The Double Standard Around Judging People Who “Don’t Work”

Image by Marcus Mello

I am sick of hearing judgmental, uncompassionate people whine and moan about how tired they are of people who don’t work, specifically poor people. I don’t see the point in blatantly and unabashedly insulting people who don’t have jobs. From now on, whenever I hear this, maybe I should walk away or pop in my headphones and listen to meditative music instead of having to listen to insults and heartless ridiculing aimed towards a segment of the population that doesn’t work.

A recent conversation I witnessed went something like this:

Person A (referring to people who don’t work): “Why can’t they just get up and get a job? Why should my paycheck go towards paying for people who don’t work?”

Person B: “Well a lot of them are mentally or physically disabled or they don’t have enough schooling or networks.”

Person B then pointed to a mutual friend of theirs who doesn’t work and has anxiety.

Person A responded: “Well she doesn’t depend on government money. She gets her own help. So that’s fine.”

I found the response from Person A very troubling. It sounded like what he was implying was that — physical and/or mental disabilities aside — it is okay for people to not work if they can depend on financial support from family and friends. But for everyone else who doesn’t have a job? They need to get up and get a job. I hope this way of thinking is not the popular attitude, but I have my fears that it is, and that we are a society that has double standards when it comes to people who don’t work. (I hesitate to say “we” because I don’t agree with Person A at all.)

The line of reasoning from Person A came off as extremely unfair and classist, and it’s something I can’t stop thinking about since I heard it. It revealed to me that for him, and those of the millions of people out there who think like him, the issue isn’t the people who are fortunate enough to be connected to wealthy family members. It is perfectly fine for them to not have to work. Rather, it is the people who were born poor and/or don’t have access to networks rich enough to pay their way through life. It is specifically these people who are the thorn in this country’s behind. They should have to work and be able to sustain themselves with no government help regardless of their circumstances. Once again, the privileged ones are free to get a pass. This suggestion and all of its unreasonableness reeks like a fresh load of bullshit, flies included.

I think it is wrong to turn a blind eye to those with access to forms of non-governmental financial assistance who can afford to not have to work while simultaneously lambasting those who don’t work and need public assistance to get by. It makes me wonder if the qualms people have with those who don’t have a job are really at all about whether or not they work, or if they are more about the portion of our country’s budget that goes towards social safety net programs intended to actually help people? For people who put down those not working, it isn’t always about whether one has a job or not; rather, the issue seems to be that some people who don’t work need to fill out an application for government assistance in order to make ends meet.

Paycheck aside, many people see value in work even if they are unhappy with their jobs. In recent years, surveys have shown that most Americans are unhappy in their jobs. Even if they have a strong work ethic and try again and again to find happiness and grow meaningfully in their occupations, they find it difficult to do so. For many people, the boring, menial tasks do not result in any sense of self-fulfillment, but in increased levels of stress and repeated desires to break free and do bigger and better things. Yet, we still hold on to the notion that work is a means through which to discover personal growth.

We live in a world in which people expect everyone else around them to follow suit and drudge through redundant tasks that comprise a job just because they have to, even if it makes them unhappy. People see work status as a marker of one’s worth. But here is my main question: if this is the overarching mindset — that despite not always resulting in happiness and growth, work is still important and fundamental to proving your worth — then shouldn’t everyone be held to the same standard and have to work, not just those who need to in order to pay rent and put food on the table? In other words, if work is the golden ticket to earning respect from others, then shouldn’t everyone have to work? The idea that those who can obtain non-governmental sources of financial support without having to work shouldn’t have to work while everyone else does runs counterintuitive to this, and allows those connected to financial privilege to get off the hook scotch free. Bluntly, it holds those who have access to money they didn’t earn to a higher standard in a really fucked up way.

When it comes to the members of society who are able to escape having to work without having to rely on others’ tax dollars, I get the sense that a lot of people in this country are A-Okay with it. In a moment, they relinquish the “you should have to do it because I have to do it” mentality. I find this mentality ugly and completely oversimplified in the first place, but if one thinks this way, I think they should apply it to everyone fairly. But they don’t. Instead, they rationalize who should have to work in the most pathetic of ways. You have a wealthy sibling who works in finance and can pay your way through life? Nothing wrong with that one. Keep lounging around watching Netflix; it really doesn’t matter. But wait a minute — you were born to financially disadvantaged parents and you don’t have any financial support from your family? Now, this is an issue. You need to get a job. In this mindset, it really isn’t about one’s supposed moral obligation to work, but rather, if one can get by without thinly dipping their paw’s into this country’s social safety net.

