Wednesday, November 13, 2013

15 Minutes With The Poor

Poverty is an expected, and necessary, byproduct of a capitalist system with limited resources.  Full stop.

In order for what I have to relate value, it must be limited in some way and not accessible to all.  Said otherwise - For me to have something, someone else must have nothing.  

Why am I getting into the gray depressing calculus of capitalism?  Because the above equation does not require blame.  To acknowledge poverty as an expected condition, we also must acknowledge that some will be poor without any malfeasance or mistake.  If everyone "played by the rules" and did what "they were supposed to do", we would still have those who are poor and those who are rich.

I would respectfully suggest that your impressions of what "makes" a poor person are, at least in part, premised on anecdotal evidence or prejudice.  Mine too, although more in the former.  My views on the poor are premised almost entirely on the dozens of interactions I've had with those enduring the condition.  There really is no scientific peer-reviewed way to evaluate "this is how you become poor" much more than there is a guidebook to "this is how you become rich" (although many have tried).

As a thought experiment, I would ask that you think back to the last time you spent more than 15 minutes discussing life challenges with someone on some form of government support: Social Security disability, Medicaid, Medicare, TANF (Welfare), or SNAP (Food Stamps). 


It's ok if you can't remember.  It's also ok if the last experience was a family member.  That's Howard County.  If you want to spend 15 minutes (not a particularly long time) really getting to know someone living in poverty (i.e., more than the 30 seconds it takes to share food at a food kitchen), you need to search them out.  We don't know our poor.  I have spoken, and am friends, with people who make 10 to 20 times my salary.  I am not friends with anyone making 10 times less than me.  Nevertheless, due to past advocacy and continued interest, I am a person that people talk to when they want to talk about poverty.  This is how far disconnected we are.

Poverty is an expected, and necessary, byproduct of capitalism.  Its ills are not.  I think of my removal from the condition of poverty and wonder when was the last time members of Congress spent 15 minutes with someone who looks at their medical bills, looks at their food receipts, looks at their housing costs, and wonders how math can be so cruel.  I watch discussions that treat subsidized housing like waste-water.  I all too often see any discussion about inequality flipped into martyrdom of the well-off, as if this is really about them.

When we give a family $128.46 per month in Supplemental Nutrition payments, we are not "redistributing wealth".  We are recognizing poverty as an often blameless condition that exists because for some of us to have something, others must have nothing.  Before any of us spend one more second of our day acting as if we know what causes poverty or why it persists, I think we need to spend 15 minutes with someone who knows better than we do - the poor.

Have a great Wednesday doing what you love!