Tag Archives: the poor

The Poor Don’t Deserve To Own Cell Phones

At a neighborhood block Christmas party two senior citizen gentlemen and I were chatting over hors d’oeuvres when the topic turned to local indigents.

A recent fire destroyed a childcare center less than three blocks from our homes. Between our houses and the former center lies a sliver of an eco green belt, in which several halfway houses lie tucked hidden from view, their occupants mostly people of color. One of the two seniors spoke of seeing a young black teenager walking through the green belt, which abuts his own property, reading a newspaper’s comic section, then crumpling and discarding each finished page onto the ground.

Since our discussion began on the topic of today’s high incidence of young people bereft of responsible adults in their lives, I assumed his comment would be sympathetic and supportive of these many children’s plight. Instead, this on-the-surface very kind, amiable, elderly gentleman’s “compassionate concern” entailed calling out to this young African-American boy, and informing him that if he sees him discard his paper trash one more time he would call the police and have him arrested.

This comment prompted the other senior to likewise comment on what he found socially disturbing: “Have you seen the panhandlers with their hand scrawled cardboard placards asking for handouts at the intersection of X-Road and Highway-Z?” “Yes,” I replied. He proceeded, “The other day I saw one of them asking for money while talking on a cell phone! Well! He lost whatever sympathy he might have received from me!”

poor

Let me try by rephrasing to understand the message unspoken yet central to these two gentlemen’s perspectives, because it is so prevalent and similar-to-identical with so many privileged people’s perspective. . . .

If you’re needy, destitute, hard up, in a word penniless, and, you’re relying on or asking for financial assistance from others, including government, then you should not, nor do you deserve to own or make use of any item or service that might be perceived by those socially, politically and economically privileged to be “luxury” or “non-essential?”

On the surface this type of reasoning seems, well, reasonable.

For instance, during my “poorer by degree” (PhD) study days, my family survived on a small graduate studies’ stipend, plus, a $1,000/month gift from a radiologist friend and his wife. During this four-year, self-inflicted academic sojourn, while my kids’ friends all had cable TV, we opted not to, primarily because of how such a “luxury item” might be perceived by our benefactors.

A disturbing hypocritical incongruity lies behind or at the root of these two elderly, white mens’ mindsets, as well as many socially and economically privileged people.

That is: Privileged individuals, particularly segments of my own North America, have few qualms in denigrating and chastising the poor for their misuse of resources or welfare assistance, yet give no self-thought to the privileged freedom of choice they have in determining what to spend their excess monies and privileges on.

Although it would be prudent of the needy not to use a cell phone while simultaneously holding out a hand or holding up a sign asking for money, it would be equally smart for the well-to-do not to disparage or judge the poor, while simultaneously and hypocritically demonstrating environmental and social justice insensitivities by their misuse or paltry sharing of excess prosperity and privilege.

Which is a greater travesty of socioeconomic place, privilege and resources?

A panhandler with a mobile phone, with which s/he might call 911 to save someone’s life, or perhaps, simply keep in touch with a family member concerned for their well-being, or a moderate to wealthy individual’s pursuit and purchase of items unquestionably “excess” or “privileged” in a world of escalating socioeconomic inequities?

Given such unconscious two-facedness, even duplicity, no wonder two-time Pulitzer Prize winning op-ed columnist for The New York Times, Nicholas Kristof, in his fourth of five thought pieces on “When Whites Just Don’t Get It,” stated the following–“One element of white privilege today is obliviousness to privilege, including a blithe disregard of the way past subjugation shapes present disadvantage.”

Obliviousness to privilege, and an ignorance or disregard for the past, aka social history’s persistent stifling and subjugating effect on marginalized peoples, are predominately a white (WASP) malaise, the result of isolationism.

Isolationism typically refers to political and international matters, as in: “a nation’s policy of remaining apart from the affairs or interests of other groups, especially the political affairs of other countries.”

I use the term to refer to individuals, even entire groups or classes of people, who live such isolated, even segregated apart-heid type daily lives, that they seldom, if ever, have interest, reason or requirement to experience, let alone understand life from the perspective of the struggling, stereotyped or simply “different Other.”

This de facto isolation of each nation’s privileged from the majority of its citizens’ daily and real life (lived) experience, results in an unconscionable obliviousness to privilege, which, in turn, more often than not results in insensitive and paternalistic attitudes, statements, even political and market policy decisions that exacerbate those, whose lives are already defined by a mere struggle to survive.

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Haggling | Customary Business Transaction or Another Means of Exploiting the Poor?

I grew up as an expat in East Africa. A part of my childhood experience and memory is haggling with hawkers/vendors/traders, whether for farming produce in the open air market or for curios made out of a combination of ebony wood and elephant ivory.

Ebony walking sticks

Ebony walking sticks

Baseball caps, in particular, were a popular trading item. My family kept a ream for just such occasions. Economic transactions of one baseball cap for one or more carvings was always disproportionately financially skewed to favor the buyer, and gifted the buyer with a smugness that s/he got the better of the merchant.

