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Old 08-12-2013, 09:49 AM
Location: Toronto
1,551 posts, read 2,686,150 times
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Do Americans hate their poor? Or, perhaps more accurately, do wealthy and middle-class Americans have disdain for poor Americans? Also, do poor people in America feel ashamed at their situation? Do they hate themselves for being poor? Do they feel they have less intrinsic value than their wealthier countrymen, that being poor is a moral failing that they are entirely responsible for? Is this a widespread, if rarely mentioned, belief in America? I have come across this notion many times in essays, in travelogues, and in books. As a dual American/Canadian citizen who has traveled quite a bit and seen how different societies think of poverty, I do believe that many Americans have much more disdain for poor Americans than other societies have for their poor. It seems that a great deal of Americans earnestly believe that poverty is the poor person's "fault"; that America is so full of opportunity that anyone who is poor must be dumb, lazy, or a combination of the two. This belief is so widespread in the US that one who had never left that country might never question this belief; might never think that there is another way of thinking.

Note the following excerpt from a famous American novel written in the middle of the last century:

America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves. To quote the humorist Kin Hubbard, "It ain't no disgrace to be poor, but it may as well be." It is in fact a crime for an American to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor. Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power and gold. No such tales are told by the American poor. They mock themselves and glorify their betters...Americans, like human beings everywhere, believe many things that are obviously untrue...Their most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for an American to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and, therefore, those who have no money blame and blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since, say, Napoleonic times

This passage appears in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, though he attributes it to another author. When I read it, it rang true for a number of reasons. But I'd like to hear what other Americans think about this passage. Is it correct, or not? Is it partially correct? What do you agree/disagree with about the passage and why? What do you think the author means when he says that being poor in America is a crime? Is this true in any way?

Last edited by TOkidd; 08-12-2013 at 10:14 AM..

Old 08-12-2013, 12:01 PM
8,854 posts, read 7,340,095 times
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First, haw do you define poor? By some standards, I and some of my relatives are poor. Though poor, we have a steady job, home, cars, and food. We don't hate those who receive government assistance due to real physical or mental disability nor to temporarily help them when they are fired. But the system is filled with fraud and abuse. Some with fake injuries. Some with conditions others with careers also have. Me wife and a relative receive aid for health problems. These are financial aid to supplement our income to help with the expenses of the condition. Neighbor lives on government checks for a fake back problem. When she wants or needs more money, she'll work for a friend cleaning hotel rooms and offices with her disabled back.
Old 08-12-2013, 10:08 PM
3,700 posts, read 3,027,760 times
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Yes, they do. It's been no secret that most of America knows nothing about poverty causes, some think it's a condition that is the result of laziness, most think it's about fraud because they've been misinformed about the myth of the "great life" on welfare. Poverty and it's causes have been studied to no end in America, we probably have more data collected on all possible causes than most nations around the globe, and we still don't get it as a nation.

There have been numerous threads on this forum that have addressed the wide spread belief that poverty is largely a result of people having failed themselves somehow, "they deserve it" is the popular notion. Of course the wealthy five per cent of American's are fully behind these notions just because they have a vested interest in maintaining an overall low wage construct that accounts for the majority of high profits in some of our largest corporations.

Even those near the bottom are now hating on the poor, it's been a weird thing to witness. Low wage people hate those who are getting assistance, they hate union workers because they make better money, and most of all they hate themselves because they aren't "getting theirs" as they think an American should. In America you can always find someone lower on the ladder to kick.
Old 08-12-2013, 10:42 PM
Location: Central Jersey
386 posts, read 546,123 times
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This is an interesting question. Of course Weber noted the effect of Calvinism on some societies like the US, where prosperity is an outward confirmation of election by God, and there's a sense of that here even today. Many people will go so far as to automatically dismiss the very idea of "bad luck" or chance in explaining the phenomenon of poverty. Deep down, I suspect many folks simply see poverty as the result of bad choices and a poor work ethic.

But of course, poverty is a complex issue: some people are lazy and short-sighted and so they don't succeed; others, I would argue, really experience misfortunes or circumstances that prevent their success. But anything that smacks of fatalistic thinking is anathema to American ideals.

It's funny, I lived in the Czech Republic shortly after the fall of communism and I always felt that, though America was and is the easiest country to live in if you have money (lots of choices, great medical care, all you can eat buffets, etc.), the Czech lands were somehow better to live in during my "salad days". I never had the sense of shame or moral failure there that I would have here if I was poor.

