Despising the Poor Part III- Utilitarian Aid

February 13, 2018

Photo courtesy of Mathieu Turle

"We're forgetting how to give presents...Instead we have charity administered beneficence, the planned plastering over of society's visible sores." ~Theodor Adorno


Utilitarian Philanthropy- Modern concept. Most associated with Australian philosopher Peter Singer. The idea that there is such a thing as good and bad philanthropy, and that good philanthropy does the most good when administered to the greatest number of people.

As our country has progressed economically, individuals have been able to move past Level One poverty (Depression Era) towards the American Dream. However, many people, on their way to what we determine to be middle class, have gotten caught in the throes of poverty; essentially Levels One and Two. However, although we have been able to progress economically since the Great Depression, what has not changed is our understanding of what it means to be poor, and what this looks like in modern society. It is for this reason that the utilitarian philosophy behind government assistance ultimately fails.


Most government assistance- foodstamps, housing, medicaid, and welfare (TANF) was created in such a way as to appease Level One poverty. Consider that these programs were established in response to the lingering effects of The Great Depression (The New Deal). Over time, the administration of these benefits has become based on a utilitarian philosophy, 'do the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people;" herein lies the flaw, as long as an agency can beef up it's marketing campaign and put forth extravagant numbers to a public attempting to hold them accountable, they can get away with providing the most basic levels of aid while appearing to provide assistance well beyond what is actually being received. Even as there continues to be an increase in the gap between those who have, and those who have not.


For example, I once needed rental assistance for a month I fell short. With no other resources available to me, I reached out to a local Indianapolis organization for help. The intake process required that I bring in several identifying documents for both me and my children, as well as attend several career building classes that included job preparation and learning how to write a resume. Being a college student at the time, I felt it quite unnecessary, in addition to my already full schedule as a student with a part-time work-study job, to figure out how to fit attending this program into my schedule. Did I mention that attending these classes meant that I would have to be available for an entire business day each time? I explained to the woman assisting me on the phone that I actually had a current resume, and as a college student, I was l already on track towards a chosen career. Besides, the college I was attending had a Career Services Department that was openly accessible to me anytime I felt I needed employment assistance,


Welp, the only way you can get any assistance through us is if you sign up for our job preparedness program, she informed. On top of all this, the soonest available intake appointment was two weeks away. It wasn't until I took a few moments of silent reflection about what else I could do, (there are VERY few places a person can get this kind of assistance in Indianapolis, despite many organizations touting offering this aid), she finally admitted that even after doing all of this, rental assistance was not guaranteed. With the threat of eviction looming in less than a month's distance, time was of the essence. Needless to say, I did not receive assistance from this agency, or from any other for that matter.


For those in our society who have not had the pleasure of being labelled a 'have not', the formula seems simple. You need help, the aid is available, and as long you are eligible you apply to receive it, right? However, many programs administering government aid are bogged down with red-tape and unnecessary hoop-jumping, preventing the funding from being effective for many in need.


I completely understand that it is not the government's responsibility to repair the underlying issue plaguing those who are impoverished-

Hold on...


Matter of fact, I take that back.


IT IS OUR government's burden to carry because it was the government who first stereotyped the poor as lazy nincompoops who just need a firm kick in the bum as motivation to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Think back to Reagan's administration, when language and policy was used to stigmatize poor (often Black) people while boosting up lower middle class (often White) people.


Nonetheless, I know that what is needed to address issues of poverty cannot be accomplished by the government alone.There are solutions that can be applied in order to lessen the gap between the haves and have-nots, but none of them can be achieved without changing the way we think about what it means to be  "a have not," and the truth about what helping those in need really entails: a change in the ideas that lie in our minds, stemming from what we truly feel in our hearts.

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