Our culture is stacked against the poor and homeless.
In fact most cultures today are.
As individuals steeped in culture we find it difficult to be sympathetic or empathetic to the poor and homeless.
“If only they got a job or made better decisions, they would be fine,” we think. Once we’re in that headspace, it’s easy to argue that ‘helping’ them only makes matters worse.
In fact, I would go so far as to say that many of us actually have a loathing for the poor and homeless.
Yes, we do.
We might not state it in those stark terms, but what we feel is definitely loathing or close to it. Sometimes, these feelings are mixed with pity, often with anger. They mostly lie semi-dormant, but they well up from time to time when we are confronted by a panhandler, see someone dumpster diving, sleeping in a doorway or on a park bench. We shun the poor and homeless, giving them a wide berth because, who knows, we may catch what they have. We value hard work as long as it leads to wealth. We ignore hard work that doesn’t. We also value leisure, but only leisure that comes from wealth, not from the forced inactivity of poverty or ill health.
I could argue that people who feel loathing for the poor are just mean and nasty, and lack a sense of charity. That may be true in some cases, but there are deep socio-cultural roots that underpin this psychology of loathing for the poor. It’s built right into our cultural fabric. Money is a big part of the explanation, of course, but it’s more complicated than that.
People who have money also have mobility, they can travel when they please, buy themselves dinner, play a round of golf followed by a round of drinks if that’s what interests them. On the flip side, no money, no mobility. Mobility equals life. Immobility equals death. The poor are the walking dead. They’re stuck, unable to move about much and bear a strong sense of guilt and shame because of it. That’s what keeps them either very subdued or in jail.
Wealth is a goal to which we generally aspire. Very few people in our culture, with the exception of monks or nuns who take a vow or poverty, would walk away from wealth. We hope for it, we long for it. We buy lottery tickets. Wealth and health are probably the two most important values in our society. It’s not surprising, then, that we look up to people who have wealth and health and look down on people who don’t.
Some of us genuinely care for the poor, respect them and treat them as human beings. It’s so tempting, though, to think of them as zombies because of their lack of real life, life that can only be had with money. We are so wired to judge others. Go to a party of strangers and the first thing you get asked is “what do you do for a living?” People want to know so that they can either look up to you, treat you as a buddy with equal social status, or just walk away from you. The homeless make particularly good and easy targets for passing judgment on people. They are so easy to spot when they hang around panhandling or ‘squatting’ in doorways. There is no doubt about where they stand in life. Rather than think of them as members of the community, we can easily think of them as being socially dead and of no consequence.
In order to change these attitudes, we must stop promoting them; after all, we are not born with such a distain for the underprivileged.
Roger Albert is the vice-president of the Comox Valley Social Planning Society and Faculty Emeritus at North Island College. He is a guest columnist for the Comox Valley Record, addressing social issues within the community. His blog, dedicated to the issue, is rogeralbert.org