Me and Thee…

One of most persistent–and pernicious–beliefs about inequality is the conviction that people “deserve” financial success or failure. If you are poor, the logic goes, that probably reflects some poor choices you made along the way, or your unwillingness to work hard, or perhaps a lack of innate capacity.

America’s approach to poverty owes a lot to the Fifteenth-century English poor laws that made it illegal to “give alms to the sturdy beggar.” Those laws, and subsequent policy approaches, categorized poor folks either as “deserving” (the widow and orphan) and “undeserving” (the sturdy beggar); that framework is ultimately responsible for the establishment and maintenance of a bureaucracy devoted to ferreting out the “undeserving,” and a political reluctance to provide an adequate social safety net since it might inadvertently benefit undeserving folks.

The Guardian recently reported on a group of scholars who are researching the basis of our very human tendency to see our own misfortune as just that–misfortune–while attributing other people’s situations to their character flaws. They are studying how rich and poor people alike justify inequality.

What these academics are finding is that the American dream is being used to rationalize a national nightmare.

It all starts with the psychology concept known as the “fundamental attribution error”. This is a natural tendency to see the behavior of others as being determined by their character – while excusing our own behavior based on circumstances.

For example, if an unexpected medical emergency bankrupts you, you view yourself as a victim of bad fortune – while seeing other bankruptcy court clients as spendthrifts who carelessly had too many lattes. Or, if you’re unemployed, you recognize the hard effort you put into seeking work – but view others in the same situation as useless slackers. Their history and circumstances are invisible from your perspective.

This belief is closely related to the myth that America is a meritocracy, and that with hard work, education and some “moxie,” anyone can get ahead. That perception was never really accurate (ask African-Americans or women), but America did once have much greater social mobility than it does today.

The research notes a widespread suspicion that “they” are abusing/misusing social welfare programs that “my” taxes support, and a corresponding resentment of “them.” (The article notes that this attitude was a prominent characteristic of Trump voters.)

Another aspect of this phenomenon is known as “actor-observer bias”. When we watch others, we tend to see them as being driven by intrinsic personality traits, while in our own case we know that, for example, we acted angrily because we’d just been fired, not because we’re naturally angry people….

In other words, other poor people are poor because they make bad choices – but if I’m poor, it’s because of an unfair system. As a result of this phenomenon, Pimpare says, poor people tend to be hardest on each other. He gives the example of a large literature in anthropology and sociology about women on welfare published since the 1980s. “It finds over and over again that some of nastiest things you ever hear about women on welfare come out of the mouths of women on welfare.”

Wealthier folks, of course, embrace the “deserving/undeserving” dichotomy because it justifies their more comfortable status.

The political consequences of this phenomenon are obvious: if even the people who stand to benefit most from a more equitable and generous safety net are convinced that it mainly rewards the non-deserving, we aren’t likely to see systemic reforms any time soon.

Breaking down these misconceptions won’t be easy, either, because the research underlines the importance of human contact. As we have learned with racial and religious stereotyping, integration and interaction are powerful weapons against demonization.

Intimate contact – such as the experience of teaching in the inner city, mentoring, other types of services that allow people to connect despite class difference – builds empathy. The more you engage with with people unlike you and learn about their lives and stories, the harder it is to see them as stereotypes or to dismiss their challenges as trivial.

In a society characterized by significant inequality, exclusionary zoning, gated communities and our voluntary segregation into enclaves inhabited by the like-minded–what Bill Bishop has dubbed “the Big Sort”–it is going to be very difficult to encourage that “intimate contact.”


  1. The most difficult intimate contact regarding “Me And Thee” are those suffering within our own families. And they have escalated contrary to the public reports that our economy is “thriving” and there are jobs available. Many of us are no longer in a financial position to be much help to our family members without endangering our own economic situations. This is an area where Ayn Rand’s “The Virtue of Selfishness” makes us question situations and what or if or to what extent we should jump in to save them…for, who is there to save us.

    “Me And Thee” ties into the front page article in the Indianapolis Star this morning; “Indiana ranks last in long-term support for seniors, disabled”. Being both; I can attest to this truth personally, having only sought possible, temporary transportation assistance to find only costly resources available. Many in my family are in a “trickle down” situation…gradually losing ground economically but with “too much money” to qualify for assistance.

    Wonder what statistics on this issue are available? And no; I am not asking for help. I no longer know where I fit into the U.S. economic statistics.

  2. I’ve always been intrigued by the parallel rise in popularity of “Prosperity Gospel” espoused by evangelical Christian preachers like Joel Osteen alongside GOP political scheme behind the policies of “trickle-down economics”.

