POVERTY AND DENIAL
I attended an event a few years ago which included a talent show. One of the performers, a folk-singer/songwriter wannabe introduced her first song as follows:
“I was driving in my hometown awhile back and I saw a woman beside the road with a young girl at her side holding a sign, which read (her voice choked with emotion), ‘Homeless. Will work for food.’ Now, I didn’t give her any money because most of them just use it to buy drugs, but I felt so moved by her plight and the plight of all homeless people that I wrote this song…”
[Insert sappy song here]
This annoys the hell out of me on so many levels! First of all, what possible good is her goddamned song going to do for the homeless? I mean, a million songs—no matter how poignant—aren’t going to do the homeless a fraction of the good that could be accomplished with your basic bologna-and-cheese sandwich or a few coins from her pocket.
But worse is an attitude reflected in her remarks that is all too common here in the U.S. She implied that the homeless woman she saw holding the sign was living and begging in the street with her daughter because she was addicted to drugs. Her bad decisions in life led to her sorry state, and worse, to that of her poor daughter.
In other words, it was her own fault.
Now leaving aside for a moment the fact that, whatever sins which might’ve been committed by the mother, the daughter was without blame and deserving of at least sympathy, if not charity—these proclamations are never based on actual contact and conversation with the homeless person. Our singer/songwriter never bothered to stop and actually ask the woman about her situation.
I hear this sort of rationalization all the time, and it’s always used as an excuse for refusing to help, or even to acknowledge the problems of the poor. Worse yet, if these people do stop to offer a few cents to the homeless, they patronize them with simplistic advice on how to deal with their complex problems. Many have told me that having to listen to this sort of paternalistic claptrap is worse (almost) than going hungry.
I wish I could remember where I saw it, but I read of a survey that was done several years ago which asked respondents, ‘Why are poor people poor?’ About 65-70% of the respondents in the U.S. (if memory serves) gave answers like, ‘they’re lazy,’ or ‘they made bad decisions,’ or ‘because of alcohol and drug abuse.’
In other words, 65-70% said it was the poor's own fault.
When the same question was asked of Europeans, an equal percentage—about 65-70% (if memory serves) gave responses like, ‘because of economic changes beyond their control, or, ‘because of illness, injury or the need to care for family members.’
In other words, 65-70% said it wasn’t the poor's fault.
So why do so many people in my country blame the poor for their plight? And why do they do it so reflexively, so uncritically? The obvious answer is that they’re self-obsessed cheapskates, unwilling to lose even a few cents to anything that doesn’t offer immediate gratification for them.
Their apologists will argue that these tightwads are themselves victims of a shrinking economy and with money so tight, well, “charity begins at home.” But any panhandler will tell you that the most generous donors are almost always blue-collar folks, while the well heeled usually pass by with nothing more than a scornful look and the occasional stern admonishment. If the apologists were right, it would be the other way ‘round, with the wealthiest giving the most.
To discover the reason we blame the poor for their poverty, I think we have to look a little deeper. It’s been many years since I read Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, but the parts that stuck in my mind all these years were the passages in the book that dealt with how the test pilots of the 1950s coped with the deaths of their colleagues. Because they were flying experimental aircraft of a multitude of designs in those early days of jet aircraft, accidents were common and usually fatal.
In the barroom discussions following such a fatality, the other pilots always found some reason, some error on the part of the pilot to account for his death. ‘He didn’t lift his nose enough as he landed,’ or, ‘He didn’t do a good enough pre-flight inspection,’ or some such.
As Wolfe pointed out, these reasons were usually bogus. The real reason most test pilots died was because their aircrafts’ designs were fundamentally flawed and no one could have survived attempts to fly them. But the pilots couldn’t accept that and had to come up with errors on the part of the dead pilots—errors they would never make—to explain their demise.
If they were to accept the real reason—that their lives were in grave danger from forces utterly beyond their control—they’d never again be able to muster the courage to enter the cockpit.
If you look for it, you’ll see this form of denial in all sorts of situations because almost nobody can face the realization that our position in life, our very survival is, in this uncertain world, inherently precarious.
And that’s the reason we blame the poor for being poor. Millions in the U.S. are only a few paychecks away from living on the street. Wages have been stagnant for decades and the gap between rich and poor has been widening at an appalling pace. With the Barons of Finance wrecking the economy and a safety net that has shrunk to virtual nonexistence (at the behest of those selfsame Barons of Finance), it would take but a hiccup in the economy, the next burst bubble, and millions of middle class people would find themselves in dire straits.
To admit that the poor became so because of these blind forces is to admit that it could happen to them and, as with our test pilots, that’s intolerable to contemplate.
Fixing blame on the poor has the added advantage of derailing any sense of collective guilt for our participation in an economic and political system that is steadily pushing millions of people down the economic ladder into poverty. Any supporter of the massive tax cuts of recent years (and the resultant cuts in social services needed to pay for them) has to come up with some way to explain the poverty they see all around them, and you know they’re never going to admit that their policies had anything to do with it so, Presto!
“It’s their own fault!”