During this current recession, I’m sure anyone watching the news has noticed the sudden interest in helping the “poor”. We sit in horror as traumatized children talk about the difficulties of adjusting to life without video games and cable TV, having to move out of their elaborate houses into welfare motels, who now find themselves having to wear $10 shoes instead of the designer fashions they are accustomed to. All of the children we are shown are well fed (sometimes overfed), washed, their hair nicely cut, their clothing clean and in good repair.
Their parents still wear the uniform of the moneyed: nice clothing, stylish haircuts, modest jewelry and appropriate make up. They stand embarrassed and talk about having to let their health insurance lapse, of not being able to pay mortgages and ending up moving to live with relatives or into accommodations they don’t consider “fit”, but having a “new gratitude” because they are still together.
As we focus more and more on the nouveau pauvre, people dig deep and reach out. “Poor lambs!” they cry. “How could this happen to them?” And they give: food, shelter, toys, clothing, whatever it takes to let them keep the illusion of still sitting snug in the arms of the middle class.
Now hold on a minute! Yes, it’s a shame about fat Freddy losing his Nintendo and having to move with Dad to a motel until things stabilize. But unless I miss my guess, did we not see footage of him outside playing with some other kids who also live in the same motel? Kids who wear mismatched, faded clothes, whose hair was obviously cut at home , kids who are grateful for each other’s company and (if they luck out) a ball to toss around? What about those kids? Do we feel anything for them?
Probably not. They are the established poor, the ones who were born into poverty and who (unless they are willing to work many times harder than people like the aforementioned Freddy) will never be able to get out. Unless they have genius IQs and concerned teachers, their marks and circumstances will never bring them the attention, scholarships and opportunities to get into quality schools to receive the proper education.
Even with parents who get involved in their lives, who work at low-paying jobs and do all they can to set the best possible example, society will push these children to remain trapped, punishing them for being “uppity” when they strive to do better and escape the cycle. Unless they can somehow luck into the necessary clothes, friendships, and circumstances, unless they can pass as being financially better off than they truly are, moving up the ladder will be very difficult indeed. Society will continue to look down on them and ignore them, calling them “lazy”, “useless”, and any other disparaging terms that come to mind. They will continue to carry the burden of accusations for all that goes wrong whenever and wherever it happens, and almost no one will be reaching out to give them a hand up. They will continue to be blamed for their circumstances while we bravely move forward refusing to acknowledge their mighty struggles to achieve positive change.
Yes, I feel sorry for the middle-class kids who are suddenly struggling, but more in the way I feel sorry for a child who has stubbed his toe and has to learn the hard way that sandals are not always a good idea, no matter how cool they look. These kids will get through, things will get better for their parents simply because they are middle-class and already have the connections they need to get back on track. Rarely will any of them slip so far into poverty as to be unable to escape. And as things get better for the parents, things will improve for the children. Before long this recession will simply be an unpleasant phase in their growing up which was endured but can now be forgotten.
And when they go back to their fancy houses and spoiled lifestyles, the other kids at the motel will continue to toss the ball around. They’ll laugh and dream and talk about how someday they, too, will get out of there and go on to be important and special. They’ll talk idly about the millions they plan to make and the great dreams they plan to accomplish. And their parents will keep up the fight to survive on substandard incomes, pushing and striving for a little something better for their children, only to have society continue to sneer at them and do everything it can to keep them exactly where they are.
Until we’re ready to really do something about poverty, to look at the natural genius and ability of every individual without judging by where they live, what their clothes look like, how they cut their hair, we really have no chance of fixing anything. Two thousand years ago, it was stated that poverty would always be a part of our society. Perhaps we should stop accepting that as a truth and start doing something meaningful to change it.
Lorraine Payette currently works as a teaching assistant for a course in Basic Computer Literacy for senior citizens. In addition she has spent five years on the board with the Kingston Area Race Relations Association, three years as national secretary east for the Christian Cultural Association of South Asians, and worked for two years with the United Nations Association in Canada: A Sense of Belonging project as a regional coordinator. She is the single parent of an adult son, Galahad, and grandmother to Dagan. She uses the initial “L” in honour of her mother with whom she shares the same first name.