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Poverty From a Different Point of View
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Today, more Americans than ever receive some sort of government assistance, much of which can genuinely be described as “handouts.” Welfare-to-work standards, a bipartisan gem from the Clinton Era, have been relaxed. Ostensibly unemployed individuals now receive benefits for years on end.
Quite often, they make more on the dole than they would at an available job.
None of this even touches on various state and local programs which serve as disincentives for innovation. Sadly, an untold number now make their living off of public subsidies.
All the while, working poor, working class, and lower-middle class taxpayers are too high-income for government assistance, yet not affluent enough to live decently in our cutthroat economy.
Somehow, it doesn’t seem that the American Dream was supposed to turn out this way.
Considering how well our nation’s non-working poor live - complete with free cellular phones and plastic benefit cards in lieu of food stamps - how do the impoverished in other countries measure up?
One of the world’s fastest-growing economies can be found in India. The sprawling nation, home to more than one billion people, is well on its way to solid first-world status.
Nonetheless, its poor are frequently treated as something less than human. What on Earth is going on here?
Yogesh Varhade leads the Ambedkar Centre for Justice and Peace, an organization devoted to ending India’s ages-old caste system. It is through this social structure that people are born into lifelong positions of impoverishment, comfort or extreme wealth.
“In both [India and the United States] minorities are more locked up in poverty,” Varhade told me, noting in the U.S. skin color and immigration status play the largest roles in perpetuating extreme poverty.
“In India, its own people of the same color have been pushed into extreme poverty and slavery in the real sense for the last 3000 years,” Varhade said. “In spite of protective laws, the psyche remains to hold these so called low-caste... in bondage and extreme poverty. The Hindu religious caste system created poverty and perpetuated it.”
While India’s case is undeniably radical, there is an existing social order in every society. Ideally, this order is economical and reversible, so the poor have at least a chance to gain wealth and improve their social status.
“This is happening with African-Americans in sports, music, etc.,” Varhade said. “In India you are born Untouchable and even though you are successful, you are still of a low caste. It is not reversible. This is why the caste system needs to be broken.”
Despite its oppressive caste system, there is a lot that can be learned from Indian culture.
“The real lessons from India are the wisdom of yoga culture and more rational and scientific religions like Buddhism,” he remarked. “Half of Hollywood practices Zen Buddhism. As far as the social traditions from India are concerned, there is a show of peaceful co-existence, but this is not the reality.”
In America, we frequently take things for granted. We also have a skewed point of view about human relations. Our modern poor would be considered well off in India, and our affluent-to-wealthy lead an existence far beyond the dreams of most Indians.
Considering this, lefties and righties alike have some explaining to do. Can lavish handouts for longtime welfare recipients and the unemployed-by-choice be rationalized as looking out for the least among us?
Likewise, standing against public funds for the legitimately needy so that well-off folks can pay minimal taxes is downright cruel. Choose to accept it if one will, but not all government aid is badly spent.
Much is, though. Perhaps if concerns on the matter were addressed from a moderate perspective, viable solutions would be found.
Such a suggestion might be too workable to work right now, unfortunately. As usual, what a shame.
Joseph Cotto is a historical and social journalist, and writes about politics, economics and social issues. Email him at