Are We Willing to Talk About Poverty Beyond Charity and Politics?

4 years ago

Tonight we had dinner with a gay male couple that we've known for ten plus years - they are in their 60's, so 12-20 years older than us. They are a marvelous couple and it was a nice evening. They are involved in the community, politically aware, generous with their donation and volunteer time. 

But I noticed something during a few conversation threads - resistance to discussing poverty issues. Now it's not like I said "Hey how about those poor people out there?" or some such ridiculous segueway. But when we chatted about the latest news involving our behemoth medical system, UPMC, I brought up the issues of an employer setting up a food pantry (true story) rather than allowing workers to unionize. We skidded away from that topic. And several other near misses occured.

This isn't limited to this one instance - I've noticed over the past year that when I have conversations with people about my professional work - collecting tote bags for food pantries - people are more willing to chat about the environmental issues than the realities of poverty. It actually goes a step further - they are okay discussing poverty in an abstract way or in a vignette way (a "story" about a local family published in a paper, etc) but those are conversations about us.

About how we feel - what we think should be done to solve societal problems. Or explorations of our own guilt in response to poverty, along the line of "I shouldn't go to Starbucks while my neighbors can't afford milk..." but off we go. And then beat ourselves up about it. And then go again. And then try not to think about it.  

I'm here to say - I go to Starbucks. And I would really like to have a conversation about these issues - a genuine conversation on the price society pays for my decision and yours and President Obama's decisions. And not pretend there are easy answers or simple solutions or that I deserve to extricate myself from that messy, complicated, awkward situation of "there are poor people out there." 

Poverty cannot be captured in a vignette, however powerful. We can't challenge the public misperceptions about food stamps (SNAP) with infographics about economic benefits - people want or need to believe in welfare queens and facts don't deter them. Tell a story about a two parent family living in a hotel room while Mom works PT, Dad looks for work and  they try to keep the kids in school. People will comment on the fact that they have a cell phone or that there are surely jobs at Target or why did they have kids they couldn't afford EVEN when these very issues are addressed in the article. `SNAP

The reality is that we are in denial about the fact that, yes, abuse happens in food stamps, welfare and other safety net programs.ICorporate welfare abuse happens

But guess what? Abuse happens when those of us in unions shop at Wal-Mart or vote for politicians out to destroy public education. And abuse happens when we role model obnxious behavior for our kids while in line at a checkout on our way to church - whe we have no clue about the life of the person in front of us - that's abuse. Abuse is this constant unwillingness to face reality and find a way to live with it, to do something about it. 

We don't need to have these conversations at every meal, but our failure to have them at all is abuse. And we are the ones who will pay a heavy price one day

Are you willing to talk about poverty? 

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