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The Economic Violence of Morally Upright Americans

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A car dealership in Brighton, Michigan, had some strong words about a panhandler seen frequently near their building. So strong, they felt compelled to make a sign calling him out. MLive.com reports:

“Please do not give anything to this Panhandler. We offered him a full-time job at $10.00/HR,” the sign reads. “He said ‘I make more than any of you’ and he did not want a job, please donate to a more worthy cause.”

 

When the story went viral, the response was overwhelmingly in favor of the dealership. They offered this man a job! What would possess him not to take it?

Well…it could be any number of reasons, but if we’re going by the sign alone, it’s the pay. Years ago, Amanda Palmer gave a TED Talk wherein she described working as a street performer. She kept track of the amount of money she made and was surprised to realize that it was a predictable income, despite the unconventionality of the job. She didn’t have a name tag, she didn’t have a W-2 or a union, but she knew basically how much she would have made by the end of the week. It sounds like this Michigan panhandler is in the same situation. He knows what he makes, and he knows it’s more than $400 per week before taxes.

This man had sound economic reasoning not to take the job they offered, but beyond that, we have no reason to assume that the car dealership sign is giving us the entire story. Did the man react that way out of pride? Is there a reason he doesn’t feel he could accept the job, such as not wanting to be seen as the office charity case? Is there a felony that would prevent him from employment? Are there disability benefits, like health insurance, that he’ll lose if he has to report even that meager $10.00/hour income? None of these questions are answered by the sign, and all of them are within the realm of possibility.

But maybe people are right. Maybe he’s just lazy and wants free money. Which is, of course, shameful. Good people do not want free money. They only want that which is given to them as recompense for good, honest work. Oh, and whatever they might win from their weekly lottery tickets or at the casino… Clearly, there are only some kinds of free money that are morally right, and simply taking what someone willingly hands you isn’t one of those.

So, why turn down the job? Obviously, it’s because he’s a lazy good-for-nothing, looking to live off the backs of hardworking Americans who are barely keeping a roof over their heads. And we’ve always known that people asking for money on the street are just scammers, anyway. We’ll find “more worthy” causes, like charity organizations that spend $0.02 per dollar on easing poverty while diverting the other $0.98 to their millionaire board members’ paychecks. After all, those board members are working for a living and are therefore more noble and deserving.

If you read between the outrage and performative morality, though, the dealership’s sign highlights a major economic flaw in our country: begging for money on the streets is a better financial decision than having a steady job. A man who panhandles for a living would be downgrading if he went to work for a car dealership because the car dealership doesn’t pay a living wage. Yet we’re supposed to see the man as ungrateful because he won’t take a loss to provide discount labor for this business, rather than examine why a business is paying their employees less than they could make begging on the street in the first place.

No wonder so many people are furious at this man; he’s opted out of the system that oppresses them, leaving them no choice but to embrace economic inequality in order to place value on themselves. Because that’s the lie the working and middle classes have happily swallowed since someone figured out how to wield the Bible as a weapon. Blessed are the poor, so stop wanting money, and God forbid anyone beneath you in the social hierarchy value survival over piety when you don’t have the courage to demand better for yourself.

The dealership didn’t make this sign to right a great injustice the man is perpetrating; they’re angry because they felt entitled to this man’s time, labor, and gratitude, and he dared to give them none of it.

22 Comments

  1. Jenny, you stated your point very eloquently. Shame on the dealership for trying to get this guy to work for less than a living wage. Shame on all American businesses that do this. We definitely need to make some changes in our society!

    June 14, 2017
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  2. Genny
    Genny

    Thank you for this. I’ve been enraged ever since I saw this story on my feed, but didn’t know how to express it.

    June 14, 2017
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  3. Nadja
    Nadja

    We live in a world where the privileged determine the reality. Since the bourgeoisie can’t use his labour to make profit they paint him as less deserving of money and a decent life. What the privileged thinks almost always becomes the narrative used. It’s like when privileged prostitutes talk about how the Swedish model sucks while it is the best one for the vast majority of prostitutes who don’t have the same privileges, don’t like this job and get abused at work.

    June 14, 2017
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  4. the-great-dragon
    the-great-dragon

    This is infuriating. Everyone should be asking why this dealership isn’t paying a livable wage!

    June 15, 2017
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  5. Andreea
    Andreea

    Jenny, I really like your articles in general, and yet I’m having an issue with this one that I cannot quite put my finger on.

