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Who’s to blame for income inequality?

| Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Unfortunately, this harsh essentialism has persisted for decades. It seems this perspective may have originated from a man idolized by many on campus, whose face graces dorm room walls and name is printed on all sorts of apparel: President Ronald Reagan. In his infamous “welfare queen” speech, Reagan derided one particular woman — a con who had cheated the government out of thousands of dollars — to argue that welfare stole from the common (wo)man and gave to the undeserving poor. Today, this argument is commonplace in the income inequality debate; over 25 percent of Americans now believe that the poor are lazy, and governmental assistance enables them to continue their sedentary lifestyles.

To debunk this idea, we need to understand that welfare does not keep people from looking for employment; rather, it encourages recipients to actively seek it. One major relief program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) is designed to do just that, as it temporarily helps struggling families back on their feet. If government programs are specifically designed to help people raise their incomes, and thus close an income gap, how can the poor cause income inequality? The answer is simple: it can’t. People who benefit from welfare programs don’t enjoy having to use them; it’s not easy to be a low-income earner. In fact, people living below the poverty line are seven times more likely to experience significant psychological distress than those making $47,080 each year as an individual or $97,000 per year as a family of four. If this is the case, we can all conclude that people don’t enjoy poverty or hope to continue living paycheck to paycheck; rather, they hope to overcome it and fight the income gap. We need to eradicate the myth that those who are adversely affected by income inequality are also its cause. By allowing it to continue, we are perpetuating a form of classism that correlates low income with low motivation.

While it may be easy to blame those who have little for widespread inequity, statistics disagree; in fact, 80 percent of people benefitting from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), our primary source of welfare, work either prior to, or the year after receiving SNAP. Most are not taking advantage of the government; instead, they are using the system to help them bounce back in a time of need. Furthermore, a quick look at the average monthly welfare benefit may surprise you. Each month, households requiring governmental assistance receive an average of $404 worth of assistance, which takes several forms, including food stamps, Social Security and TANF. Everyone can agree that $4,848 a year is not nearly enough money to care for dependents, let alone lead the luxurious lifestyle of a “welfare queen.”

Simply put, income inequality is not due to laziness, incompetence or failure of America’s poorest to contribute to society. Income inequality is about those who possess power and how continuing to marginalize people who are poor benefits a small group of our society. When attempting to distribute the blame for income inequality, don’t look to those who wish it didn’t exist the most. Poverty isn’t a culture of laziness or a character flaw in a group of American society; welfare isn’t a free ride or an easy way out. People who are poor and benefit from welfare are far from our biggest roadblock when ensuring equal income opportunity for all.

So, the next time you think about the causes of income inequality, try to put yourself in the shoes of those bearing the weight of its negative consequences. Imagine working 40-plus hours a week, taking care of dependents and struggling just to stay afloat, let alone create your own upward mobility. Now on top of that, imagine being derided by others who claim that you’re fraudulently abusing their tax dollars because you are lazy, despite the fact that you are fighting a system of institutionalized poverty and working harder than most people ever will in this country. Reflect on this situation, and then ask yourself: who’s truly to blame for income inequality? Is it the fault of the poor? Or is it the fault of those who seek to eliminate welfare, either in a deliberate attempt to widen the income gap or out of ignorance for the struggles of others?

Prathm Juneja is a freshman from O’Neill, majoring in political science and computer science.
He can be reached at pjuneja@nd.edu

Bailey Kendall is a freshman from Cavanaugh, majoring in American studies.
She can be reached at bkendal1@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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