But once again, I suppose the bootstrap crowd would argue that that sense of shame is a good thing, as it encourages an ambitious, entrepreneurial spirit. Who knows?
Old 08-13-2013, 05:06 AM
Location: Toronto
1,551 posts, read 2,686,150 times
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Some interesting POV's. I hope people continue to post their ideas.

I'm wondering, though: in countries where there is no welfare, it seems there is much less of a tendency to scapegoat them. Is it that people resent having to pay taxes to help the poor in the US, so they assume that people who need welfare are all cheats and ne'er do-wells? Why does the image of the hard-working poor not exist in the US? Instead, it's anger about welfare, food stamps, illegal immigrants. Are Americans just reluctant to admit that their society is not as egalitarian as they want to believe - that the American Dream is not possible for everyone?
Old 08-13-2013, 07:08 AM
Location: Flagstaff, AZ
109 posts, read 327,117 times
Reputation: 144
In my state I find it unusual how demands are placed on loved ones to support the helpless. In my most difficult of times my stepdaughter was raped and became pregnant by someone older in school. I had bought a truck that I intended to use for work. When my step went to ask for help the government demanded I sell the truck in order to pay for the baby's formula. Unfortunately the sale of the truck would not have helped to pay for the formula because someone had stolen and wrecked the truck.

When people are falling one trouble leads to another. I was not prepared for anything that happened because everything was a new experience. Now, I use precautions knowing all the trouble others can cause with their unproven ideas about help. Few people can actually see past their own selfish greed and are clueless about the nature of problems. Most of all beware of tough love. One is not forever a naive sixth-grader.

Today all that is behind me. Life is going well. However, I realize that if one wants to become wealthy then the poor cannot be loved. I would choose to be poor rather then become like one of those that despise the poor. I need to reiterate though that the most trouble comes not by being poor, but by becoming poor. I don't blame capitalism, however this... capitalist marketeers like to shake markets and have families fall from their perches only to collect whatever falls from the pockets of peasants.

Last edited by thedirtman; 08-13-2013 at 07:34 AM..
Old 08-13-2013, 10:06 AM
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The OP’s characterization of American society is razor-sharp and bitingly accurate.

One viewpoint says that poor people are poor because of immorality, most notably teenage pregnancy and having children “out of wedlock”. In this view, the child might not be at fault, but the parents certainly are. Further, poor neighborhoods tend to have failing schools, and that exacerbates the cycle of poverty. The schools are failing, as goes the conventional wisdom, because the teachers are inept, the administration corrupt, the parents uninterested and the standards too lax. Yet none of these critics seriously endorse nationalization of schools.

Another viewpoint says that for every genuinely poor person on public assistance, there is another (or some other substantial quantity) gaming the system. Out of curiosity, what sort of data supports this? “Everyone knows” a shiftless abuser whose example grates our consciousness, but just how common is this?

Americans are convinced not necessarily of egalitarianism, but of opportunity. To this my reply is that for an energetic and LUCKY person, there are indeed tremendous opportunities to rise. But we should distinguish between the occasional stellar person rising high, and the great body of normal people overcoming disadvantages early in life. Most people worldwide are unexceptional. It takes exceptional talent, spunk and perspicacity to rise from poverty to wealth. Yes, it can be done. But I say again that most people are unexceptional, whether in America or anywhere else. Why do we persist in expecting of the average person, what is only attainable by the exceptional?

Now a comment about the super-wealthy keeping the poor down. With this I disagree. I would argue that the very wealthy derive little benefit from America’s entrenched poverty system. If low-end wages were moderately higher, prices would be moderately higher, and that affects wealthy people very little. They can afford to pay incrementally more for good, healthcare and the like. In fact if lower-end consumers had more spending-money owing to higher wages, presumably businesses would sell more, and higher revenues would find there way to stronger stock prices, benefiting the wealthy.

More strongly affected adversely by wage-increases at the bottom end would be the most price-conscious shoppers, who are middle-class and below. This class of people doesn’t own much stock and is weakly affected by corporate profits, but is strongly affected by the price of a hamburger rising from $2 to $3 if burger-flipper wages increase.

