Talking About Poverty Without Poor People

by Ken Briggs

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Those conversations about poverty, such as the one President Obama took part in last week at Georgetown, are, oh, so high minded and so full of good intentions. They appear like blips on behalf of orphan children in the torrent of beer and car commercials during football half-times. They give officials a brief chance to mingle empathy with their brand of ideology to push their solutions. 

As E.J. Dionne Jr., one of the Georgetown participants noted after the session, the "concerns of the poor briefly slipped into a political discussion," adding that "For a moment they weren't invisible." His sense of disproportion was on the mark. I'd only differ on this: while poverty was indeed under discussion, poor people themselves were in fact as invisible as ever in that setting or anywhere else in Washington.

With the exception perhaps of one or two pastors, I found nobody on the Georgetown program who came anywhere near poor people as neighbors or associates. They were typical of such conferences, in the very top ranks in income and wealth. And, need I say it, almost uniformly white. Even the non-whites tend to be super affluent compared to poor people. These are the thinkers, pundits and analysts who punch in all the right numbers and gain a pretty good objective view of the problem. They are also power brokers or have the ear of power brokers whose influence can make a difference. Welcome aboard.

But on a broader level, it resembles a State Department working group discussing the internal affairs of Borneo without citizens of that country at a remove that is no farther away than the psychic and life-style difference between poverty confrerees and their "subjects."

Gettting closer would be a threat. It might mean that if you wanted to do something about the agony of poverty you as upper class stalwarts would have to be willing to sacrifice something. I despair of conferences that zero in on what "the poor" need to do to "lift themselves up." These policy dogma are issued by people who live in segregated "gated" (privileged -- actual fences or not) communities who dine regularly in the finest restaurants, send their kids to the finest private school, in short, do the most to maintain the wretchedly unjust economic system that locks people into richness and into poverty.

If anyone has to reform to make it more possible for poor people (not "the poor" please, as if they could be lumped inhumanely like "the mentally ill") to catch a break it is the privileged, not just the one percent, but those who love to dissociate themselves from the well-heeled, say those making over $100,000 a year. That's the power bloc that has a stranglehold on who makes it and who doesn't. People who collect handsome honoraria to take part in poverty conferences generally manifest exemplary character and sincerity but they do belong to the "problem" class perhaps more than do poor people.

One last urge. Let's restore the clearer line between charity and justice. There isn't any absolute division, of course, but lately it seems that a lot of laudable charity which goes mainly to sustaining the status quo, has been confused with the paucity of social justice activism that is riskier and, I believe, desperately needed. I don't know yet which the Pope endorses. Much of it sounds like rallying the forces for social change but ends up being social relief, of which, again, there is also desperate need. But when efforts for basic relief become misnamed as initiatives for social justice, I think the prophetic voice is disastrously lost.

Sadly, so far as I could see nobody from the religious ranks gave a stem-winder for economic justice with proposals that would disturb the comfortable. The comfortable were doing their best (where were the evangelicals by the way?) without the benefit of those who suffer daily, those who do usually make the comfortable very uncomfortable. 


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