Do we all get a fair start?
I had an interesting conversation with a close family member the other day. He was struggling to understand why people in the lower echelons of socioeconomic status do not understand or act on their ability to change their circumstances. He firmly held the belief that the drive to achieve is universal and that we all have the same potential. Essentially he was convinced that anyone can rise up by working hard in school or the workplace. Those who do not achieve, he contended, are making an explicitly different choice. Many refer to these folks as lazy, free loaders and/or cheaters. He recounted the stories from his days working at the local grocery where people would use their public assistance checks to buy beer, cigarettes and other non essential items. This is the same story I’ve heard from countless people who contend that public assistance is for lazy people content about, or highly skilled at, manipulating the system for a free ride. I had a similar conversation with another family member recently, who was enraged about Obama shoving publicly supported health care down the throats of the American tax payer.
We are inherently tribal people and part of our human nature, it seems, is to be on the lookout for freeloaders. As Jonathon Haidt’s work points out, such vigilance is inherent to various degrees in all of us, as part of the ingroup loyalty moral drive that is fundamental to social cohesion. Freeloaders detract from the viability and survivability of the group. This deeply emotional moral position has clear evolutionary roots that remain strong today.
No doubt, there are freeloaders among us. There are people who scam the system and I am guessing that there will always be those who are comfortable with, or even proud of, their ability to live off the diligence and contributions made by others. Some argue that entitlement programs enable the freeloaders among us to prosper and propagate. This may be true for some. But we need to keep it all in perspective. To do so there are a number of other factors to consider.
First, isn’t it interesting that we frame freeloaders at the lower end of the spectrum differently than we classify white collar criminals? Do they not accomplish essentially the same thing? They illegitimately acquire resources that they are not entitled to. And I am guessing that the true costs of white collar crime exceed those of “welfare fraud.” Keep in mind that the major frauds in the medicaid system are generally perpetrated by white collar criminals – Doctors or administrators billing for un-rendered services. Also think back to the impact of people like Bernie Madoff who essentially stole $21 Billion. They are criminals indeed, but their crimes do not result in all those within their income bracket as being likewise identified as untrustworthy. Granted, all crime is bad, but I have to challenge the implications of labeling an entire subset of a population as “bad” because some of them cheat.
Second, isn’t it also interesting that our hyper vigilance for cheaters targets the less fortunate among us rather than the corporations who bilk the system of billions of your hard earned dollars. Why do we turn our anger against our fellow human beings when corporations like Exxon Mobile get huge tax subsidies while at the same time they are raking in billions of dollars of quarterly profit? Then consider the financial melt down and the huge bail-outs provided to corporations deemed “too big to fail.” The costs to our society as a results of welfare cheaters are a pittance in comparison to the impact of the deregulated market-place.
Third, although nobody likes a cheater, when given a chance to do so, and a low probability of getting caught, almost everybody will cut corners or scam the system to save a buck. And everybody knows someone who works or gets paid “under the table.” Somehow these folks are given a pass and escape the wrath of the stigma of freeloader. My guess is, the proportion of people who cheat the system span all income brackets, and the actual social costs rise exponentially and commensurately with income. The disdain that we target toward the less fortunate among us, I argue, is too convenient and hugely disproportionate. Part of this may stem from the perception that welfare fraud is more visible to us than is white collar crime. And while white collar crime is perpetrated by people that look and think like we do (or by faceless corporations), welfare fraud is sometimes perpetrated by people whose faces and lifestyles are different from ours. We see these cheaters and often hear of their exploits. I contend that much of what we hear amounts to rehashed urban myths.
The stereotype that many of us hold about the poor is inaccurate and maintained both by attribution error and confirmation bias. And the belief that many white middle class college-educated people hold – that they alone are responsible for their position in life is reflective of self-serving bias. Each generation launches from the shoulders of their parents who each launched from the shoulders of their respective parents. My children are launching from a place that is exponentially different than that of a poor African American from the east side of Buffalo, New York, or a poor Latino from East L.A., or that of a poor white child raised in remote rural Appalachia, or that of white boarding school attendee from a heavily connected affluent Manhattan family. The educational, social, and economic opportunities across these launching points vary in important and significant ways that shape their perceptions, aspirations, and realities in profound ways. Heritage, and thus opportunity, play the biggest role in one’s socioeconomic status – although, “the system” benefits from people believing that it is hard work and intelligence that drives wealth distribution. Believing the American Dream keeps the masses contented. It keeps people striving, believing that they can rise up if only they are smart enough and diligent enough. A significant part of our population has figured this out – they are the disenfranchised. Without hope or opportunity it is hard to buy into the myth that one can rise out of the ghetto by working hard. It’s difficult to continually swim against the current; and for the fortunate, it is sometimes hard to see that there is in fact a current when one is floating along with it.