A Moment to Acknowledge Reality & the Poor
At this time of year, some people take a moment to reflect on the poor. Others, of course, dedicate their lives to the the poor. But many people who are not poor do not spend a lot of time thinking about the poor.
“The poor.” Sounds like a Dickensian, outmoded idea. Like “orphans.” People going about their business could almost be forgiven for thinking there are no more poor people when they are so removed from our national discourse. But, of course, they’d be wrong. There are still orphans, too. We just call them by a different name. Though like in olden days, they are usually poor.
Politicians in our country don’t really talk about the poor.
They talk about the “middle class.” Because the poor don’t vote. And every day, new laws are put in place to help them not vote. They certainly do not offer campaign bribes. Citizens United says that money equals free speech, so the more money you have, the freer and louder your speech. If you have no money, then, well, you get it. So the poor are essentially a quiet, quiet group in a loud, loud world.
There was one person who spoke unrelentingly for the poor: Jesus. Maybe that’s why we are tugged think of the poor at Christmastime. Jesus spoke for the poor above all else. It was kind of like his number one message. And the message was as radical then as it is today. The poor are at the very center of the entire message behind all of Christianity. Which is utterly mind-blowing because…
The irony-rich religious political agenda.
I cringe at the hypocrisy of those in government who claim to be guided by Jesus, but are ferocious in their opposition to helping the poor. Instead, their life’s work is to sow the cultural fractures of identity politics. I can’t understand why a person would squander their chance to make a difference by fretting over public restrooms instead of inequality, suffering and poverty. And the people who support this philosophy… you could sell them salt as they die of thirst, as long as you flavor it with outrage-inducing recriminations. This sad transaction happens daily. And the country gets thirstier and thirstier.
Why do so many Americans have this attitude about the poor?
I know my parents do. My grandparents were all quite poor children of immigrants. But they made their lives better without any of the safety nets we have today. Perhaps this is the lens through which older generations see poverty. They saw their parents’ heroic self-reliance and can’t understand why poor people today can’t be held to the same standard. Especially given all the extra help they have from the government.
But the world has changed.
I have written before about how my about-to-turn-99 (!) year-old aunt always talks about how she didn’t know she was poor. My grand-parents, aunts and uncles on both sides of my family have said this same crazy thing to me. I can guarantee you, people at the turn of the millennium who are poor know they are poor.
Poverty in our society, is not really comparable to poverty in our grandparents’ era.
I’m not saying that they didn’t have it hard or that people didn’t suffer unspeakably years ago. But things were different. Commonly shared cultural and religious values were a stronger force, providing many destitute families with certain bedrock values that made it possible to get through a poor childhood without being mentally broken. And if their families were anything like my parents’ families, they may not have even known they were poor.
Here is what they did not have to contend with: widespread drug addiction, guns, gang violence, mass incarceration, crumbling schools, isolation from extended family and the utter breakdown of the family unit.
Growing up in poverty today often coincides with an indifferent upbringing, an indifferent education and the mental scars that go with violence, physical and emotional abuse, a lack of community, a lack of role models and so many other traumatic things that change a child’s brain forever. This is why there is such a thing as the “cycle” of poverty. Once you hop on, it’s not easy for your kid to hop off.
You cannot expect a child to grow up in this environment and succeed in life just because it is not a scientific impossibility to do so. Most will not overcome the odds unless some powerful, effective outside forces come into play.
The fact is, the things middle class people do to ensure their kids’ success – all those things that as a society we like to make fun of — they matter. A lot. Reading and talking to children from birth, Pre-K, trips to the zoo, soccer class, piano lessons, fostering friendships and social bonds, showering them with affection and security… even just being married. All these things boost their hand. My grandparents, while they did not have a lot of money, had all the intangibles. A strong family structure, discipline, pride, community, social bonds and access to education.
There’s been some backlash over minimalists preaching about their simple lives.
And I get it. There is a certain insufferability that can emerge from bragging about simplicity when you have the means to live however you wish. Many have no choice but to raise kids on $25K a year. And their lives do not look like Mr. Money Mustache’s, I promise. I adore MMM, but he is not proof that anyone can live well on a tiny amount of money. Unfortunately $25K a year does not a life free from poverty make. No matter how many great tips you find on Pinterest. $25K works if you own your own home, have money in the bank, a support network of friends and family, free childcare, and are a great, loving, educated mom and dad who were able to plan out this wonderfully efficient life while making a nice upper middle class salary.
We can’t look at the culture of frugality and mistake it for the idea that the poor do not need help.
They do. As all the money in the world snowballs into the accounts of the wealthy few, inequality becomes a destructive self-propelling force. The comically wealthy don’t even know what to do with all their money. (Though I have a great idea.) Meanwhile, the poor struggle to find a supermarket selling a single vegetable that is remotely accessible to them. Or a decent school. Or rent they can afford. And forget about childcare, being home after giving birth, or even just for a day with a sick kid.
This is a challenge that the poor do not have the resources or wherewithal to solve alone. The onus must be on society as a whole. Charity is great, but at some point we have to admit that there are some things only the government can accomplish. And if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right. And if it is not being done right, why can’t the argument be to fix it, to do better, instead of doing nothing? It’s like the argument “Obamacare premiums are too high – cancel everyone’s health insurance!” This view is frustrating.
Kids growing up in poverty are swimming against the tide.
Yes, of course some extraordinary people have overcome the odds, like this inspiring girl. But most do not. Our brains can easily be broken down by science. Why do we do things. How do our childhoods affect the outcome of our lives. When you acknowledge neuro-science, you acknowledge that a life of poverty is pre-determined for so many people and that it is truly not their fault.
It behooves all of us to break the cycle. There are tons of studies and data that offer ideas for dealing with the problems of poverty. But it must begin with more people changing their attitudes about the poor and electing politicians that do not vilify them all as lazy takers who just need to be more self-sufficient. It’s true, many broken adults will never be productive members of society. It is too late for them. But the children, we have to help the children avoid this fate if their parents cannot or will not.
This means considering, just considering having an open mind, even just maybe for one small moment, about some progressive social ideas. A living minimum wage, universal healthcare, paid family leave, paid sick leave, universal Pre-K, affordable childcare, higher education solutions, criminal justice reform, addiction treatment, access to mental health services. These things would help so many people. Why should improving the lives of Americans be controversial or a partisan issue? I am asking honestly.
© 2015 Angel. All rights reserved