Writing in the English newspaper The Guardian, Lucy Mangan tells of people reacting to her raising money for a home for battered women by demanding, “Why don’t these women just leave?” The obvious answer is that when you’ve been beaten for a long time and psychologically broken down, and have no resources, and are scared for yourself and your children’s safety, and fear you’ll be killed, and most to the point have nowhere to go if you do leave, you can’t. The obvious answer, one would have thought, but it apparently isn’t. I have heard otherwise kind and generous people react to stories of battered women with that and similar questions. Such people will dismiss the sufferings of the mentally ill with the line that all they have to do is just buckle down and get on with it. Mention of the effects of racial prejudice is answered with a reference to Colin Powell or Barack Obama. Concern with the effects of poverty is rejected with a version of both of those, and other excuses to blame to poor for being poor.
Last week, a Conservative member of the House of Lords, speaking at the launch of a report on hunger in England, declared “We have lost a lot of our cookery skills. Poor people do not know how to cook. I had a large bowl of porridge today, which cost 4p. A large bowl of sugary cereals will cost you 25p.” That people may not have the time to make the oatmeal because they’ve only got a few minutes between two exhausting jobs, Lady Jenkin didn’t see.
I have been at parties with affluent Catholics, all Republicans, standing around talking about children or football or some other comfortable subject, when one of the people around me would start talking about the failings of the poor. The judgments would be comprehensive and categorical. Heads would nod and affirmative noises would be made. Any suggestion that poverty itself made escape hard was blown off, often with a broad back-handed sweep of the hand. The idea wasn’t just being contradicted, it was being dismissed.
It is the way fallen people are. A Berkeley professor named Paul Piff runs an
experiment in which two people play Monopoly. One, chosen at random, is given twice as much money to start and allowed to roll two dice while the other is given only one. The first player will always win.
Afterwards, when the person who was always going to win won, Piff would ask him if he thought he deserved to win. The winner always did. “They felt like they deserved to win the game. And that’s a really incredible insight into what the mind does to make sense of advantage or disadvantage. You, like a real rich person, start to attribute success to your own individual skills and talents, and you become less attuned to all of the other things that contributed to you being in the position that you’re in.” This was true of political liberals and conservatives both.
With all the Scriptures and the Church say about poverty and the poor, and all that basic sympathetic observation should teach us, and all we should know from our own experiences of failure, Catholics should not blame the poor for being poor. There, but for the grace of God, and all sorts of blessings we didn’t deserve, go you and I. If you can’t say something kind, don’t say anything at all.