It’s Unreal

I was recently talking with my tattoo artist about government policy and the way in which it seems to primarily benefit only certain people; the fact that members of the middle and upper class have the most to gain from policies which are supposedly being put in place for the benefit of the lower classes is deeply disturbing. I was thinking about this again yesterday when I was writing about the “five a day” program and speculating on the position in which the architects of the program are probably in. Government policy makers tend to have money, access to time, and a decent supermarket. For them, the conditions in which many people live are unimaginable. It’s not that they don’t try to imagine, but they fall short because the experiences of many people in the United States are so abstract from their own experiences.

And this carries over into all aspects of government policy. Mr G and I were talking about people who lost their pensions, and he was saying that he got spitting mad when he read an article in which people were acting like pensions are a benefit, like a bonus.

“Those people paid for that,” he said. “They paid money into that fund for all those years, and now it’s just gone.”

“Right,” I replied. “Here all these policymakers are telling people in financial trouble to get rid of their second homes! They don’t even have first homes, you asshats!”

There is a fundamental disconnect between the people making policy and the actual lives of people in the United States. And this connect is extremely dangerous, because it means that policymakers don’t understand that the policy they are making is useless, and often entirely ineffectual. I think that some policymakers are genuinely trying to work to improve conditions in the United States, to do something for people who are struggling, and this makes it all the more sad that their efforts are short of the mark.

I think that many of us assume that everyone lives like us, especially if we are not exposed to ways in which other people live, because our own experiences are the ones we know best. I grew up in conditions which I thought were totally normal, and I was astounded when I went to friends’ houses and saw that they lived very differently than I did, and that they were startled by our house. Even though I don’t live in conditions like that anymore, I haven’t forgotten what it was like, and I’ve retained a few habits from those days.

What is government policy doing for people like me when I was a child? Nothing, that’s what it’s doing.

Tax cuts aren’t helpful when you have no areas for deductions. Getting a break for buying a first home isn’t helpful when you can’t afford a home. Getting deductions for mortgage interest or business expenses isn’t helpful when you have neither of those things. Benefits like food stamps are only helpful when you’re below the income threshold, which is surprisingly low, even in areas with a high cost of living. Programs which reimburse or provide tax breaks for things like home weatherization do nothing for people who can’t afford weatherization in the first place, even if they are being reimbursed.

Somehow, people in Brooklyn brownstones are ending up with farm subsidies. Meanwhile, the single mother in the Bronx trying to raise three children while working four jobs and attempting to avoid the attention of la migra gets nothing. Residents of San Francisco are registering their Hummers as “farm vehicles” and getting a fat tax break for it, while a young man in Oakland is dropping out of community college because his mother just lost her job and he needs to work full time to support the household. In Chicago, a wealthy family shuffles assets so that their children get need-based scholarships, because they have enough money to know how to hide their money, while a trans* teen applying to college doesn’t get enough money because her father put some money aside in a CD to save money for retirement and the colleges she applies to thinks that money should be used to pay for her education even though that’s all her father has.

I have interacted with people who did not understand what it was to “rent” a home. I have been with people who think that everyone owns a car. That everyone has electricity and running water. A nanny. Access to a big grocery store filled with all kinds of food, and the money to spend there. I have been with people who ask in all seriousness “why not just fly instead of driving.” Who don’t know how to do laundry because “the girl” always did it. Who talk about investment portfolios and getting payouts from their trust funds like this happens for everyone.

These are the people who are making policy in the United States. Because to get into a position to make policy, you need privilege. You need the power to access education, the funds to run a campaign or to thrust yourself into the eye of the people who make appointments. These are things which are not accessible to many people in the United States. These are the people for whom policy is being made, and they have the least say in the policymaking process. Their voices are rarely, if ever, represented.

And policymakers embark on programs with the best of intentions but don’t realize that they are entirely patronizing and sometimes actively offensive. Educate people about something? Why assume that they don’t know? Why assume that the problem is lack of access to information when it might actually be poverty, the inability to connect with a program which might help, disabilities which are not accommodated by the policy which supposedly benefits, no time to spend.

Policymakers make a lot of alarming assumptions about the lower classes in the United States and those assumptions are structured into policy, which in turn dictates a lot of thinking. Lose your pension? Well, I’m sure you have savings, so that’s ok. No, the pension was the savings. Having a hard time with your taxes? Here, this tax break for buying a new car will help. No, we can’t even afford the insurance on the old car we have. Live on top of an industrial waste dump where there are no grocery stores and get sick? Have you heard about the five a day program?

One Reply to “It’s Unreal”

  1. No, the pension was the savings.

    Yes, exactly.

    Note: The following is necessarily US-centric. Other countries do better (not perfectly, but better) at providing for the welfare of the people who live in them and this welfare includes old-age pensions decoupled from employment. Just like with health care old age and disability pensions we find the US more or less alone again with fucked-up employment-dependant social welfare.

    The pension was a contract between the company and its workers. The contract stated that the workers would defer some of their compensation for after their retirement and the company would pool that deferred compensation and invest it to help the fund set aside for pensions grow. The idea being the company would not have to put any additional funds into pension programmes since prudent investment would provide income and growth. Between that and payments into the programme by current workers the pension fund should be able to pay benefits to retired employees without much strain.

    The workers met their terms of the contract. They accepted less compensation while they were working, knowing they would be compensated later when they retired. They put their money — not the company’s money the workers’ money — into the pension programme.

    The companies have failed to meet their terms of the contract. The compensation deferred by workers didn’t all make it into the pension programme; some of it was diverted for other uses. (This is what news people mean when they say a pension programme is underfunded.) Investment income and growth from the pension programme was skimmed off and reported as corporate income creating the illusion of revenue. Workers, the ungrateful bastards, failed to die soon after retirement and collected benefits for longer than very aggressive actuarial reports had estimated. Drastic reductions in headcount — another means of creating the illusion of revenue by reducing cost — meant fewer workers were paying into the programme.

    Collapses were inevitable. Especially since regulation of pension programmes were lax and the government agencies charged with that regulation often enjoyed very cosy relationships with those companies.

    Workers were told “Sorry there’s no money.” Oops. Companies declared bankruptcy and between the company and the bankruptcy judge they worked out who, amongst the people the company owed, got paid. Employees and pensions and health insurance programmes are at the very bottom of the priority list. Sorry. There’s no money.

    These people had saved. All the years they worked they saved. And their savings just vanished because of their employers’ malfeasance. They have no recourse because labour in the US has no power.

    This is called cram-down.

    (I could probably write a wall of text on just about any part of this piece. There is so much depth behind it. And you are, as happens so often, bang on.)

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