There’s a thing going around on Facebook, one of those endemic pictures with text that Facebook is so full of these days. “If you can afford beer, drugs, cigarettes, manicures and tattoos, you don’t need food-stamps or welfare.”
But really, it could be found anywhere and indeed it is found almost everywhere. It is repeated as a maxim in a variety of phrasings and very few people seem to realise how dehumanising it actually is. So I want to talk about it a bit, take it apart a bit, and look at the underlying attitude, if it stands up to scrutiny.
Before I start taking it apart, I should point out that I have had the privilege never to have been really poor. Although my family was by no means rich, we could afford our food, new clothes and although it was by no means luxurious, we usually went on holidays in the summer. I grew up thinking that if money would be tighter, you would just have to cut some more. You might have to go for the even cheaper stuff, get clothes second-hand, watch the special offers even more carefully, and, indeed, maybe forego the little luxuries of life, such as a beer with friends, or a hair-cut. Not a problem, right? That’s not what life is about, is it?
There are two problems I have with the attitude expressed in the maxim above and indeed in my own younger self’s attitude. The first is that as soon as people lose their job (or get out of school and can’t get a job), they suddenly are no longer seen as people who can make decisions for themselves. They no longer have the right to decide what to do with their own money. Yes, that is right, their OWN money. All this nonsense about tax payers paying for the people on welfare is just that, nonsense. If you are paying tax, then you are paying insurance in case YOU end up without a job. The people who are on welfare now have paid that insurance themselves too. They have EARNED that welfare. They have WORKED for it. No, not everybody. Some people come right out of school and can’t find a job. Some people are unable to work for other reasons. And some people are lucky enough to have a job for most of their lives. Would you WANT to be unemployed?
Which brings me to point 2.
Let’s tackle beer and manicures first, because they are easy.
Remember how I said that I thought it would be easy to forego life’s little luxuries? Well, it isn’t. I am still by no means poor, but I have had to forego those little luxuries. I have had to say ‘no’ when people asked me out for a drink, because I couldn’t afford it. You know what that does to you? It isolates you. You know what isolation does to you? It makes you depressed. You know what else makes you depressed? Being unemployed. And no, the alternatives for social interaction are not plentiful. Most social interaction will involve food and drink. So of course you fork out money for a beer (or a coffee). What else are you going to do, sit at home and feel sorry for yourself? Well, yes, there is that, but I will get to that.
The manicures? Fill in any other thing that makes you, personally, feel beautiful. Oh, that doesn’t cost anything? Really? That hairbrush doesn’t cost anything? Deodorant? Face cream? Shampoo? A haircut? I’ve got gorgeous hair. Well, when I get a regular haircut, I do. Haven’t had one in nearly a year now, so it hangs and basically looks dead. I don’t feel particularly beautiful when I look in the mirror. Maybe you are not very much into the beauty/styling thing, maybe you are. But everybody needs to feel good about themselves and for most people that involves their looks to some extent. Not feeling good about yourself makes you depressed. You know what else makes you depressed? Yeah. Also, the cost of a manicure? You can get one for a tenner. That’s less that a haircut in most places.
I’m not too much into tattoos, but my friends tell me it’s a beauty thing, so the same arguments go.
Now, drugs and cigarettes. I am not sure what makes me angrier. That attitudes like these try to dehumanise people by taking away their rights to socialise and feel beautiful, or that they just blatantly ignore the fact that addictions are, you know, ADDICTIONS. You can’t just turn the switch. “Oh, am unemployed now, guess I should stop smoking / doing drugs.” Also, being unemployed is stressful and scary and painful and depressing. Not the right time to give up an addiction. Perhaps most importantly, addiction is an illness. And no, it is not even an illness that you bring upon yourself. I am not completely up to date with the research (hey, you can’t be up to date with all the research), but I do know that it’s a neurological illness that means that your brain’s reward system is decidedly off (ever noticed how some people are way more prone to addiction than others? Yeah, that’s why). Natalie Reed explains this way better than I could here, here and here. So basically, as a society, we are compassionate towards people with all sorts of physical and mental illnesses and disorders. We’ve even begun to catch on that psychological illnesses are real, but when it comes to addiction, we’re still saying “get over it.” That’s wrong. That’s inhumane.
Being unemployed can make you seriously depressed. You know what else makes you depressed? The constant judgement of people around you. The people who should support you, the community to which you belong, the community to which you thought you belonged. Until you became unemployed. Then, all of a sudden, the community decided it knew exactly what you should be doing. It took away your power to decide what to do with your own life and imposed social sanctions if you dared to keep that power in your own hands.
You see, welfare and food-stamps are, or should be, there so that people, families, don’t have to reach that poverty line in which even the little luxuries have to be foregone. Welfare isn’t just there so that you can tether around the poverty line always clutching on for dear life. They are there so that you don’t have to do the tethering, so that you can live.
Taking people’s power to make their own decisions away is inhumane, judging people for their own decisions is inhumane, deciding that people cannot, should not be social or feel beautiful, judging people for their addictions… These things are dehumanising. What’s worse, they are dehumanising the very people that are already struggling with their sense of self-worth because they are unemployed.