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.