Do You Have the “Right” Mindset?


NPR recently ran a story that analyzed proposed cuts to government aid programs that stated the underlying premise behind those cuts: Government aid is holding [many people] back. Without it, many more of them would be working.

It goes on to say:

Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director Mick Mulvaney said as much when presenting the administration’s budget plan this week to cut safety net programs by hundreds of billions of dollars over the next 10 years. The administration also wants to tighten work requirements for those getting aid, such as food stamps, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.

“If you’re on food stamps, and you’re able-bodied, we need you to go to work. If you’re on disability insurance and you’re not supposed to be — if you’re not truly disabled, we need you to go back to work,” he said.

Taken at face value, this is merely to state a simple ideal: that those who can work do work and contribute to society. But let’s examine it in the light of our not-so-simple reality.

First, Mr. Mulvaney’s statement assumes that people on food stamps are not working. This is not the case. I can tell you from experience that people on food stamps may be working, but simply not making enough money to feed their families. Studies of data collected by both government and private enterprises show this.

The second assumption his statement makes is that any able-bodied American ought to be able to find a job. That’s a big assumption, considering that most jobs—especially those that pay well enough to support an individual or family—require more than simple able-bodiedness. They require a certain level of education, a specific knowledge or skill. Even picking crops requires a specialized knowledge about how to do this task without damaging either the produce or the plant it is picked from. This is a lesson that several states learned the hard way when they enacted draconian immigration polices (but that’s a subject for a different day).

Think about it: even highly-trained out-of-work individuals in some industries have found it difficult or even impossible to find work in their field because their skills are viewed as being obsolete in a matter of months.

Are there people who are perfectly happy to be out of work? Sure. Do they form a large enough bloc among people on food stamps to justify cutting these programs to the point that they impact more than the target bloc? I’ve never seen any statistics to support this idea.

Indeed, can the proposed cuts be made without harming citizens who do really need aid to survive?

This raises a more urgent question: Is it justice to harm those innocent of the laziness Mr. Mulvaney’s statement assumes in order to punish the ”freeloaders” or force them to find work? Is it humane? By what virtue or principle does it makes sense?


In other words, what is the ultimate value that is served in harming these individuals? Who benefits from this harm? Does the benefit to one group warrant the damage done to the other?

Is any of this even realistic? That is, does it actually ensure that able-bodied people on food stamps find work that pays enough for them to no longer need food stamps? If not, whatever is the point of cutting their benefits?

Here’s the most irrational part of this: Setting a dollar amount to cut assumes that we know how many individuals are gaming the system AND how many will be able to simply find a job if they only try.

To return to my first point; it is difficult for even people with skills and training to find work. Consider the circumstances that contribute to people being on food stamps in the first place: lack of education and necessary skills, transportation, age etc. Many able-bodied Americans are not working because there is a lack of jobs that they can fill, regardless of how able-bodied they are. Or perhaps because their economic reality forces them to live where there is neither work, nor transportation.

Now, we might try a comprehensive approach that aims to connect workers with jobs through transportation programs that will get them to those jobs, but that would require its own funding, and clearly the goal here is to save the government (and more successful Americans) money.

So, let’s assume that the funding cuts are going to result in some able-bodied Americans losing their benefits. What do we do if these people are cut from federal programs, but can’t find work? How long will it take before they are no longer even able-bodied? Will we care for them when they inevitably become ill?

The NPR report continues:

On Wednesday night, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson — whose budget to help low-income households would be cut by more than $6 billion next year — added his own thoughts. He said in a radio interview that “poverty to a large extent is also a state of mind.”

To Low-Income Americans, Advocates Say Carson — who himself grew up in poverty to become a widely acclaimed neurosurgeon — said people with the “right mind set” can have everything taken away from them, and they’ll pull themselves up. He believes the converse is true as well. “You take somebody with the wrong mind-set, you can give them everything in the world (and) they’ll work their way right back down to the bottom,” Carson said.

Carson’s comments are meaningless unless we intend to somehow judge people’s ”mindsets” and accord help only to those whose mindset we (or some body assigned to make this judgement) deem ”right”. I’d suggest that it’s worse than meaningless. Taken at face value, Dr. Carson is really making a case for having no aid to impoverished people at all, because those with the ”right mindset” will pull themselves up by their bootstraps, even if they have no boots, while those with the “wrong mindset” will flounder no matter how many pairs of boots they’re given.

After all, why waste money on people who don’t deserve it?

We could propose changing their mindset, of course, but we’ve yet to develop that technology. So, we’re stuck with millions (or at least these cuts assume millions) who have the wrong mindset and therefore do not deserve public assistance.

Are there people who will fail miserably no matter how many resources they have? Of course. How many highly acclaimed and accomplished athletes have self-destructed when they seemed to have everything a human being could want? Often, this happens after society, friends, family, fans and business associates have overlooked troubling behavior time and again and cut the individual all kinds of slack out of love or appreciation of their talent or perceived (and real) worth. Imagine a welfare recipient being accorded that level of support. I can’t. Can you?

The cuts Mr. Mulvaney and Dr. Carson endorse making to fundamental aid programs are so drastic they would withdraw aid not just from people who have the ”wrong mindset”, but from those who are poor for reasons having nothing to do with self-destructive behaviors. Again, the amount cut from these resources assumes that a significant number of people have the “wrong mindset” and are therefore not working because they don’t want to work, and that throwing them out on the street without resources will somehow magically cure their laziness … if it doesn’t kill them first.

NPR reiterates a point I made previously: Anti-poverty advocates say both Carson and Mulvaney are fundamentally wrong, that most low-income people would work if they could. And many of them already do. They just don’t make enough to live on.

