poverty

How Dare You Ask for my Compassion?

prodigal“The value of compassion cannot be over-emphasized. Anyone can criticize. It takes a true believer to be compassionate. No greater burden can be borne by an individual than to know no one cares or understands.”- Arthur H. Stainback, Baptist minister and author

My heart hurts when I read comments on just about any story related to people and their financial troubles. Invariably, someone or a lot of someones will attack the author for the “excuses” they make for the poor.  They will go through the story of the person’s life looking for the reasons the subject’s difficulties are his own fault.  They will express them in the most aggressive terms and call the person who is having a hard time lazy, a mooch, incompetent, selfish. The comments are full of distancing language designed to make the subject into an “other,” a bit non-human. There is an undercurrent of anger directed at the writer for the outrage of making readers aware of the struggling person.  I often encounter comments that criticize the subject’s attention-seeking. Having to know about them sticks in some people’s craw. Fame is a prize that the lazy taker should not receive.

The underlying premise of such comments is always that you do not deserve my empathy unless you have earned it by proving that you are above reproach, you have made no mistakes, you live a lifestyle I approve of.  Not only do the people who post these kinds of attacks want you to know that they do not have sympathy for the poor person’s problems, they are offended by the very idea that they ought to have sympathy. They want the author to feel ashamed for suggesting readers care about the person in financial difficulty.

“You’re very good at making excuses for your miserable life,” one commenter said.  That one stuck with me.

What I have found from reading any number of articles is that what constitutes an “excuse” for a person’s “miserable life” is an extremely broad category.  People who are on welfare or receiving food stamps, of course, get no love.  They are assumed to be lazy and to have “poverty consciousness” and to want our handouts.  (We are the givers, of course, never the recipients of aid. They are never the tax payers, although the poor do pay taxes.)

So if the problem is that people on welfare are lazy and unwilling to work you would assume that working full time would earn our respect and make a person worthy of compassi0n.  Yet people who work a full time job that does not pay a living wage tend to get shouted down too.  Who told them to work that kind of job? They should go to school and get a real job.

So we might be able to assume that a person who pursues higher education has earned empathy. Yet when I read about a woman with a PhD who was having trouble making ends meet, the comments were every bit as critical and angry.  She studied the wrong subject.  Anthropology? Liberal Arts?  You are not entitled to sympathy if you study a fluffy field like that. In fact, the fact that she got a PhD instead of a “real job” offended some people.

Of course, we can’t all be bankers. What a weird world that would be. We’d spend all of our lives lending money to one another and not making anything with it.  So what is a “real job”– one that entitles its holder to empathy?  It is certainly not a job in arts, that goes without saying. Teachers tend not to fare well, they are union takers who get weekends and summers off.  Service jobs, as we already have shown, do not qualify. Academia is too elite to be a “real job.” If you go into social services, you should be doing it for love and you should not complain that you get no money. Factory labor killed the auto companies, of course.  They are self-centered and don’t care about the big picture. So “real jobs” seem to be a small subset of the available jobs out there.

Maybe the problem is that these people are in the prime of their lives and when you’re in your prime, you have no excuse not to put your nose to the grindstone and keep your mouth shut. So what about a child who is poor through no fault of his own? Surely he deserves our compassion? I read a story of a boy who was denied his school lunch and sent to class hungry because he did not have 30c on his card to pay for it. The comments on that story were just as angry. It was the mother’s fault for not having the funds or not being on top of things enough to replenish his lunch card. He should go hungry. He did not deserve compassion because, it seems, he had chosen the wrong parents.

One story I read featured an 85 year old professor who was still working part time but not making enough money to eat regularly. I am paraphrasing this story from memory.  She died and her poverty became the subject of a number of articles. You might think that being 85 years old and still working would shield her against charges of being lazy and selfish. It did not. There were people who expressed outrage that anyone would take up her cause.  It was her fault she was in her situation. She had only worked part time when she was younger and wasn’t entitled to more social security. If she had wanted to retire and not be in poverty, she should have worked harder when she was younger. I don’t know what this woman’s situation was, but she may have been a parent and decided that she worked part time to devote more of her time to raising her children.

