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Blaming the Poor

CC-Smabs Sputzer
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The cruel speech of conservatives who don’t see

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. 

Political and economic conservatives complain that liberals are treated as the compassionate ones and conservatives as if they were heartless. An automatic defense of government welfare spending does not indicate by itself that the person actually feels compassion. True. But the complaint would be more believable if so many conservatives didn’t speak and write like jerks.
Sometimes they just blame the poor outright. This is not uncommon in some circles, especially among secular conservatives. At other times they blame the poor indirectly, as when they react to any description of the barriers set before the poor with a defense of the market or praise of enterprise and hard work or some other answer to a question that wasn’t being asked. Their publications and websites are free of the kind of stories about the life of the poor that the sympathetic person naturally writes. I remember some years ago the frothing contempt with which conservative reviewers treated Barbara Ehrenreich’s classic
Nickel and Dimed, which told the stories of the working poor who could not, though working very hard, escape poverty.

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.

The answers to questions like Mangan’s are obvious, but not obvious unless you’re looking at the people who suffer. Really looking at them, at the details of their lives, with sympathy, and not looking at them as examples of a class defined by a few generalizations, a class with a place and function within an ideological scheme.
The naturally charitable see the need right away. The rest of us have to work at it. Mangan would ask such people if they’d never had a very bad day when they really wanted another glass of wine or a bad week when they kept having dinner delivered because making dinner was too much trouble.
You have? Why, splendid. Now imagine if your whole life were not just like that one bad day, but even worse. All the time. No let-up. No end in sight. No, you can’t go on holiday. No, you can’t cash anything in and retire. No. How would you react? No, you’ve not got a marketable skills set. You don’t know anyone who can give you a job. No. No.
If my own experience is any guide, half the people will not see the point. Just not see it, not make any connection between their own frustrations and the obstacles holding back those far less privileged.
We all like to take credit for our successes, and this can mean assuming that those who did not succeed as we did failed because they were not as good as us. For some of us, this can include feeling superior to the lout at the party who dismisses the poor with a broad back-handed sweep of his hand.

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.

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