Is there a wrong mindset? I’d say yes. And both Mr. Mulvaney and Dr. Carson are demonstrating it. The assumption is that if you are worthy, you will be wealthy, and by extension, those who have accumulated wealth are more worthy of favor and further wealth than those who have not. This goes back to a sort of “prosperity gospel” (not to be confused with the Gospel of Christ) that proposes the following: Wealthy people are wealthy because they have the ”right mindset”. Poor people are poor because they do not. Wealthy people should be rewarded for their wealth with more wealth (banks have systematized this by offering free checking accounts and lower interest rates on loans only to those who already have wealth). Poor people should be stigmatized for their poverty by removing what resources they have, further disadvantaging them. This is also systematized in our society in a number of ways.

Because I’m a science fiction writer, I am conditioned to ask ”what if” by temperament and training. What if we cut these programs, excluding people we feel are able-bodied enough to work regardless of their actual access to work? What is the result?

Let’s say there are a million recipients of food stamps and/or housing that lose their benefits. What happens to them when they have no food and no place to live?

Here are some options. Those millions:

  • join the homeless population, to be cared for by charities or other government programs that currently can’t keep up with need
  • sicken, and end up in ERs across the country, adding to the cost of healthcare
  • turn to illegal ways of making money and end up in the prison population, another cost to tax payers
  • die, leaving their corpses to be disposed of

Now, please note that even this ultimate solution to the problem has a cost. Someone has to collect the bodies and dispose of them. So, do we create a Corpse Recycling and Disposal Department, perhaps as part of the coroner’s office, or do we accord that task to the animal control crews that scoop up road kill?

I think Animal Control is out; they’re already underfunded. I recently had an opossum die in my backyard and was informed that I had to dispose of it myself. Animal Control only disposes of those corpses found on public lands. So if a homeless person dies along a highway, a public employee will take care of the disposal; if he or she dies on your property, you may have to take care of that yourself. In the case of the poor opossum, I was able to get it into a large garbage bag with the help of my daughter and a shovel. We were instructed to put it in the garbage can for pickup. A human body is much larger than an opossum, obviously, and would require more effort. Is the owner of the property where the person dies responsible for their disposal?

In any case, it means determining what happens to dead humans and allocating funds for that purpose. Congress would be wise to draft legislation dealing with that eventuality now, before the cuts to public assistance touted by the aforementioned gentlemen are set in motion. Otherwise the consequences could be chaotic and distasteful, to say the least.

I suspect we would be saved by the magic of Free Enterprise through privatized disposal businesses—ala, my once funny ”Mike’s Mortuary; you stab ’em, we slab ’em” response to obscene or prank phone calls. The government could contract with private corpse disposal companies for humans who die on public property, while individuals could pay them for pickup of human remains on private property. Naturally, this raises the issue of what happens if, say, several tenants in your SRO die and you can’t afford to pay for the disposal. There would obviously have to be legislation that covered that, too. We’re talking about millions of people, here, so if a landlord suffers a rash of deaths, he could be looking at a serious outlay of money. Then there’s the danger of disease spread by bodies that are not disposed of in a timely fashion. That would involve the CDC, potentially. Would there be fines connected with a failure to dispose of a corpse?

Given all of the above issues, perhaps it makes sense to simply make corpse disposal part of garbage pickup. If my dead opossum can go to the landfill, why not a dead pauper who died only because he was wrong-headed and lazy?

Farfetched? Not if you waste our nation’s precious time taking the statements of these two men as being in any way just, practical, rational, or realistic—let alone humane, or even human. I would submit to you that, taken at face value, the sentiments quoted above are not worthy of debate by feeling, thinking, rational, compassionate and just human beings.

Do these two government officials really believe the people they were appointed to serve should be abandoned and scooped up like roadkill when they inevitably die?

I don’t know. I prefer to think that they are either grossly ignorant of how simplistic ideologies fare when exposed to reality or so mired in partisan political morass that they will say whatever they think will please their ”base,” and do not intend to be taken either literally or seriously.

Do the human beings who make up that base believe in abandoning their fellow humans to starvation and homelessness? I think some of them believe they do. Why? I’m sure the reasons are diverse, but in the end, they come back to the circular logic that those on public assistance are somehow not worthy of that assistance, else they wouldn’t need it.

Most people, I think, who voice this sort of sentiment do so without stopping to think about its ultimate consequences if life isn’t really that simplistic. They demonstrate belief in a world in which there are the good rich and the lazy (but able-bodied) poor, whose station in life is determined entirely by how hard they have tried. It has nothing to do with such factors as access to education, adequate nutrition, housing, transportation, jobs, opportunity or just plain blind luck.

There is an element of fear in this ideology. If these people are poor because of a set of complex factors, most of which they had no direct control of, then it can happen to me. I am at risk. To negate that risk, it may be necessary to believe that poverty happens only to the lazy. I am not lazy, ergo, it cannot happen to me.

As always, I return to the words of scripture. To Krishna stating that one must come to God with ”love for all creatures”. To Christ proclaiming that to love one’s neighbor as one’s self is tantamount to loving God and that by neighbor, He meanst even the most despised among us. To Muhammad, making clear that to neglect the poor and needy is to ”belie religion”. To Baha’u’llah, announcing that it is the job of mankind’s leaders and wealthy to guard the poor as the ”trust of God” among us.

When these divine Teachers told us we must care for the poor They did not mean that our duty began and ended with disposing of their bodies when they die.

”…‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’. … ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’” — Jesus Christ, Matthew 25:40 & 45

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