Lately I have been so discouraged by the sentiments expressed by people around me regarding those in need. I consider myself a liberal, but I find myself feeling more like a moderate in some ways when I hear the views of those around me. It seems most people I am around are either much more liberal in their views of the causes and plight of the poor or much more conservative and cynical in their views than I am. It occurs to me that that is the fundamental difference between conservatives and liberals—conservatives are too cynical and liberals are too idealistic. I think I’d rather be idealistic.
Often at work, surrounded by conservatives, I hear the poor discussed with such contempt. They say those who utilize social programs, who depend on government programs, are lazy and expect others to take care of them without lifting a finger to help themselves. This infuriates me. Do they realize how easy it is to lose everything and become homeless? How some people don’t have a support system in place if trouble arises through no fault of their own?
But then I went to a community discussion group comprised mostly of liberals and heard the opposite extreme, that it is never their fault, that no one chooses to live off of welfare, that everyone would rather work and take care of themselves. They have no responsibility for the hand life has dealt them. And I find myself annoyed with this thinking as well.
I think that it is often through no fault of their own that people fall on hard times and cannot pull themselves up and out without help, but I also think there are people who take no ownership of their problems and who would rather not work, but collect a check instead of working hard for inadequate wages they cannot live on anyway.
It seems to me that to really put a dent in the problem of poverty and homelessness in America, we have to decide what kind of people we want to be, reevaluate our values. This was once a country that promoted the idea that regardless of the circumstances of one’s birth, everyone had the same opportunities to succeed and raise his station in life. It has always been a myth that we have the “same” opportunity, but at least there was an opportunity. The truth is that every year, it becomes harder and harder to move up to a higher income class if not impossible. But forget moving up. We are struggling to stay in the one we are in. Every year we lose citizens from the middle class to the poor. We aren’t raising our stations; we are lowering them. Most of us are one catastrophe or illness away from poverty.
Look, I work hard to earn a living when I would rather stay at home and write poetry, so I know what it feels like to resent seeing someone standing on the corner collecting money for nothing. I know what it feels like to not be able to afford to go the doctor because I didn’t have enough in my account for the co-pay, but I made too much money to qualify for any assistance. For years I gave an extra few dollars on my utility bill to contribute to their Low-income Energy Assistance Program (LEAP), but one month, when I was a single mom and couldn’t afford to pay my utility bill, they refused to help because I made too much money. I don’t begrudge help to those who are truly in need at all, but we need to do more to stop the middle class from sliding into that position. Sometimes it is easier to give up and be indigent and qualify for aid, rather than struggle as the working poor with no help.
When we get past the idea that poverty could never happen to us, then we may be more willing to support social programs to help others. When did we become so selfish? We won’t even help others unless we believe that we may need help someday. Of course, that is a gross generalization, but why such disdain for the poor among conservatives? I think it is a mixture of cynicism and a love for rugged individualism.
I also get really tired of hearing that liberals just want someone to take care of them. Well, I’m a liberal who hasn’t been out of work in almost thirty years. I am the hardest working person I know, putting in hours and hours of overtime every week with no compensation. That’s right, I’m a teacher, and I have never in my entire life expected something for nothing. In fact, I can’t stand the idea of someone else supporting me. I want my independence, and I like knowing I can pay my own way. But I also realize that life happens. I am not immune to the misfortunes of this world. I could get sick, unable to work. I could get laid off and be unable to find another job. I could lose my house and be out on the streets. I could get in a position where I couldn’t take a shower or get a clean set of clothes to even look for a job. When you’re homeless, what do you even put down for an address or a phone number on your application?
If you don’t have a support system in place, like family and friends who could give you a place to stay until you get on your feet, what would you do? I can hear the conservatives now. “There are shelters, resources, places to help them out.” Every time I hear this, Ebenezer Scrooge’s voice comes to me, “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?” Sure there is help, but do you know what it would take for a homeless person to take advantage of them? We have no decent transit system, and all these services are separate and far apart. How would you even find out about them? Pull out your iPad and Wi-Fi? I hear the response, “They could do it if they wanted to. They have to help themselves.” I kind of agree with this, but on the other hand, if you’ve been beat down by the system and life in general, will you even have the wherewithal to take on such a task? It would seem overwhelming.
