The nadir of lazy journalism these days is the by-now-well-traveled-all-expenses-paid trip from the offices of the New York Times or the Washington Post to interview “Trump voters,” somewhere in the midwest or the Appalachian foothills, and discover that, low and behold, people who voted to see the world burn are still amused to see the world burning. It’s funny how no reporter ever seems interview, say, African American women living and working in a large city. There are actually quite a few of them, you know, They voted for Hillary Clinton. But their views certainly matter far less than white men living in the Rust Belt. We can measure how much less in column inches.
Another variation on the Trump-voters-still-like-Trump story is a visit to poor white people so destitute that they don’t seem to have even voted. This week, the Washington Post treated us to its (at least) second story in several months about poor white people living on disability payments and how their white, rural neighbors look down on them. Since this trope is becoming so familiar, I want to make several points about it.
First, yes, this article is written to shame the people on disability. Here’s a little taste:
GRUNDY, Va. — Five days earlier, his mother had spent the last of her disability check on bologna, cheese, bread and Pepsi. Two days earlier, he had gone outside and looked at the train tracks that wind between the coal mines and said, “I don’t know how I’m going to get out of this.” One day earlier, the family dog had collapsed from an unnamed illness, and, without money for a veterinarian, he had watched her die on the porch. And now it was Monday morning, and Tyler McGlothlin, 19, had a plan.
“About time to go,” said his mother, Sheila McGlothlin, 57, stamping out a cigarette.
“I’m ready,” Tyler said, walking across a small, decaying house wedged against a mountain and strewn with dirty dishes, soda cans and ashtrays. They went outside, stepping past bottles of vodka his father had discarded before disappearing into another jail cell, and climbed a dirt path toward a housemate’s car.
Those dirty, lazy slobs. (And, I get it. I am the queen of “at least clean up the mess,” because a messy house will literally (and I am a woman who understands the literal meaning of literally) make me break out in hives, and, if you’re depressed and upset, cleaning up will (my grandma guaranteed) make you feel better, but that doesn’t change the way the author picks certain details to shame. We never get such details about the sanctimonious neighbors. Pray tell: are their houses tidy and clean? How do their gardens grow?)
The article goes on to recount how Mr. McGlothin’s father once worked in a local coal mine but, after being injured on the job, begged for handouts at the side of the road. (Now, Mr. McGlothin is planning to do the same.) A local small businessman saw the father standing by the road, offered him a job, and, when the father declined, the businessman made himself a sign and stood next to the father alongside the road, letting everyone know that he’d offered the man a job and that the man had declined. The shaming was painful, but not as painful as not eating, so the family has continued the practice.
Second, I can’t be the only person to understand that, as the reporter fails to explain, for many people on disability, a meager job is worse than no job at all. Making a small amount of money can disqualify them from all of their benefits, including medical benefits, and can often put them deeper into the hole than they already are. And if they lose the job, it can be months before their disability benefits are re-instated. (We could fix that, but it might mean a few people earning money and getting medical benefits and that’s apparently too horrible to contemplate. Better to force people to stay on disability. And then shame them.) There’s no discussion of what kind of job the local businessman offered — what it paid, if it had benefits, whether it was the kind of job a man with a disabled arm could do. Those would be good things to know before we start getting angry about people who “just don’t want to work.”
Third, if we’re going to pass out blame, let’s talk about who isn’t mentioned here. Mining is dangerous work, but it’s made some hefty profits for mining companies over the years. Just as we now mostly all understand that the WalMart heirs got rich by paying their workers so little that the rest of us have to step up and make up the difference, we should understand that the mining companies got rich by externalizing onto the rest of us the inherent dangers of mining. In a truly rational market, the mining companies should have been required to pay into a government fund the actual amount of money required to fully support miners who were, quite predictably, injured in the course of their dangerous jobs. That would give the companies a motivation to do everything they could to make the job safer and it would mean that people’s neighbors wouldn’t have to grouse about how their tax dollars were going to support a disabled miner. The mining companies could pay into the fund by charging more for their coal, or they could make a smaller profit, or they could engage in some combination of those two strategies. If, even with those strategies, they couldn’t make enough money to earn a profit without externalizing the cost of their business onto the rest of us, then they should shut down. If it turned out, for instance, that workers maintaining wind turbines were less likely to be injured, then wind power would be cheaper and coal mines would shut down. That’s the rational, market response.
So, sure, it’s easy to blame these people for their situation and there’s no denying that they have made a number of poor decisions, but blaming them exclusively, because they’re visible, standing there by the side of the road, and ignoring the role of the mining companies, because their externalization of their costs onto the rest of us is invisible, is a great way to fail to solve the problem.
