Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Why We Hate The Poor, Part II


Yesterday, I started a discussion about a provocative subject: our hatred of the poor. I'd like to expand upon, and explain, that statement a little bit. Saul Friedman's piece about the War on Poverty shows just what a dismal failure it has been. Estimates state that there are some 50 million poor people in our country (that is, people living below or hovering just above the poverty line). For any country, such a number would be inconvenient and unfortunate. For the most prosperous and charitable country in the world, the number is an embarrassing tragedy.

It's not difficult to feel both pity and disdain for a beggar on the street. We are a nation built upon an "up-by-your-own-bootstraps, self-made" capitalist mentality- a mentality that has, in many ways, proven itself to be extraordinary and has attracted immigrants from around the world. At the same time, we are a generous nation with great principles and morals ingrained into our very founding documents. This creates in us both a sense that we'd like to help the poor and a sense that the poor should just help themselves. One reader, questioning my somewhat overly-dramatic title, sums it up perfectly:

Hate the poor. Perhaps hate is not the correct term. I believe most people are completely apathetic toward the poor among us. We look away when we see a person asleep on the street maybe because we don't understand how someone got there. We tolerate their presence because it is not something that can be fixed with batteries, a new sd card or cable. It would require something of us.

Our history with poverty portrays those exact contradictory feelings quite perfectly. We have created programs such as Medicaid, Food Stamps and WIC, as well as set up thousands of food banks, homeless shelters and community aid clinics throughout our country. Still, however, we have cut government funding for public assistance, mental health clinics and unemployment assistance when we knew that the people who would be affected wouldn't make any big waves about it in the election booths. We've all heard the expression "the true measure of a civilization is the way it treats its weakest citizens" and it can be argued that our national actions reflect the uncomfortable feelings and underlying resentment we feel every time we're asked to spare some change.

With all the good we've done- and we've done a lot!- the fact of 50 million poor Americans still exists and ties into many other problems like public and mental health issues, drug and alcohol abuse, single-parent households, education, crime rates and many others. Our treatment of the homeless and the hungry sits as an embarrassing pockmark on the otherwise fairly solid record we hold as a nation. Though we've tried, we clearly either haven't tried enough or haven't tried the right things. In Part III of this discussion, I'll look at the ways we can move forward to fix the abysmal botch of a job we've done on poverty. Please feel free to comment on this quick snapshot of where we're at and check in later to discuss possible solutions.


Anonymous said...

"Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not"
Dr. Seuss

Tim Killeen said...

Getting Seussical on CF is always much appreciated. Check out tomorrow's post on ways homelessness is getting better- I promise it will be less depressing.

Piper Hoffman said...

We have the means and the know-how to end poverty. We lack only the will. The "bootstraps" mentality is central to our attitude: "if someone is poor it is their own fault, and if they want any of my money they are trying to take advantage of me." Until we learn that in this country some of the hardest-working people, e.g. those with two minimum-wage jobs, are among the poorest, we will never care enough to end poverty. You are spot on: it is a national embarrassment.
You can read a little more at http://piperhoffman.com/2010/06/23/53/

Anonymous said...

Think how fast an idea travels and becomes viral on the internet. If only the idea that each person could do something became viral as well we could maybe make a dent in the problem and save our humanity as well. I'm going to start working on my scarves for the homeless again. Small thing, yes, but it's something. It's something. Think haw fast the dancing baby went wiral on u tube.