Welfare laws play into stereotypes of poverty

Poverty is an extremely pervasive issue that impacts people everywhere. No matter the structure of a social system, there will always be some inequality of wealth within it. There are never haves without have-nots, and that truth rings especially clear in the U.S., where poverty and homelessness are huge issues often swept under the rug.

Once we put on the blinders and do our best to forget about those struggling with next to nothing, it becomes increasingly easy to take human beings out of the equation and treat the issue of poverty impersonally. Sadly, it seems that this attitude prevails in the U.S. Many face the war on poverty as a war on poor people, rather than an attempt to help them out of their situation.

Recently, Kansas and Missouri’s proposed bills have altered the extent of social services that the states’ welfare participants can receive. Missouri’s bill, which awaits Governor Jay Nixon’s approval, serves to ban welfare recipients from purchasing certain foods, including soda, energy drinks, cookies and chips. This stance seems reasonable from a health perspective, but the state is also attempting to limit consumption of products such as steak and seafood. This approach feels less like an attempt at promoting healthy living and more like the state acting like an upper-crust suburbanite watching others at the checkout line and commenting on what poor people should and should not have in their carts.

Kansas’ proposition goes even further, limiting not only the amount of money that can be withdrawn daily, but the types of entertainment that welfare recipients are allowed to pursue. This includes going to swimming pools, getting tattoos or shopping in any business that does not allow patrons under 18 years of age. The intent of these bills seems to be the prevention of extra, nonessential spending for those receiving government aid, but this the aim seems misguided considering the state of America’s poor.

The media feeds into a very destructive image of our country’s poor, generally depicting those on welfare as exploitative, cashing their monthly checks to spend on booze and fancy new clothes. There are certain terms like “Welfare Queen” that exist in our public consciousness and influence our perceptions, even if we do not realize it. This image of the poor is a convenient one for the average American. It makes it easy to justify not caring, and that makes it easier to go about with our everyday lives.

Obviously, it is not possible for everyone to contribute monetarily or reach out to every poor person living on the street or in general squalor, but everyone contributes to our collective attitude. Average people are just as capable of hurting the cause with their words as they are capable of helping it with donations or other forms of support.

These potential changes being proposed in Kansas and Missouri are perfect examples of what happens when we allow ourselves to get too far from the reality of poverty in America. We take our opportunities for granted. With that mindset, it seems like there is something wrong with those who could not achieve the position that we have in society, and that is when we try to make decisions for them.

“The reason they are poor is because they do not budget their money properly. If I were in their position, I wouldn’t buy any cookies, and I wouldn’t go to the waterpark. I would pull myself up by my bootstraps and work until I could properly afford those things.”

Anyone might think these things, but that attitude is a toxic one. There are plenty of reasons someone might need government assistance, and very often laziness is not a driving factor, if it is even one at all.

If we are going to solve any problems related to poverty in America, we have to remember that the poor are people too: people who deserve happiness, even if it is just a trip to a swimming pool.

Conlan Campbell ’18 campbe1@stolaf.edu is from Burnsville, Minn. His major is undecided.