The Case for People

The Case for PeopleIn New Jersey, Prudential received up to $250 million in state aid to construct a new corporate HQ and hire up to 300 new in-state employees. Not bad considering they already have a terrific office some three blocks away. Meanwhile, the plight of individuals in need is another story in America; they are being demonized and squeezed at each turn. All this raises questions about the “welfare” of society and public discourse. I’ve intentionally used the word “welfare” – to squarely put on the table a word that has been turned into a weapon of public discourse in my adulthood. Many of us have heard the varied phrases attached to the word to describe people, including welfare queens, cheats, lazy bastards, and the like. Through these uses it becomes comfortable, even agreeable, to turn people, especially poor people, into cartoonish characters, “the other,” and to summarily dismiss them. It is as if they are no longer living, breathing beings, devoid of aspirations for their lives and communities.

Thus someone proposes reducing a family’s assistance by another, say, $20, and the refrain is, “Oh well, they’ll be able to deal with it,” or, “They must deal with it,” even though they can’t make ends meet now. My concern is not about so-called government welfare programs; it is about the welfare of society and people.

According to The New York Times, “Panasonic received $102.4 million in tax credits to move its headquarters nine miles within New Jersey. Goya Foods picked up $81.9 million in credits to build offices and a warehouse in Jersey City, two miles from its current complex.” Then there’s the Prudential example at 250 million smackers, among others. Cloaked in economic development language, numbers, and spreadsheets, we do not question with the same vigor or skepticism investments like these as we do those in people.

You see, it’s become a norm of sorts in our public discourse that anything goes when it comes to speaking about (poor) people, their lives and their futures, as if they are not present, do not care about their own lives, and are unaffected by what is said about them. It’s okay to use them as punching bags and props in one’s campaign or policy proposals or pronouncements. To cut benefits allows leaders to seem tough-minded, ruthless, and supposedly shows they’re exercising leadership.

Indeed, it is okay to engage in discussion about the “welfare of society” so long as it focuses on certain kinds of investments, such as tax credits to companies; but talk about the welfare of people – especially poor people –and you hear about those lazy bastards and whether the cuts should be $20 or possibly $25 in food or other assistance.

There are some people who would say, “An eye for an eye,” if an opponent hits you, hit them back harder. The upshot is, “Let’s demonize everyone,” only to hope our side is left standing at the end. But going down that path will lead us to a dead-end. If we’re going to talk about the welfare of society, then we must talk people, their lives, and their aspirations.