Denigrating the poor and unemployed

The current high levels of unemployment in the US, hovering around 10% officially and likely around 20% really, seems to be on its way to becoming perceived as ‘structural’, an euphemism among policymakers for ‘permanent’ or close to it. Along with it, the poverty rate has risen to the point where one in seven people are now below the poverty line.

Unemployed people are dangerous to the oligarchy since they are the ones who are most likely to demand changes in the way things are done. What governments try to do to pacify people is make the unemployed feel as if their situation is due to their own fault, that they have no one to blame for their predicament but themselves. One way is to cook the unemployment numbers so as to make the figures seem lower than they really are. Low unemployment rates makes the unemployed feel that they are alone and isolated, and thus make them less likely to organize and protest.

Furthermore, if people think that only a few people are unemployed, they are more likely to blame themselves for their plight, to wonder what is wrong about themselves that prevents them from getting a job. This sense of self-doubt is compounded by the pervasive feeling among the middle and upper classes that their own comfortable situation in life is due to being smarter and harder workers. This results in the corresponding message being sent to the unemployed that their lot is bleak because they are lazy, lack skills and education, and have poor attitudes and work habits.

People who belong to the middle and upper classes can sometimes have extraordinarily patronizing attitudes towards the poor and unemployed. This smug attitude is manifested in people like Ben Stein who says:

The people who have been laid off and cannot find work are generally people with poor work habits and poor personalities. I say “generally” because there are exceptions. But in general, as I survey the ranks of those who are unemployed, I see people who have overbearing and unpleasant personalities and/or who do not know how to do a day’s work. They are people who create either little utility or negative utility on the job.

People like Stein also think nothing of lecturing the unemployed on what their faults are and how they should shape up. Such sentiments are usually precursors to handing out prescriptive solutions, of which one is invariably that giving unemployment benefits merely encourages such laziness by enabling people to not seek work.

Simple habits of prudence will almost save the day, even in a bad recession. People who have meaningful savings, insured retirement plans, diversification of assets, people who do not buy what they cannot afford, people who do not simply assume the money will materialize out of thin air for their next purchase, people who add and subtract and see life plain, these people rarely get in desperate trouble. It is amazing how old-fashioned habits of buying modestly and living within one’s means, and planning for bad times as well as good times, can get one through earth shaking events.

So there’s some good advice for you waiters and dishwashers and shop clerks. Stop busting your money on frivolities like food and rent and clothes. Instead save up those pennies and buy rental properties and stocks and bonds, all the while making sure you diversify your portfolio of assets.

Just ponder Stein’s words for a minute and the mindset that underlies them. How many unemployed people do you think Stein knows intimately enough to make such sweeping judgments about their personalities or work habits? Despite his grand claim that “as I survey the ranks of those who are unemployed”, with its implication that he knows a vast number, I suspect that Stein cannot even name more than a handful of working class poor, let alone have much familiarity with them. Such statements are usually the product of unexamined class prejudices, pure and simple, made with the confident assumption that those prejudices are shared by his readers and will not be challenged.

It turns out that his judgments are arrived at on the basis of knowing people just like him: “I get letters and e-mails from friends of decades standing asking for money every single day. Their common denominator is that they lacked prudence and lived in a dream world.” Silly people, thinking that a decades-long friendship with Stein might count for something when they were down on their luck. I am sure that they were pleased to get a lecture from him on their lack of prudence and thrift.

Stein writes as if he himself is an up-by-my-own-bootstraps type but Paul Krugman points out that he must have actually inherited a huge amount of wealth from his parents. What is also interesting is that Stein himself, going by his performance as the narrator in the documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, has an extremely irritating personality, pompous, dour, humorless, and with a grating voice. If I were a boss who fired people according to Stein’s criteria, he would be the first to go. If I had to share a cubicle with him, I’d shoot myself. (See Bill Maher on Stein and other rich whiners.)

I have been extremely fortunate in my life in never having been really poor, to the extent of having to worry where my next meal is going to come from or fear that I cannot pay the rent and may become homeless, even during the couple of years when I was underemployed and doing part-time teaching and consulting. As a result, I can never really understand what it feels like to be in such a situation. Even though I grew up in a developing country that had a lot of poor people, and also have poor relatives and friends who have been through hard times, just seeing poor people by the roadside or on an occasional basis isn’t sufficient to know what such a life is really like.

One usually learns about people different from you (in say ethnicity or culture) by reading books written by such people who can eloquently convey the experience from the inside. But it takes an improbable combination of means, energy, time, education, and writing skills to convey the full range of their experience, and the somewhat clinical reports about the lives of the working poor and unemployed provided by academics and journalists, however sympathetic (of which David Shipler’s book The Working Poor: Invisible in America is a good example), cannot do it full justice. There is always a temptation to make assumptions about what makes people poor and what poor people must be like and think that these unsupported beliefs constitute real knowledge.

Fortunately there are writers who can break through that barrier and provide a more visceral sense of the experience and in future posts I will discuss one who had a profound influence on me.


  1. Steve LaBonne says

    I don’t know how even a peaceful person, and I am one, can refrain from daydreaming of lampposts and guillotines when contemplating the likes of Ben Stein.

  2. says

    One of the most ironic things about Ben Stein’s comments now is how many people his financial advice actually put into the poor-house. He was praising the economy and suggesting that people increase their investments in the equities markets all the way down, ridiculing the people who actually understood what was happening. And then he wrote a couple of extremely revealing (and pathetic) pieces about how badly he had hurt his own finances by following his own advice to the extent that he did.

    Of course, that was just to promote another bad idea.

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