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Inequality at the Bottom
March 11, 2021
by William P. Meyers

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Entitled Poor v. Unentitled Poor

It is fairly easy to find, in text, audio, and video, news stories on the vast inequality of wealth in the United States. These stories typically contrast billionaires or the 1% with ordinary workers or the middle class. They usually have statistical backing. They sometimes even contrast how life is for the upper 10%, call them the upper middle class, with those in the bottom 20% or even 40%. I think it is great for people to know this, and understand its effects on society and government.

This article is on a different kind of inequality. It is about the real chasm between the entitled poor and the unentitled poor. It also involves the lowest segment of the working class: those who work, mostly full time, but do not earn enough to be lumped into the middle class. These low-status workers are the people in our society most likely to have a first-hand knowledge of the truly poor, the entitled and unentitled non-workers. They often live in the same neighborhoods.

I live in Seattle, so I will be using examples from here, but I have lived many places in the U.S., including suburbs and rural areas. The stories may vary by geography, but the overall picture is the same. The story has also varied over the decades, but on the whole is not so much different now than it was in the 1960s. I will not try to quantify this piece with statistics. Often the statistics do not distinguish between those on one side of the chasm and the other.

Consider Mary (not her real name). Mary does not work; she is entirely supported by the public. She is a former drug abuser, but appeared to be clean the last time I saw her. She lives in an apartment in a mostly lower-middle income neighborhood with her middle-school age daughter. The apartment is paid for with a voucher, and food money comes in the form of vouchers. She does not usually have significant cash to spend, but does get some help from charities. She does not work and does not look or train for work.

Consider Anne (not her real name). Anne works as much as she can for a restaurant, and has stayed mostly employed during the pandemic. She lives in an apartment near Mary and pays $1250 per month for the apartment, plus utilities. She does have an old car. She also has a daughter about the same age as Mary's. She recently started getting some food vouchers from a city of Seattle program, but makes too much to get a full ride of food stamps. She typically has more spending money than Mary, but not when she has had to pay for a car repair.

Anne and Mary know each other, and this and similar scenarios are repeated all over America. Working low-end jobs does not make someone significantly better off financially than someone lucky enough to be among the entitled poor. This is one of the reasons you often find Republicans in the working class: the sense that this reality is not fair. By the way, both Anne and Mary are white, though one of the daughters is mixed race. And of course there are many single or even married men in Anne's situation.

Now consider the underbelly: the 10,000 homeless people of Seattle. Aside from their common homelessness, this is an incredibly diverse group of people. Most were born to poor or working class families, but a surprising number are from genuinely middle class backgrounds. Some are former home owners. I have met a couple who used to own small businesses or work at the management level. Many use drugs, tobacco and alcohol, but only a small percentage are hopelessly addicted. Many have mental health issues, but some have those issues because they are homeless, whereas others became homeless because of the issues. Some have criminal records; some are active criminals, mostly thieves or drug dealers.

There is an economic chasm between any homeless person and Mary. In my neighborhood there are at least several hundred Mary's living in Seattle Housing Authority buildings and apartments. Thousands of Annes live in apartments, including subsidized ones. The lists to get any of the taxpayer aid, the Section 8 vouchers or subsidized apartments, is so long that most Mary's do not bother applying. The number of homeless in my neighborhood could be under 100, but there are neighborhoods in Seattle where they are a substantial part of the population.

Consider now any mentally disabled homeless person in Seattle and compare that person to Carmen. Carmen is very well established. Carmen does not like to work. Work makes her anxious. So decades ago Carmen put her energies into working the system. She got herself declared mentally disabled. She lived with a relative for years waiting for a Section 8 voucher. She eventually moved into a pretty nice public apartment where she has now lived a couple of decades with her cats. In Carmen's favor I note that she spends some of her extensive free time supporting progressive political causes.

The progressive answer to inequality at the bottom is to raise up the unestablished poor. We need 10,000 apartments for them in Seattle (they tend not to work well with others, so each needs their own). That plus free food, free clothes, and free therapy, plus a get-out-of-jail free card, and the current 10,000 would mostly be all set.

Except a significant percentage of them, unless supervised, would destroy their free apartments. Those who are druggies would still be druggies. But those are not the main problem.

The main problem is creating an inviting slippery slope. Tired of working? Pitch a tent on the sidewalk, and soon a social worker will show up to help you find your way through the maze to the promised land of being Entitled poor. Males, for the most part, in our society including Seattle have a more difficult time getting Entitled than females. They need to demonstrate a mental disability that makes them unemployable. All that takes is about six weeks on crystal meth, but there are other paths, including simply faking it.

Given the power, like progressive Democrats I would build the 10,000 apartment units. But like the Republicans, I would require people to give back what they can in the form of work. I believe those who work should get a significantly better deal than those who shirk. There is probably no system that can permanently fix the Town Drunk problem, but we should be able to design and build one that does not spit out Town Drunks the way Seattle does today.

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