My family learned this “cultural practice” as it were from other expatriates, and probably, truth be told, from Kenyans and Tanzanians themselves, never having personal reason or conscience to rethink a practice or game, depending upon one’s perspective, that everyone seemed to participate in.

It wasn’t until years later as a young adult living in one of South Africa’s self-proclaimed “Bantu homelands,” Venda, that I became conscience-stricken over my acquired attitude toward and manner of engaging people, who just happened to be street vendors.

Venda, a small and veritable garden of Eden exception to the much more arid homelands the apartheid government created in an effort to falsely convey to the world a “separate but equal” racial policy, was renowned for its fresh produce of litchi (lychee), mango, papaya, banana, avocado, and pineapple.

Early during my family’s three-year residence in Venda, I discovered that local roadside traders refused to haggle over price. The price listed–most often times scrawled on a cut-out small piece of cardboard–was the cash expected. Full stop.

I asked our language and culture tutor about this, referencing my experience in East Africa. I remember him looking at me with a puzzled expression before replying, “If anything, you should pay more than the asking price. Never less than.”

Our mentor’s surprised facial expression was similar to a Germiston Afrikaner police officer’s two years later, who, when I asked why South African law did not allow motorists to turn left on a red light (called “robot” in South Africa) after coming to a complete stop and checking to be certain no cars were oncoming (as motorists are allowed to turn right at most stop lights in the United States) looked quizzically at me and stated emphatically, “Because the light is red!

These random memories came tumbling to mind this morning when I was reading the former South African Pulitzer Prize novelist and anti-apartheid activist, Nadine Gordimer’s short story, “The Train From Rhodesia” (now Zimbabwean). In it, she describes a sleepy Rhodesian backwater, where the only social stirring and economic activity occurred when the “creaking, jerking, jostling, gasping, train filled the station.”

An old man attempts to entice a young white woman and her male compatriot passenger to buy a lion, one “carved out of soft dry wood that looked like spongecake; heraldic, black and white, with impressionistic detail burnt in.”

The woman hesitates to buy the lion carving, uncertain of how it will look back at home or where she’ll put it. As the train lurches to movement again, the young man, thinking that he’s doing his lover a favor, quickly tosses the old man “one-and-six” pence for the lion (just a bit more than one penny in old British currency, I believe).

Once the train is moving he arrives in the carriage doorway breathless, “shaking his head with laughter and triumph. Here! he said. And waggled the lion at her. One-and-six!”

What was merely a fun-filled argument (haggle/barter) for him, was perceived and met with angered incredulity on her part.

She almost shouted, “If you wanted the thing, her voice rising and breaking with the shrill impotence of anger, why didn’t you buy it in the first place? Why didn’t you take it decently, when he offered it? Why did you have to wait for him to run after the train with it, and give him one-and-six? One-and-six!”

 

 

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Hurtful Charity | A New Year’s Appeal To The Kind-Hearted and Well-To-Do

You’ve likely heard the adage, Give till it hurts, yet it’s unlikely you’re aware just how hurtful those acts of giving can be.

I’m not referring to charity of international aid type, which at times hurts more than it helps people and countries. This, because money is frequently wasted on minimal impact, culturally insensitive, and non-humanitarian programs, or alternatively, pilfered by greedy and corrupt individuals.

Rather, I’m speaking to some portion of the billions of dollars given each year by individuals, especially North Americans, to charitable causes, whether in cash, clothing, household items, or vehicles, and whether given to needy individuals who knock on one’s front door, stand in line at soup kitchens, or donated to residential or virtual non-profits such as Goodwill or Invisible Children.

Too frequently, it seems, the needy occupy a dumping ground for the well-to-do’s excess or discarded items, with little thought given to what it must feel like as human becomings, persons, to be so struggling that you’re reliant on the sometimes whimsical and charitable gifts of individuals or government–especially in the U.S., where 24-7 exposure to affluence is so pervasive.

“Excess benevolence” is predictable, particularly in capitalistic societies such as the United States, where home garages are more often used as storage containers than for their intended vehicular use, where garage sales serve to free up household space so that new items can be purchased, and where multi-storied, climate-controlled Public Storage is booming business and architectural landscape features.

Given realities that, one, “the poor will always be with us,” and, two, excess benevolence will persist irrespective of what I say or anyone campaigns against, what I’m trying to speak for is a more compassionate thoughtfulness toward the economically struggling, plus speaking to a prevalent attitude people have toward those who of necessity live at or below the poverty line–an unconscious versus pejorative attitude, perhaps, yet definitely condescending.

By compassionate thoughtfulness I speak for the dignity of those who by society’s definition are “poor” or “needy.”

Donna Hicks defines dignity as “a feeling of inherent value and worth,” and argues that a desire for dignity is humanity’s highest common denominator, as well as the missing link in understanding conflict.

She, more than anyone else, articulates what I am appealing for in this thought piece—

developmental shift in understanding, from our typically egocentric worldview and cognitive understanding, to a primal empathy.

Primal empathy calls for each one of us to develop a heightened emotional sensitivity and identification with those who suffer indignities.

