When Mitt Romney infamously belittled 47 percent of Americans, he was not exactly being an elitist. A lot of people imagine broad swaths of the country occupied by lazy moochers and freeloaders. They could work if they wanted to, but they prefer to sit in poorly lit apartments, surrounded by cockroaches and welfare babies, taking government handouts funded by hard-working (mostly conservative) Americans.
This myth justifies hardheartedness (or often condescending paternalism) toward those whose poverty must be their own fault, and it allows those who believe it to congratulate themselves for their hard work and responsible life choices. Thus, in a way, the myth of the 47 percent (a "statistic" I use with irony) is our original sin.* St. Augustine called this sin "pride." In the Garden of Eden we came to believe that the universe revolved around us, and we have not stopped believing it. The myth of the 47 percent is just another way to belittle others (like women, serpents and welfare recipients) for our own benefit (Genesis 3:12-13).
Mitt Romney is not the devil, but the fable that he and so many other Americans believe comes from the serpent's slick tongue waggling in our ears. Leaving aside the fact that his figures were wrong and lacked nuance, Romney and company seem to believe that welfare discourages work and rewards negative social behaviors to create a culture of poverty. The work of various economists and social scientists tells a rather different tale.
It is a myth that welfare discourages work and creates dependence. Some studies have found a weak connection between welfare benefits and motivation to work; others have found no connection at all. According to the economist Rebecca Blank, most people who receive welfare stay on the rolls for three years or less. For the majority of Americans, poverty is temporary. They use welfare to get through a "rough patch" in their lives. Another 25 percent cycle on and off the rolls for 10 years or more. John Iceland observes that in most welfare households, at least one family member does work. The problem is not lack of motivation but inadequate pay and inflexible hours. Blank notes that poor mothers may have an especially hard time finding steady employment because of the good choices they make. Childcare is expensive, and they want to be available to their children. If the poor can access stable jobs that pay a living wage, and needed services (like daycare), they prefer to get off welfare.
It is a myth that welfare encourages single-motherhood. That is what Ronald Reagan meant when he criticized "welfare queens." Many of the 47 percent are thought to have lots and lots of children in order to get more government handouts, but the evidence to support this belief just isn't there. A few studies have found a negligible connection between welfare and birthrates, while others have concluded there is no connection between the two. It doesn't take a deep thinker to see through this stereotype. Clearly, this rumor must have been started by someone who has never tried to pass an object the size of a large cantaloupe through an orifice the size of a small lemon.
It is a myth that welfare creates a culture of poverty. Media contributes to the (racist) stereotype of poor (usually black) folks raised in ghettos, where the streets are ruled by thugs with guns and drugs. There is no denying the reality of high-poverty, high-crime neighborhoods in the United States, but most of the poor are not in them. The majority of the poor are scattered throughout urban and rural areas. Furthermore, as William Julius Wilson has shown, urban high-poverty zones were created and/or worsened by deliberately racist policy decisions. The "ghetto" is not the result of some kind of cultural deficiency; it was created by city council members who wanted to isolate the poor into economic no-go zones (and it worked). Again, most people are not on welfare long enough for poverty to become some kind of culture.
The root causes of poverty are complex, and as Dan Ariely has shown, our brains prefer easy ideas to correct ones. The principle of homogeneity means that we tend to associate with people who are like us. For individuals whose encounters with poverty mostly involve briskly walking away from a panhandler, the myth of the 47 percent is not a hard pill to swallow. Rather than think about the complex interaction of social and systemic factors that contribute to poverty, some prefer to think of the poor as lazy, promiscuous and drug-addicted idiots.
There is no denying that many poor people make foolish life-choices. Nor is there denying that many rich people make foolish life-choices. The difference between the two is money! Money cushions individuals from the consequences of their bad acts. That is why a poor black kid caught smoking pot ends up in juvenile detention, but a rich white kid gets probation. That is why the alcoholism of a homeless man is more obvious than the alcoholism of an executive.
The myth of the 47 percent gives too much credit to the middle and upper classes. Financial stability does require hard work and ingenuity, but it also requires chance! Consider the fact that most of us middle class folks have had job and educational opportunities open to us because of relationships we have had. That is called "social capital," and the principle of homogeneity means that the poor have very little of it. As the saying goes, "It's who you know."
Of course, we have to bring something to the table. In my case, I have made the most of such opportunities because I have a good education and a work ethic that borders on a mental illness, but I cannot take much credit for those things. I had no control over the fact that I was raised by a woman who had a physical disability that negatively impacted her education, so she worked with my teachers and hired tutors to make sure that I got the most out of my schooling (despite my best efforts not to). Nor can I take credit for the fact that I had a grandmother who could watch me and my sister when my mom had to work overtime or prep for an exam after she went back to school. As another saying goes, "[I] didn't build that."
I am not saying that those of us who can count ourselves among the middle class (or higher) should reject our accomplishments. I am only saying that we should be more grateful. The myth of the 47 percent says the poor are poor because they are stupid, lazy or immoral, which also means the rest of us are smart, industrious and have good moral values. That is why this myth is our original sin. The Christian story of the Fall is not about Adam and Eve breaking an arbitrary divine command. Their sin was that they came to believe that they were responsible for their own goodness (Genesis 3:5). The same is true for those of us on the other side of the 47 percent. Like Adam and Eve, we sometimes want to pride ourselves on virtues for which we are not really responsible. We are responsible to "continue in the good;" we have to make the most of what others have given us. But if we are to avoid the lie of the serpent, we need to recognize that we cannot simply take credit for our accomplishments because they could not have happen without the gifts others have given us.
Christianity teaches that the only remedy for pride is grace, a word that means "gift." We can hear it in words like "gratitude" and "gracious." But when it comes to the myth of the 47 percent, I am not exactly talking about the grace of God. That would imply that the poor lack God's grace when in fact they usually just lack our grace. That is the grace I am talking about. If we can begin to recognize that our lives are gifts, then it becomes much harder to blame the poor for their own poverty because we can no longer pretend that we are solely responsible for our own successes. Compassion for the poor begins when we realize that who we are is the product of the grace of others and when we commit to be that grace to the 47 percent.
*Being an Orthodox Christian, I should note that most modern Orthodox in the United States prefer the term "ancestral sin" because "original sin" implies that we inherit the guilt of Adam and Eve, but I find the term "ancestral sin" to be overly novel and unnecessarily polemical.