It is the campaign season. So it is inevitable that the candidates for president will talk about the issues in a big, sweeping fashion—so much the better to promote themselves, projecting vision, imagination, and competence.
Mitt Romney's recent, "I'm not concerned about the very poor," gaff was only the latest, spectacularly insensitive illustration of how badly that kind of language can be used. But he is not alone. Apart from the particulars of his statement (which were stunningly ill-conceived and/or insensitive), it participates in some larger assumptions that poison the political well out of which both of the parties are drinking.
I wondered what the "very poor" would say to the people running for office, if they weren't scripted for great laughs and telling criticism by Jon Stewart.
My mother could have told me. She grew up in a log cabin with a dirt floor in rural Brown County, Indiana. And her father was a cabinetmaker who looked for jobs after dark during the depression so that people didn't know he was unemployed.
I have no way of "knowing" in the sense that really matters. No one who works on a computer, went to college, pursued graduate work, and writes online knows a thing about what it means to be poor.
Instead, allow me to suggest what I think might be helpful, at any rate, for the candidates and all of us to contemplate. So, as if the poor were speaking . . .
"We are not a category. We are people."
If you really care about us, if we aren't simply interchangeable parts in your election/re-election strategy, then don't talk about us as if we are a category or a problem. Don't make up stories about us. Don't use us as props. Try to find a way to connect with us and speak to us—not just about us.
"You know, and we know, that you don't know a thing about what it means to be us."
So stop with the faux sympathy. No one who has maids, security, a private surgical suite, provided housing, limos, helicopters, jumbo jets, a private chef, and is friends with Johnny Depp (or would like to be friends with Johnny Depp), knows a thing about what it means to be us. Describe the circumstances we face with compassion and realism. That's what we are looking for. We are not interested in making you feel better about yourself at night when you are asleep in the West Wing—or the penthouse before you move into the West Wing.
"We don't live here, we are trapped here and we are looking for a way out."
Most of us have never been poor all of our lives and even those of us who have been here for generations are not interested in taking up permanent residence on this rung of the economic ladder. We aren't even interested in the religious language you wrap around it with nonsense about God's "preferential option for the poor." Do you seriously believe that poverty is ennobling, pleasant, or blessed? Do you really think we are at all amused by university-educated theologians sitting in endowed chairs talking about God's love for us? Why don't you take the love? We'll take the endowed chair. What we want is a way out, marked by dignity, hope, and a measure of reasonable control over our affairs and fortune.
"But for the luck of the draw, there go you."
Sure, you expected us to say "but for the grace of God." But our struggles are not God's doing and there is nothing graced about the fact that you aren't where we are. And when prophets talked about the poor, they did it because they expected the nation to pay attention. For those of us who are here through no fault of our own, caring about it is a gesture that reminds you that we are all objects of God's love. And when we are no longer trapped in poverty, it will be our turn to remember the same thing.
Remembering that we are here and that you could be makes for a just society. It's also what makes for better presidents.