Do you remember your first encounter with a homeless person? For those who are not among the 100 million Americans living near or below the poverty line, it was likely an upsetting and discomforting moment. The hallmark cardboard sign probably had a tragic story scrawled on it, telling of the other mouths to feed, the strike of a disaster that started it all, or the hunger that has pushed them to begging. A coffee cup, maybe, placed before them, waiting in vain to be filled with the offerings of strangers. All of these things are likely to have been there, but to push that jab of pity out of your mind, you probably turned away uncomfortably and refocused your attention on more pleasant matters as you walked away.
Human beings are inherently sympathetic, and for those not accustomed to witnessing such reduced circumstances of life, seeing that kind of suffering first hand can be jarring. A form of immediate relief from this discomfort lies within the empty cup in front of you, an easy and accessible outlet for your sympathies. Yet somehow, it is rarely striking enough to make someone crack open their wallet. Despite the obvious course of action, most will inevitably hurry away with a guilty weight in their stomach. Why? Perhaps, these people actually sparing a moment to engage in kindness is an admission and acknowledgment that their suffering is real and that it exists in our society today.
Recently, I’ve found myself thinking about the terrible hardship faced by a great number of our population, and how overlooked their plights have become. Among the wide array of hot topics in today’s national debate, caring for the poor and bringing them out of poverty is almost never discussed; the greatest number of American citizens is the middle class, and so that is where politicians focus. But their priority should not just be the rich and the middle class. It should be every American and every major difficult they face: majority, or minority.
There are perceptions that America does not face extreme poverty, and in many ways, that does feel true. According to the New York Times, numbers show that the poorest 5 percent of Americans are still richer than 68 percent of the world’s population. Additionally, only 15 percent of American citizens live below our government’s defined poverty line. And, we already have plenty of systems in place to help the poor, right? Plus, if the poor really wanted to, surely they would lift themselves out of poverty.
After taking many of these statistics and popular views into account, many of my worries were soothed. Maybe this wasn’t as big a problem as I’d thought; maybe, this isn’t even a big enough issue to actually write about. But then, I dug a little deeper. The situation for our nation’s poor is more complex than people see, more important than the data above had me believe, and contrary to many of the callous perceptions held toward the poor—this is still an issue that required my attention, and everyone else’s.
True: knowing that America’s poorest 5 percent is still well-off relative to the rest of the world makes poverty feel like less of a problem, but those numbers do not mean the poor should not be a priority. According to the UN, 18 million Americans are living in extreme poverty, and regardless of the rest of the world’s status, that is still an issue. A 15 percent rate of poverty seems like a small number, except that 15 percent means 49 million people.
Government benefits can help, but there are other programs and systems in place which counteract these by making the poor even poorer, an article for the Heritage Foundation explains. Though surveys show that half of “non poor” Americans believe poverty is at the fault of the poor themselves for not doing enough, there is much to suggest this is simply not true. The cruel belief that being poor in money results from being poor in character still exists, and I have always found it horrifying to hear about. The poor should not be held responsible for the extreme circumstances they live in.
Let’s talk about why this is wrong. First, there is a glaring discrepancy to be accounted for in the demographics of the poor. While 76 percent of America is white, white people make up only 12.3 percent of the poor. What could explain this? Possibly the well-known cycle of oppression, discrimination and lack of opportunities offered to people of color in this country? Dating back to slavery, the government has implemented programs that institutionalized racism and helped promote prejudices against people of color, like the war on drugs. Consequently, the government's actions have created an adverse reality for people of color. Most people aren’t poor for lack of trying. Many are poor, and remain poor in part because they’ve had the odds stacked against them since the moment they were born without pale skin.
It can be unpleasant to talk about this kind of suffering: suffering that cannot be pinned on one single person, suffering that is real and widespread. But, we cannot let the grim circumstances of the impoverished allow them to be ignored altogether. In the eyes of many on the street, the homeless are nothing more than part of the background. But when it comes to the national debate, political battleground, or the concerns of our government, they should not, and can not be a part of the background. If we are to remain faithful to our most fundamental values as a nation, then we ensure all Americans are prioritized and cared for. Although indifference to the poor is widespread and easy to exercise-- don’t. Ignorance is indeed bliss, but not for the ones depending on you to hear them.