Christ famously said, in somewhat of a backhand slap at social organizers, philanthropists, eugenicists and the like, that “the poor you will always have with you.” Here in the peachy keen United States, the wealthy have the misfortune of being both entirely aware and entirely ignorant of the reality of Christ’s words. We are entirely aware of the numbers. Our media keeps us splendidly informed of the unemployment rate, the crime rate, the fact that 58.5% of Americans will spend at least one year below the poverty line, etc., etc. We know that poverty is a problem. And yet, chances are that we rarely — if ever — come into contact with a man living in poverty. We are entirely aware of the numbers, and we are woefully ignorant of the people.
So many poor, so few seen. This isn’t because they are hiding, though I won’t deny that rich people are frightening. No, first and foremost, we are hiding from them. The majority of Americans – about 75 percent – live in the suburbs. Since the 1950s, suburbanization has essentially been a movement away from the poor, termed as movement away from crowds, from crime, and from pollution. This is not a thing to be immediately condemned — who wouldn’t seek a better quality of life for their family? But consequences are consequences. The situation as it stands now is this: Low income families live in the inner city, higher income families live outside of it.
To the secular mind, this may be no bad thing. After all, we can live away from the poor (and all the trouble poverty entails) and still do our part. We can practice charity with our PayPal accounts. But the Catholic is called to more. He is called to love the poor. He is called not to the emulation of the Gates Foundation, but to the emulation of Blessed Mother Theresa, who knelt down and embraced the leper. Actual, physical touch. Human contact. Real love. But we live in a world where those most suited to give alms and to love the poor must take a bus to find them.
But this ‘hiding from the poor’ is forgivable, largely because it is rectifiable. Take that bus. Work with Habit for Humanity. Donate time at a homeless shelter, a women’s shelter or a soup kitchen. Donate to a food bank. Go to the city, give your kids money for the beggars, and prayer cards too. Take a homeless man out for lunch. (God, please let an Ayn Rand fan read this and be disgusted.) We can work around our silly, anti-community communities. Absolutely unforgivable, however, is the effort to hide the poor, when we cover them up, and pretend they don’t exist. And oh, do we ever.
If I had a list of the top ten evils of the 21st century, anti-begging laws would be on it. They’re exactly what they sound like — laws forbidding begging in the wealthy neighborhoods of cities and suburban communities. In other words, they prevent people who need money from going where all the money is. I understand the rational, that beggars reduce the value of property, that they make people uncomfortable, that they are dirty — I just see it as the proper rationale for NOT having anti-begging laws. If the very sight of a beggar makes you uncomfortable, it’s because you should be giving him money. Has it never occurred to the creators of these laws — in all their hygienic, safety-firstic evil — that the proper answer to a beggar on your street is not an absence of the beggar, but an excess of charity? As Catholics, we need be aware of these laws, and we should fight them whenever we can. These fools would have thrown St. Francis out of town.
In fact, instead of anti-begging laws, I propose beggars assigned to specific suburban communities — pro-begging laws, one might say — to remind the wealthy that yes, the poor are still with you.