The Poor You Have Always In Your Face

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The Poor You Have Always In Your Face

For many a year, I’ve walked past or, when behind the wheel, rolled by.

As we know from Matthew 26:11 and John 12:8, the poor we have always with us.  And I do mean always. Living and working downtown in the city, it’s inevitable that several times a day I’ll encounter people asking for a handout.  There will be hand-lettered corrugated cardboard signs, and people telling me they just need a few bucks to get home, and mothers asking for help feeding their kids, and folks trying to talk with accents and vocabularies that make them sound like solid citizens who’ve just been robbed or lost their purse but will promptly repay any funds advanced.

Never An Easy Mark

Even before I stopped giving entirely, I was never an easy mark.  I hate being lied to, I hate people impinging on my space, I don’t like being distracted as I drive.  I want to be left alone.  So there was almost no way to ask me for a handout that did not push my preexisting buttons.  But I finally found it too exhausting dealing with even the few who picked their way through the minefield of my peeves.

I only wanted to help out those who really needed help, and I didn’t want to marginalize them further by increasing their habits of dependency.  In the modern phrase, I wanted to steer clear of a moral hazard.

No Disclaimers

I don’t buy the narrative about poverty that it’s the exclusive result of bad and pernicious life choices (drugs or single-parenthood) about which the rest of us need feel no concern or responsibility.

Surely the Number One cause of destitution is lack of jobs.  And our economy has diverted so much money to the wealthiest that it significantly diminishes what is available to pay those who seek work, and hence decreases jobs.[1]   Even if we are not part of the gilded 1%, we benefit from the entire economic setup.

And there are others who cannot work because of things done to them in our name. In pursuit of national security, from which we all benefit, we often injure our soldiers and sailors so badly in body and mind they may never be reliable functionaries in the world of work.[2]

My own success, in other words, may be predicated upon things that also contribute to the failure of others.  Can I disclaim all responsibility for these things?  I think not.

Many of the people who ask are apparently unemployable, afflicted with obvious schizophrenia or amputations that would make many kinds of work impossible.  And there again, I am my brother’s keeper.

But That Said …

Yes, it’s never simple.  Some of the people whose same wheelchairs roll up to my car every morning seem to have a great work ethic; it just seems like the wrong kind of work.  Could the schizophrenic medicate down to a state that would allow her to hold down an office job?  Maybe.

Nor can I ignore that continuing unwise choices are generally at least a part of the history of the people who accost me for money as I walk down the street.  If I knew that my contributions would only finance food, clothing, shelter, health care and child care and not drugs, I’d be much more inclined to be generous.  But how can I know?  When the panhandler approaches, there’s no grant application and no time for due diligence.

Unconsciously, then, I’ve been trying to figure out a way to help only the truly helpless, and I can’t know who they are.

Due Diligence By Proxy?

One way to ameliorate the problem is to rely on gatekeepers, welfare administrators who do some of the due diligence I cannot, by testing the means of the allegedly needy, and certifying them as such, and upon charitable organizations which help the poor (often limited to the poor thus certified) in my name.  And in fact that is the way I personally have chosen to discharge my responsibility to the homeless and hungry.  Well, that and a little bit of charity work and some pro bono.

But it is not a comfortable or a satisfying choice. I know enough about gatekeepers and the interactions of the poor with them to know how humiliating the process often becomes.  If you want a rent subsidy, for instance, you may find yourself asked not only to reveal all aspects of your personal finances, but also to apply for child support even if you don’t want to ask the father for it, attend work training for which you may not be fitted, and cast out from home and hearth any children of yours who may be involved in drug crime.  If you want help with your mental illness you may be medicated down to a state in which terrible secondary symptoms like tardive dyskinesia afflict you, and life loses all savor.  If you want a bed for a night, you may be forced to participate in prayers you do not believe in.

Naturally, all of the demands made by gatekeeper types are colorably for the poor person’s good; they are designed to see that the pauper becomes more compliant with social norms (which generally works out well for the poor person), and for assuring that the donor or the state’s money is not wasted.  Worthy goals all.

Yet if you are poor and you go to gatekeepers, you lose control and you lose dignity.  It is small wonder to me that so many of our disadvantaged choose the risks and rigors of the street rather than stoop to being regulated this way.  How badly do I want to help force a pauper into the gatekeepers’ regimen?

Something Personal

Anyway, something more personal seems demanded.  Whether the demand comes from simple humanity, the Christian God[3] or Allah,[4] I know there is something good about the personal encounters I have been shunning.  A son of mine, who spent two years feeding the poor on Friday nights, could tell me personal details about every panhandler in the neighborhood.  He knew them, their names, their histories, their personalities.  He said it was quite enriching for him, and I have no doubt it was for them too.  I’d hate to spend my whole life being shunned by people like me.  And I hate being the one to shun.

Before I toughened up about handouts, there was a guy who’d approach me from time to time.  I knew his name.  He’d joke with me as he lightened my purse.  Then something happened to him.  Something went out in his eyes; he no longer recognizes me, or asks for a handout when we pass on the street.  I miss him.  And I’ve missed the me who gave him money.

After a Thanksgiving which made me particularly conscious of my blessings, I therefore decided to make a change.  The day after, I happened on man sitting on a low wall.  He was so strung out, he could barely croak a request.  I reached into a pocket for some change, and in so doing, accidentally dropped something, which he retrieved.  The next moment each was handing something to the other and saying thank you at the same time.

It wasn’t dramatic, but I felt a point being made.  I haven’t begun to solve all the dilemmas, but I can’t go on with the never giving thing.  ‘Tis the giving season.

[1]. To choose but one example, McDonald’s could have hired 933 cashiers for what it paid its CEO in 2010 – a number that speaks equally ill of what the CEO got, $17.6 million, and what the starting cashiers received: tipless minimum wage.

[3].    41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

Matthew, Chapter 25.  Kind of sounds like a demand for personal interaction and personal charity, does it not?

[4].  “Do not worship except Allah ; and to parents do good and to relatives, orphans, and the needy. And speak to people good [words] and establish prayer and give zakah.” Then you turned away, except a few of you, and you were refusing.  Surah al Bakarah 2:83.  If the speaking to people of good words is of a piece with the giving to the needy, then personal contact would seem enjoined upon the Muslim believer too.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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One Comment

  1. Stu McGee says:

    Good stuff, Jack. I must say it is a lot more “thoughtful” than FOX network, I am not a fan of the network.