The widespread but false narrative on social welfare turns the middle class against itself

A telling illustration of how the middle class has been turned against itself is the widespread but fallacious narrative on social welfare programs. As testimony to the deeply held belief that social welfare costs have become excessive and unaffordable, a number of politicians have pushed repeatedly for cuts in social programs, and many Americans seem to be buying this argument.

The common misconception is that the various social safety net programs viewed as “welfare” simply put unearned money into the hands of people who don’t want to work.  

This misguided belief is at the core of the widespread myth of social welfare.

Many people, including politicians, have lost sight of the fact that our new economy controlled by corporate giants does not produce nearly enough jobs for the many job seekers. The dearth of jobs is especially pronounced in the aftermath of this great recession caused by corporate greed and excess, which an inadequate regulatory system was unable to control. 

This failure is not surprising, since the regulatory system is increasingly under the control of the very corporations that need to be regulated. A prime example is Koch Industries, a leading polluter that is guilty of hundreds of violations of environmental regulations, but whose owners Charles and David Koch secretly contribute millions to election campaigns in order to obtain favors from government. 

Corporate financing of elections and the dominance of lobbying activity has co-opted our government and prevented needed regulation as well as other policy initiatives in the public interest. The fox is now watching the hen house, resulting in a completely avoidable recession that has only exacerbated a dismal job picture wherein more job seekers are pursuing fewer jobs, and—increasingly—the jobs are paying less than they did in the past.

When it comes to social welfare—welfare for people—the U.S. spends less per capita on its social programs than do most other wealthy nations. Social welfare goes to individuals and families that are unable to earn enough to get by. Disproportionately, the recipients are children. Many other recipients are retired or disabled and unable to work. Of the numerous, less visible recipients who do work, many are employed by such companies as Walmart and McDonald’s—employers who pay workers so little that many must collect food stamps to feed their families.

While the level of government spending on social welfare is hotly debated, the huge sums going for corporate welfare go unrecognized or ignored. Corporate welfare consists of tax subsidies, grants, tax incentives, loopholes and the like that go to business in aggregate. The cost of these business subsidies for the average U.S. family exceeds $6,000 annually.

Curiously, a great deal of corporate welfare supports businesses that are highly profitable, including one of the profit leaders, Exxon Mobil. The fossil fuel industry alone receives tens of billions of dollars every year despite taking in historic profits in recent years. Corporate welfare on this scale goes largely unreported. Why do so few conservatives complain about this blatant departure from the “free market”?

The fallacious and self-serving narrative promoted by extreme right-wing groups controlled by corporations and the wealthy is that we simply can’t afford to continue funding “entitlement” programs for people who “don’t want to work.” Those in need are demonized. When this narrative is repeated over and over in the corporate mainstream media, many people come to accept it, even though it does not represent the facts.

As a result of this propaganda, segments of the middle-class are pitted against one another—the employed versus the unemployed, upper-middle class versus poor, white versus black, immigrant versus native-born. All the while, the real culprits—the wealthy and powerful who now dominate both politics and the economy—go on making the rules for their own benefit. It is a simple divide-and-conquer strategy, and it’s been working pretty well.

Case in point: Many middle-class people support conservatives and their rugged individualism because they resent “handouts” to those whom they see as too lazy to work, most of whom they believe to be minorities. The fact that the majority of the American poor are white escapes them, not to mention the fact that many of the poor are children or disabled adults. The right-wing narrative simply sidesteps those messy details.

How long can we allow this hate-mongering strategy to work? We all need to ask: Who is my true ally and who is my adversary? I am a middle-class white person, yet I consider minorities, the poor, the powerless, and other marginalized people to be my valued allies in a struggle against a common enemy: the tyranny of highly concentrated wealth that has usurped our democracy.

Despite the economic plight of the middle class, the far-right narrative continues to gain support for cuts in social programs by distorting the facts, demonizing the recipients of these programs, and dividing the middle class. People need to unite and defend our common interests against the threats that highly concentrated wealth and power pose to our democratic institutions, our economy, and our planet.

Tony Giordano is an adjunct instructor of social science at Brookdale Community College and a researcher at Rutgers University.  

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