What if the Poor Aren’t Stupid?

Every once and a while a nice person will come up to me and tell me about the time they volunteered with or helped the poor. Then they will lean towards me and explain why 40% of the kids in Washington State are on full or partial lunch subsidies and why 50% of the kids in the United States are being raised in poverty. “It’s the parents. If only the parents would:

Get a job.
Work harder.
____________ (Put your answer here.)”

The inference is that the poor must be stupid because there are so many ways to not be poor.

My father’s generation had a totally different take on poverty. “There but for the grace of God go I.” I heard my father say these words when he gave to charity. He said them when he talked about someone in our small town who was having a particularly rough year. He even said these words when he gave a job to a convicted murderer who had served his time. Both of my parents made a point of showing me that those I saw struggling were not that different from myself.

Somehow, over the years since I was a child, Americans as a community have lost the ability to see ourselves in the most unfortunate amongst us.

Here’s what I know about being poor.

Poverty is sometimes temporary. A setback in a job, the expense of caring for young children, a divorce, or a sick relative can all set a family back. How many people have you met who’ve lost their house because of medical bills? I’ve met several.

Poverty is also sometimes a way of life, even for those who work 40, 50, or 60 hours a week. Wages are so low in some places, and costs so high, that it impossible to survive without help. Those I know who are struggling to provide for their children work longer hours than I do for less pay.

But here’s the kicker: The poor give a larger percentage of their income to charity than the rich.*

The poor know what it feels like to live on the edge of the abyss. A mother who has struggled in the past to feed her children will pick up an extra can while while shopping to drop off at the food bank. She knows that poverty and hardship can suddenly hit smart hard-working men and women. She knows in her heart that “there but for the grace of God go I.”

The well-off in this country no longer see themselves as being like everyone else. They are convinced that if you are poor you have some fatal flaw.

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So where does this condemnation of the poor come from? My belief is that it comes from fear. It is so much easier to believe that the poor are stupid than that the poor are just like like you and me. If the poor are just like you and me, then we could end up one day not being able to feed our children. There but for the grace of God we would be.

Previous generations of Americans looked poverty straight in the face, recognized it as a problem that we all shared. Medicare, Social Security, Head Start and other social programs were put into place to try to lift up everyone. If you did stumble, if disaster struck, you didn’t have far to fall.

This philosophy helped us become one of the most prosperous countries in the world.

Our generation? We turn our heads away, thinking if we don’t acknowledge the problem it will never affect us. Year by year, the prospects for our children grow dimmer and more and more hungry children show up in our schools.

We can turn this around. Next time you see someone by the side of the road with a sign up, try it. Say to yourself: “There but for the grace of God go I.”

*In 2011, the wealthiest Americans—those with earnings in the top 20 percent—contributed on average 1.3 percent of their income to charity. By comparison, Americans at the base of the income pyramid—those in the bottom 20 percent—donated 3.2 percent of their income. — The Atlantic Monthly

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