Democratic Underground

Ask Auntie Pinko

October 27, 2005
By Auntie Pinko

Dear Auntie Pinko,

I have noticed a general opinion among most of the adults I know, excepting my teachers, that poverty is solely the individual's fault. I think that it is this belief that is keeping there from being more effort to help the poor pay for higher education, lessening the toxic environment where poverty breeds, and other such efforts to improve social mobility in the U.S. What causes this, what as an individual can I (I'm 13 years old so I can't vote) do about it, and is there any hope for the future?

Puzzled in Phoenix

Dear Puzzled,

I'm glad you're thoughtful enough to suspect that there's more to poverty than "it's the individual's fault," and I'm glad you have teachers who don't buy into that notion. Poverty is a very complicated problem and a miserable real-life tragedy for those who endure it. While it would be silly to deny that there is a behavioral component among the many factors that create poverty, blaming poor people for their misery is neither compassionate nor helpful.

Auntie has often been intrigued by the old saying about "If you give a man a fish, he eats for a day, but if you teach him to fish, he eats for life." That's assuming he has access to a lake, river, or sea that has fish in it, of course. And that he has the boat, nets, rods, tackle, bait, etc., to go fishing. And that he's not too sick to get out there in the boat or on the dock in any and all weather and do the fishing. And that he's got a fishing license! Oh, and something to clean the fish with, and cook it. But, assuming he has all of those things, well, then, teach the guy to fish and you can wash your hands, pat yourself on the back for doing your good deed of the day, and move on.

Of course, he might end up with some kind of odd nutritional deficiency if all he ever eats is fish. If he's lucky, and/or a really good fisherman, he might be able to catch extra fish and sell it, and use the money to buy bread and vegetables. Or swap it. He'd probably need a bigger boat, though, and heavier tackle. And some place to store the extra fish. And someone to pay the vendor's license at the local market so he could sell the fish legally. And then probably someone to buy the insurance he'd need to protect himself against the possibility that someone who bought and ate some of the fish he sold might get sick and sue him. But if he had all that, he could do pretty well for himself. However, if he had a family depending on his catch, he'd have less to sell.

See what happens when you teach a guy to fish?

America's approach to poverty in the last twenty years or so is very much like handing out DVDs of "10 Lessons From the Bassmaster," in a landlocked urban ghetto, and then blaming the residents for being hungry.

You'd have to ask a smarter person than Auntie Pinko, though, for a complete answer to the question "why?" Social scientists study peoples' attitudes about poverty and other social problems for whole lifetimes, and don't come up with "aha!" right answers. There are as many opinions as there are people examining the question.

But for what it's worth, Auntie's take on the "why" question has to do with empathy. Empathy is the ability to recognize and understand what other people are feeling and experiencing, and to imagine yourself in their shoes, experiencing the same things. When I was much younger, it seemed that people in America had more empathy with poor people. That might have been because many of them had experienced poverty themselves, during the Depression. There was a strong feeling of economic security during the 1950s and 1960s, for those who lived in the middle class. Unions protected people's jobs, Social Security was 100% reliable, and people could see the economy growing in ways that affected their own lives.

So middle class people had both had the experience of poverty close to home or even in their home, and also felt safe from its effects in their own lives. Maybe that freed them to act on their empathy, by supporting attempts to make the economy work better for poor people, too.

I think there are several other things contributing to the lack of compassion today. The experience of real, scary, no-food-to-eat, no-place-to-stay poverty is more remote from most of today's middle class people. And at the same time, the lack of economic security makes people feel scared. Feeling scared makes it hard for people to feel compassion for others. It's easier to turn to the old Puritan attitudes of "God helps those who help themselves" (clearly, Mr. Tom Delay and Mr. Jack Abramoff took that saying to heart!) and equate economic success with virtue. If you do that, it follows logically that people who are economically unsuccessful must not be virtuous, and therefore you don't need to feel bad for them.

I'm not at all sure that's what Jesus had in mind, though, when he said "when you helped the least of these, you did so to me."

Now, what can you do about it, Puzzled?

If you want to help change peoples' attitudes, you need two things: first, the ability to communicate effectively, and second, something worth communicating! You're already on the right track with the first one. Your letter is smart and well-written, and it asks the right questions simply and effectively. Reading a lot, and writing a lot, help you improve written communications skills. You can work on verbal skills by getting involved with debate, drama, discussion clubs, and other projects like that. Ask your favorite teachers for suggestions.

Now, what about something worth communicating? It's really tough being thirteen, isn't it? Lots of people (especially adults) pretty much assume you don't have anything worthwhile to say, except maybe your opinion of the latest popular fads. Compared to most older people, most thirteen-year-olds don't have much experience to share. And experience is what speaks the loudest when you're trying to communicate.

But being thirteen doesn't mean you have no experience at all. If you are not poor yourself, you may have relations, friends, classmates, and others who are poor. Do you spend much time with them? Do you know what they think and feel? You can experience a lot through volunteering, too - with a youth group, church organization, or school project. Again, ask your parents, and teachers you trust, to help you plan ways to learn more about the experience of being poor in America - first hand, if possible. "First hand" isn't always possible, but there are lots of good resources to give an "almost" first hand experience, too. And as you get older, you'll find more and more opportunities to learn.

Keep in mind though that although your goal is learning, you also want to achieve empathy. No one likes to think of themselves as laboratory rats or objects of pity. Poor people have the same feelings, including pride and the need for respect, as everyone else. Try to mentally "switch places" when you are volunteering or learning, and share yourself with those you meet just as you hope they will share with you. You can probably learn a lot about this from more experienced volunteers, too!

Finally, is there hope for the future? You've supplied that answer yourself, Puzzled. As long as there are young people like you willing to think and feel and ask questions, there is hope for the future. As long as young people like you are willing to learn and experience, and put your experience to work in changing attitudes and practices, there is plenty of hope for the future. Thank you for giving that hope to Auntie Pinko with your letter and your question!

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