America’s Love Hate Relationship With The Poor.

Recently I wrote a post describing an option for  a poor person who needs a lawyer. “Poor” is a relative term, since my solution requires the non-contingent fee client to ante up $500-$1000. WV Legal Aid is struggling, so the poor of WV go largely unrepresented. Even a dual income working couple may have to play “Family Court Russian Roulette” by representing themselves.

The WV State Bar is trying to help them with a new web service to encourage WV lawyers to provide “pro bono”, free, services, but I see no way our profession can fill this gap. We have plenty of low income citizens in WV. Facebook members have lots of opinions about the poor.

Here are two typical FB posts about the poor:

1. “If you do not think we should be charitable to the poor, you have forgotten the core teachings of Jesus.”, and; 

2. “The mentality of Americans today is to take, take, take. There are too many people on welfare.”

“Welfare” as used here covers various means-tested benefits such as TANIFF (formerly Aid to Families with Dependent Children), SNAP (Foodstamps), and SSI (disability.).

I tend to agree with each view. BUT IT ISN’T’ THAT SIMPLE!

Let’s look at the poor through these prisms:

1. The view of the very rich;

2. The view of the “welfare recipient”.

3. The view of the incarcerated prisoner.

4. The view of the undereducated poor:

5. The view of the “racial minority” poor:

6. The view of the mentally ill and addicted poor.

7. The culturally bereft and intellectually poor.

The View of The Very Rich

Alas, my estate plan of winning the $600,000,000 lottery appears doomed to failure. So, it is very hard to see the poor from this vantage point. I have the pleasure of earning decent money, and the “burden” of having to keep working because my “private retirement” underwent a severe setback a few years ago. Thus, I get to pay 42% of all net earnings to the WV State Tax Dept. and the I.R.S.

I don’t like paying that much. Something between 20% and 33 1/3%  seems about right, like I charge my contingency fee clients. I could be bitter about paying nearly half of my income to  the government, knowing that much of it is used for things I probably don’t approve, but I am not bitter.

Somehow I got a better education than most, have better health than most, and certainly have a better family than I could have reasonably hoped for. How can such a person be bitter?

But, when I was a boy, the graduated income tax had reached 90% for the wealthiest Americans!  That led to lots of loopholes and a bloated set of tax regulations.

It seems to me a person must have the incentive to get ahead in the world, and we cannot drive our citizens out of the country with an unfair tax code.

One of the most compelling critiques of socialism I have read was either in Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand.

Even though Jesus preached that he who arrived late for  clearing the fields should be paid a full share, I agree with Rand that providing to all equally, regardless of effort or ability, kills motivation and productivity. And communism requires its citizens to give up freedom for the promised security.

Nyet to that!

I believe in the equality of men, the equality of women, and gender equality. But how does that translate to action?

I find admirable the later lives of John D. Rockefeller, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett,  Andrew Carnegie, Michael Benedum, and others who began to realize the power of their wealth, by giving it away. Assuming my $600,000,000 could net at $250,000,000, I already had plans to give away $200,000,000 of it. It is worth $20 every six months to ponder such things.

I believe the trend in America now is wrong! Congress has written the campaign laws to permit a system of bribery, just as U.N.C. Chapel Hill was recently shown to have a disgraceful 20 year history of assigning non-existent courses, and false grading in order to assist approximately 3100 athletes through their system without getting a good education. Once the culture of greed and corruption takes hold, it is cancerous.

So, I am all for encouraging people to get rich, but in a balance. I believe the middle class must grow too, and the poor must have a path to the middle class, and even a path to becoming rich. Without these things, eventually we will face rebellion and chaos.

And, if the view of the very rich is, “It’s mine; screw you.”, I do not “like” this position. Great wealth should include great responsibility, not just building another mansion or golf course. If we become a land of oligarchs, the “American Dream” will be a joke.

 The View of the “Welfare Recipient”

If a system is in place to make people dependent, they will become dependent.

I remember an expose’ on CBS’s 60 Minutes on the American Indian. Our reparations to them, and the “reservation system” fostered unemployment, alcoholism, drug addiction, and domestic abuse. I see the same thing in Appalachia as people struggle against poverty by figuring out a way to “get a check”.

People decry lawyers for setting up offices to represent applicants for disability benefits, means tested and non means tested. Once you have  system what becomes lax in its administration and its standards, that requires only that people meet a certain standard, that has no way to get them rehabilitated, and for the means tested ones, that kicks them off “the dole” if they start earning for themselves, you have guaranteed such a system will form and grow.

I have written of my Uncle James O’Grady, body frozen in place by Rheumatoid Arthritis, who worked at Wheeling Stamping for over 30 years without missing work, and my Dad’s “retarded” (That’s what we called it back then.)  friend Richard who worked as a dish washer at downtown Wheeling’s Elby’s Restaurant  for nearly 40 years. His only retirement benefit was his Social Security, but he lived his live with a decree of dignity, as did my Uncle Jim and Aunt Kate, who was not impaired, but worked with him at Wheeling Stamping.

