Dehumanizing the Poor

Everyone has that one story they could tell and sometimes do, about that woman in the checkout line with her fancy shoes and perfect manicure and designer purse and expensive weave (because the woman in this story is nearly always black, which…is going to need to be its own post so that I don’t fly into a complete rage an hour before I have to officiate a wedding). That woman who CLEARLY has some kind of money tree somewhere but is paying for her food with a SNAP EBT card. Or that guy (also mostly likely black) who refuses to get a job because he can just live off government benefits and be lazy all the time. Or that family they’ve heard of who is “working the system.” I’ve heard these anecdotes a million times. I’m sure we all have.

If anyone ever tells me one of these stories and it’s about someone they ACTUALLY KNOW, personally – and I mean know, as in have substantial conversations with, not just observe in a store – I think I will fall over and die of shock.

These are not stories we tell about people we truly know, people with whom we have relationships, people we actually see as people. These are the kinds of stories we tell about those we have dehumanized and turned into parasites.

If we were telling stories about people, we might have stories about people who got fired or can’t make it on what income they have or can’t find a job, and who can make it – barely – because of government assistance. Our stories might reflect the fact that there are several ugly reasons why a woman might have certain really nice things that make her look good, but no money for food. Or that living on government aid often gives you more stability and resources than working full-time at a minimum wage that is below the poverty line but enough to disqualify you for a lot of supplemental assistance. Or that wealthy people also “work the system” with tax breaks and loopholes, depriving all of us of millions of dollars – but because they are rich and trying to get richer, working the system is smart, while if you’re a family trying to have a subsistence living in whatever way you can, you’re a tax dollar-sucking leech.

The fact is, unless you actually know someone (and often even if you do know someone, because we rarely know all the realities faced by even our closest friends), you have no idea what is happening in their life. When you see a woman pull her EBT card out of a swanky handbag, or a man sitting on his porch day after day, or a family with more kids than you think they can probably afford, you may have a narrative in your mind that goes with that picture. The true narrative may be very different from what you envision. Stop treating these people like garbage, please. And for the love of God, stop telling me these stories about this thing you saw or heard once, as if it will demonstrate to me why the government shouldn’t offer a safety net. It won’t, and I will believe that you are ridiculous.

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