A snarky response to an annoying facebook post about poverty

So, I keep seeing this seriously problematic image circulating on facebook. It’s an ugly beige and red graphic with the following text: If you can afford beer, drugs, cigarettes, manicures and tattoos, you don’t need foodstamps or welfare.

If you can afford beer, drugs, cigarettes, manicures and tattoos, you don’t need foodstamps or welfare.

Now, first of all, let me critique this thing as quickly as possible:

1. What you’re basically saying is that you can take one quick look at somebody and decide that they don’t deserve to eat or have a roof over their head. Wow, who made you god when I wasn’t looking?

2. You are not an expert on anyone’s needs when you bump into them in 7-11 and notice them buying cigarettes with nicely painted nails. See #1.

3. Targeting the poor as though they are stealing from you is stupid when your employer and insurance company are more likely the ones stealing from you in much greater amounts.

4. The poor don’t owe you an explanation for why they’re poor or what they do with what little they have.

5. The reason we have welfare and food stamps is to prevent assholes like you from withholding charity from the starving because you don’t approve of their lifestyles.

6. Compare the following:

Case of beer: $9.
Carton of cigarettes: $50.
Manicure: $15.
Tattoo: $200.
Total: $274.

Rent (per month): $500.
Food (per month): $400.
Total: $900.

Foregoing all those things still leaves you $626 in the hole, and we haven’t even mentioned electricity or running water or a phone line.

As for drugs, I have three responses:

  • Even if there were as many people abusing drugs and using welfare to survive as the Right seems to think, I’d rather pay an extra ten cents a year to have them not starve to death. Starvation is not a motivator. It’s a killer. If someone is so addicted to drugs that they can’t get it together enough not to be homeless, I doubt they’re in a position to stop doing drugs when their situation gets worse. What do you think got them started in the first place? A master’s degree and a new job at Google?
  • If someone is so addicted to drugs that they can’t get it together enough to keep a roof over their heads, they probably aren’t all that successful keeping up with the onerous paperwork that is required to stay on welfare. They’re probably leaning on the charity of family or friends.
  • If we had adequate, accessible psychiatric and health care for the poor, fewer people would turn to drugs in the first place.

7.  The poor do not have to perform for you by “looking poor” or foregoing things that you classify as luxuries to be deserving of basic human needs like food and shelter. Their survival should not depend on how much you like them, unless you want to return to the days of parents injuring their kids so they can receive more money begging on the street from pompous businessmen in fur coats. Read some Charles Dickens, for heaven’s sake.

8. If you’re academically minded, read this.

9. People turn to destructive creature comforts like cigarettes, alcohol and drugs to escape a life without real opportunity. How many poor kids have you sent to college lately?

10. Argh.

Okay, now that I’m done with that, here’s the snark I promised. Sometimes you can only fight a picture with another picture:

If you can afford to buy a senator, you don’t need a tax break.

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  • Paula G V aka Yukimi

    Well said!
    That image was really infuriating.

  • Lisa

    LOVE IT! And even better it includes shout-out to my school (SFU) with the linked academic document ;-)
    Am bookmarking this to send to people who make similar annoying comments on facebook!

  • Sarah-Sophia

    A while ago I saw a FB meme that said: “Dear girls, dressing immodestly is like rolling around in manure. Yes you’ll get attention, but mostly from pigs. Sincerely, Real Men.” Another time I saw a guy make a post which said that since girls do not have to work for sex like guys do, it’s justifiable to call her a slut. I can ignore a lot of things but not slut-shaming.

    • http://pslibrary.com/ MrPopularSentiment

      Hint: A real man (by which I mean a man that I would have any interest in dating) wouldn’t be preoccupied with dissecting the worth and value of women based on their attire.

    • SophieUK

      I live in the UK and we just don’t get this or say this. But my intelligent educated liberal atheist American cousin still uses words like “slutty”. I thought it was just the uneducated republicans (not that there aren’t educated republicans) that used such words but I did still feel a sense of shock when he said it . Think it permeates a huge part of society. Where I’m from it’s like saying nigger. Just not ok.

  • http://pslibrary.com/ MrPopularSentiment

    I saw that image on my facebook a few days ago, which is somewhat surprising because I generally don’t make friends with douches, but I have been rather accept-happy with friend requests lately. I didn’t respond because I just didn’t have the energy to get into a big argument about it, but I’m really glad that you’ve written this. If I see it again, I can just link to you :)

  • Petticoat Philosopher

    LOVE it, Sierra!

