Point of View

'Poor and prejudice' shouldn't be our country's story

July 20, 2013 

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JUSSI PERNAA — Getty Images/iStockphoto

Perhaps the most critical problem we have in this country today is a pervasive prejudice against the poor. Consider what is happening in both our state legislature and Congress.

In Washington, the House has passed a farm bill eliminating food stamps. The minimum wage remains $7.25 an hour, without change for nearly a decade despite rising costs to consumers. Sequester cuts have severely limited Headstart enrollment for young children and ceased Meals on Wheels for the homebound and disabled. In North Carolina, unemployment checks have been severely lowered, and Medicaid will be denied 500,000 who need health care.

And the most revealing evidence of prejudicial attitudes is a bill introduced to require drug testing for everyone who receives family assistance from Human Services!

All of these issues reveal a shocking indifference to the 43 million Americans who live in poverty, an indifference rooted in a false image of what poor people are really like.

A study of attitudes toward public welfare in New York State showed that a third of the population believed that welfare recipients were chiselers, drunkards, dope fiends or prostitutes! Wherever such widespread judgments prevail, it is not surprising that hardness of heart sets in and prejudice prevails.

The most deep-seated prejudice against the poor is that they are lazy. We tend to believe that anyone “worth their salt” can make a living. We are offended by idleness and convinced that any indulgence granted to such persons will further encourage their laziness. So instead of helping them, we conclude we should punish them, believing that such treatment will stimulate self-reliance and make self-respecting citizens.

Of course, self-reliance is a desirable goal where circumstances permit, but prejudice makes us slow to concede that there are circumstances in which there is no opportunity to work. If there are not enough jobs in our economy, how can we expect everyone to find one? Furthermore, some so-called sluggards are handicapped in one way or another, and no amount of severity can improve their lot in life. At a time when many tasks have been taken over by modern technology or shipped overseas, one’s ambition and initiatives may count for nothing where employment opportunities are non-existent. But the Horatio Alger myth dies hard.

Of course, some people are lazy, and some of them are poor and some of them are rich. Mark Twain was right when he said, “Human nature is pretty well distributed among human beings.”

Whatever the case, in our free society there is a tendency for many of us to harbor a continuing suspicion that poor people are somehow undeserving. Behind much of our legislation, there is the prejudicial judgment that if a man is poor, something must be wrong with him. We look for ways to confirm our suspicion in order to blame him, to see the poor as being at fault, to accuse that somehow they have brought their situation upon themselves.

Yet we seldom assume that there is something wrong with the economic system. We like to believe that in this land of opportunity everyone can make his or her own way, if they are willing to be responsible. We hesitate to raise the question about the system because to do so would threaten our own sense of security. We like to believe that our hard work has put us where we are rather than contemplate the good fortune of our birth and the helpful breaks that have come to us along the way.

Else we might begin to wonder how deserving we are, and we would feel uncomfortable considering that!

It is much more reassuring to think that we have earned our place in society and that we have achieved success on our own. And the corollary for this, of course, is that the poor man has made his own bed, too, and must lie in it. The truth of the matter is probably somewhere in between. Most of us are where we are in our vocational life not simply as a result of what we have done but as a result of many factors, some of which came to us unforeseen or by the accident of ancestry. It is a rare person who can boast that he has deserved everything he has received.

Although no one of us is deserving in the sight of God, God is merciful, and we are called to be merciful to one another. Fortunately, Scripture does not say, “Be merciful only to those who are deserving.” Just the opposite. Listen to this admonition from First John: “If anyone has the world’s goods in abundance and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” (I John 3:17).

Robert Seymour is the minister emeritus of the Binkley Memorial Baptist Church in Chapel Hill.

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