People need to seriously question their assumptions and who they heartlessly insult without having any understanding of their physical, mental, or emotional states, or personal backgrounds. If people are so critical of those who don’t work, they should also question those who enable people who don’t work to receive government assistance. It begs me to ask why the blame is always on the recipient and not on the gatekeeper. Many, for instance, tend to look down on those who receive disability benefits (through the Supplemental Security Income program, or SSI) without commenting on the medical professionals who approved their eligibility in the first place. If people are so upset with those who receive disability benefits, why aren’t they critiquing the medical professionals who deemed them unfit to work in the first place? I have yet to hear this kind of argumentation. Instead, I have continuously have to listen to people call out recipients of government aid when they know nothing about their personal lives or back stories. They hastily assume that they are lazy and actually could and should be working without looking into it and realizing that a fair number of people receiving government assistance actually do work. So what, now, is the problem? That all of these people should get up and find higher paying jobs in the blink of an eye? If it isn’t one thing, then it’s another. It is all part of an unsympathetic, rotten mindset that has poisoned our ability to care for our common citizenry.

The people who judge those who don’t work need to accept that our rigged fucked-up economy could do a much better job of incentivizing people in tough situations to work their way out of it. They’d rather give billionaires subsidies they don’t need than have their tax dollars fund subsidized education for poor single mothers looking to get their bachelor degrees. They will also rag on how inefficient the government is, but not look at the many tax-funded government jobs that really don’t need to exist. (I am generally supportive of a strong public sector but can also acknowledge that there are costly jobs that probably could be cut. But my opinion here doesn’t really matter; it’s more about society’s willingness to prey upon a certain group of people.) I will never understand why someone is fine seeing their paychecks subsidizing luxury office space for an unethical tech company that profits off their data, yet isn’t okay with it helping out a person born into unfortunate circumstances who tried to work their way out of it but couldn’t, or hit a roadblock that set them miles behind. It is all very dark, dystopic, and irrational behavior.

I am most annoyed with people from privileged backgrounds who don’t realize their privilege and credit their financial and professional success exclusively to their own doing without acknowledging everything and everyone else that contributed to it, like mommy’s and daddy’s trust fund for starters. Or the SAT tutor they bought you. Or the job they got you at their friend’s company when you were in high school even though they would never consider taking in an intern who wasn’t connected despite being beyond qualified to do the work. A lot of these people had to work hard to get where they are and put in their work/hours. I’m not saying they didn’t and I would never take that away from them. But many don’t realize that it was easier for them to get where they are given their upbringing. It is really shitty that those who are fortunate enough to have made it are quick to label those who don’t have jobs as lazy bums who should just “get up and get a job.” I don’t think many people who don’t work enjoy the negative stereotypes hurled at them. It’s hard for me to imagine them happily singing and dancing to the tune of everyone else calling them a bunch of lazy moochers. Talk about depressing.

I remember reading a New York Times article a few years ago that explained that many young people living in larger, expensive cities get financial support from their parents. I witnessed this first hand when I was in graduate school. Many of my peers were “on the payroll,” meaning they depended on their parents financially. They had beautiful apartments and bought $15 sandwiches on the regular, but weren’t actually living off their own money and didn’t take out debt because they didn’t need to. Even after finishing school, many of them still depended on mommy and daddy. But if you take someone from a poorer background who worked their tails off, earned a degree in a field they were deeply passionate about while working multiple part-time jobs, yet still didn’t make enough to afford a decent quality of life even after graduating, it is still somehow all their fault. They should have studied something else. They should have figured something else out. But for those privileged enough, they are fine. This unfortunately seems to be a very common mindset these days.

Somehow, we have come to live in a society in which it is morally acceptable for a twenty-year old with parents who collectively earn million of dollars to sashay around a cafe brewing a few lattes every hour yet still be able to live in a midtown Manhattan high rise. The twenty-year old with a single parent living under the federal poverty line who works manual labor seven days a week and still can’t make ends meet? Just figure it out. The same people who croak that they had it so hard in their youths are fine to spoil their offspring while judging those who don’t have it so easy.

This is the hideous, two-faced, paradoxical psyche of America, folks. Americans have decided to adopt an illogical, perverted mindset that gives the privileged a break, blames those less fortunate for their outcomes, and sets twisted rules about who is able to work and who isn’t. It is disheartening and there needs to be a major attitude shift to try to see where other people come from, what they have experienced, and how that has resulted in them not working. I have an unfortunate feeling that many people don’t and won’t care to do any of these things even as the divide between the haves and have-nots continues to rip apart at the seams. People would rather hold onto their judgements than try to understand someone’s situation, and continue to make exceptions to their own rules about who gets to work or not. It is really time for people — specifically those who are financially secure and actually have the time to find some sense of inner sympathy — to come to terms with their own level of privilege, and try to feel for someone else instead of knocking them down and telling them what they can and cannot do.

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