Poverty: hidden in plain sight

I remember walking through Harvard Square a couple of months ago and giving $20 to a homeless guy. I felt so proud. I had earned that money working and was originally going to put it towards a tee shirt I saw at Urban Outfitters. Not only was I being moral and generous, I was being frugal. Feeling particularly content, I entered a nearby Starbucks, ordered a hot chocolate with whipped cream, pulled out my laptop, and began to peruse through my Facebook news feed. It was rest time and I had earned it. My high school’s environmental action club was fundraising through a bake sale to replenish rainforests in Madagascar. Sweet. The club that volunteers at the local homeless shelter was preparing a dinner. Awesome.

I messaged a good friend to boast my accomplishment. He responded, “Awesome! What’d you guys talk about?” Flustered and embarrassed, I didn’t know how to respond. I didn’t stop to speak to the man I “helped.”, I didn’t even look him in the face. In those six words, my friend (and I can’t thank him enough for this) transformed my self-proclaimed, world-saving deed into maybe one of the causes of the problem. Maybe instead of blindly donating, we need to actually embrace our societal guilt surrounding poverty, look it in the face, and remember its name.

A 2012 interview with a homeless Chicago man, Ronald Davis, went viral over the infamous media-sharing site, worldstarhiphop.com .  In the interview, Davis shares his experience panhandling, including being yelled at to “get a job.”  Through tears, he notes, “No matter what people think about me, I know I’m a human first. And just ‘cause I’m down on my luck, don’t give nobody no excuse to call me no bum. Because I’m not.”

We dehumanize homeless people because we don’t think they deserve the same respect as everyone else. I never mentioned the man I spoke to by name, only as “a homeless guy.”. I didn’t know his name, and didn’t care to try to find out what it was.

We think that if someone is homeless or poor, it is his fault. We think that if someone is rich or famous, it is her achievement. This claim is absolutely integral to everything we believe in about America—the American Dream of being the next Bill Gates, Michael Jordan, Steve Jobs,  Louis Armstrong, or one of the other thirty or so people we cite as evidence of opportunity paying off. Not only is that notion doing immense amounts of harm to how we view poverty, it’s also just incorrect.

A recent editorial in The New York Times written by Mark R. Rank, a professor of social welfare at Washington University, sets out to debunk common myths about poverty. Rank tackles the idea that if someone is homeless or poor, it’s because they aren’t working hard enough. Through his own and his colleagues’ and his own research, he concludes that the attitudes of those in poverty mirror those in mainstream America, and that “a vast majority of the poor have worked extensively and will do so again”. In fact, he goes on to conclude that at least 40 percent of Americans aged 25-60 will experience at least one year below the official poverty line, that at least 54 percent will spend a year in poverty or near poverty (below 150 percent of poverty line) and 50 percent of all American children will at some point reside in a house that uses food stamps for a period of time.

So if being “down on your luck” isn’t anomalous, and is actually quite “mainstream,” why do we stigmatize it? In “Hiding Homelessness,” an article published in The Spare Change News (a newspaper mostly run and distributed by homeless individuals), James Shearer, member of the paper’s board of directors, writes:

“The other thing I’ve noticed quite a bit lately is how, as Americans, we get caught up in causes, especially when it comes to tragedies such as the horrific tornadoes that recently struck Oklahoma, or the bombings in Boston. Whenever things like this happen, we gather ourselves up to help, we set up funds, sell T-shirts and throw benefit concerts, all in a heroic effort to raise money for the victims and to raise awareness. We donate to causes like cancer, diabetes, heart disease or sick children. These are all noble causes, but there are times when I wonder why we will not do the same for those living in homelessness and poverty. Where is their benefit concert? Is not having one another way of hiding these social ills?”

“We need to stop hiding homelessness and poverty—and we need to stop hiding them from ourselves.”

If human kindness, not blind philanthropy, is needed to break the cycle of poverty, if anyone could be poor and everyone is human, there is no question about what we need to do. We need to realize that the problem isn’t with them. It’s with us.

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