Friday, January 21, 2011

Some depressing thoughts on poverty

(Disclaimer: I am going to say from the outset that I don't know much about this topic in an academic sense. My comments here are just thoughts that I have had when I've heard people say things that seem unjust to my untrained ears.)

In Betty Smith's book A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Francie Nolan is a young girl growing up in the tenement slums of Brooklyn in the early 1900s. At that time, immunizations were a new technology, and many immigrant parents were terrified of their children being vaccinated. The morning of 7-year-old Francie's vaccination, her mother reminds her to wash up before heading to the health clinic. Francie, sadly, forgets her mother's instructions, only remembering too late and in the middle of making mud pies that she and her younger brother must run over to the clinic.

As she sits in the strange, sterile room, waiting to be immunized, Francie is berated with the following scene:
"Filth, filth, filth, from morning to night. I know they're poor but they could wash. Water is free and soap is cheap. Just look at that arm, nurse." (...)

After the doctor's outburst, Francie stood hanging her head. She was a dirty girl. That's what the doctor meant. He was talking more quietly now, asking the nurse how that kind of people could survive; that it would be a better world if they were all sterilized and couldn't breed anymore. Did that mean he wanted her to die? Would he do something to make her die because her hands and arms were dirty from the mud pies? (...)

When the needle jabbed, Francie never felt it. The waves of hurt started by the doctor's words were racking her body and drove out all other feeling. While the nurse was expertly tying a strip of gauze around her arm and the doctor was putting his instrument in the sterilizer and taking out a fresh needle, Francie spoke up.

"My brother is next, His arm is just as dirty as mine so don't be surprised, And you don't have to tell him. You told me." They stared at this bit of humanity who had become strangely articulate. Francie's voice went ragged with a sob. "You don't have to tell him. Besides it won't do any good. He's a boy and he don't care if he is dirty." She turned, stumbled a little and walked out of the room. As the door closed, she heard the doctor's surprised voice.

"I had no idea she's understand what I was saying."
I was reminded today of this poignant scene while reading What the Church is Doing Wrong at Doves and Serpents. Claire discusses a workshop she attended by Allison Mitchell of Lazarus Ministries, where Ms. Mitchell discusses the evils of the
'drop-and-run,' in which food, clothing, or other resources are basically 'left out' for the homeless like so many feral cats. These initiatives are short term and involve little, if any, humanizing contact - as if the homeless had a contagious disease.
My dad is one of the worst culprits I know when it comes to demonizing the poor. A few years back when we lived in West Philly, my dad actually made the comment, I don't hate black people. I hate poor people. Trying to clarify, I responding with, "Perhaps you hate crime, and associate poverty with crime?" My dad shook his head. No, I just don't like poor people.

Other things I've heard said over the years:
Blue collar workers can't hold leadership positions in the Mormon Church, because they are too poorly educated. Plus, they are too busy working to volunteer.
I always notice at the WIC [Women, Infants, and Children] office that I am the only one with a wedding band. Darn welfare moms having more babies so they can leach off the system!
People are only poor because they aren't keeping the commandments. All of my mission presidents were wealthy because they paid a full tithing, and God knew he could trust them with more money.
Welfare moms are just leaching off the system. [When questioned about why, then, it was ok that he and his family were on welfare?] Well, I don't mean people like me - I'm getting an education. I'll have to pay back into the system someday. These people never pay back what they take.
I feel helpless when it comes to inequities. I try to be aware of (what I know is) my intense privilege, such that I feel frustrated when I see others make comments that seem so incredibly privilege-blind and bigoted. When a well-educated white person makes crass over-generalizations about something like poverty, it smacks of fear and condescension.

It seems to me that there is this intersection where past circumstances combine with systemic inequities to create and compound issues related to poverty, and the associated lack of educational opportunities, health resources, and food options. I only wish I knew how to broach the causes to level the playing field.


BLB said...

Indeed. I wonder if these folks making these comments would feel the same way if ever they were to rely on food stamps or unemployment.

bekka said...

An accquaintance posted on FB that they think there should be a separate line at the store for people that use WIC because it takes so long to ring up the purchase. Then came a long list of replies about how that should be embarassed that they need assistance.
I felt horrible because I was one of those people and I was also mad because they had no idea that Chris had lost his job (and couldn't get a job to save his life).
Another instance I was at the store and had used my WIC check and the girl ringing me up made a comment to her trainee that was rude and tried to cover it by smiling nicely at me. I wanted to smack her. I felt ashamed and there was a line of people behind me that heard what she said.
Since taking assistance I have tried to be less judgemental of people in all situations because you just don't know.
Now Chris has a good job we don't need unemployment but we still qualify for WIC...I think most families in Utah would qualify for it.

Madame Curie said...

I think WIC is great. I think the purpose was supposed to make it such that it was *not considered* a welfare program, to avoid the prejudices that people have against food stamps. Most of the advertising for WIC in the Philadelphia area states explicitly that it isn't welfare, and that it is intended for a much larger population than strict poverty lines.

However, with such advertising the implied bias is that welfare/aid = bad. This makes poverty look like the person receiving aid has done something wrong, which is usually not the case at all. There are so many systemic issues at play that you can't just say "poor means lazy".

Unfortunately, sociodemographic prejudices rear their ugly heads in every community. I wish society were utopian and we could just drop such petty envy. I'm sorry you've been shamed and treated the way you have, bekka.

Grizz said...

I think a lot of them don't actually think through what they say. Or at least they don't understand what they are saying.

I have a friend who is on disability, welfare, and probably other programs as well. He regularly makes comments about those who sponge off welfare, but he is different because he is going to school. All the while, he has a $200 plus cable/internet bill every month, purchases food with some form of government assistance, and then sells to family members.

I could go on for a while about some "friends" of ours on welfare, or other similar subjects, but I'll refrain. Maybe we'll have story time when we visit in July.