In the minds of some people any reference to the hard working poor is an oxymoron. Being poor and being hard working are mutually exclusive to them. People are poor quite simply because they refuse to exert themselves in productive labor. Supposedly.
There is a heavy dose of racism found in much of the judgmentalism directed toward the poor. This can be seen in a picture circulated on social media sites and in emails. It shows President Obama and his wife Michelle laughing hilariously under over a caption that reads, “They think our people want jobs!”
The fact of the matter is that most of the adult poor and near poor do work. It is not because of a lack of effort that they are poor but because of a lack of decent income. And that lack of income is coupled with a lack of opportunity. Despite the illusions of the critics of the poor, the U.S. is not the “land of opportunity” that it could once claim to be. Recent studies have shown that compared with other developed nations, the U.S. is the place where poorer people are least likely to succeed.
But none of this has stopped the negative attitudes and widespread slander of the poor. A study commissioned by the Salvation Army found that 49% of American believes that a strong work ethic is all that is required for someone to escape poverty and about three in 10 said poor people usually have lower moral values. Given these views it is not surprising that this same study found that 27% of Americans believe poor people are poor, not because of economic circumstances, but because they are lazy. Someone commenting on an article that reported about this study wrote, “27% huh? The remaining 73% must be the ‘poor’ themselves. And NO, I am not being sarcastic.”
That attitude has been fostered for many years by highly visible figures. Ayn Rand labeled the poor as “parasites” and “moochers” and declared that any help given to them will simply “reward them for their vices.” Among his many slanderous remarks, Rush Limbaugh spoke against programs that aid the poor by comparing the poor to animals in parks who become dependent because people feed them. During his failed 2012 campaign for the Republican nomination as presidential candidate, Newt Gingrich said, “Really poor children in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working and have nobody around them who works.” How much time has he spent with poor children or in poor neighborhoods? Not much or he would know better.
It was noted by Paul Edelman who recently wrote So Rich, So Poor: Why It’s So Hard to End Poverty in America, “Most of the income of people in poverty comes from work. According to the most recent data available from the Census Bureau, 104 million people — a third of the population — have annual incomes below twice the poverty line, less than $38,000 for a family of three. They struggle to make ends meet every month.” Not a lack of effort but a lack of a decent and just wages is the reason for most poverty.
Those who are inclined to believe the slander of the poor would do well to listen to them as they share their stories. For instance, Donna Smith found her family financially crushed by medical bills despite her diligent efforts: “I instilled in my own children the same notion my parents instilled in me that hard work and ingenuity will get you where you want to go. I lied to them, and I didn’t mean to. Hard work might keep you afloat at times, but in these United States, it’s just not enough.” This voice speaks for millions. The few “rags to riches” stories that are often celebrated are distractions from the much more common and far less glorious truth about the frequently disappointing outcome of hard work.
One of the reasons the poor get slandered by the more affluent is to persuade the people in the middle not to identify with those at the bottom but with those at the top in order to get them to support the interests of the wealthiest people. Slandering the poor is also a convenient way to avoid accepting any responsibility for helping the less advantaged or admitting any complicity in causing their condition. And finally, as we are often told, help will just foster dependence on the part of the poor. So the refusal to help is really the most helpful thing that can be done.
But blaming the poor for their plight is a way asserting one’s moral superiority over them. In other words, it is an expression of self-righteousness. The scriptures offer much needed guidance: “The poor are disliked even by their neighbors, but the rich have many friends. Those who despise their neighbors are sinners, but happy are those who are kind to the poor” (Proverbs 14:20-21).
Of course there are some poor people who are lazy, irresponsible, drug addicted and have other moral problems. But this is a comparatively small minority of the total population of the impoverished. There are rich people who are equally lazy, irresponsible, drug addicted and afflicted with other moral problems. Those with a judgmental eye have often pronounced the apostle Paul’s words over the poor: “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10). The ancient bishop of Antioch John Chrysostom (349 AD-407 AD) countered, “But the laws of Saint Paul are not merely for the poor. They are for the rich as well…We accuse the poor of laziness. We ourselves are often guilty of worse idleness.”
Any proposal to remedy poverty that suggests that cutting off aid to the poor will force the lazy to work is based on a denial of reality. For the most part, they are either already working hard or are simply not able to find work. The determination of some people –including some Christians- to reduce or eliminate government help for the least advantaged strikes me as being supportive of what the prophet Isaiah called “iniquitous decrees” and “oppressive statutes” that “turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right” (Isaiah 10:1-2). Instead we need to hear Jesus anew and “judge not” the poor (Matthew 7:1) but instead “do unto others” as we would have them “do unto” us (Luke 6:31) through as many avenues as possible.
Craig M. Watts is the minister of Royal Palm Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Coral Springs, Florida and Co-Moderator of Disciples Peace Fellowship. He authored the book Disciple of Peace: Alexander Campbell on Pacifism, Violence and the State (Doulos Christou Press: Indianapolis, 2005) and his essays have appeared in many journals such as Cross Currents, Encounter, the Otherside, DisciplesWorld and more. Craig blogs on the Disciples Peace Fellowship’s, “Shalom Vision.”