“What are you saying, Mrs Whatsit? We don’t hate poor people! We feel bad for them and help them with government programs and charity!”
Then why is our minimum wage still only $7.25? It’s purchasing power was highest in 1968 (which is before I was born, and I’m not young), and it’s declined by almost 10% just in the past 9 years. By the way, if you work 40 hours a week for 52 weeks of the year (that is, you take NO time off whatsoever for any reason), at $7.25, you’ll earn $15,080. Could you live on that for a year?
Then why do we require drug testing to get public assistance? Studies show welfare recipients use recreational drugs at much lower rates that the rest of the population. (Could that be because RECREATIONAL DRUGS ARE EXPENSIVE? Hmmmm….)
Then why do we require single mothers with children to work or lose their benefits (which actually ends up as “work AND lose their benefits” since every dollar you make results in lowered benefits)? Particularly when, over the long-term, those “welfare to work” requirements almost universally leave people worse off – without stable employment and deeper in poverty?
Then why are we about to start requiring that Medicaid recipients work to keep their health care? Yes, in states that opted into the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion, there has been a rise in young, unemployed, single men getting coverage. You know what else is true about young, unemployed, single men? THEY DON’T USE A LOT OF HEALTH CARE. And by the way, the overwhelming majority of low-income people who can work already do work, even Medicaid recipients.
Then why do we judge the person in line in front of us at the grocery store who buys a steak with a SNAP card? SNAP benefits average $126 a month per person. Could you feed yourself for a month on that? What if your living situation is unstable, so you can’t buy in bulk, and you don’t have access to a full kitchen? Or you work two (or more) jobs, so you need food that you can prepare fast that has plenty of calories? Or you can’t afford to waste money on stuff your kids might refuse to eat, like broccoli or canned beans? And by the way, on that steak, aren’t poor people ever allowed to have a reason to celebrate? Or just want to taste something delicious? Also by the way, you can only have about $2000 in assets (i.e., money in the bank) on SNAP, so I sure hope you don’t have unforeseen emergencies ever, because you won’t have the cash to cover them.
Then why is so much of the housing that’s available to the poor, whether in housing projects or through section 8 vouchers, in horrible condition? Or totally unaffordable? Or too small for their families? Or all of the above? (For more on this, read Matthew Desmond’s outstanding Evicted.) And that poor housing can have life-long effects on children who are raised in situations where they’re exposed to lead paint, mold, radon, carbon monoxide, and the like.
I blame, at least in part, our Puritan heritage.
If it’s been awhile since your last American history class, recall that the earliest settlers in the New World, particularly in the New England colonies, were frequently Puritans. Having decided that the Church of England were insufficiently “reformed” for their tastes and were really just papists in disguise, they were insufferably self-righteous and not too popular, and so fled religious persecution in the Old World to found, notably, the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies (among others).
One of the key tenets of Puritanism is that one is saved only by grace, not through works. God alone chooses the redeemed – those who try to “earn” redemption through their works are actually damned (take that, Catholics!).
Relatedly, they believed “that money and wealth were gifts from God.”
So if money and wealth are a sign of God’s favor, what does it mean if you’re poor, if you don’t enjoy money and wealth? Does that mean God doesn’t favor you?
Although some scholars of Puritanism claim that doesn’t necessarily follow – that in fact, poverty can also be a sign of God’s blessing, teaching you to control your desires – in practice, “rich = favored by God, poor = not favored by God” became deep seated in our national consciousness.
I think there’s also an element of the same pathology that makes women unsympathetic jurors in rape cases: we have to “other” those people who are in a situation we don’t want to be in as a talisman of protection that we’ll never find ourselves in that situation. “I’ll never be raped because I would never dress like that.” “I’ll never be poor because I would never choose to buy a steak when my budget is tight.”
Our psychology and, in the US, our history, inclines us to think that people get what they deserve – rich people earned it; poor people are lazy and make bad choices. The alternative – that life can be pretty random; that some people have advantages that others, through no fault of their own, lack; that “he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45) – is just too painful to fathom.
You know what fixes that attitude? Getting to know poor people.”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.”
Unfortunately, we have become, to quote the Kerner Commission Report: two Americas, separate and unequal. Very few middle and upper class people have regular contact with poor people – we don’t live in the same neighborhoods, commute in the same ways, work in the same places, worship in the same churches, send our kids to the same schools. We lack an understanding of each others’ lives. We lack empathy for each other.
There is no simple solution for a lack of empathy. It requires educating yourself – with personal stories of poor people’s real lives, with data about income inequality and the decline of socioeconomic mobility, with a theoretical understanding of the role of the “natural lottery” and the myth of meritocracy. It requires doing the hard work of challenging your inherent biases – moving past first thought into second thought and first action. It requires stepping out of your comfortable upper-middle-class daily bubble and intentionally encountering different people. Want a good place to start? Try getting around entirely on public transportation (no cheating with Lyft) for a week. Or volunteering at a local shelter one Saturday morning. Or tutoring a kid in a school in an economically depressed neighborhood. It requires effort. But that’s not a valid excuse not to do it.
Oh, and you know what’s been proven to work for fixing poverty? Giving poor people money, without conditions, so they are free to make choices about how to spend it in the ways that will best improve their lives. You know, kind of like the rest of us do.
Tenement image: from Jacob Riis’s famous 1890 book How The Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York
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