Of course, in the blogosphere, having children is never an excuse for not working more hours in a real job. “You decided to have those kids, if you can’t afford them you shouldn’t have had them.”  (What a person is supposed to do when she already has children and her financial situation changes for the worse is unclear. Give them back?)  Single mothers are not entitled to compassion because they should have foreseen their divorces.

So I think back to this comment, “You’re very good at making excuses, aren’t you?” I realize that it is the person who wrote that who was making excuses– excuses not to care, excuses to walk on by.  “You’re very good at making excuses to justify your lack of empathy, aren’t you?”

The Dalai Lama said, “Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.”

That should be the minimum human guide.

Are you “We”?

I’ve been writing about how writers and journalists tend to write from the perspective of the well-off rather than the struggling.  I attribute some of that to the fact that it is generally assumed that a writer cannot make a living at writing and needs to have another career, be supported by someone else, or be independently wealthy.  That means, to some extent, writing as a career is limited to people of means and leisure.  There is another factor here as well, which I only alluded to in my article on poor shaming.

A lot of writers do stick with it even though it means struggling financially. We are among the poor.  Yet because of the cultural shame surrounding poverty, we do not dare write in the voice of the poor or marginalized if we want to be taken seriously.  So we end up talking about “we” the financially secure Americans as opposed to “they” the poor, even when that is not true for us as individuals.

I found a fascinating example yesterday of a writer assuming that he and his audience were among those who do not struggle financially.  Jordan Weismann, writing for the Atlantic, wrote an article that makes the case that the poor are not other people, but that poverty is a situation that any of us might face for a time.

The article explains that 40 percent of Americans will fall below the poverty line at some point, but that most people do not stay there for long.

He concludes “What these numbers undercut, though, is the idea that most of the poor, as a broad group, are somehow different than you and me (aside from the bit about having less money).”

If so many Americans are dealing with poverty, and they are not different from anyone else, there is a good chance that some of them are among the readers of this article. They not only like you and me. They are you and me.

Poverty and Purity Codes

This is a graphic that has been going around Facebook.  It shows the results of a Florida program that requires welfare recipients to pass a drug screening in order to qualify for benefits.  According to the graphic, 98% of those tested passed.  The program cost taxpayers $ 178 million.  The big tax savings to the state of throwing the drug users off welfare was $60,000.

The graphic made me wonder: If we were to require drug testing of wealthy people in order to qualify for oil subsidies, or a lower tax rate on capital gains than earned income, what would the graphic look like?  What percentage would fail the test and what would the savings look like?  Is it possible that a larger percentage of capital gains beneficiaries might be using drugs (cocaine on their yachts) than single mothers with minimum wage jobs do?  Is is possible that because of the amount of income involved that the tax savings might actually outweigh the program cost?

I was recently reading the book Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time by Marcus Borg.  Borg spoke about the purity code that operated in Jesus’s time (which Jesus violated and protested by eating with tax collectors and the unclean).  The purity code went beyond a few rituals.  It provided an entire social and political system based on the notion of pure and impure, clean and unclean.

According to one purity map of the time, priests and Levites (both hereditary classes) come first, followed by “Israelites,” followed by “converts” (Jewish persons who were not Jewish by birth). Further down the list are “bastards,” followed by those with damaged testicles and those without a penis. Women who were made unclean monthly were low on the social scale. Behavior also played a role and certain occupations, such as tax collecting, made one an outcast.

So by now you’re probably wondering what all of this ancient history has to do with Florida drug testing.  It is this.  To quote Borg:

“The purity contrast also was associated with economic class. To be sure, being rich did not automatically put one on the pure side (and first-century Judaism could speak of rich people who were wicked), but being abjectly poor almost certainly made one impure.”

When I read this line it occurred to me that our society still operates on this type of a purity code.  Being wealthy does not automatically make a person “pure” but it gives the person the assumption of purity.  A rich person is assumed to be clean, well mannered, smart and moral until proven otherwise. A poor person, on the other hand, lives with the assumption of “impurity.”  His is assumed to be unintelligent, less capable, unclean and less moral until proven otherwise.

So why doesn’t anyone suggest drug testing in order to qualify for oil subsidies?  How far would such an idea go if someone proposed it?  What types of government funding and services should you have to prove you are moral and ethical to get?

(Reposted from my non-fiction blog Broke is Beautiful)