Working Class Resentment of the Poor

“Trump budget proposal reflects working class resentment of the poor” was the headline of a March 7 Eduardo Porter article in The New York Times.  The short version is that working class Americans are happy with the dismantling of the nanny state because they get no benefit from it, except for things like defense and national security.  They work hard, take care of their families, and are tired of those who don’t living off welfare while they struggle so hard to make ends meet.  They have a right to benefits from social security and medicare because they’re earned.  They’re not a government handout.  It’s different from sponging off the government for daily needs.  Moreover, liberal elites, who have a soft heart for the (lazy) poor, hold working class people in contempt, so who cares what they think?!  They’re the enemy.

The article, and others like it, implies that working class people believe if one is not in the working class (ill defined but generally understood) or on welfare, one is probably a (coastal) liberal elite.  It fails to recognize the core population of hard working people, some of whom are making it, or have made it, or never will make it, who are not of the liberal elite, whatever that is, yet are deeply concerned about the welfare of the nation as a whole, including issues of justice and equity.  That they may live on the coast means nothing more than location. They could just as easily live somewhere else, and probably have.  In their lives they have worked on farms and in factories, pumped gas, clerked in stores, flipped burgers, and maybe still do.  They own small businesses, work in giant corporations,  and (gasp) have government jobs.  Their politics tend to be cautiously progressive.  If there is a liberal elite, and they have held the working class in contempt while heaping largesse on the poor, shame on them.  But if they exist, they are not a large group, and, frankly, not very influential in electoral politics.  In other words, they’re a handy bogeyman, and little more.

The nation may be in need of a corrective, but it distresses me to wonder at what cost in human suffering.  Right wing libertarians, the feedstock for the working class, are certain it will all work out for the best.  Before them lies the shining image of a nation where everyone works hard and does well without government help.  The few who can’t will be served by churches and charity.  Yes, there will be some pain and fallout, a sort of social Darwinism, and we’ll all be the better for it.  It’s a romantic image, but the path chosen to get there fails to understand the nature and purpose of community built through collective investment in the common good.  Community, collective, common good: words guaranteed to raise the hackles of the far right.  What could they mean if not a threat to American individualism through socialism forced down their throats?  The working class, whoever they might be, have bought it, according to the article.

Maybe they have, but it’s preposterous for anyone, working class included, to think they have not benefitted from classic liberal government programs.  Lay welfare aside.  Working class folk, like all of us, benefit from clean water, safe food, decent roadways, safe air travel, forty hour weeks, mortgages made fairly available to all, houses built to code, clean air, effective medicines, what else?  In my community the local housing authority provides subsidies to over 1,000 households who otherwise could not afford an apartment in the private market place.  Most work full time, often at more than one job.  Some are disabled.  Others are low income elderly.  Dismantling the federally funded programs that make it possible would put them on the street.  Is that part of the libertarian dream?  I don’t know what kind of nation we would be if federal programs are dismantled, as some want to do in the name of a more free, less regulated society.  We may be about to find out.  My guess?  Not the romantic Eden of unregulated freedom imagined by right wing libertarians, but a rapid descent into second tier status as a has been nation with a deteriorating quality of life for all but the financially secure, of which for the time being I am one.

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