Every class is most concerned about staying ahead of the class immediately below it. This is why, I think, in America the most virulently conservative class is not the wealthy but the lower-middle class, the paycheck-to-paycheck class too affluent for public assistance but too poor to have substantial discretionary income for investment. So the disdain for poverty, either for financial or cultural reasons, is not from the upper 5% or 1% or whatever, but say from the second-lowest quintile, for the lowest quintile.
Old 08-13-2013, 10:15 AM
58 posts, read 96,806 times
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You mention "Napoleonic times" and I have seen arguments from young college students and college grads comparing America's situation today with the French Revolution. I watched "Les Miserables" and the scene of the sacrificed young people who were starting to revolt.

My concern with your argument is that you compare yourselves to "peasants" and "surfs" and people who were told "let them at cake" by a true monarchy of "rulers." And you consider wealthier people to be "rulers." However, your generation VOTED in an election. You wanted the leader you have now in power for more than four years. Before the 2010 election with more House Republicans, Democrats had the control of the executive branch and the legislature to make changes.

Why do Democrats and young people especially make excuses for the leaders they ELECTED?

Instead, you want people to feel sorry for you because you are "poor" when you are young and just starting out. Many people remember what it was like to struggle just starting out in life on your own. You stay on your parents' insurance until the age of 26. You live on student loans and credit cards, which you will probably never pay back. And the "poor" in our country have a much higher standard of living than any other country.

Finally, illegal immigrants from Mexico and foreign students on expired Visas, are NOT America's poor. They are Mexico's poor or some other country's poor.

To answer your question, no, Americans do not hate their poor. We volunteer our time in homeless shelters, soup kitchens, and churches. We work and pay taxes.

Last edited by Job_Less; 08-13-2013 at 10:45 AM..
Old 08-13-2013, 11:38 AM
6,819 posts, read 4,412,863 times
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Originally Posted by Job_Less View Post
Even rich and wealthy families have no guarantees their children won't grow up and take drugs and commit crimes or lose all their money.
Eminently true. But please consider the implications: the route to poverty is regarded as consisting of a selection from the following list: substance-abuse and other pernicious addictions, crime, unwanted/irresponsible pregnancy, gross financial mismanagement and unsustainable debt, mental illness or just a generally dissolute character. Avoid any of those, and according to the conventional wisdom, you won't be poor. Really?
Old 08-13-2013, 12:06 PM
13,010 posts, read 12,445,977 times
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I think Americans do, on the whole, despise their poor. We definitely have had more of a tradition of upward mobility than other societies, so I think it makes it easy for people to describe to a form of Social Darwinism. I know a lot of perfectly nice people who just made some bad decisions or had some bad luck and ended up stuck on the bottom rungs of society. This whole "work hard and you'll succeed" concept is a lovely fairy tale we like to tell ourselves.

I worked pretty hard at school and haven't been unemployed since graduating college over 15 years ago. I've got a damn good life. But I was born to financially comfortable parents who supported my education, and I have an IQ that hits close to genius levels. And while I have suffered some major hardships in my life, none of them significantly affected my financial wellbeing, and none of them affected my support system.

I have a relative around my age who was born to very poor and irresponsible parents, who often bordered on abusive. He had the good luck to have some great mentors in his life, in addition to possessing a great deal of charm and charisma, and a very high IQ. He ALMOST didn't make it though. He worked very hard at his career and his relationships though and managed to establish a successful life. But SO MUCH of that was luck - so much of it was meeting the right people at precisely the right time, being in the right place at the right time, etc. He didn't just become a success overnight - there were brutal setbacks along the way, places where he fumbled badly or where circumstances just kicked him in the butt. It was touch-and-go so many times with him.

So much of our life's direction IS based on choices and effort. But one cannot discount luck - luck to be born with a good IQ, luck to meet the right people, be at the right places, luck to have the right parents or good health, etc. And once you start a downward spiral, it is very very hard to pull out of it. But people who subscribe to the "work hard and you'll succeed" philosophy usually discount the luck element quite a bit. That's just human nature. But I do think when you combine that with the American concept of upward mobility, it creates a general attitude of disdain towards those who don't manage to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

I know plenty of poor people who make bad choices out of indifference or selfishness. But I also know plenty of poor people who have no foundation for critical thinking, no solid role models to follow, no functional or supportive family to rely on, etc. My successful relative who managed to turn his life around was lucky enough to be partially raised by his very admirable grandfather during his younger years. His younger siblings had little or no exposure to their grandfather, and are completely adrift in life, even though their older brother made far worse choices than they ever did at various points in time. He just had the knowledge to correct those mistakes. The siblings - just as smart and charismatic as their brother - have not made those mistakes, but nor do they have the example set by their grandfather to rely upon. Luck. Sheer luck.
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