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!