A brief interruption of the atonement posts: an op ed piece re: poverty

A brief interruption of the atonement posts: an op ed piece re: poverty August 20, 2011

This was published in today’s local newspaper. It’s mine, so I have the right to re-publish it here (I assume):

Every day, as I open my newspaper to read, I turn immediately to the opinion pages.  I enjoy reading the editorials, political cartoons and letters to the editor even when they irritate me—as they often do.

And I know full well that my contributions here have irritated some good folks, but I hope I’ve made them think about things in a slightly different way.  That’s what I aim for.

As I reflect on my many years of reading letters to the editor and guest columns, I discern a continental divide among Americans and it is nowhere more clear than here.  I also see it in the bumper stickers that abound on cars and trucks and hear it in casual conversations.

It seems there are two kinds of people—those who regard America as something like a family and those who regard it as a collection of individuals unrelated to each other and even in competition with each other.

Of course, a single person might be a mixture of both—sometimes leaning one way and sometimes leaning the other way.  But many people seem locked into one mindset or the other and whichever it is determines their attitudes toward the disadvantaged and less fortunate among us.

People who look at everyone around them, anywhere they go in America, as a family member tend to have compassion on the socially disadvantaged and wish a better life for them.  They think it’s right for our American family to help them get up on their feet; “pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps” isn’t a family way of thinking about the less fortunate.

“Family-oriented” people tend to think most of the poor are deserving of special help, even through spreading the family’s wealth around.  These people look to the common good of the whole family and seek ways to move toward true equality of all.

Then there are people who look at everyone around them, anywhere they go in America, as individuals not related to themselves (except, of course, their own blood or maybe shirttail relatives).  They view America as a whole not as a family but as an aggregate of individuals competing with each other.  Of course, many of these people believe viewing America that way benefits all as everyone, hopefully, strives to better themselves.

The problem is that people in this second category tend to be blind to oppression–social causes of disadvantage and poverty.  To them, all or most of the poor choose poverty and are therefore undeserving of anything.

People in the first category tend to think of poverty and all its awful consequences as a disease or disability.  The poor are their broken-winged family members (except the few who really do choose it and just need tough love).  People in the second category tend to think of poverty and its consequences as tragic but deserved.  The poor are not family but in some sense aliens—outsiders to the Great American Way in which everyone who wants to can flourish.

I think this difference of perspective underlies most of the contentious arguments displayed so vividly on these pages and similar ones throughout America.  And the difference it makes is this: “family-oriented people” believe it is to the American family’s benefit to eradicate poverty; individual-oriented people believe it is to their own and other motivated individual’s benefit to leave the poor to their own devices with an occasional handout to someone they think might deserve a morsel that falls from their table.


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