Then there was “Charles”. He became angry with his Mother for allowing his nere’-do-well sister to return to live with them. He became so angry that he said, “I’ll show you!” and, taking a butcher knife from the kitchen, walked down to the local food mart and demanded cash. The owner reached coolly into the drawer beneath the cash register, and said, “I will blow your f….ng” head off, so Richard immediately surrendered.

After many tears and serious pleas negotiations, Richard became a free man. He too was “limited”. He loved fishing with his grandpa, and he worked at a sheltered work-shop, BUT the system was set up that even if he refused work, he still got his SSI check. AND, he did not have to pass a drug test to get his check. What do you think happened to Richard………..he didn’t get the gold watch my uncle Jim got or the plaque and party Richard got at the end of a working life well-lived. Actually, I lost track of Charles, but I doubt his fate was pretty. But his “disabled cousin” quickly talked him out of working at the workshop when he could collect his SSI check regardless. I last saw him as he joined the small group of WV “street people”.

So, if I ran the world, would I put conditions on the benefits we hand out? Hell Yes.

1. Drug screen recipients. Provide addiction and mental health counseling, but nothing that will just be spent on drugs. If the person is bent on self destruction, I doubt America has the resources to prevent that.

2. Of course, “Mentally ill or addicted, and dangerous to himself or others.” is a standard I support for “involuntary commitment” to a secured (locked) facility. A system that encourages “homelessness” of such persons is not a good system.

3. Limit food stamps to nutritional foods? Also hell yes! Food industry profits be damned! Chips, processed foods, candy, sugar? Why give them food that is, effectively, poison? I say require recipients to learn about nutrition. Make sure they feed their children properly, and make sure they are attending to those children’s dental and nutritional needs.

4. Find work the Social Security Disability, the SSI, and the Taniff and Food Stamp Recipients can do? Absolutely, for the number of ours, and the conditions they can tolerate.  It least required a commitment to “community service”. Can they volunteer at their church? Require that. Can they work 2 hours a day on Habitat for Humanity, supervising, fixing snacks, laying out tools or mateierals?  Well then, do that. Can they read to the elderly, or work at a cash register for 3 hours, with a stool to aid? Then use them for those things. Give them a reason to get up in the morning!

5. Remember, the SSD recipient is not “means tested”. He or she paid into the system, but that should not mean they are necessarily stuck on disability forever. Provide them with education and training.  Figure out how to help them get their diabetes under control, to lose 75 lbs. or just get into shape, and let them keep a portion of what they earn, in addition to benefits.  Do not deduct dollar for dollar; perhaps reduce their benefits $.25 for each $1.00 they earn while on disability, with a sliding scale as they move towards full re-employment. And don’t kick them off just because they find work. Have reasonable rules to encourage them to become part or fully self supporting.

The View of the Incarcerated Prisoner

I watched a great T.E.D. talk not to long ago. The concept was educating and motivating prisoners, letting them earn back rights such as voting really appealed to me. It included assistance in job placement, education, and other ideas of common decency. Recidivism was greatly reduced. I endorse that idea. And let me address the idea of educating prisoners in the next section on “The Uneducated Poor”.

The View of the Undereducated Poor

I notice that conservative Republicans tend to sneer at “pointy headed  liberals”.

Because certain college professors and students, especially in Ivy Leaguesand West Coast schools, are far left liberals, and even socialists, and “God Forbid!” communists, they are anti-intellectual. It is strange that so many Republicans are also wealthy. One would think that with wealth would come wisdom.

We now have a 300+ t.v.  channel culture, shallow and pr0fane. As public broadcasting standards have deteriorated, a creature called “reality show” has crept onto the mainstream t.v. channels, and even children’s t.v. has evolved into an engine to drive our consumer culture. I see this when “Play SkooL” toys now sells an assault weapon.

If “the poor” do not have to conform their behavior to decent standards in order to get “food handouts”, “monetary handouts”, public schooling, and “popular entertainment”, what hope do they have?

If they do not have to learn the core teachings of the major religions, the fundamentals of the English language, mathematics, history, geography, the history of science, the wisdom of the philosophers of the world, shall we condemn them to sweeping the floor at McDonalds, or to their basement “meth-lab”.

I see the same thing for prisoners. We cannot simply warehouse them, or allow them to be part of a prison or gang culture. Incentify learning and good behavior. I have 100 books that if any person reads them with understanding will change them forever. If they want tastier food, more time in the exercise yard, access to the library, provide such things with strings attached.

What? Will that deny them freedom?  They are prisoners for gosh sakes!

I think not. Linsly Military Institute didn’t give me much “freedom”. We wore uniforms. We had to polish our shoes and belt buckles. They marched us up and down the drill field, but they “freed” us with a terrific education. I just spent a week with the fellows from so long ago. Some ore professional writers. Many still read extensively for pleasure,  and several study philosophy and science. Many are in the professions. Back then there was no way to tell which of us would do what, but the education did it for us.

Once, over 20 years ago, here in Upshur County, our son, who latter graduated with excellent grades from Wake Forest University, was not invited to take the P.S.A.T. I asked the assistant principal why it was not announced over the PA system.

