Poverty and the Doctrine of Shame (part 1)

I’ve been mulling on this topic for a few days. It’s so complex that it could easily turn into a book, but I’m going to try to be semi-brief (well, in two parts, with this as part 1). Plenty of others have written about the complex factors that contribute to long-term poverty, so I’m not going to rehash those discussions. What I want to focus on is how our society shames and judges people who are poor.

A lot of the shaming comes in the form of puritanical super-virtuousness. The comment section of a recent blog post by emergent Christian author Rachel Held Evans was quickly filled with armchair poverty “experts” whose remarks were far removed from Jesus’ teachings that I wondered if we read from the same Bible.

This poster reads (and I cringe) "Welfare: You work hard so they don't have to!"

I hesitated about posting this pic, but I wanted to illustrate the stereotypes about welfare and poverty.

Here is an example from the blog comment section: “The poor fall into two categories – those without knowledge and the lazy.” During my childhood, my mother typically worked at least three jobs and still struggled at times to make ends meet. The blog reader’s declarative statement resembled childhood messages that I absorbed from the culture around me.

But generalizations sound quite different when we attach them to specific people. A rephrasing of the above comment might go like this: “Your mother’s struggles revealed that she fell into one of two categories – she lacked knowledge or she was lazy.”

Now, I have indeed encountered those who would have been so brazen as to insult my mother directly…or any other random person who has had financial difficulties. In general, though, a lot of these blanket statements are generic, and when pressed, the person doing the judging would most likely backtrack if I were to call out that kind of insult with a reminder that most of us know and love people who have faced financial challenges.

"Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor." James Baldwin

This leads to another type of comment (here, I’m paraphrasing things I’ve heard frequently): “Your mother [or someone else we personally know] was different. She was doing the best she could, unlike those other lazy people.” My internal response: “Really? Are you absolutely sure about that? How do you know whether or not others were trying just as hard as she was?”

And then a typical followup from the armchair poverty expert: “I know this person who is collecting welfare and is on Medicaid, but she uses her food stamps to buy junk food, and she has an iPhone. She is always bragging about how she doesn’t have to work and can just live off the government.” (It’s usually a woman, thanks to the 1980s “welfare queen” myth.)

iPhone screen

There’s a lot to unpack in that kind of statement, but again, others have tackled the sociological aspects of this topic much better than I can here. A couple of things in the “I know this person who…” argument stand out to me, though. For one thing, there is an assumption that if one person in a particular situation is exhibiting a particular behavior (such as “taking advantage” of the system), it must be the norm, even when there is a lack of evidence to support such a questionable logical leap.

But I wonder what would happen if this same type of rhetorical formula were used in a different context. It might go something like this: “I know this person who speeds on the highway, but he has a radar detector and texts while driving. He is always bragging about how he never gets tickets and how he’d rather pay for a ticket than slow down anyway.” For whatever reason, speeding (which regularly endangers a whole lot of people’s lives, including children) is considered more socially acceptable behavior and far less dangerous than the possibility that someone might collect food stamps without actively looking for a job.

Another thought also comes to mind with the “I know this person who…” statement. Maybe the anecdotal woman really wishes that she could find a decent-paying job, and she is embarrassed that she can’t. There are times when we as humans might not want to admit to our own disappointments, so we minimize or dismiss our feelings in order to save face.

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It can be as simple as saying, “Well, I was going to break up with him anyway,” when the reality is that we weren’t expecting to get dumped. Or perhaps after getting passed over for a promotion, it’s justified with “I didn’t want the extra workload,” when in fact we were excitedly anticipating the challenge of new responsibilities. Or for women who have had no luck conceiving: “I love the freedom of not having kids,” when we secretly picked out baby names years ago.

Vulnerability is difficult stuff. We don’t always handle it well, and a lot of us will go to great lengths to avoid letting others know how we really feel about things that are emotionally painful. This is especially true about poverty. When someone says, “Poor people are lazy” (or “parasites” or “bums” or “stupid” or any number of other negative words that are often associated with poverty), maybe it’s just easier not to admit how difficult poverty really is.

When someone has applied for countless jobs, only to be rejected again and again, it’s demoralizing. But when that same person has to listen to judgmental comments from total strangers (not to mention supposed friends and family), it’s even worse. Because these insults might be confirming the deepest, darkest fears that many of us carry inside us: that there is something inherently, horribly wrong with us. Taken a step further, when these attitudes are taught in church, or articulated by those who claim to be Christian, this is what might be heard (whether or not it’s intended): “God does not approve of you. Poverty is your punishment.”

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But poverty is not a punishment. Regardless of what our worldly, materialistic consumer-driven society might tell us, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Shame can drive us to do all sorts of destructive things to ourselves (physically, emotionally, and spiritually), and in my experience, I haven’t found a single beneficial value in shaming others. I’m going to continue this topic in a future post, but for now, I want to end with a message to the many friends I have who are struggling right now: I believe in your goodness. You matter. And no matter how difficult life might seem at times, I’m cheering you on.

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