    I’ve come to the conclusion that people who don’t have much money rarely, if EVER get just what they “need.” My ex (and still one of my best friends) is a hard-working musician and a part-time bartender. He is not on welfare but he really struggles to get by and just barely manages to pay the bills. And for years, he also had HBO. Which I’m sure many people would consider frivolous and irresponsible for a person in his financial situation but you know what? When you’ve just worked a double shift in a loud, noisy bar and dealt with drunken bros for hours on end, coming home and relaxing to the latest DVRed episode of your favorite show is worth more than you pay per month to do it. And I can think of plenty of other examples from people FAR worse off than he is (or I am for that matter because I get by on precious little myself, although I hope that’s impermanent…). I think having something beautiful, or fun, or just a little luxurious–some little extra pleasure–is just as much a “need” as anything else. Especially when you spend so much time worrying about how to get by. Poor people lead incredibly stressful lives. If that single mom of 3 on welfare wants to get a manicure because it makes her feel relaxed and beautiful for an afternoon, she should get it. There’s physical needs and then there’s emotional needs and they both matter.

    But I think it all comes down to the fact that right-wingers don’t actually understand that poor people have the same needs as they do or, at least, they don’t think they ought to have those needs. A while back “The Daily Show” roasted some Fox News segment which sowed outrage over the fact that x percentage of poor people had things like REFRIGERATORS! REFRIGERATORS, PEOPLE! Those poor people are running wild with our tax money! And I wanted to say to just one of these assholes “YOU try going a week without YOUR refrigerator, and you see how you like it.” But, of course, these people don’t think that poor people should expect to like their lives. That’s what it is.

    (Although, I would kind of classify a refrigerator as related to a physical need in this country. I mean, it’s modern food preservation. for pity’s sake. How are you supposed to get by without one in a society where most people don’t live close to direct sources of fresh food and are obliged to buy it at a supermarket–if there’s one accessible? I suppose by living on fast food and non-perishable junk food so they can get shamed for THAT. *sigh*)

    • Rosa

      It’s a revolutionary concept: man does not live by bread alone. Or, bread and roses, too.

      Lots of people get by without a fridge, but it leads to exactly the kinds of unhealthy/wasteful spending and saying no to “good” choices that people who hate the poor complain about. When we served food on the street, the homeless people were the MOST picky about not taking bruised fruit, because they couldn’t afford to refrigerate it or have it get fruit goo on their clothes/bags.

      We were at Aldi the other day and a guy offered my son a frozen Snicker bar. When i said OK, he gave us two. Why? He wanted an ice cream treat, an entire box of them was cheaper than just one from the ice cream truck, but he didn’t have a freezer to stash the extras in before they melted. Can you imagine the hateful story someone could tell about the poor guy who bought a whole box of ice cream bars just to eat one and throw the rest away? Or even worse if he ate them all – “one time I saw a poor guy eat an entire box of ice cream bars! That’s not cheaper than making lentils at home, he deserves to die of diabetes, poor people make awful choices with no good basis!”

    • smrnda

      I would also like to add that a fridge hasn’t been exactly a rare item since the 1950s, and NOT having one, as others have said, will cause you to have higher food costs than if you do since you can’t buy and keep food. Do people need to be living at a third world level before people will consider them ‘poor?’

  • http://krwordgazer.blogspot.com Kristen

    Very well put, Sierra. I like your graphic about buying a senator, too.

  • http://ariseforsocialjustice.blogspot.com michaelann bewsee

    This is fantastic. I just reposted the entire thing on my organization’s blog, http://ariseforsocialjustice.blogspot.com, with a credit and link back to this site. Thank you!

  • Tina

    Thank you! I so badly wanted to comment on the posting but knew I would be eaten alive….I appreciate your words, you did much better than I would have.

  • http://www.sarah-whoiamwithoutyou.blogspot.com Sarah Enigma

    This makes me so mad. If i had even ONE child there is no way i could afford to live. Even WITH “welfare.” Here’s a good example of why this type of logic is totally illogical:

    Full Time Minimum Wage Salary: $1280 per month
    Foodstamps: $600 per month
    Total Income: $1880

    Rent: $700
    Groceries : $600
    Clothing and other Child Care Items: $200
    Bare minimum Cell phone plan: $30
    Electricity/Water/Gas: $150
    Laundry (cant afford own washer and dryer): $20
    Items/Fees/Materials required for Work or Child’s School: $50
    Medical Expenses: $30
    Total Monthly Costs: $1780

    Leftover per month: $100

    This hypothetical person is lucky enough to have a sister or a mom who watches the kid(s) for free while this person is at work for 40 hours a week, which is why there are no childcare expenses.
    This person cannot afford a car (and the insurance, gas, and maintanence costs it entails) so the person uses public transit, which adds at LEAST an hour and half to commute every single day. If this person’s employer provided health insurance options, this person wouldnt be able to afford it anyway. This person doesnt have cable or internet at home. This person never eats out or goes to the movies. This person has to struggle to scrape together enough to buy the kid(s) a christmas present.
    So what should this person spend thier last $100 on? Who are you to decide. “if you can afford to get your hair and nails done and buy smokes you dont deserve welfare!” -This from the person in line with a stack of DVDs, some expensive fresh fruit, an SUV in the parking lot, and a Bachelor’s degree, payed for by mom and dad.