Sure, I think, if it was me, I would pull myself out of it, but no one really knows how bad it is, and how we would react until put into that position.
So it seems to me that conservatives are overly harsh and cynical about the poor, and liberals are overly magnanimous and idealistic about them. What if there is an in-between? What if we expect them to help themselves, but we provide the jumpstart for them to do it? What if we made it more profitable to work even an unskilled, dead-end job than to collect welfare? But conservatives don’t even want to raise the minimum wage. They’re asking for people to go on welfare.
I am a Democratic Socialist, so most people think that means that I want everyone to have a free handout, take what you earned and give it to someone else. That couldn’t be further from the truth. In Socialism there are no free rides, no sitting back, doing nothing and collecting a check. Everyone works or they don’t get to participate in the system.
Here’s a scenario: I lose my job as a bookkeeper because I am no good at math. I don’t want to get kicked out of my house, and I like to eat, so I look for a job. The only experience I have is as a bookkeeper, but all my references say I’m not suited to this kind of work. No matter where I apply, no one will give me a job. I apply for government assistance. I qualify and am given a work assignment in a clothing factory that provides clothing to prisoners and orphans. I discover that I am good at sewing. I do a good job and my boss is happy, but I only make the government assistance minimum wage. I can live on it, but I’d rather make my old income and in a nicer environment, but at this kind of job that I like and am good at. My boss gives me an excellent reference, and I am hired by a trendy art-nouveau-type clothing manufacturer at the same pay I made as a bookkeeper. Why the same exact money? Because the hours of one human being’s life is equal to another’s. We want to believe that our pay is based on how hard we work, but do you really believe that? No, it is the profitable value we place on the service you provide. It has nothing to do with how hard you work. If it did, teachers would be the best paid people on the planet and corporate executives would make much less than cooks.
I hear the conservative voices in my head once again saying, “But what would be their incentive to work if not to make more money?” The incentive would be 1) to keep a roof over your head because you could still get fired if you don’t do your job well, and if you like your job, you want to keep it rather than exchanging it for something you may not, and 2) you would choose your job according to your natural talents or passions rather than how much it paid—this is the best reason to do it. If people get to work all day at what they love, they tend to put their heart and soul into it. Would you rather have a surgeon who had a passion for science and medicine and wanted to help people, or one who just wanted money and social position?
Oh, and you wanted to know who was just lazy and who really needed help? Well, here’s your solution. If they refuse to take the work assignment, they don’t get any assistance. In true Socialism, the community matters, not just the individual. The individual does well if the community does well, so there are no freeloaders. Now if someone is developmentally or physically disabled, they are given a job that they are able to do. The only people who would be exempt from a work assignment but could still get assistance would be the severely physically or mentally ill.
Socialists don’t want to take what’s yours. They want everyone to do their part, and care for each other when they need it. We want people to be valued as human beings instead of a bank account or earning potential. We think a street sweeper should have just as much respect as the executive of a bank or a doctor, and his life and his time are just as valuable and shouldn’t have a monetary value placed on them. If a person works 40 hours per week, then he should be able to live as comfortably as anyone else who works 40 hours a week. But I think Americans work too much anyway. Thirty to thirty-five hours would be healthier and more productive.
And education should be free, so those who are apt to achieve academic success can do so without being drowned in debt for the rest of their lives. They can give back to the community by serving as doctors, scientists, and teachers because they love it, not for money but for passion. Socialism isn’t about everyone being the same and not standing out, just equally valued. Free education would truly level the playing field so that regardless of the circumstances of your birth, you would have the same chance to follow your dreams as anyone else. Only your motivations and natural abilities, or lack thereof, would affect your achievement.
Sure, no one would be rich and no one would be poor. Money never made anyone happy. In excess, it is only used to control and oppress others anyway. But this would never happen in America anyway. Democratic Socialists don’t advocate for forced, all-or-nothing change. We can balance things without completely ridding the world of Capitalism. We can support workers, small businesses, and create a safety net that is good for everyone and still be the land of the free, still celebrate entrepreneurship and personal innovation.
