There are a plethora of attitudes in this society that surround social class and are highly problematic in nature. One of the most irritating is the commonly held belief that people who are poor live in a constant state of misery and sadness over their poverty. That people who are poor do not have any fun. That poverty is an unrelenting grind with no bright spots, no hope, no light on the horizon. All poor, all the time, with no opportunities for a break. Poverty is Dickensian in scope. It is mythological. It is inescapable. To be poor, you see, is to live in sorrow.
Hand in hand with this attitude goes disapproval of occasions where poor folks do have fun. Most especially on the government dime. If you receive a penny of social assistance, you had better damn well be miserable all the time. You should, of course, be ashamed of receiving help from the government; ‘a handout,’ as people are so fond of sneering. You should cower before your betters, those righteous taxpayers paying your way. And, above all, you should not have fun. Ever. Period. If you are having fun, you are obviously not poor enough for government benefits.
I think of it as misery policing. And I see a lot of people, and the media, engaging in it. I was recently irritated about a series of stories in the Los Angeles Times about people on welfare going to casinos. Not about the content of the stories, but about the way that they were presented, and the fact that they were presented at all. The articles were presented as scaremongering and policing. ‘Look at those welfare recipients, using your tax dollars to go to casinos! Look at those welfare recipients, having fun! What is wrong with them?! Bubble with righteous rage, taxpayer!’
Misery policing bores me. I am of the personal opinion that everyone is entitled to have fun. And that everyone is entitled to figure out, personally, how much fun is advisable. If someone wants to take a welfare check and blow $10 on the slot machines, I say go for it. And I am one of those taxpayers, one of those ‘betters,’ one of those ‘productive’ people ‘paying into the system’ and I say ‘I can think of few better uses for my tax dollars than having fun.’ Taking the kids out for an ice cream cone. Splurging on a nice dinner. Going to the museum. Going to the casino. Whatever. It’s not my job to dictate what is fun or not to other people, nor is it my job to deny people their fun. You take your fun where you can get it, you know? Especially in these times.
Here’s something that a lot of misery policers don’t know: Being poor is work. When people talk about how people on government assistance should ‘just work for a living,’ they are missing the fact that they are working. Getting government benefits? Requires work. There are a lot of hoops to jump through. Lines to sign. I’s to dot. You must do everything exactly right or you will be bumped right back down to the bottom of the queue, the ladder, the breadline.
Social workers, the people who are theoretically responsible for helping people who need assistance, can be a sadistic lot sometimes. Unbelievable levels of oppression are perpetrated on people in poverty by petty-minded functionaries who get their rocks off on denial. Willful obtuseness. Abuse. Mockery. Receiving government assistance requires running a gauntlet, with obstacles at every stage of the way and sneering bureaucrats to kick you once you are down. This is work.
So is surviving while poor. Have you ever looked, really looked, for a job, and not been able to find one? Submitted resumes endlessly. Called on every possible opening. Filled out so many applications your fingers are permanently stained with blue or black ink, sign on the dotted line. Gone to interview after interview and been denied? Had to scrounge up clothing from friends to interview in? Not had a fixed address to put on a job application? Done all this while being disabled or having children? Looking for work is work. Jobs do not just fall into laps, they have to be sought out and applied for and won and vanquished like dragons. Don’t tell me that people on welfare don’t work.
Don’t tell me that people should feel ashamed and humiliated for poverty. Don’t tell me that shaming people is in any way productive, that telling people that they are bad, horrible, lazy, no-good people is in any way helpful. Being reminded over and over that you are scum, a drain on the system, worthless, this doesn’t make you magically find work. It doesn’t magically remove the barriers that make it impossible for you to find work. It just tears away at you and, over time, convinces you that you really are worthless and you really don’t deserve help.
It’s not my job to tell people to be miserable, to decide that someone ‘can’t really’ be poor for engaging in certain habits, for having fun, for pushing back against the overwhelming social narrative that says ‘curl up and give up, you are worthless and your life has no meaning.’ It’s not my job to tell people how to spend government benefits, yes, those very same benefits that I pay for. People earn their benefits. They work hard for them, physically, emotionally. Just like I get righteously pissy at people who tell me how to spend the money I earn, I say poor folks have a right to get pissy with people who inform them that they are not meeting the expectation, the narrative, the storyline, that being poor must go a certain way, be a certain way, fall out a certain way.
I’ve got better things to do with my time than to tell people what to do, to apply my personal standards to the lives of others. Don’t you?