  • Silly Luis

    And, hey, let’s not forget buying a senator is considered a “tax-deductible donation”

  • Meggie

    Well said.
    How do you define luxuries? Some people criticise those on welfare who wear fancy clothes and have their nails done but what if they are on their way to a job interview? It is not going to look good if they show up in jeans and tee shirts from a second hand shop. Cigarettes? Maybe the person has worked for twenty years and had no problem paying for them, then they lost their job. Nicotine is addictive. You can’t suddenly give up because you are on welfare. Aaarrrgh. I hate people who make judgements about other people without any information.

  • http://contraryneal.blogspot.com Neal

    I would argue that even food stamps and welfare (such as housing assistance or heating assistance or vouchers for daycare) represent an imposition of middle- and upper-class values on the poor, for the simple reason that these programs are assistance for *particular sorts of goods.*

    If we as a society were to really value the autonomy of the poor, we would simply provide them with cash grants instead of the assistance they receive now and let them use it as they please. When we give targeted assistance instead of cash grants, we rob poor people of their dignity. “We’re giving you a card that you can only use to by food.” Why? Implicitly, “Because otherwise you might buy other things with that money.” What’s the difference between that and saying “If you can afford to buy a manicure, beer, or a tattoo, you don’t need food stamps and housing assistance.” Nothing – they both say, “We know better than you. Our values are superior.”

    And let’s not even get into how the current system of welfare benefits is so convoluted it (unintentionally) punishes poor people for trying to work their way out of poverty!

    • http://contraryneal.blogspot.com Neal

      Caught in moderation? Me?! :P

  • wanderer

    I’m not sure I can 100% agree. I’m not a right winger. I usually identify with the liberal side of things. But also, I get up at a stupid hour every morning to commute to a job I don’t love. So yeah, the tax money I contribute out of those wages are something I’d like to see used wisely. I am totally against people starving. But it is tough to think that there are those who are not really trying to hard to find a job because they can get by because of my tax money.
    I’ve been poor and in debt. I knew if someone gave me something nice there was a good chance that others would judge me because they didn’t know it was a gift. That sucked. But also…for me, being poor WAS a motivator for me to make changes in my life.
    Before anyone pounces on me, please know I’m NOT saying all poor people are lazy. Some poor are lazy. Some rich are lazy.

    • smrnda

      I’d point out that most rich people are far lazier than most poor people. Most middle class people are lazier than most poor people. It takes more work to stay eligible for government benefits than it takes me to work, and yes, I have a full time job and make decent money.

      Poor people detest being poor, and government aid is barely sustenance. It’s pretty rare for someone to boostrap themselves out of poverty just since opportunities for that don’t exist. You can’t wake up one day and say “Gee, I’m tired of being poor. I’ll do X,Y and Z and then I won’t be poor anymore.” If that was true, there wouldn’t be poor people.

      I’m not sure how poor you were nor what choices you made that made a change, but most poor people I know are poor in spite of making the best choices they could possibly make. Most poor people I know not only work, but they work harder than I do and they work more hours than I do. I really see no way out for them, unless there’s some major changes that go beyond what they could do as individuals.

    • Anonymous

      Let me explain to you why a lot of people think this way.

      We are middle class. We do okay now. We did not make much money right out of college, we were above the poverty line but well below the national average. We had to make HARD choices. We got rid of our second car, we kept a crappy car. We canceled our cable. If I hadn’t been able to make a little money working on the internet, we would have canceled that too. We stopped going out to eat. We made a strict grocery budget. We bought ALL our clothes at Good Will, and usually only when they had sales (and we tried not to buy very much anyway, only if we really needed something). We did not get manicures or massages. We went without in a LOT of areas. It was very, very, very frustrating at times to constantly have to say “No, we can’t afford that,” while our friends, who made the same amount we did, went ahead and had new cars and vacations and sent their kids to expensive preschools. But we refused to use credit cards or take any form of assistance.

