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The Offence of the Poor and the Acceptability of Poverty

When I was a small boy we lived in Mays Landing, New Jersey, in a house across the street from a small park. The park was great. Lots of trees, a pond in the center, and enough open space so we could throw a baseball and football around. My friends and I spent a lot of time in the park.

One day two of my friends and I got in a fight with a kid a bit older and bigger. At some point I took a good one to the right side of my face and ended up on my back. I remember lying there distinctly thinking that fighting was pretty stupid, particularly since I had nothing against this person. I wasn’t frightened, but I was struck by how meaningless it seemed. I should note, that while I laid there in deep contemplation, my friends continued beating on this kid.

Some days after the fight, a number of my friends jumped the older boy and threw him in the pond. I can’t remember what happened next. I may have taken him home or I may have gotten my mother, but either way he ended up on our front porch wearing one of my t-shirts and pair of shorts eating sandwiches and drinking iced tea with my mom and me while his clothes were being washed. I do remember he was embarrassed, not least because my clothes were much too small for him.

Here’s the thing: the only reason this kid was the victim of abuse and violence was that he was poor and liked hanging out in our park. In those days Mays Landing had its poor and they didn’t come to the park. My friends felt disdain because he was poor and I felt virtuous because my mom and I had helped him. On that particular day he was an object, first of hatred and second of compassion. Later I would get to know him and he would become a human being.

My friends hated this kid. The hatred was not personal, meaning that they didn’t actually know him as a person. They had no idea if he were good or bad, pleasant or nasty, honest or dishonest. It was a hatred towards a class, or tribe, or an intruding presence. It was learned. I doubted they even knew his name. It goes without saying that the abuse was very personal to him! As he stood on my front porch dripping wet he was crying. But to my friends? All they knew of him was he was a poor kid in our park. Who else he was as an actual human being was irrelevant.

When the poor intrude into our space we can feel offended, or angered, or perhaps morally affronted by an unclean object. Or we might feel uncomfortable, or saddened, or morally outraged by a perceived injustice. I think we mostly try to ignore the person, but I have seen people express anger and disgust, and others sympathy and compassion. Either way, the poor have their place, and in our park was not one of them.

The poor cause us to experience offence in two ways: One, as unclean pariahs intruding into our space (physical, psychological, ethical, spiritual), and two, as reminders that we live in a society where some (many) have much too little (money, shelter, food, health, dignity). In both cases we are morally offended, the first grounded in our feelings of righteousness and the second in our feelings of injustice. We either throw them into the pond or give them clean clothes and a sandwich. The pond because they deserve it – their poverty is their own fault. The clean clothes and food because they deserve both – everyone should have enough.

Richard GereRecently Richard Gere went undercover as a homeless man on the streets of New York City while filming Time Out of Mind. He posted a picture of himself on Facebook (to the right) and wrote this:

When I went undercover in New York City as a homeless man, no one noticed me. I felt what it was like to be a homeless man. People would just past by me and look at me in disgrace. Only one lady was kind enough to give me some food. It was an experience I’ll never forget. So many times we forget how blessed we are. We should not take that for granted. And if we can help someone in need, we should. That’s why after I was done, I walked around and gave food and $100 to every homeless person I saw. They cried and were so grateful. Be the change you wish to see in the world.

I’m willing to bet Mr. Gere was in fact noticed by many people. Gere said so himself: “People would…look at me in disgrace.” The point is, however, he was not recognized. When you objectify a human being, in this case a homeless man, his personal identity is irrelevant. I suspect that Gere's, and our, surprise comes from the fact that he was not noticed, that is not recognized. And the fact that such a famous and familiar actor was not “seen” reminds us of how noticed and invisible the poor are.

Gere says he “felt what it was like to be a homeless man”. That no doubt is true to a degree. But only to a degree. He was apparently filming in character for 45 minutes, so not long sitting on the street. He is worth somewhere around $100 million, so poor he is not. He was not trapped in poverty. Like Gere, I got to know the boy in the park and did begin to understand, to a degree, the burdens of poverty. But like Gere I was not trapped in poverty. There was no way I actually “knew” what it was like to be poor in Mays Landing, any more than Gere could actually “know” what it is like to be homeless in New York.[1]

The differences between the boy in the park and Gere on the street are immense, but most significant for here is that the boy had no way out and Gere did. The boy could not walk out of his real poverty while Gere could quite easily get up and walk away from his pretend homelessness. However, both the boy and Gere did share something. Both were impacted by the fact that they were not respected. The boy was not acknowledged for the person he was and Gere was not recognized for the person he is. They were both objectified and thus disrespected. Harry G. Frankfurt in his new book On Inequality writes:

[L]ack of respect consists in the circumstance that some important fact about the person is not properly attended to or is not appropriately taken into account. In other words, the person is dealt with as though he is not what he actually is. The implications of significant features of his life are overlooked or denied. Pertinent aspects of how things are with him are treated as though they had now reality. When he is denied suitable respect, it is a though his very existence is reduced.[2]

Gere was moved by the experience and therefore “walked around and gave food and $100 to every homeless person I saw.” And he finished his Facebook status with the words: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

If the change you are looking for is to remember how blessed you are and to begin helping people who are, apparently, not blessed, then giving food and a $100 to homeless people is a start. But if the change you are wanting is to eliminate poverty, then, while the food and money may change an individual’s life (at least temporarily), it will not change the social, political, and economic realities that render poverty acceptable any more than the clothes and sandwich eradicated poverty in Mays Landing.[3]

Poverty is not just a personal tragedy. It is a social, political, economic, and legal reality. It is a structural and institutional problem. While giving food and money to individual poor people may be a good thing to do, it will not change the reality of poverty. And the problem is getting huge.

A recent Credit Suisse Wealth Report states that global wealth was $250 trillion in 2015; that the bottom half of adults own less than 1% of that wealth; the top 10% own 87.7%; and the top 1% own 50% of the wealth. (link to the actual report which examined wealth in more than 200 countries).

These figures are breathtaking. This distribution of wealth did not just happen. It was made to happen. If we’re willing to live with the 1% owning 50% of the wealth then we are willing to live with the boy in the park and the homeless man in the street. Yes, I know. It’s complicated! But people have been saying for a long time that we have the intelligence and the resources to eliminate poverty. What we don’t  have is the will.

Copyright © 2015 Dale Rominger

[1] One definition of the word “know” is to have a clear and complete idea of something. I am asserting that one cannot knowing clearly and completely what it is to be poor if one is in fact not poor and can easily leave the experiencing of poverty. One can certainly get a good idea of what it is to be poor befriending a poor boy or putting yourself in a poor man’s place. But clear and complete knowledge and identifying, I think not.

[2] Frankfurt, Harry G. On Inequality. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press. 2015, p. 86.

[3] It is important to note that Richard Gere did not stop at handing out food and money to individual homeless people. He is known for his activism and his philanthropic endeavors. He spoke to the National Conference to End Homelessness hosted by the National Alliance about his experience and homelessness in the United States. It is also hoped that his 2014 movie Time Out of Mind will raise awareness. To read more about his experience on the streets of New York read Hoffposts Impact or go to google for more accounts. 

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