Riding public transit last week, a few passengers started talking about Pope Francis’s visit to the United States. Almost immediately, though, the conversation veered away from the celebrity and even piety of the event into mocking the Pope’s statements about the poor, and migrants.
“I mean really,” one woman said, “if we all took in one migrant family, then we’d all be poor. We’re barely making it ourselves.” She continued, and for a moment was hesitant and self-conscious; but then another passenger prefaced a statement of his own with the words, “I’m going to be the one to say this out loud,” and the conversation devolved into how the poor in our own country are lazy, how they cheat the system, how they go from foodbank to foodbank rather than getting a job, and how drug tests should be mandatory in order to receive public assistance of any kind.
Between growing up in the Midwest and living on both coasts, hearing such views have been one of the few constants for me in all of them. In California I heard a woman who refused to give to beggars anymore because she bought a fast food meal for someone once, and they went to the counter to return it and take the money. One day on the subway in New York City, a panhandler and advocate for the poor, who was asking for money to put together small sandwich lunches for the homeless, was dismissed by three women who chuckled to each other and said, “Oh, he’s been doing that for years.” Others in New York that I knew said they never gave to beggars, since it was well known that some people merely acted the part and made good money throughout the day.
The other constant is that everyone who has said these things have been, at best, in the middle-class. All of them, including me, are a few unforeseen events away from losing everything. Even if part of their reaction, then, is the suspicion that some of the poor are using the system, so that any generosity offered is evidence of our own gullibility, the rest of it seems to be a deep fear of becoming poor, of needing assistance, of being forced to beg, of being without money and possessions in a culture which values those things above all else. Simply because we fear their state and how near we are to it, we would prefer to not be cheated by a few people, rather than be cheated by some if it meant also helping many in actual need. Because of the shame associated with being poor, a situation which should so easily produce empathy, actually does the exact opposite.
Which is not to suggest that I am a saint. I have yet to volunteer my home for a migrant family, or just a homeless person who usually sleeps on the streets downtown. And so I wonder further: what does it say about our culture of conspicuous consumption and conspicuous display that it no doubt would be a burden for the middle-class of our country to take in someone without a home? What does it say about what we value, and what we aspire to, that many of us would actually feel used helping people out in this way? What does it say about the strange unlivability of our world today, where the concerns of our careers and commutes and all else are so exhausting and consuming, and so far from fulfilling, that all we have energy for after is more pop culture?
It seems, sometimes, that we know that the exaggerated American sense of extreme rugged individualism is a lie, and that only those who cheat and are corrupt actually succeed to the riches we are all told to want. And so it seems we would all cheat the system if we could, or take assistance if we could get it, and it stings our self-respect that other people get all the attention and the help. The poor, we seem to say, should not be granted a free pass to the food or housing or luxuries we would also love to have for free; rather, they should earn it, begrudgingly and with spite, like the rest of us.