sky TV and forget entirely about the banker with the 10m pension fund.” <– Some guy on the internet, who gets it.

“I mean, your society’s broken, so who should we blame? Should we blame the rich powerful people who caused it? No, let’s blame the people with no power and no money and these immigrants who don’t even have the vote, yeah, it must be their fucking fault.” <– Iain (M) Banks, Scottish author.

So why not blame the poor? Why not join in the tabloid ranting and the right-wing demonisation of ‘layabouts, benefit cheats and immigrants’? Why continue, against the grain, to stand up for the solidaristic principles and redistributist, welfarist policies of a social democracy?

Here’s why:

(1) Because in blaming the poor you are blaming the victim and the scapegoat, not the perpetrator. The poor kid whose mother is trying to keep her dignity at the food bank didn’t deregulate the banks, speculate on staples futures, or deal in dodgy credit default swaps. There’s a basic principle of justice at stake here.

(2) Because people at the bottom are hurting – and we have a moral obligation, as human beings, as social creatures with a moral conscience, to serve and protect them. We can add to justice an equally basic, and perhaps even more fundamental, principle of compassion.

(3) Because it is too easy, and too judgmental, to dismiss ‘the undeserving poor’ as ‘feckless and improvident’. Perhaps many are, by the standards of middle class respectability. I’m not going to dispute the facts (although they are disputable). But if some of the behaviours of the very poor are self-destructive, think for a moment how hopelessness, scorn, exclusion and the grinding daily unrelieved reality of poverty would make many good, otherwise strong people turn to self-destruction. Who, in such despair, can be blamed for spending a slice of the little that comes their way on pleasures. We do not blame the rich man for fecklessness and improvidence of having three cars, when he can only drive one, although this is probably the greater waste.

(4) Because blaming the poor doesn’t help. The problems of the budget deficit cannot be solved by taking from those at the bottom by cuts to already meagre social spending, but only by taking from those at the top, by raising taxes and closing the loopholes that the rich, and rich corporations, exploit. And before anyone complains that this is ‘theft’, consider for a moment how the rich got rich in the first place. If you think it was by ‘hard work’ you haven’t been paying attention. If hard work made one rich, every woman in Africa would be a millionaire.

(5) Because the deep problems of poverty, unemployment, unequal health outcomes, low wages and slum housing require an active, responsible democratic government, with a strong public-service ethic. This is the one universal institution a community has to achieve common goods and manage common resources. Private charity is a vital component, and can do much to ameliorate and assist, but there have to be changes to law and policy as well, if we are to prevent and resolve rather than just react and patch.

(6) Because every other person, no matter how poor, is a person just like yourself, with hopes, dreams, fears, worries, problems, pains, joys, laughter and tears. If you cut yourself off from them you are cutting yourself off from humanity. You are betraying yourself as well as your fellow-man. What a narrow, selfish, graceless way of living it is, to cut oneself off from the needs of the poor!

(7) Because there are alternatives. We can make a positive difference. Some basics – like universal unemployment insurance and universal healthcare, a bit of Keynesian stimulus and some New Deal full-employment projects – go a long way. We solved this in the 20th century. It’s not hard. It just means reining-in a little bit of corporate greed for the sake of common humanity.

(8) Because the stories you hear in the media about ‘welfare bums’ and ‘benefit frauds’ are often exaggerated and always very rare exceptions. Educate yourself. Look at the reality. For many, many, people, it is already pretty grim – and getting worse.

(9) Because there but for the grace of G-d go you. What would happen, heaven forbid, if you were to have an accident and be unable to work? Would would happen if your employer were to be bought out and downsized, and you found yourself without work for six months? Could you hold it together? Could you pay the bills? Could you keep your home? Could you? Maybe you could. Maybe you are lucky. Maybe you are very lucky and it won’t happen to you. But it could happen to anyone. We all have a great interest in making society as compassionate and as supportive as possible, because we never know when we might be the ones on the receiving end.

(10) Because to turn on the vulnerable and the weak makes one a bully. Those who try to deflect people’s anger and frustration away from the real waste, greed, usury and corruption of the bankers, the speculators and the multi-national corporations, and to redirect these sentiments towards the weak, the vulnerable and the outsider, are bullies. They want us to join them, to be bullies too, to ‘kick downwards and lick upwards’.  But such bullying ends up in the brutalisation of society, the collapse of civic values, the absence of mutual trust and respect. It ends up in militarism, authoritarianism, and, in some cases, concentration camps and gas chambers. Really, we don’t want to go there. The survival of civilisation itself is at stake.

So, that’s why we shouldn’t blame the poor.
That’s we we continue to stand up for social democracy.