One thing I’ve never fully understood is the ire directed toward those on welfare. It comes from all classes: the rich, the middle class, even the working poor, perhaps especially the working poor. The image painted of welfare recipients is that of lazy ne’er-do-wells, shoving their snouts into the trough of public funding so that, sated on Kraft Macaroni and Cheese and shoveling Hostess Sno Balls into their mouths, they can lie back on their used hide-a-beds, smoke state-funded cigarettes, and relax to an afternoon of Jerry Springer viewed on a brand new flat screen TV also purchased with money that should have been used merely for brute survival. Worse, these miscreants didn’t work a single minute to afford such a luxurious lifestyle. Instead, they mooched the fruits of labor from hard working Americans like you and me.
In a political climate where the anti-guvment fringe has somehow hijacked the news media and the election polls, this kind of rhetoric has only gotten worse. So I was rather amused when I encountered a similar sentiment expressed by characters in a storyline in E. C. Segar’s classic comic strip Thimble Theatre, which featured the irrepressible Popeye the Sailor. Dating from 1932, when the Great Depression had been around just long enough to depress folks but not long enough for FDR to arrive on the scene with his currently maligned New Deal to attempt to redress its ill effects, the strip’s storyline recounts how Popeye has just helped King Blozo of Nazilia obtain riches from the “mythical land of Dooma” to revive the failing economy of his country with an influx of gold. After attempting to keep the gold a secret from the populace, the secret gets out—by way of what appear to be farm subsidies—and the King finds himself having to share the gold with every citizen of Nazilia. However, once he does so, the Nazilians stop working. They shout to him after he makes a decree that they should all return to work: “Why should we work? We’re rich!” And it is this rejoinder that welfare critics imagine is the reply of all welfare recipients. By just giving people what they need to live rather than making them work for it, critics argue, welfare encourages sloth, killing the will for hard work and self-reliance.
What makes this Popeye storyline particularly memorable, though, is that, in it, Segar draws out the inexorable logic of such criticism. After suspecting that giving gold to everyone in Nazilia was a mistake, King Blozo confers with his Royal Board of Advisors, who tell him: “The trouble is too much gold, too much prosperity.” The implications? Keep your populace just rich enough to be satisfied but poor enough to keep them working. This is the logic of capitalism, which needs workers to keep producing goods to be consumed, while needing consumers to consume them. Those who want capitalism unbound by regulations, who rail against the idea that those who have fallen below the poverty line, for whatever reason, should be able to maintain so much as a livable parody of the American lifestyle, or worse who feel the poverty line has been set too high in this country* need to come to terms with that fact. If you give me a choice between a culture that enforces poverty so most will make the rich richer or one that allows people to earn what they need and then take a break for a while, I’ll take the latter any day.
*See the responses to the recent “report” about poverty in America which all but states that the poor of America can’t really be poor until they’re beaten into the dirt, forced to live as those in the most underprivileged nations of the world, that is, in conditions to which no human being should be subjected.