    I think it may be because I am seeing beggars as sort of taking advantage of the passers-by’s soft hearts. You mentioned Amanda Palmer, but that isn’t a good example because she was working as a street performer (so she was offering something that some people valued enough to pay for). People give money to a beggar on the assumption that he needs the money to survive. So in my eyes a beggar that doesn’t need to beg but does so anyway isn’t something to be applauded. Yes, people do choose to give him money, but do you think that the same people would give him the same amounts of money if they knew how much he makes (and that he makes enough to refuse a job)? I don’t think they would, and not because “he’s opted out of the system” and they are jealous for it, but because he doesn’t really need the help offered. You talk of more worthy causes, but wouldn’t a worthier cause be to give the same money to someone that needs them and doesn’t have a job offer to magnanimously refuse?

    And yes, the car dealership may not offer a living wage (I’m not American so I don’t know how much a livable wage is, though I assume it depends a lot on the costs of living in a certain place). But it would be something earned, not something received from others on false pretenses.

    June 15, 2017
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    • Steph
      Steph

      I feel your perspective too, Andreea. I would rather work honestly and pay my taxes even if I could get more money by preying on the sympathy of strangers. Money isnt everything. There are probably a lot of homeless out there who are desperate for any type of real job where they can learn a skill and who would jump at the offer this guy turned down. Not to mention paying into a system they still benefit from.

      Now, maybe the company is lying and the guy rejected the job because it wouldn’t support him and not for his stated reason of being able to make more money begging. But you have to do so much straw-manning and speculation to get to that point it really just reveals latent prejudice against any kind of paid work.

      But maybe I’m just bitter to be in grad school and constantly job hunting and STILL needing help from my parents to pay the bills. I’m nothing but grateful to the ‘rents but I feel like I’m an adult now. I should be able to suppprt other people but I’m still struggling to support myself.

      June 15, 2017
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  6. I am screaming “YES! YES!” so loud right now that my neighbors probably think it’s over something else.

    This is a discussion I have had with my (Conservative) relatives, and it highlights two things: first, like you say, the idea that a “good story” about how to perform poverty and work swings a ton of weight. Narrative carries power, whether it’s a best-seller, or a court case. Second, it makes clear that, unlike many people would like to believe, things are not simple or obvious, and we need to be asking deeper questions of the system, and of our society. I’m sick of hearing “Well, it’s simple, if s/he ___, then s/he should just ___.” Thank you for asking those deeper questions of systemic oppression instead of making assumptions and blaming the victims.

    June 15, 2017
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  7. Hannah
    Hannah

    Is the car dealership so desperate for his labor that they felt the need to reduce his income to less than the $10/hr they were offering? Assuming they actually made the offer and aren’t just lying to drive the man off without looking like the villains.

    June 15, 2017
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  8. Tessany
    Tessany

    I have a friend that works for a car dealership. It’s not an easy job. As a salesperson, you’re always under constant stress to be selling that vehicle to make your weekly/monthly quota. The pressure is unreal. (My friend ended up getting fired because of not making her quota and some internal office bullshit, she now works for a different dealership in a different province). And that was even if he was being offered a sales position.

    Waiting is another big controversy where I live. One of the big chains have decided that in a pilot restaurant, every guest check will automatically have a 20% tip added to it. The thing is, restaurant workers, waitstaff in particular, aren’t paid minimum wage. They’re paid below it and it’s assumed that they will make up the difference in tips. I like tipping, I can be a generous tipper when the occasion presents itself and I am receiving excellent service. I have waited before, I know how hard it can be so I’m not knocking tip points off if there’s a water stain on my knife. However, mandatory tipping is just moving the burden of providing a liveable wage from the establishment onto the customers. It’s a way to keep the overall money generated by the restaurant up by not having to raise the prices on their menu by 20 cents per item, and instead shifting that burden back to the patron.

    June 15, 2017
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    • Laina
      Laina

      People who argue that servers shouldn’t get minimum wage seem to like to ignore that Canada exists. Our servers get minimum wage PLUS tips.

      June 15, 2017
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      • Marcia
        Marcia

        Our servers get a lower minimum wage than the regular minimum wage though.

        June 15, 2017
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        • Laina
          Laina

          I’m pretty sure that’s only true in some provinces, and it’s mostly for liquor servers.

          Also it’s like a DOLLAR lower, not having it set at 2.50 an hour.

          June 15, 2017
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          • Marcia
            Marcia

            When I was a server at a non-licensed resort, I still made the lower minimum wage. And even a dollar an hour less makes a difference to one’s ability to pay the rent.