  3. when breaking bread at others tables, you get a realization of who others are. As a working class, and main bread winner, i can say safely,that i stand in those shoes. Ive had many jobs since discharge from the navy 1974, working in a profession of transportation related fields. mechanic,tow truck operator,truck driver. Im probably above a education level for this,but, its a field i enjoy,and accel at. I hold every endorcement,(cdl)security to enter military bases,hazardous material. over size loads,and specialized equpiment.but, I am always,looking over my shoulder, not to worry about my status,but to lend a hand others out here. I have a rule, its get the job done, ive treated my employers with every aspect of myself,to help them. now be damn if i havent started a job,seen through the bullshit interview,knowing damn well im getting screwed, 5 minutes on the job, walk…im not allowing myself to get hurt,or be worked to death because some employer isnt living up to the minimal upkeep of his equipment,or his staff is a bunch of assholes lookingout for themselves. get a picture here. unless you work the pits of some jobs, you havent a clue why, we dont, work them. the pay, the conditions,the eliment of safety. now today, we have public clearing houses where we get thrown into a employers work file that provides ,alot of it erronious,write up about such past employees, where they can write what they want about you, and its now in some private file,(hireright is one for trucking industry) a perspective employer can join,and gets info left from some past employer who screwed you, and you quit,and the employer gets to summerize your employment with them,any way they see it. Im such a victim. Im wrote up as someone who refused a drup test,though, i carry every thing about this issue with me, that atests, i never did refuse,fail or missed a drug test ever.This whole matter came up because i quit,and told the staff worker to f——! and, theres nothing in the dept of transportation rules that protect me from harm,if they want to lie, fact, if i refused,failed or missed a drug screen,its 5 years before i can work,and its a private file,and they,hirerigt allows them to keep false records,even when proof was submitted,the contractor has all rights to keep,that info on there,even when contested. but, when a perspective employer who might use hireright, will dismiss me ,and NEVER even ask about it,will now see me now as a problem. fact,if i did refuse,the dept of transportation,has a file on me,and,im working,if i did refuse,imwould not be working,my license would be revoked immediatly…if you wonder why theres so many problems with getting a job, try keeping one. if you look in the job market, were only offered shit wages to begin with,and its not for effort, its whats offered. remember,someone has to do this work, or your life in some way is effected. theres so much bull shit out there,and Im a worker who has witnessed the good and bad. Ever walk onto a job site,and the first thing you here is ,,,that f——- n—— cant ever get it right. yes, ive walked off the job site,im white,and wont tollerate it. but its rampid in the blue collar world,if you ever been here, its everyday, every job.i can look at this,and make a sound judgement, and its the working class who eats shit,and has to live with it. welfare, mmm, i live in north dakota, the farmers are all up in arms about those,,,,,,, people, who collect welafe…. well let me tell ya, they got trumps butcher shop this go around, the 2018 farm bill is basically axed,and guess what, the farmer/rancher now, dosent get their welfair check next year..finally,they can now understand what it means. and take stock in it, many recieve hundreds of thousands of dollars every year for some concieved issue. (maybe they should have voted for clinton and supported sanders,eh?)again, like a market,or a job, you have no guarentee that its going to be good forever,and we wouldnt want wall street to give a damn thing up for its bottom line guarentee..have a nice day….

  4. PJ,

    There are no poor ministers preaching the prosperity gospel, so it must work.

  5. Thanks so much for addressing this issue. Society is so quick to complain about poor ‘welfare queens’ while ignoring the far more taxing concerns of tax giveaways to the top 1% of society and corporate welfare. BUT, taking advantage of those who have no advantages is easier than taking advantage of those who have more money and societal power. Sad.

  6. This is fascinating to read and it prompted some questions in my mind. Is this an uniquely American attitude? How did/does the rest of the world come to see things differently? And, more importantly, how do I see and think about other people?

  7. As a downtowner I have watched several developments that are a combination of market value and subsidized housing come on line. Those residents are living next door to each other. I wonder if that type of development will help some to bridge the gap. I have not heard of any studies of the mixed housing experience.

  8. This reminded me of what my parents told me was the reason for me to attend public school (this was in the 1950s and 1960s). They wanted me to get to know all different kinds of people under a variety of circumstances, so I could learn empathy.

  9. Catherine: And that’s why our children attended public schools (on the less suburban side of town) in the late 1980s though early 2000s. And that’s why we took them places, mostly in the Midwest but as much of the country as we could manage. We wanted them to be able to function in the real world and to appreciate people and places, real people and real places. It worked. And we’re better grown ups for being in their schools and traveling with them, too. I apologize for bragging here, but I want to point out that even tiny, homemade, garden-variety versions of fighting these built-in biases make a big improvement and are completely worth the effort. Do not give up. Keep moving the right direction. Take little steps. Then take bigger ones.

  10. Here’s what we have learned.

    We have gone from knowing that unfettered capitalism works to regulated capitalism works to regulated capitalism with counter moves to correct its wealth redistribution up works to oligarchy is unavoidable with the balance between capitalism and socialism that we had.