      We have slowly improved our situation. My husband has worked his butt off at his job for the last 5 years, often working 50 – 60 hours a week even though they don’t pay him over time. He’s taken on extra projects and certifications to make himself more valuable to his employer. And he’s gotten raises over time and we are more comfortable now. Even so, we prioritize saving money for retirement and our kids’ college educations and we still cannot afford any vacations (even a road trip to a hotel for a weekend…), or new cars, or any so-called “luxuries.” We still do not have cable, nor smart phones. We would like them, but we have made choices because we have limited money.

      Now, I’m not saying it is easy for poor people. I know they make less than we do and they have harder choices to make. I know that sometimes the choices are between rent or food, and that’s incredibly difficult. I’m not saying that someone in dire circumstances doesn’t need a leg up now and then. They do, and that’s why we give quite a bit of our money to charities.

      But money comes with choices. Life comes with choices. If you choose to buy yourself new clothes (instead of shopping at a thrift store) or a manicure or a tattoo, then you’re choosing NOT to buy something else. For many, at least many that I know, if you live temporarily on a stringent and frustrating budget, things begin to change and you are able to afford more. It’s NOT easy, but it can often be done. Not always, but often. I just can’t wrap my head around how someone can justify a smart phone when they can’t afford food…. It is NOT a necessity in today’s life. Not. Ever.

      To say that rich people are lazy profoundly misunderstands rich people. Most liberals believe that the majority of rich people were born rich and never had to work for a thing, they had the proverbial silver spoons in their mouths and so on. This perception, of course, stirs up lots of anger towards those nasty rich people. But it is a false perception. The majority of millionaires are self-made — they were not born into money. Perhaps they were lucky and their timing is right, but regardless — they certainly worked hard. They are not lazy. And many give quite a bit to charity. It’s the ones who don’t give to charity, who say and do stupid things, who bankrupt their companies from greed who are constantly in the media, so that is what people believe the majority are like. But it’s not true, just like the majority of poor people don’t dress in crappy clothing full of holes and act like idiots. You know? You’re sitting here criticizing conservatives for having a false perception of poor people, but you have a totally false perception of rich people. Pot calling kettle and all….

  • Eli

    I disagree.

    The price of substance abuse rises, not falls with income. Single parenthood, substance abuse, and dropping out of high school are expensive, and they’re more prevalent among poor people. This means that the explanation that poverty is causing this behaviour is unlikely. Questioning the poor’s presumptive status as victims isn’t well tolerated, but it is something that we should seriously look at, so that we can make a distinction between the deserving poor and the not deserving poor.

    I’m a low skilled worker, I have been for the last 7 years. I’ve never made more than $15k in a year. When I look around at my co-workers I see people with notably different characteristics than when I visit my higher income family. The people that surround me at work either have low iq, low consciensciousness, and low patience, or they’re on their way to a better life. These traits are likely the cause of both their low wages and bad habits.

    You talk about people starving to death and have money for tattoos and alcohol?!! These are two very different types of poor. The vast majority of those who are low income and buying tattoos and alcohol also have food and roofs. Its unlikely that the facebook post was referring to the man on the street holding up a tin can. I think you’re making the people who the post are talking about seem as victimized as possible, as does Charles Dickens, the world we live in right now isn’t like that. Most of the poor today are poor because they have very low marginal productivity as a result of bad choices and uncontrolled impulses. It is not clear that food stamps or welfare will best serve this faction of the poor. What is the best way of separating between these factions of the poor? Well, a good heuristic would be whether or not they’re spending on luxuries are disproportionate high compared to their spending on necessities.

    For the vast majority of which don’t have such bizarre spending habits, they allocate their means to their most effective uses. If you give food stamps to someone, they spend the money that they would have otherwise spent on food, on luxuries. Do you think we ought to pay for the poor’s tattoos, alcohol, manicures, cigarettes, and other luxury items? If you do that’s one thing, but don’t make believe that not doing so is forcing people to starve to death.

    My position is unpopular because our presuppositions demand that we come up with explanations where the poor are victims. I had to change my mind.

  • Sierra

    “…so that we can make a distinction between the deserving poor and the not deserving poor.”
    I’ll agree that this is a worthy venture if we start also worrying about the deserving and undeserving rich and sanctioning the latter the way we do the “wrong” kind of poor people.

    “Most of the poor today are poor because they have very low marginal productivity as a result of bad choices and uncontrolled impulses.”
    Citation needed. I’d argue most of the poor today are poor because the economy sucks and there aren’t enough jobs for everyone.

