Poor people should die. That’s what we’re getting at, right? Snapping photos of homeless people on the street and complaining about the fact that we can see them. Smiling as we talk fondly about our town’s very own homeless person (who, instead of asking their name, we’ve all dubbed “Scabby”). On the opposite side of the spectrum, we spew criticisms against people who have jobs but still can’t afford to live. From the goodness of our hearts, we condescendingly suggest they should just get another job, get more roommates, or magically find the means to move somewhere else and hope there’s a job wherever “somewhere else” is. We hear people crying out for help and we try to silence them by insisting they just want “handouts.”
We live in a world that teaches us to strive for the “American Dream”: to be the best you can be, to take what you have and spin it into gold, to pull yourself up by your bootstraps and make something of yourself. Simultaneously, and perhaps even reactively, we learn to belittle those who have less than us for seemingly not following the obvious path to financial and emotional stability. “I worked my ass off in college,” says the person who lived at home and whose parents paid for their education, “so there’s no reason why you can’t.”
We constantly erase the opportunities gifted to us because it doesn’t fit the narrative that best allows us to pat ourselves on the back while we criticize someone struggling. We’re taught to talk and act like Donald Trump. “It has not been easy for me. And you know I started off in Brooklyn, my father gave me a small loan of a million dollars…”
And yet, despite our humanity encouraging us to think differently, to be empathetic of the people struggling more than us, we act defensively. We have learned to associate money with survival — and we do need money to survive, but we’ve taken things a step too far. Rather than just recognizing that money is a required aspect of living in modern society, we see symptoms of poverty and attack them like they’re communicable. We see one person struggling and get scared that maybe their struggles will be passed on to us.
Instead of seeing homeless people lining the streets and wondering what world we all live in that would leave human beings to live in tents under freeway overpasses, we criticize those people for their conditions.
“It was your decision to ______.”
Recognizing the larger forces at work and staying mindful of them — the cycle of poverty, housing crises, lack of access to affordable mental health services, causes of drug addiction, a minimum wage that can’t keep up with inflation — takes concerted effort. You have to want to understand why someone is living on the streets or crying out about low wages and you have to want to be aware that you are only one car accident or one company-wide layoff between where you are and where they are. That takes time, empathy, and devoted interest. In this busy world, we hardly have enough for even one of those things. So instead, a new narrative grows alongside the one about how great we are. And in this narrative, it’s all about out of sight, out of mind.
Any time we brush up against poverty is a reminder how close we are to being poor.
Don’t show me how close I am to failure, just show me how close I could be to success.
We concoct schemes to do better, to work harder. We drink Soylent because not having to think about or take time to prepare food gives us more time to be productive so we can make money to buy more Soylent. We wear Fitbits so we can look at the number of steps we’d do on any given day and be amazed at how great we are without even trying. Imagine how amazed you’d be if you had a machine monitor how many times you breathe in a day. We buy these things because others can’t. We constantly need to be reminded that we’re worth a lot and in pursuit of that affirmation we do everything we can to scrub from our minds the knowledge that maybe we’re not as great as we think. We don’t want to be reminded of the humanity of the poor, how they are working harder than us just to be. We want them to stop existing because the existence of those less fortunate is a reminder of how much we squander on ourselves. We all want to be rich, because in wealth is the ability to forget our mortality.
In our pursuit of wealth, we can’t afford empathy.
When we talk about how “those people” just want to sit on their asses and collect welfare checks (despite displaying obvious ignorance to the welfare system), what is the motivation? Is it to separate ourselves, in some way, from people who need welfare? Is it to show that, if put in their situation, we’d somehow manage to find a way out of the prison of poverty? Or does the reasoning run deeper, to our subconscious, where we wish poor people would simply cease to exist? Could it be that the existence of poor people is tangible proof that we could someday be where they are? And who do we help by ostracizing those less fortunate? Insulting the poor hasn’t been known to magically erase their debts or treat their illnesses. So why is the inclination always to react by lashing out, to criticize, to do everything we can to distance ourselves from these people whose lives are worse than ours?
When you say “Well, you made the choice to ______,” what you’re really saying is “I don’t want to care that you’re in trouble.”
When you say “They just want everything handed to them,” what you’re really saying is you have no gratitude for the things you’ve been given.
When you say, “I had it rough, so why are you complaining?” what you’re really saying is suffering should be done silently, out of sight.
Surely you never vented to a friend or your parents about financial troubles, because you’ve always spent and saved as wisely as possible. But if that’s true, haven’t you just proved that you have no expertise on how poor people live or how to get out of homelessness? What you’re really doing is trying to push away the ugly parts of humanity by reminding yourself of your success. By insisting that poor people should do x, y, or z, you’re simultaneously lifting yourself up with your know-it-all gusto and insisting that those you’ve just scolded be grateful for the advice you’ve given by no longer complaining in your general vicinity. You’re the chef at a soup kitchen serving out hot bowls of What You Should Do and expecting that to be the end of it. No time for any Please sir may I have some more. You’ve donated your two cents and if that’s not enough to make a poor person stop being poor, tough shit for them.
“They lack worth ethic” and “they’re a strain on society” are the two hot phrases being tossed around lately. And it’s baffling that the people touting these ideologies don’t realize that they’re saying poor people should just do the world a favor and die. Because being poor is, apparently, a sign of weakness.
Working overtime every week and still not making enough to get by is a weakness. Going to college because you got a full ride is a weakness. Still having to skip classes despite your full ride because some weeks you just don’t have enough to cover the drive from your below-poverty line housing to your school. Learning to drink a cup of water to soothe a hungry stomach as a child. Knowing how to make a meal out of nothing. Habitually picking up every coin on the street because you can exchange them for quarters to do laundry. Constantly pushing yourself to do the best you can in the hopes that it may someday propel you out of the poverty you’ve spent your whole life in.
These are weaknesses. Not because they make you weak, but because they shouldn’t have to be challenges. And if they are your challenges, it’s not because the world we live in is designed to keep people down. It’s because it’s your fault for choosing to subject yourself to challenges that shouldn’t exist. If you can’t even avoid these simple, stupid problems that no one should have to deal with and I’m not going to do anything to fix, why do you even exist?
This is what you say when you criticize those struggling. They don’t need you tearing them down with your desperate cruelty. They don’t benefit from your hate. You don’t even benefit from your hate. Unless, of course, openly telling the world that you think a majority of its population deserves to die is somehow the key to ending poverty. Then have at it! But as far as I can tell, you’re better off just admitting that you hate poor people because they remind you that you’re not immune to the forces of poverty.