Monthly Archives: September 2011

Blame the Poor Part 2

A friend of mine, I’ll call her Betty, had a very unpleasant experience with a customer service representative at a local discount department store. After waiting in a long line for help, the customer service rep decided to ignore her because her request was going “to take awhile”. Betty’s request involved making phone calls to other stores in the chain and the woman at the counter did not feel like making them. The woman began to help the woman waiting behind Betty, while everyone in line was shocked by her incredibly rude behavior.

Another friend of mine volunteers at a food pantry. He told me the other day that a lot of people come in for food, but then turn much of the food away. The food that is being turned away is the healthier, more basic components of a home cooked meal. One woman asked him of a can of beans, “What am I supposed to do with this?” She wanted to know why she couldn’t just get a gift card to McDonald’s. The young mother had never learned to cook and wasn’t interested in learning.

These two examples are not uncommon. I want to acknowledge that it can be very hard to empathize with people who are struggling when they don’t seem to be interested in helping themselves. To be honest, it is demoralizing and frustrating. In the first story, you see a woman working a low wage job with an attitude so poor you wonder if she’s even worth the low wage she’s paid. In the second example, there’s another woman who should be grateful that she’s getting any help but wants everything handed to her, oblivious to the fact that what she wants is actually harmful to her young family.

I don’t want to ignore these experiences. American History is full of stories of young, poor, hard-working people who pulled themselves up by the bootstraps. This hopeful story still inspires us today. However, when the people we come in contact with do not live up to this ideal, we harden our hearts towards them and no longer see them as people like ourselves.

Blame the Poor?

It doesn’t take long to notice the increasingly negative rhetoric against the poor in the last couple of years. Even as people are losing their jobs and homes all around us, some in politics and the media are trying to convince us that no one is actually poor in the United States. Talk of people in poverty also owning an air conditioner or video game console is a distraction, but I think having a conversation about what is means to be poor today is worth discussing. Talking about cheap consumer goods is still a distraction.

I won’t ignore the fact that some people living in poverty have some cool stuff.  When I lived in Section 8 housing, I had a DVD player and a computer. I didn’t pawn every possession before I got some assistance from the government. I needed a computer to get through college. I don’t know how much a DVD player that had barely survived two curious girls through toddlerhood could have gotten me, but honestly, it didn’t occur to me to sell it. If you want to talk more about it, please contact me. I believe our understanding of each other needs to improve.

Some say the poor just need to work harder. The quick answer to that is that it’s hard to find a job right now- the job market has suffered to sever reduction in size. However, I think we need to acknowledge something many people are seeing in their own communities. There are people who have jobs, but seem to take them for granted. They have bad attitudes, don’t do their job, and are rude. I’ve wondered myself, “He gets paid for this?”,  “Doesn’t she ever want to get a promotion? Shouldn’t she work a little harder?”, and especially, “Doesn’t anyone take pride in their work anymore?”

It’s hard for one side to argue that all we need are jobs to improve people’s lives when we see that there are lazy people out there, rich and poor. It’s dishonest to say all rich people got their money by working hard and that poor people are lazy. It’s equally dishonest to say that working hard isn’t important or that no poor people are lazy. By acting as though things are clear cut, either that people need to work harder or that people just need jobs is reducing the conversation to a very childish level where nothing is going to improve.

Treating people living in poverty as victims is counterproductive. It removes their sense of agency and responsibility. The words responsibility and blame are sometimes used interchangeably, responsibility having an empowering effect while blame is extremely negative and full of shame. Our leaders offer only two options-  blame the poor or treat them as hapless victims. It is solving nothing. We are all to blame for our situation. Let’s take responsibility and get to work!

The 1000 Banana Dilemma – Genuine Charity?

Yesterday I walked into the Citizens Against Domestic Violence office and saw a few boxes of blueberries, an unidentified melon and about 1000 over-ripe bananas. That’s a lot of bananas. CADV accepts donations from local grocers and sometimes they end up with a lot of one item. They are very grateful for the donations, but it got me thinking about times when I’ve been in need and times I’ve donated items.

This post is the result of personal reflection that I wanted to share. Many years ago when my older daughter was being treated for cancer, we received many gifts of stuffed animals- no where near 1000, but more than my sick baby daughter could really appreciate. I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but what I really could have used was a home cooked meal or a break from the hospital. I don’t want to malign the organizations that raise money to give teddy bears to sick kids, but there are other things that may be more effective and cost about the same, or even less. I see the same thing now for women who are diagnosed with breast cancer.

Of course there is no rule that we have to give anyone anything, especially strangers. Maybe you’ve been in this predicament with family. Maybe as a young person, struggling to get your career going, you received a very generous but ultimately useless gift. Of course you appreciated it and really, that’s life. You hopefully recognized that you are lucky to have someone care about you.

Problems arise when there are strings attached to gifts, when the gift maker wants to be seen as a great benefactor and responsible for your success, or when you still are left wanting but precluded from asking for appropriate help. The generous gift maker can be left feeling devalued, bitter or even angry about the unused gift.

We regularly make donations to the Goodwill with clothing that my girls have grown out of. I’m pretty sure they get used, but it’s obviously a benefit to me as well because I don’t have to worry about what to do with excess stuff. I am sure the bananas were given for similar reasons. A grocer had bananas they could no longer sell, but it seems a waste to chuck them in the garbage. So why not donate them? There’s really no problem here. It is true that now CADV’s office is full of fruit flies and I have no idea if they actually had time to do anything with the bananas before they became inedible. Still, they take what they can get and I know they are grateful.

They problem for me is when a person or a company wants credit for these throw away gifts, and I’m not talking about a $20 tax deduction for donations to the Goodwill. It makes sense to sweeten the pot for people who could just as easily throw their old clothes  or bananas into the garbage. However, entities are taking advantage of tax deductions for throw away items or misleading people about the nature of their philanthropy. 1000 bananas is no substitute for real financial support. At a personal level, those who donate throw away items without recognizing that they also received a benefit,  or without a sense of humility or shared humanity, can become smug, bitter, cynical, hopeless or apathetic.

Charity is a gift from the heart. There are many reasons to give, and not all of them are selfless ones. As long as we understand that, I think we’re OK. We can have a personal investment in the success of a family member we help, we can have guidelines for how we’d like our donations to be used. We also have to be open to understanding that we don’t always know what’s best for others. Ultimately, we should also be open enough to offer what people actually need and not what is easiest to give.