The conservative voice in my head asks, “But isn’t that Totalitarianism? Weren’t the Nazis Socialists?” No, actually they were Fascists and just called themselves Socialists. At most they were a distorted dictatorial socialism. It’s true that in Socialism, the government plays a large role and has to regulate many things, taxes would be higher, and the money collected would pay for many of things we need but cannot now afford like complete and continuous health care coverage, education, and public recreation and transit. But in Democratic Socialism, the people are the government. We would need a true democracy to pull it off—none of this republic rubbish, where those we elect do not represent us at all. We would decide how to spend our money. The popular vote would suffice for most things, but before the conservative voice tells me that the 49% can be enslaved by the 51%, understand that constitutional protections of civil liberties would make that impossible. Civil liberties should never be up for popular vote.
But even if Democratic Socialism isn’t your thing, let’s at least admit that Capitalism breeds greed and encourages contempt for the poor. I believe Capitalism causes poverty, at least our crony capitalistic plutocracy does. It doesn’t create jobs; it creates indentured servants and gradually worsens their conditions, hoping they won’t notice, and finally sends their jobs overseas to those who cannot afford to refuse them. We are undoing everything that the labor movement fought to improve for some fantasy ideal popularized by Ronald Reagan and his “trickle down theory.” I think after waiting thirty-plus years for it to work, we can try something else now. In fact, Reaganomics pretty much caused the banking crisis and the bailout of the banking system by deregulating them in the eighties as well as increasing the deficit by practically eliminating the corporate tax burden. Yet, he is lauded by conservatives as a great president because he could deliver a patriotic speech with sincerity. And I do believe he was sincere, but that doesn’t mean we have to continue his failed policies forever.
In 1931 James Truslow Adams coined the term The American Dream when he wrote “The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.” This original version wasn’t bad, but it has evolved into much worse. When I ask my students to tell me what the American Dream is, they usually respond with “To get rich,” or the more realistic ones say, “To have a house, a good job, and provide comfortably for a family.”
But we have moved past the image of a middle class home with a white picket fence, two cars in the garage, two children, a pet, and a retirement account. Today in the light of a struggling economy and tough job market, the dream may look more like affording a decent apartment. having health insurance, and worrying about the future later.
Although Adams coined the phrase, the ideals behind the expectation of life for Americans have been around since the Declaration of Independence was signed, or maybe even since the Mayflower landed in Plymouth Rock. All those who come to America have certain expectations and dreams. Those born in America seem to have expectations, but they are more unconscious, and therefore, even harder to attain.
It’s time we redefined the dream and our values along with it. We need a definition of the American Dream that we can be proud of, one that embodies valuing people instead of profit margins and defines happiness and contentment as success rather than fat bank accounts. How would you define the American Dream for modern times? I have an idea for how I’d like to define it:
1) A land where every person, regardless of race, country of origin, gender, religious belief or lack of it, regardless of sexual orientation, and regardless of political or philosophical view 2) would have the same opportunities available to them should they choose to grasp them. 3) They would only be inhibited by their own natural skills and abilities and by their own inclinations and motivations, 4) and their social class at birth would have no bearing on their chances of success 5) to pursue happiness in any way they saw fit that 6) did not infringe upon the rights of others to do the same and did not endanger society or the people therein. 7) A land wherein such people would have guaranteed civil liberties under a constitution of their own design, 8) and all other issues arising, not considered civil liberties, would be subject to a popular vote.
This is how I see the American Experiment. This seems like what America should care about, and it’s very similar to the ideals of our founding fathers whom my conservative friends are so apt to quote. Isn’t this the heart of their intentions? Certainly not the worship of money and the subjugation of the poor. If they were here to see their precious experiment in self-governing torn asunder by corporate lobbyists and super PACS, they would probably redefine it too.
And to my conservative friends, stop acting like you are against big government involving themselves in our lives when you support controlling a woman’s body, forcing religious views on the non-religious, and entering every conflict around the world. Your definition of government seems to be of the corporation, for the corporation, by the corporation. Democratic Socialism encompasses the true intentions of the our forefathers by embodying the ideals of the people, not corporations, as the government.—Christina Knowles
Updated: October 16, 2015