A government above the people
The shutdown has heightened the intensity of the debate on welfare, highlighting the many inconsistencies in Washington.
On October 11, 2013, ten days after the government of the United States shut down, leaving hundreds of thousands of federal workers without pay, Republican Congressman Steve Pearce left a message on his Facebook page.
“If you are a furloughed government employee, we encourage you to reach out to your financial institution as soon as you worry you may miss a pay cheque,” he wrote. “Financial institutions often offer short-term loans and other resources. Don’t wait until you are behind on a bill; call now and explore your options.”
Steve Pearce is a multimillionaire. He has an estimated worth of $8m, which makes him only the 46th richest member of Congress. His constituents, in New Mexico, are among the poorest in the country. Over 22 percent of the people he represents live in poverty, including one-third of children. Pearce has voted to deny them food assistance. Many in his district make less than $19,000 per year, which is how much taxpayer money Pearce once spent on a plane ticket.
Steve Pearce is not unique. He is not unique in America, where the majority of elected officials are far wealthier than the average American, and he is not unique in the world. The 70 richest members of China’s Congress are worth a combined $89.8bn while the average Chinese makes $2,425 per year. In Russia, where 110 people own 35 percent of the country’s wealth, parliament is staffed by billionaires while millions suffer in poverty.
As the global employment crisis worsens and income inequality reaches record highs, it becomes difficult to find a government that does not fit this model: a government not by and for the people, but above the people, oblivious and apathetic to their concerns.
Again, this is not unique, nor is it new. Governments above the people are how most systems of rule functioned throughout human history. They are frequently abetted by state censorship which prevents the suffering of citizens from being publicly addressed.
This is not the case in the United States. As we hurtle toward the deadline on the debt ceiling – which economists say will cause a global catastrophe if not raised – Americans openly discuss their country’s woes. 95 percent of Americans disapprove of Congress. 60 percent would vote out everyone if they could.
Victims of the government shutdown circulate their stories on social media. We read them, we share them, we empathise. We watch as worst-case scenarios – the jobless recovery, the sequester, the shutdown – become accepted as normal. We have a public conversation that feels private because few in power bother to listen.
Join the back of the line
The day after a millionaire congressman told employed, unpaid federal workers to take out high-risk short-term loans, millions of American families found themselves unable to buy food.
The Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) system allows welfare recipients to purchase groceries using a payment card. Most Americans who use EBT are families with children, the elderly, or the disabled. Many are military veterans or spouses of soldiers on duty. Over 40 percent of households receiving welfare include a person who has a job, but is not paid enough to provide for the family. Roughly half of babies born in America receive assistance from the Women, Infants and Children program (WIC). Most welfare recipients are white.
At around 11:00 am, the EBT system stopped working in seventeen states. No one knew why or how long it would last. Panicked reports came in about mothers who could not feed their children, which were responded to with vile and racist rhetoric. “I hope some n*****s do riot over EBT,” read a typical tweet. “I’ve always wanted to put a bullet through a c**n!”
Contrary to right-wing reports, no one rioted over EBT, just as no one rioted over the Trayvon Martin verdict or dozens of other atrocities inflicted on minorities and the poor. Instead they wept and waited. The elimination of EBT felt like a plausible shutdown casualty, one of the many necessities deemed non-essential by the people who never needed them.
The breakdown went on for nearly twelve hours until Xerox, the corporation contracted to provide IT to the EBT system, restored service. It was the kind of crisis that one expects the government to solve – until one remembers the government is not operating.
It was the kind of crisis one expects the media to cover – until one remembers how removed our national media, whose journalists are expected to live off family wealth while working unpaid, are from the 45 percent of American families whose children cannot eat without WIC.
A crisis you have to explain is a crisis is the most dangerous kind. Suffering made rote becomes rationalised, its urgency but an echo to those who cry. Poverty is a crisis of the mainstream redefined as a crisis of the margins, in a country where marginalisation has gone mainstream.
Need mistaken for desire
The debate on welfare is structured around what people “deserve”. Critics of welfare argue that no one “deserves” assistance from the state. This is true. No one deserves to live in a country where wages are so low that working families cannot feed their children without government aid. No one deserves to have the accreditation requirements for well-paid employment cost more than the average household income. No one deserves to be denied food — period.
Welfare is need mistaken for desire. Wealth is desire mistaken for worth. Everyone in America is cashing in benefits, be it welfare checks or the credentials purchased with privilege.
It is hard to say most people “deserve” what they get. But some forms of exchange are more acceptable than others.
Critics fault the poor for their dependence, telling them to get a job or get an education, when jobs for the educated have disappeared. They tell them to work hard and climb the career ladder, neglecting to mention that it terminates at a locked door opened with a golden key.
Adam Smith famously proclaimed that the rich are “led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society.”
Today the invisible hand is not invisible because we cannot see it. It is because it is not there.
One does not have to reject capitalism to reject the corruption that has decimated the global economy, or the venality that prompts a crowd to cheer when the children of the poor go hungry.
We live in a time of noblesse oblige without the oblige — wealth disguised as merit and merit as a pretext for malice. Nobility dodges, nobility punishes. Nobility pretends it is not nobility, and tells us to take out short-term loans.
A government above the people is built on purchased power. A government above the people rules by default – a default that, this week, may become literal. This is why so many Americans shun the safety net. We fear the indifference of those who hold it when we fall.
Sarah Kendzior is a St Louis-based writer who studies politics and media.
You can follow Sarah on twitter @sarahkendzior