    Much of the rest of the world avoided that learning curve by observing us.

    Trump is not making us great again but Trump is making us more so.

    Not learning from failure is in itself a very tough lesson that we will be learning over the next decade.

  11. Luke Messer’s senate campaign has fired the first volley at illegal immigrants who are taking money from hard-working natives. I guess the campaign managers understand the voters in Indiana and what appeals to them. I wonder how Rokita will respond? Can he get just a little further to the right of Messer?

  12. “Undeserving” misfortunates have to eat, too, and soup kitchens and neighborhood preachers are no substitutes for government policy built on reality, not some social norm. The answer to all this subjectivity may well be a Guaranteed Annual Wage (once suggested by Nixon but immediately shot down) which would not only end welfare but would conform with the oft-stated democratic ideal that “We are all in this together.” Many of those who would starve undeserving Americans pretend to be Christians and if so, their memories of Christian injunctions to help the poor seem to have disappeared in the mists of amnesia. Just when are we going to deal with reality rather than our definition of it?

  13. Gerald; my aunt, whose family have operated a successful small business downtown for well over 50 year, considers my living on Social Security and PERF (city government retirement which I paid into) as living on the dole. Told me I should have planned for my future better; it was a struggle to keep my mouth shut about the fact that, in addition to his small business, Unc also had a very lucrative bookie business on the side. When Unc died I told her how sorry I was for her loss; they had been married for many years and and three children and grandchildren. Her response was, “You need to remember I not only lost my husband, I lost his Social Security income.” Spoken like the true staunch Republican she remains today in her 90’s. A typical “Me And Thee” family relationship when you grow up in a family of staunch Republicans and you are the black sheep liberal.

  14. It always struck me that right wing extremist believe that if you rob people from all sources of dignity they become dignified.


  15. JoAnn – You are not a black sheep and (no racism involved) are rather a white sheep. The relatives you referred to could more aptly be called the black sheep. Your aunt demonstrated her ambivalence to social programs in her mild complaint that she had “lost your uncle’s social security income,” which is in keeping with Sheila’s observation that at base tells us that if I get money from the gummint it’s deserved, but if you do you are a welfare queen per Reagan’s stupid statement some years ago, corporate welfare excepted. Neither of you is a welfare queen; you are the rightful beneficiaries of FDR’s greatest piece of legislation ever, the Social Security Act of 1935.

  16. These so-called Christians who turn their back on the poor either don’t ever read their bible or don’t believe it means what it says.

    ● Judge not, lest you be judged. (Matthew 7:1, John 7:24)
    ● Give without expecting anything back. (Luke 14:14)
    ● Don’t treat people differently based on their position in society. (James 2:3-4)
    ● The first shall be last, and the last shall be first.(Matthew 20:16)
    ● Defend the rights of the poor (Prov.31:8-9)
    ● Do not exploit the poor (Prov 22:22-23)
    ● Blessed is he who is kind to the needy. (Prov 14:21)
    ● If you oppress the poor, you show contempt for God. (Prov 14:31)
    ● Woe to those who hurt the poor. (Isaiah 10:1-3)
    ● If you have the means to help, but you turn you back, you don’t love God. (1 John 3:17)
    ● If anyone you know is poor, freely lend them what they need. (Deuteronomy 15:7-8)
    ● Do not abuse or oppress foreigners, orphans or widows…. (Jeremiah 22:3)
    ● Your rulers are thieves. They all love bribes and gifts. They do not defend the fatherless or the widow (the poor). (Isaiah 1:23)

    Although this list is long, there are far more verses in the Bible. It would be hard to overlook if you actually read the book!

  17. Just a reminder to all; near the end of her own life, that virtuous champion of selfishness, Ayn Rand, went “on the dole” herself, and became a Social Security recipient. Paul Ryan went to college on Social Security eligible dependent benefits from his father, who died prematurely. Ryan has claimed that he stood around the keg at frat parties, chatting with his buddies about how much better off America will be once we’ve decimated the social security net. There are none so blind as those who will not see!

  18. Of course your article is correct, but so much effort is put into maintaining our deeply flawed social mores that you are only “preaching to the choir.” For example, after Germany laid in a funeral pyre of its’ own making, occupation and education slowly forced the majority to come to grips with its inherent flaws. We have not ever been destroyed and been forced to engage in serious self -examination. In Political Science there is an adage stating “when America sneezes the world catches a cold ” – america is more than sneezing, and the future is grim.

  19. Thanks Gerald; family and friends thought I was a wonderful person till I began thinking for myself and speaking out. They forgot I had once appeared to be “one of them” and had already heard all they had to say.

    And thank you Pete, for your kind words about Earl yesterday.

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