The deserving among us

This is a yet fully formulated thought, but I wanted to throw some stuff up here…

Here’s a comment I left at NYC Weboy’s place this morning in response to this post on the bailout:

“There isn’t another magic solution, there’s nobody with a better idea… there’s this, or nothing.”

I agree generally, we have to do something. But I thought there were lots of better ideas being circulated – Sen. Clinton’s emphasis on reviving the HOLC, Galbraith had a well thought out plan in WaPo, no?

I was struck this morning by the brief remarks of 1 House GOP on BBC who voted against this bill, how it would give $$ to “undeserving” pp and that would make his constituents unhappy. It’s sort of mind boggling…remove “Wall Street tycoons” and insert “welfare queens.” (Wanda Sykes did the best riff on this on Letterman last week.) But really, it’s like this faux notion of us all being in the “middle-class” and being the only “deserving” bunch in this country has really triumphed, and that blunt concept combined with this notion that our “middle-class” lives are distinct from those at the very top as well as those at the bottom is really problematic.

Anyway, this is just the beginning of a thought that’s forming…not quite sure where I’m headed with this yet…

So yes, there’s an issue of trying to get the bailout “right.” And I’m the first to point out the problems of economic inequality and polarization in this country. Yet, I’m nonetheless surprised to see how people’s (conscious or otherwise) understanding of this plays out. I could be crediting falsely this GOP member (and his colleagues) with a responsibility to their constituents (“the voters” are always a good scapegoat), but I’m – naively, I suppose – surprised again and again with how we routinely invoke this notion of “deserving” vs. “undeserving.” Now, instead of false, racist, classist, sexist notions of lazy, immoral poor people (women and children) of color, we’re propagating less false but still stereotypical tropes of rich, ruthless white, male tycoons robbing us blind with the help of the government. Notice my use of the pronoun “we,” lest you think I’m excusing myself here.

My cousin who works for AIG told me yesterday how tired she was of hearing from people that she was “bailed out” by the government. She’s young, and has her whole life to re-coup whatever ethereal profits she’s earned from the company so far in stock options, etc. She is a bleeding heart GOP – one of those who want the government out of their lives and wallets but whose heart and pocketbook usually opens up to those in need – and so she’s consumed by the stories of the older assistants at her company. One woman who we’ve known for years and years was diagnosed with cancer the day after the AIG deal was reached; she can no longer retire both because much of her retirement is wiped out and because she now needs the health insurance. As my cousin puts it, less than 300 employees took down a company that employed 116,000 due to lack of internal and external oversight. Forgive her and most of her anonymous cubicle jockey colleagues if they suddenly feel less financially secure than they originally did when they got their jobs with such a legendary stalwart of Wall Street.

This post may be falling on deaf ears; fair enough. We’ve all got problems, and there’s something perversely satisfying watching Bush’s failure to rally his Party and the general public around cleaning up his criminal mess. I get it. But in the last week I keep thinking of this post about post-Katrina New Orleans that I wrote two years ago, about our desire to remove the poor from our communities and thus disappear them from our lives (emphases added):

The prolonged displacement of so many [poor] New Orleanians is self-perpetuating, as their absence from the city justifies to the [Louisiana Recovery Authority] withholding the monies necessary to help bring them home. […]

The 200 survey interviewees likely represent the 65% of current New Orleans households that are in the same home they occupied prior to the storm (accordingly, the city’s owner-occupancy rate has shifted from 46% to 62% since Katrina). Yet, they speak of the universal concerns of jobs and affordable housing in a city experiencing rental rates that are three times higher than they were prior to the storm. They also highlight the widespread concerns about infrastructure, crime and the role of government in securing the city’s safe and sustainable future. Nonetheless, the displacement of so many poor residents that many believe is essential to cleaning up the city is a phenomenon likely to deny New Orleans the full resources to rebuild. […]

…the local debate over post-storm population estimates demonstrates that far from disappearing, the displaced merely re-appear elsewhere, often with an increased need for public services. Some scholars argue that our policies towards the poor and marginalized in the US reflect a “politics of disposability.” Rather, the population shuffle in Louisiana illustrates that whether we warehouse or deconcentrate the poor, their headcount remains materially relevant to healthy and prosperous futures for all Americans. Formally denying services and assistance to the poor only increases the eventual burden on the system, as we see with the estimated 99,000 families living in FEMA trailers 15 months after the storm. This is three times the number living in them last Thanksgiving season, at an estimated taxpayer cost of $70,000 to $140,000 per trailer. In New Orleans, renovating and re-opening structurally sound public housing as temporary worker housing would be a much more efficient and equitable use of federal dollars, and give the displaced a means to come home.

I feel like the only ending to this post is “we’re all in this together!” but even I have a hard time imagining that. These days I mostly feel like sticking my head in the sand and worrying quietly what kind of impact this crisis will have on my long-term financial health… And I know “corporate welfare” is a real and substantial problem, far from the faux problem of those expensive welfare queens we’re now trying to sterilize in some places.

Yet I also know that public debate around this bailout shares some discomfiting paralells to other discussions of government’s role in our lives – who needs a social safety net? Market intervention, what’s that? Make ’em pay! They haven’t worked as hard as I have! They brought this on themselves with their bad behavior and lack of mainstream values. They’re not like me. They drain all the government’s resources. And so on and so forth.


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