Fourth, to focus on the family for a moment — and this is going to make people mad at me — when you are struggling on the edge of survival, as these people are, you should not have pets. (As a woman on the cusp of retirement who just got two kittens, I’ve given this matter some thought.) First, as the article makes clear, you can’t afford to care for them and, second, as the article fails to make clear, you can’t afford to care for them. By that I mean that, first, you can’t afford a vet to even put the animal down when it’s sick. You watch, as the young man in this article does, the animal die in pain on your porch. (Who knows how much that dog suffered from fleas, heart worm, etc.? It costs money to address those issues, even if they aren’t life threatening.) And, second, you can’t really afford the pet food, etc. What this family spends on dog food should be going to buy staples such as rice, dried beans, powdered milk, peanut butter, toilet paper, etc. It should be going for job training and medical care for the depression that they are obviously suffering. It should be going to build up a six-month savings fund. I understand. People love their pets and pets can provide a lot of companionship, comfort, joy. But if you can’t afford to feed yourself, you can’t afford a pet. (I also understand that it’s one thing to go out and get a pet when you’re already struggling and it’s quite another to figure out what to do if you have a pet and then, for example, become disabled and unable to afford to care for the pet. The second instance is, obviously, much more difficult emotionally.) Love animals? Find the local pet shelter and volunteer. Go offer to walk a neighbor’s dog. Enjoy watching the local birds. I’m sorry to sound heartless, but it’s as unfair to the animals as it is to the people. Flame away.
Fifth, simply because I hate the idea of people going hungry, I’m going to talk a little bit about feeding yourself on a very tight budget. The matriarch in this family is obviously trying, spending her disability payment to feed herself, her son, and some housemates. The article says that she spent the last of her money on bologna, cheese, bread, and Pepsi. The cost of living here in DC is likely a bit higher than it is in Grundy, and Peapod delivery is likely pricer than going to the local grocery store, but let’s assume that Mrs. McGlothin used Peapod and bought a pound of bologna, a pound of American cheese, a loaf of white bread, and a 12-pack of Pepsi. Besides the soda, that’s approximately 15 servings of food. Peapod shows that a pound of bologna is $3.19; a pound of American cheese is $3.99; a loaf of white bread is .99; and a 12-pack of Pepsi is $5.99. So let’s say that, with taxes, she spent her last $15 for Pepsi and 15 servings of food. What else could she have done?
A pound of dried navy beans costs $1.50 and will yield 10 servings of cooked beans. A pound of rice costs $1.69 and will yield 20 servings of cooked rice. Mix the rice and beans together and you have 30 servings (two times as many as the 15 servings she got with bologna, cheese, and bread) that will be far more filling (and nutritious) than a bologna and cheese sandwich. There’s more than enough money left over to buy a big can of stewed tomatoes ($1.19 for 7 servings) and an onion ($.99 for 2 servings) to cook with the beans and give them some extra flavor. (Now, we’re up to almost 40 servings, but let’s be conservative and say we’re at 35 servings, as the rice absorbed some of the tomatoes.) We’ve also prepared meals that are familiar to people in Appalachia, almost comfort food. If you can go outside and pick some dandelion leaves, some wild garlic, and/or some nettles, you can add that to the beans for extra flavor, nutrition, and fiber. Because this family isn’t working long hours at a job, simmering some rice and beans over the stove is doable. Processed sandwich meats (yes, I know they’re bad for you) may make some sense if you’re working all day and then packing lunches, but they don’t make sense for people who have time to cook. A jar of peanut butter ($4.59 for 13 servings) and a bag of apples ($5.19 for 9 servings) will add $9.78, for a grand total of $13.65, and there will still be just enough money left over to address what we’ll call The Pepsi Question.
Having spent decades drinking several Diet Cokes every day (it basically got me through law school), I understand something we’re not particularly willing to admit in this society: soda is addictive. Pepsi gives you a hit of both sugar and caffeine and is, as a result, doubly addictive. We all understand how bad soda is — it can rot teeth, lead to diabetes, and, in this case, because it has no nutritional value, is causing the family to spend their limited money on empty calories. (Please imagine that I just delivered another rant about Pepsi and Coke externalizing costs and internalizing profits.) But people, especially people under stress, are unlikely to just give up their sugar and caffeine, cold turkey. (Indeed, it took me a little over year, once I had started my legal job and gotten my sea-legs, to wean myself from Diet Coke, to green tea, to water. And I still do three or four Diet Cokes a year, usually on days that are more stressful than others.) But if this family were to switch from Pepsi to another regional favorite, sweet tea, they could buy a box of tea bags ($2.69 for 96 servings) and a pound of sugar (multiple servings for $1.35). They could drink a LOT of sweet tea for less than the cost of 12 cans of Pepsi. They’d still get caffeine and sugar, but they’d be spending less of their money on that drug (esp. as tea and sugar aren’t taxed). Our matriarch would have gotten at least 35 servings of food, instead of 15, and many more beverage servings for $17.69.
I don’t think the answer is to tell poor people that they can’t use their disability payments or food stamps to ever buy a Pepsi. I do think education, offered in the grocery stores, especially, could help. Here’s a helpful, free cookbook if you’re interested in this subject.
I’m not even going to address the cigarettes. Please imagine that I have delivered yet another rant about externalized costs and internalized profits.
Finally, I’ll simply note that a guaranteed annual income for everyone is really the answer to these issues. But that’s a discussion for another day.
Picture found here.