If we are to love our neighbors, before doing anything else we must see our neighbors. With our imagination as well as our eyes, that is to say like artists, we must see not just their faces but the life behind and within their faces.
- Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark: An ABC Theologized
I have a friend who gets a little testy whenever the topic of poverty comes up. He particularly resents that poor people might get a hand from government.
“They should just pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, like I did,” he says.
“But,” I’ll say, “suppose we’re talking about a single mother with several children.”
“She should have thought of that before she had them.”
“But now she does have them. Let’s suppose one of the children is asthmatic, like your son. Medicine costs money.”
“I earn my money. She can earn hers. Give them money, and they just go farther into the hole. I don’t want my hard-earned money going to people who just waste it out-of-wedlock crack babies.”
It is important to insert here that I don’t believe my friend is a cruel, heartless man. He is generally kind and generous — a much nicer person than this description of him would suggest. So why does he sound so mean?
For one thing, he doesn’t know any real poor people.
In his business he’s met a few of the ignorant and uneducated. Some of who’ve not paid their bills to him. There are people like that, of course. I don’t like their life choices, either.
But he sees all poor people through this lens. They’re poor because they’re all lazy and make bad choices. He suspects them all of wasting their money on liquor, and of taking advantage of welfare by having child after child without regard to the consequences. He allows for few exceptions. But he doesn’t really know them.
This selective view excuses him from having to struggle with moral questions about his wealth in comparison to the poor in this country, and in much of the rest of the world. It is only justice, he says, that those who earn money should keep it. He believes that a hand up doesn’t really help most people. Charity starts at home, with your own family’s needs. Let the free market work. (He’s never visited a developing country, and I don’t think he quite believes me when I describe the millions of pathetic beggars living the laissez-faire economy on the streets of India.) The government doesn’t help the middle class or the rich: why should it rescue the poor? And anyway, letting the rich get richer causes money to trickle down to those who manufacture their iPods and trim their hedges.
He reinforces and refines this meta-narrative daily, listening to AM radio on his way to work.
The big self-deception in all of this, and the one that weakens the rest of his argument, is that he’s entirely self-made — as though he clawed his way by sheer grit out of a favela in Rio. In fact, he was born into a reasonably happy middle class American home. His parents taught him to work. He got to go to camp, to church, to doctors and orthodontists, and to good schools. They bought him a decent used car and sent him off to college, from which he graduated without debt. He’s never gone hungry, or wanted for a warm bed. It appears to me he got everything he needed in life, and much of what he wanted, too. It isn’t surprising that he grew up to be an honest, hard working professional: he had good opportunities, and made good use of them.
He doesn’t understand that not everyone in the world has the same opportunities, though; and if they don’t, that’s not his concern.
He also believes that he’s earned every dime by the sweat of his brow — ignoring the privileged place his free-to-him education got him, the retirement portfolio where he makes money just by having some already, and his mortgage interest deduction, which is essentially a government subsidy for those with enough money to buy their own house.
We were sitting at the table in a friend’s home one evening. A mention of my recent mission trip to rural Mexico led to a discussion of poverty. “The thing you have to understand,” one of the other guests, a physician’s wife, said, “is that those people are used to being poor. It doesn’t bother them the way it would us.” What to say? Do people get used to being hungry, so that it doesn’t bother them anymore? (I’m remembering a line by George F. Baer, the president of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, who took a leading role in busting the 1902 anthracite coal strike. Someone asked him about the suffering of the coal miners. “These men don't suffer,” he said. “Why, hell, half of them don't even speak English.”)
Again, I don’t think this physician’s wife is an unkind woman. If a sick brown baby from another continent were laid in her arms, she’d love and care for it. But the real poor are quite different from the theoretical poor. As long as she doesn’t have to see real poverty, as long as it remains a picture on the news, or a bad neighborhood glimpsed through the window of her car, she can comfort herself with simplified answers and sleep well at night.
Someone may say, “Same old claptrap. Take from the people who work and give it to those who don’t.” That would mischaracterize my point. It is certainly better to create opportunities for people than simply to give handouts. Back in the 60’s and 70’s the United States had a welfare system that expected too little accountability, and while it band-aided a few problems, it wasn’t good for the country. Furthermore, I’m happy for people to get rich; I do my best to spend and save wisely and get a little richer myself.
But I know that I didn’t get this good life all on my own. I was blessed: born in a country with a strong economy, to a stable family who gave me a good education. I inherited the DNA for decent health, intelligence, and character traits. I was born part of America’s historically most privileged racial group.
At the very least, that should make me a little less selfish, and keep me from making generalizations about those who didn’t get the same shot at life that I did.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/2097