Society’s Polygraph

A writer for the Washington Post describes the harrowing experience of receiving stares when collecting welfare benefits in her husband’s luxury car. Her true self-awakening occurs only after deep reflection reveals what a devastating effect collective judgment has had on her feelings of identity and self-worth. The greatest injustice of all, she realizes, is that she has been made to feel ashamed for having a mortgage, car, and children she can’t afford.

In the following passage she describes the utter humiliation to which she was subjected in the process of receiving her WIC and Medicare benefits:

I had to fill out at least six forms and furnish my Social Security card, birth certificate and marriage license. I sat through exams, meetings and screenings. They had a lot of questions about the house: Wasn’t it an asset? Hadn’t we just bought it? They questioned every last cent we’d ever made. Did we have stock options or pensions? Did we have savings? I had to send them my three most recent check stubs to prove I was making as little as I said I was.

 

Proof of identity! Verifying financial status! Horror of horrors!

Isn’t her giving her word enough? Who knew getting your hands on free money would be so difficult?

 

The question-mark guy on TV never mentioned any of this!

Back to the titular Mercedes:

That’s the funny thing about being poor. Everyone has an opinion on it, and everyone feels entitled to share. That was especially true about my husband’s Mercedes. Over and over again, people asked why we kept that car, offering to sell it in their yards or on the Internet for us.

“You can’t be that bad off,” a distant relative said, after inviting himself over for lunch. “You still got that baby in all its glory.”

Sometimes, it was more direct. All from a place of love, of course. “Sell the Mercedes,” a friend said to me. “He doesn’t get to keep his toys now.”

If you look closely, you can see some faint indications of properly functioning cultural norm. Being on welfare is supposed to suck. People are supposed to question your expenses and offer you help and advice. You are supposed to feel ashamed about not working and living off other people, regardless of whether or not you are primarily responsible for your financial condition. These are all components of a healthy society with incentives properly aligned toward working, managing expenses properly, and getting off of public dependence.

All of this is supposed to be the case because the alternative is having a system that encourages dependency and inaction. The other option is having people on welfare who drive Mercedes-Benz sports cars going totally unexamined. Is that the world you want to live in?

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