She answered, condescendingly, “This is a rural community and high school. Many students do not have the potential for college. We only announce it to the “gifted students.“. Our son, while having an “A average” was not “selected” for the gifted program. When I persisted, she said, “Mr. Hunter, we have limited testing resources, If we announced the PSAT over the intercom, there is no telling………..(silence)”, so I chimed in, “No telling how many students would want to take the PSAT? and go to college??!”

That shocking moment of clarity told me why our county school testing scores are consistently mediocre and why our educators can be content as our students sometimes come near, not excellence, but “the national average”.

Average is just that, average. Likewise, it is elitist and cynical to say we cannot, or will, not educate and train our prisoners. They need math, science, history, and philosophy, and NOT just how to weld, hammer, or plumb. They need to learn something of their place in the world. They need enough knowledge to find meaning in life. They need to be treated as human beings, recognizing they may be coming from environments where the don’t have the values, the insights, and the capabilities, to make it without some “paternalism”. Perhaps being “paternalistic”, like a guiding wise father, is not that bad a thing.

The View of The Racial Minority Poor

Some minorities have adapted well to America.

The northern European people are assimilated. I consider myself “Scots-Irish” and Cousin Lark Hunter’s research seems to bear that out. Hunter and O’Grady, Kidd and Filson, Wild, Pickens, and many other surnames. Our daughter in law has a German “maiden name”. I am reading a book designed to be a bit provocative.

The author, Nicholas Wade, in “A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History” makes compelling points that we have continued to evolve, even during the last 30,000, 10,000 and 5000 years. I agree with him, but I agree with E.O. Wilson in  “The Meaning of Human Existence” that we are the first living species who will take over our evolution via gene research and science By our behavior and our decisions, our species will decide if we survive or go extinct. We will select for brains, or height, or longevity, or aggressiveness.

We will probably eventually leave our physical bodies, perhaps thousands of years from now.

So, we need serious and realistic research why our black, and to some extent, other “colored” populations lag, while other groups, such as Asian even seem to exceed the established “post-immigrant” populations. Wade suggests that some cultures are extremely “tribal”; not sure what that means for us, as the herders of the Scottish Highlands and the hills of Ireland were supposed to be quite “tribal” and competitive and violent, and the Scots Irish definitely had a big part is all American wars. And, somehow our balanced form of government doesn’t translate well to places such as Iraq, Libya, and the Palestinian Authority. We have had great difficulty exporting our vision of democracy.

But, “political correctness” must somehow be balanced by a realistic assessment. A black man, age 18 or 19, can’t be a “teen-ager” one minute, but “don’t call me a “boy”” the next. They must demand dignity and respect, but give it too.

There was a black man on YouTube who ranted against this double standard and demanded more responsibility of black persons, especially black men.

I was afraid to repost him for fear of appearing racist. But, for purposes of this post, let me say that we must assume the uneducated poor, the imprisoned poor, and the minority poor are  fully human, can learn, must learn, and must learn will the lessons of mankind, not just how to program a computer. Does anyone believe that Barack Obama would have been elected President if he said “aks” instead of “ask” and “Man, don’t disrespect me.” instead of, “I am entitled to respect.”

In “the great melting pot”,  ethnic culture cannot be allowed to trump learning and clarity of thought.

The View of the Mentally Ill and Addicted Poor.

I have written elsewhere in support of “parity for mental health treatment”. Animals such as our dog Duffy,  our kitty Chloe, or horses, or zoo animals, predictably, live free of most mental illness by the application of  loving care, space, socialization, and health treatment. They do not ponder their place in the universe, or worry about dying. The unique level of human intelligence means we know we are going to die. We can imagine terrible things happening to us. When we suffer a grievous loss, we remember it keenly. Thus our “mood disorders” such as depression or anxiety are the common cold of mental disease. But we also have disorders that arise from our genetic heritage, chemical imbalances, physical injury, and responses to traumatic events.

Our mental disorders are complex and difficult to diagnose and treat. Such disorders often need multi-disciplinary treatment and resources.

Our model for supplying medical and mental health treatment in America needs a “Manhattan Project” approach to the challenge of providing effective treatment at reasonable course. Without that, millions of people will be dependent on society, and a drag on our economy.

The View of the Culturally Bereft and Intellectually Poor.

I reiterate that our consumer society and culture are sick. Bad food, poor nutrition, shallow thinking dominate the live of the Average American.

 Television is dominated by game shows, reality shows, talent contests, situation comedies, and cop/lawyer/doctor/political dramas. Some are better than others, and we do have public television, but just think how our country would benefit if the “junk” were removed from television and replaced by creative, stimulating, informative, and educational content. “Paternalistic” to say we could do better. I guess I plead guilty.

I will revise this over the next week, until I don’t wince when I read it, but time “to fish or cut bait” and publish something before the week-end is over.

Summary: A country with a gross disproportion in “The Haves” and “The Have Nots”, a weak middle class, a vapid culture, a bad education system, or a loss of its core values, is a country headed for deep, deep, trouble.

This post was written by Burton Hunter

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