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Thursday, August 7, 2014

Why don't I get a piece of that?: Why Americans hate people on welfare -- Guest Post

Another blogger wrote a piece in response to the vitriol I received after the Mercedes essay went viral. She was then afraid to post it on her own blog due to possible backlash from her American family for voicing her views.

I, of course, agreed to publish it here. I'm always down for a good defense of, well, me. But also of all of us. Of every person who has ever needed the system put in place to help us all.

So here it is.


Last month, I read the tale of how a former TV news producer and mother of twins had to drive her husband's Mercedes to the WIC Office (to pick up food vouchers).

I know—I'm super-late to this party already.

Her story has apparently hit close to home for many. But from looking at the 5000+ comments on the original piece, various other media outlets, her blog, and her Facebook page, many are also irate or disgusted by her story.

So let's get this straight. A taxpaying citizen hits a really rough patch financially, used the welfare system she and her husband paid into to help feed herself and her premature babies, and the internets exploded. In all sense of how the American welfare system was designed to be used (especially WIC), she did things right. She spent her time in "the system" to get back on her feet, then moved on when they were able to keep their heads above water again.

But going back to the comments—there are some really angry, bitter, and judgmental people out there. I remembered reading somewhere that the US is the most generous nation in the world—except, apparently, when it comes to giving government support to their own taxpaying citizens. I'm boggled by all the hate aimed at a family getting help to keep their heads above water.

I can only assume, in part, that Americans hate this story so much because it threatens the bootstrapping idea that should ideally lead one way up the income rungs. Two educated, middle-class workers starting a family are only supposed to climb the ladder. This paradigm has no room for a crises or unforeseen circumstances, and certainly no forgiveness for any real or perceived mistakes that would lead someone to apply for government support.

There's also a clear message in the comments for all those applying for government support: people should know their place. When financial trouble sets in, many Americans seem to except the full reversal of the rags-to-riches story. They should look the part of being poor—no matter that they had some nice things they bought for themselves. No matter that keeping a Mercedes was a sound financial decision given their predicament. Nope. Before you dare get help, you must exchange your blazer for that stained, grubby Coney Island tee no one would buy at the Goodwill. Oh, and don't forget to tease your hair up a bit and skip some showers for your best "lookin' poor" hairstyles.

Many Americans also seem to enjoy envisioning their own climb towards the American dream as a competition against other Americans. This reminds me of Monty Python's Flying Circus "Four Yorkshiremen" skit. You know, the one in which a bunch of men are nostalgically discussing how poor they once were or how hard they had it as kids, and each man tries to one-up the other with their story of misery? Yeah, Americans do that with their experiences with financial hardship or near-poverty experiences. "I was so poor I ate tuna straight from the can that I opened with a hammer and nails."

All satire aside, I think the largest reason Americans hate welfare is that not everyone gets a piece of it. But what if all Americans, rich or poor, had access to government support and entitlements? Sound odd? Impossible? Welcome to the Nordic countries, where time and time again we are making the news for offering the best quality of life in the world. I'm a dual-citizen American/Finn living in Finland. This is a nation of hard-working, innovative people. And yet everyone – rich or poor, old or young, immigrant or native, we all are entitled to our piece of the pie.

Here are just a few examples:

  • Every adult is entitled to free higher education or vocational training, while also getting paid salary by the welfare agency to go to school or train.
  • Everyone is entitled to free or dirt-cheap public heath care.
  • Parents are entitled to approximately 100 euros per month per child to do whatever they wish with (presumably to help buy clothes and food, but there are no vouchers for this, just cash straight into your bank accounts).
  • All parents, regardless of income, are entitled to highly subsidised (by the welfare agency) daycare.

...and the list goes on. The universality of our benefits and welfare is what makes these programs so highly valued to Finns. When everyone gets a piece of the pie, there's less disdain towards the takers. We're all takers – and much like Americans, we've paid for that right in our taxes. The difference here is, because both the rich and the poor and everyone in between get social benefits, the playing field is a bit more equal.


  1. I like your thoughts. However, I know exactly what all those hard working Americans would say when you would offer them this option: But I don't want to pay more in taxes (whine). So, we continue to give tax breaks to the wealthy and corporations, but expect the poor & middle class to pick up the slack but don't give them the benefit of the doubt that they might need some of the assistance that they themselves ARE paying for.

    1. The thing is that Finland's actual income taxes are not much more than fed+state+city taxes in US. We have other taxation for sure, like value added taxes, which are higher than US sales taxes, but those are overwhelmingly based on consumption of goods and services and can be controlled by the taxpayer in how they spend.

      The rich are also taxed more heavily in the Nordic countries. On the same token, I know people that make far more money than our family does and they don't seem to be suffering from their higher tax rates. Rich people live pretty darn nicely here, and get entitlements too.

      People also like to argue that the size of the Nordic countries is tiny compared to the whole of the US, but I remimd them that many of these welfare initiatives are Federally funded, but administered at a State level there in the US--and we have the population of a State.


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