INTERSPECIES RIVALRY

Very few experiences are as horrifying and frustrating as talking about poverty in a college classroom. I have found this to be true both at "affordable" state schools and an expensive private school. Regardless of what we tell ourselves about scholarship programs and need-based financial aid, almost no one in college comes from actual poverty. The environment is overwhelmingly populated by middle and upper middle class kids. Certainly some of them have had rougher lives than others, and not all of them come from wealth by any stretch of the imagination. They do, however, often have a hard time recognizing that their life experiences might not be universally applicable.

The best way I can describe it is this: college students, reflecting the habits they've picked up from parents, family, communities, and the media, talk about poor people like they are a different species. The way they approach and conceptualize the issue is either filled with pure disdain (from the right-wingers) or almost unbearable paternalism (from the liberals). Very, very few students that I have met show the kind of maturity it takes to see poverty as a social construct. They see the poor as this kind of lamentable animal that is too stupid to survive without our help.

One of the inevitable laws of public discourse in the U.S. is that when poverty is discussed, someone must point out that poor people often have expensive things. iPhones and "big screen TVs" are popular props for this talking point, as are cars, Nikes, and any item of clothing above oily rags or a barrel and suspenders. This is to reinforce the fact that poverty is a matter of individual choice and/or that it is self-inflicted.

I am never clear about what we are supposed to gain from this wisdom. You mean…people who are uneducated, and in many cases functionally or completely illiterate, don't make good financial choices? Well I'm just shocked. Yes, one of the problems with poverty is that people who are poor develop bad habits (which, it is never noted in fairness, a lot of people who are far from poor also have) like spending money immediately rather than saving it or purchasing things they want when they can't afford their basic needs first. Yeah? And? What's the solution?

Since collective solutions are off the docket – Hey, let's maybe educate children so they turn into adults with basic life skills, and maybe let's work toward a society that doesn't have a massive impoverished underclass! – the only solutions we can ever come up with are to give Victorian lectures to the poor about their moral failings or to make their decisions for them. That there are plenty of non-poor Americans who have the exact same problems managing their finances should be a hint that the poor really are no different than the rest of us as individuals. Instead, no matter how good our intentions may be we almost inevitably talk about the poor like an infestation. The causes of poverty are not the problem that needs solving – the poor themselves are the problem, and our job as comfortable bourgeois people is to figure out what to do with them.

It's really quite horrifying to watch all of this unfold, but I don't hold it against young people when they express these attitudes. They're merely parroting what they've been hearing at home and on TV their entire lives.

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54 Responses to “INTERSPECIES RIVALRY”

  1. falloch Says:

    Long-time poor, raised middle class, went to middle-class college, had to work to help pay college fees, so went on to college maintenance crew – cleaned dorms and toilets, emptied garbage cans during term time, laid concrete and fixed windows in the summer. My parents were ashamed of me cleaning toilets – my take was that someone's got to clean toilets and empty garbage cans – why not me? If it's not done, things are going to get smelly pretty soon. But this was thirty years ago, when full-time (as opposed to student) maintenance workers had some union rights. I guess by now they've got none. No longer resident in the good old USA – couldn't afford the health insurance. If someone asked me which was the more socially useful job, I'd go for waste disposal engineer, versus hedge fund manager, any day.

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