    I don’t think it’s any of our damn business how anyone else spends their pocket money, even if they are on public assistance. Public assistance is (supposedly, partly) confidential for a reason. Micromanaging the lives of poor people as though we are their terrible helicopter parents is NOT the way to encourage them to live more independently. It’s fostering dependence through excessive monitoring. Furthermore, there are many poor people with physical and mental disabilities who would not need food stamps or welfare checks if we had universal health care that provided them with the services and treatments they needed to work regular jobs.

    And my point was that $74 a month (you don’t get a tattoo every month – I bet most parlors would turn you away if you did) is not the kind of money that can lift someone out of poverty. Let’s say they save all that money for a year. Then they have $888. That’s barely one rent check. How’s that supposed to help?

  • Christi

    This discussion reminded me of this section of Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier.” great book for understanding the idea:

    “So you have whole populations settling down, as it were, to a lifetime on the P.A.C. And what I think is admirable, perhaps even hopeful, is that they have managed to do it without going spiritually to pieces. A working man does not disintegrate under the strain of poverty as a middle-class person does. Take, for instance, the fact that the working class think nothing of getting married on the dole. It annoys the old ladies in Brighton, but it is a proof of their essential good sense; they realize that losing your job does not mean that you cease to be a human being. So that in one way things in the distressed areas are not as bad as they might be. Life is still fairly normal, more normal than one really has the right to expect. Families are impoverished, but the family-system has not broken up. The people are in effect living a reduced version of their former lives. Instead of raging against their destiny they have made things tolerable by lowering their standards.
    But they don’t necessarily lower their standards by cutting I out luxuries and concentrating on necessities; more often it is the other way about — the more natural way, if you come to think of it. Hence the fact that in a decade of unparalleled depression, the consumption of all cheap luxuries has in-creased. The two things that have probably made the greatest difference of all are the movies and the mass-production of cheap smart clothes since the war. The youth who leaves school at fourteen and gets a blind-alley job is out of work at twenty, probably for life; but for two pounds ten on the hire-purchase he can buy himself a suit which, for a little while and at a little distance, looks as though it had been tailored in Savile Row. The girl can look like a fashion plate at an even lower price. You may have three halfpence in your pocket and not a prospect in the world, and only the corner of a leaky bedroom to go home to; but in your new clothes you can stand on the street corner, indulging in a private daydream of yourself as dark Gable or Greta Garbo, which compensates you for a great deal. And even at home there is generally a cup of tea going — a ‘nice cup of tea’— and Father, who has been out of work since 1929, is temporarily happy because he has a sure tip for the Cesarewitch.”

  • Christi

    Another well worn idea that hasn’t been brought up yet here: the underclass is a necessary part of society, serving the function of encouraging others to self-police and to restrain their destructive desires. It’s fear that keeps the good folks working hard, not just fear of being at rock bottom–starving, addicted, imprisoned–but also fear of letting their standards slip, of being “trash” (a kind of cultural disgust not too far off from racism).

    It’s not that very many people really think they’re going to bootstrap it all the way up to being wealthy–they know “they were lucky and their timing is right,” in the words of a previous poster, is a huge understatement. They know that of the people who are smart, work hard, escape calamity, and make sensible decisions, still only a fraction are going to be wealthy. And I think they even know that getting wealthy entails some not too compassionate decisions sometimes, that there are decent things we do that keep us from being wealthy. Maybe most people don’t really believe that, but I do: I think that, barring inheritance or miraculous talent and luck, becoming wealthy or powerful takes a focus on wealth and power. Focusing on wealth and power means focusing less on the other values you might have, and it means not just working hard but working hard in a strategic way to create a profit, which can be a cruel way to operate.

    So they’re working hard, but they have no real faith that it will make them rich, and they have no real fear they will starve (and really, wouldn’t it be better if that possibility were a little more reachable? Wouldn’t it be better to drop the safety net so the possibility were more real? You should be skeptical of the motives of anyone who espouses that opinion).

    If starvation is not a motivator, then why exactly should they do it? To maintain standards, to be unlike these disgusting others who do not deserve to live, these people who have no self control, who go after cheap decoration and who self-medicate and who have too many children and who waste the space. Good people tell themselves that they are tempted by these sins too, sure we all are, but that they sublimate their desires so that they can acheive something better, not “a better life” in the sense of wealth but something more like a self image that they can live with. Good people deserve to live, which they prove to themselves by working hard and self-policing, which makes for a stable society.

  • Sophie

    Christi – that’s exactly what I thought of, too!

  • Sophie

    (Wigan Pier, I meant)

  • Sophie

    Honeslty, I think this whole subject is ill-served by Facebook memes and snarky ripostes.

  • Toothpic

    Who spends $400 a month on food?