I have a friend who owns a major company, and I periodically receive his company newsletter. He’s a truly good person, philanthropic and civic-minded, so I was startled to read what was surely a throwaway line in the most recent newsletter, in which he wrote that his company had experienced a good year, despite the national administration’s policies favoring “lazy” Americans.
Shades of Mike Pence’s “ennobling” and Mitt Romney’s 47%!
These attitudes toward “the least of us” have long been an indelible part of American culture. When I was doing research for my book God and Country, I traced several ostensibly secular policy preferences back to their religious roots. In the case of poverty policies, I concluded that attitudes toward the poor (beginning with 15th Century English poor laws that forbid giving “alms to the sturdy beggar”) are rooted in a simplified Calvinism: worldly success signals God’s approval; poverty is evidence of moral defect. Originally doctrinal, these attitudes have been absorbed into the popular culture.
The problem is, this easy dismissal of struggling Americans is at odds with reality.
Recently, the United Ways of Indiana took a hard look at “Alice.” Alice is an acronym for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed; it applies to households with income above the federal poverty level, but below the actual, basic cost of living. The report is eye-opening.
Here are some “highlights” (highlights being something of a misnomer here):
- More than one in three Hoosier households cannot afford the basics of housing, food, health care and transportation, despite working hard.
- In Indiana, 37% of households live below the Alice threshold, with some 14% below the poverty level and another 23% above poverty but below the cost of living.
- These families and individuals have jobs, and many do not qualify for social services or support.
- The jobs they are filling are critically important to Hoosier communities. These are our child care workers, laborers, movers, home health aides, heavy truck drivers, store clerks, repair workers and office assistants—yet they are unsure if they’ll be able to put dinner on the table each night.
For families living on the edge, families struggling just to put that dinner on the table, saving money is a pipe dream. There is nothing left to save. So these families are vulnerable to any unexpected expense—a car repair, an uninsured illness, even an unexpectedly high utility bill can be enough to plunge them into debt or worse.
The United Way report (which is available online) is intended as an educational tool. Its data rebuts the thoughtless but ingrained caricature so skillfully deployed by President Ronald Reagan: that of the “welfare queen.” Built into that dismissive shorthand is the assumption that poor Americans “play the system,” refuse to work, and spend their days taking advantage of hard-working taxpayers.
A few such people undoubtedly exist, but so do the “captains of industry” who “play the system” by lobbying for subsidies and favorable tax treatment, and companies like Walmart that protect their hefty profits by using the taxpayer-provided safety net to supplement their payment of poverty wages.
Most businesses aren’t like Walmart; most owners are hardworking and honest, just as most Americans who fall below the Alice threshold are hardworking and honest.
As the Executive Director of the Jennings County Economic Development Commission wrote in the introduction to the report:
Alice is the family in Elkhart whose car breaks down, which takes the grocery money, which sends the family to the food pantry. Alice is the family in Terre Haute whose entire economic life comes undone when the breadwinner breaks a leg and loses three weeks wages. Alice is the family in Marion whose 11-year-old watches the 5-year-old because they can’t afford afterschool programs despite both parents working full-time.
Dismissing Alice as lazy is lazy thinking.