            June 15, 2017
          • Laina
            Laina

            …okay. I’m not arguing that. Not sure why you think I am. Just saying it’s not the same as being paid 3 dollars an hour.

            June 15, 2017
  9. Rinske Verberg
    Rinske Verberg

    Thanks for so eloquently making your point. It has allowed me to look at the matter in a new and interesting way!

    ‘…leaving them no choice but to embrace economic inequality in order to place value on themselves’. -> I found this particularly poignant.

    We see the same here in The Netherlands with the discussion about introducing a Base Income for all residents. For a lot of people, it feels inherently wrong to ‘give money for free’ to potentially ‘undeserving’ – non-working – others. While I get the rational arguments for the Base Income and support the general thesis, I myself notice that same gut response of ‘that’s not fair’. It is really helpful to read more about it and understand where that gut feeling is coming from. I have now come to the conclusion it says more about me than it does about the potentially ‘lazy’ or ‘undeserving’ people the gut reaction is about (and I should add that I am chronically ill and barely scraping by, so I’m not one of the rich opposers:)).

    June 15, 2017
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  10. Pansy Petal
    Pansy Petal

    I completely agree with your entire post. However I would like to add a couple of items. Who said that pan-handling isn’t “work”? I mean look at it. Standing on that corner in all kinds of weather, often taking abuse from those who drive/walk by. I would say that might rank with like a mailman. No taxes is what makes it . . . what? Unacceptable? Unethical? In my opinion very acceptable – to hell with the ethics.

    As for working in a car dealership – *shutters* As one of the comments mentioned, it is hardly worth the stress of it. Not to mention, IMHO that working in a car dealership is hardly above the panhandler in status. I would take the panhandler for coffee before I would take the car salesman. And that is without knowing either of them personally or their individual life situations that bring them to where they are.

    Jenny, this was a powerful blog today. Got me involved. Doesn’t happen often. If I drove, I might even drive down there right past that dealership and help out that panhandler. I don’t know, I might even take of a spot next to him with my own cup.

    June 15, 2017
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  11. Kim
    Kim

    There’s something so patronizing and…I wanna say…Victorian? Dickensian? Whatever the word is for the very strange societal demand that someone asking for or accepting charity must absolutely prove they won’t just blow it on liquor or drugs. Because every cent a rich or middle class person makes is spent wisely; they have the moral high ground, of course, or they wouldn’t be rich, right?

    June 16, 2017
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  12. Kate
    Kate

    I feel like there’s an additional aspect that many people are overlooking when they dump on this man for turning down the car dealership offer – mental health. Some people are not wired for the regular, public facing job that the company was offering. It’s not the mentally atypical person’s fault, but it often leads them into poverty and self-reliance.
    In my small city, there are a number of regular panhandlers whom I know by name. They are all people who are not capable of ‘normal’ employment due for one reason or another – and the main reason is mental health (not drugs or drink or whatever prejudice about panhandlers you usually hear, those are side effects). They ask for food and coins and cigarettes, they collect cans for returns, they know the ins and outs of shelters and soup kitchens, and they make lives for themselves. One fellow gets himself arrested every fall to stay warm through our Canadian winter. They work damn hard to keep going even though the deck has been stacked against them from day one.
    I don’t know if any of them would take a job at a car dealership, but if they didn’t I wouldn’t stop giving them money. I respect them enough to believe that they know their limits.

    June 19, 2017
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    • sexiersadie
      sexiersadie

      re: Being mentally wired for the kind of job this company was “offering”. That’s exactly what I was thinking, Kate. Before I was on the right medication, I would quit or get fired from a job about every six months. Because I was cute, white, and young I never had a problem getting another job, but there were days the anxiety was so overwhelming that I could find myself checking out completely and missing entire hours of my day while I was at work.

      A lot of hard-earned self knowledge, an enormous amount of therapy, and the right meds have made it possible to be a “contributing member of society” but for so many people that’s just not an option.

      June 27, 2017
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  13. RedHandedJill
    RedHandedJill

    Agreed on most of your points. One small thing about your charity example, though, is that board members legally can’t make any money off of charities. In fact, most nonprofit board members are recruited because of their ability to donate to the nonprofit. There are definitely charities out there that spend lower amounts than they should on direct programs/assistance in order to give their CEOs a higher salary, but in my experience, those are the exception rather than the rule (they get a lot of attention when it happens, though).

    June 19, 2017
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  14. Sarah
    Sarah

    I rarely comment, but as always, your insight is amazing.

    June 28, 2017
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