That is—each one of us is capable of, and should more intentionally versus merely accidentally develop the capacity to “feel what the other’s life is like,” even to the point of “feeling the indignities they experience.”

Duplicity of intention, whether in the form of benevolence, generosity or “love,” is acutely felt and experienced at the nub of self-worth and self-identity by charity recipients.

Examples . . .

Pointing the finger at myself.

I wager that most of us will not perceive ourselves to be well-to-do. Comfortable, perhaps, but not wealthy. After all, one has to earn upwards of $400,000 annually in order to attain status as the “one-percent” richest in America.

Prosperity is fickle / relative, however.

For instance, although my non-profit take-home salary in South Africa was in the $30k’s, low by U.S. standards, benefits such as tuition remission for my children, rental housing allowance, healthcare, company use of vehicle, et cetera, took the figure upwards to a U.S. respectable $70k’s figure. At the current exchange rate, my salary equated to almost 750k rand, high above the average South African minimum income of 24k.

Our 100-year old rental house with Jacaranda tree, Kensington

Our 100-year old rental house with Jacaranda tree, Kensington

My family frequently had clothing, accessories, luggage, linens, even aging electronics like laptops and cameras, which despite still being wearable or operational, were, nevertheless, well-used. How convenient that we had one, sometimes two “needy South Africans” who worked as domestics for us ! It was easy to think: “Surely they will want and be able to use these items.”

Our "family" minus our son, who was in Germany studying.

Our “family” minus our son, who was in Germany studying.

Shamefacedly I admit that I have offered our well-used, soon to be discarded or replaced items by expressing the following type statement–“I’m going to throw these items away. Do you want them?”

Such “gifting” communicates the following attitude: “We recently bought new, and these used items are no longer desired or good enough for me or my family. But I thought to myself, ‘Given you and your family’s evident economic need, I’m sure you could use them.'”

The truth is: My own unconscious, yet condescending attitude toward the poor, didn’t slap my conscience until which time that my family and I were experiencing economic struggle ourselves.

The past three years have been a grateful awakening–despite them being painfully emotional ones–to what many people experience on a daily basis, including the many jobless and economically struggling in Austin, Texas, as well as many of our South African friends, colleagues and acquaintances. They likely felt the pain of “having less,” and perhaps, even, (wrongfully) perceiving themselves as “being less than” when in the presence of our material trappings of success.

Several personal comparisons:

Whereas our African friends heard us excitedly talking about going on this or that family vacation to the beach, mountains, or some international destination, I now experience my own Texas friends talk excitedly about their impending trips to Vegas, Hawaii, Vail, or similarly, reminisce about recent past trips to New England, Lake Tahoe, Paris or Cuba, while my own kids pine for glimpses of the life and experiences they once knew, while finding substitute in a 12-hour road trip to visit Abuelita in El Paso.

Whereas African acquaintances, even friends, perhaps, saw excess money in my family–that is, a means to enabling a better life for themselves, such as assistance with education expenses–I now experience that same temptation to hint at financial need to help offset my wife’s graduate study debt or enable vocational re-education/training for myself.

Whereas South Africans saw my family drive new or new-like vehicles, I now experience Texans test driving $100k electric cars, while my family makes do with a ’98 Honda and ’02 Toyota, which despite their age and my longing to drive a more updated and spacious vehicle, are still far more “life enabling” than required reliance upon foot or taxi power.

Whereas African friends and guests walked into our relatively large rental home and were no-doubt dumbstruck by its size, spaciousness, furnishings, amenities, security apparatus, et cetera, my children now experience leaving Texas homes, conscious of how constricting their shared and small bedroom is. While I’m truly grateful to have a roof over my head, I’m in awe of the extra spaciousness of some homes, which so effortlessly accommodates an office/study space, which as an academic I pine for.

What, then, should the (relatively) well-to-do do in light of such pervasive social need?

It’s tempting to advocate what is recorded in the Bible about the early community of Jesus followers, that “they were together, having all things in common, selling their property and possessions and sharing them with all as each had need.”

I do believe that a greater sharing of wealth and its privileges is essential not only for a more just and equitable society and world but also for a more peaceful one. I’m grateful for the rich and celebrity trend setters, in such persons as Bill and Melinda Gates, Bono, Warren Buffet, and Salman Khan, all of whom we should be grateful to for helping co-create a more equitable world.

Within a Christian or faith context, sharing beyond tokenism or for tax deduction benefit, as well as sharing in and alongside life with those whose life narrative is one of struggled existence would definitely restore a measure of credibility to “American religion,” perceived by many as elitist, segregated, socially reactive and disconnected–at least my own Baptist context of meaning.

Being realistic, however, I’ll settle for more compassionate and conscientious thoughts and acts of charity toward the poor and economically struggling.

I seldom reference the Bible in thought pieces, but it speaks to “offending the consciences” of those who are weak. Seems to me that those gifted with the “benefits of capitalism,” as well as a non-volatile/violent life setting in which to live, raise a family and children, should strive to live and engage the world with greater sensitivity and understanding, always mindful and sensitive to our shared and collective humanity.

 

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