Earlier today, I saw a meme knocking on people who need public assistance because they probably use drugs. The particulars don’t matter a lot – it’s just a jumping off point that reminded me of how often we seem to need to blame poor people for their condition. I think we do this for basically two reasons: 1) fear of becoming poor ourselves; and 2) unhappiness with ourselves for not being more helpful.
By making poverty a moral failing, we can at some level convince ourselves that if we just work hard and play by the rules, we’ll keep ourselves out of poverty. This isn’t entirely irrational. We can hedge our bets to a great extent. But there are a lot of factors way beyond our control, and that’s scary. So, there is a reluctance to acknowledge the structural causes of poverty that could come for us some day. Best to pretend that people who are poor got that way by making bad decisions that we’d never make.
The unhappiness with ourselves for not being helpful is perhaps inevitable to a certain extent. The needs of the poor are well beyond any of our individual ability to remedy completely. Very few of us are willing to take an oath of poverty and live in rags on the street and, even if we did, our personal effort would just be a drop in the bucket. We all draw the line on how helpful we’ll be in one spot or another that comes up short. And that leaves us feeling lacking — even if we’re not engaging in particularly blameworthy behavior. I wish I could remember where I read this — I thought it was Dostoyevsky, but I’ve never been able to find it; in any case, there was an author who suggested that we hate people not for what they do to us, but for what we do to them. And it’s this dynamic that arises when we see poverty that we don’t address while we’re enjoying our overpriced coffee or whatever. That feeling is mitigated when we re-imagine the poor as undeserving.
I’m not suggesting any fixes to poverty here. Just advising that, when you see negative characterizations of the poor, try to evaluate how based in reality those sentiments might be versus whether there is some kind of psychological projection at work.