Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Why Punish the Poor?

There may be  a knee-jerk reaction to my title: “What do you mean we punish the poor?  We give to each person what they deserve.  We treat everyone the same.”

There are many situations in which our society treats everyone the same and so we punish the poor.  For instance, if someone pays their utility bill late, there is an additional fee put on that bill.  This does not punish those who have the money to pay it, except perhaps a slap on the wrist.  No, the one whom it truly punishes is the poor person who is unable to pay the bill in the first place.  If the bill is a water bill, and that payment lapses long enough, then the water company must contact the city if there are children in the house, and the children must be taken away.  Only the poor are punished like that.

Only the poor have their means of surviving taken away.  Many communities put restrictions on recycling cans, on busking, on begging, on entering dumpsters, even on offering free meals to the poor.   These are not restrictions because of harm to the community or because of environmental harm to the earth, but simply because the offenders are poor.  The fact that most communities make it illegal to be homeless is an indication that it is the poor that are punished, simply because they are poor.

It is more difficult to be poor, not simply because one is poor, but because society sees the poor as something to be punished.  For instance, banks have some of their largest fees for overdrawing an account… even though the banks are continuously changing their policies making it likely that the legalese-illiterate (that’s most of us) whose bank accounts are on the edge (that’s the poor) will fall prey to their fees. 

Now perhaps the banks aren’t interested in punishing the poor.  Perhaps they just see a vulnerable population that they can make money off of.  But one way or another, society makes it more difficult one a poor person than one who has sufficient funds to function in this society.  Many consider that our society is easy on the poor, and makes their lives too easy, too cush, living on welfare and taking it easy.  However, it has been shown that rarely is it possible to live housed and fed on welfare, even as one cannot live housed and fed on minimum wage.  The poor don’t have it easy.  And there are many societal obstacles to making it easier.

Why is this?  Why do many feel that the poor should be disciplined and treated “poorly”? 

The main reason we punish the poor, is because, for many of our society, the poor punish them.  First of all, the poor make our society look bad, as if our society has done something wrong by having the poor.  “Of course”, many think, “our society is well-functioning.  So the poor don’t need to be there.  But there they are, the blight on our economic statistics, every year. “  For some people, the poor make them feel guilty, as if they were doing something wrong, but when they search their deepest heart, they can’t find that they’ve done anything wrong.   For others, the poor, especially the poor who display themselves publically (such as the homeless or beggars) just makes one feel uncomfortable, and even embarrassed.  Not embarrassed for themselves, but embarrassed that they have to be watching this poor person.

In our intuitive moral systems, those who punish us, even if they did not intend to punish us, deserve to be punished back.  Those who make us feel uncomfortable or guilty should be punished for imposing those feelings on us.  A study in Brown University shows that we desire to punish those who cause harm, even if the harm is mostly accidental.

In the end, many don’t care about the causes of poor.  If poverty makes us feel inadequate, there must be punishment on those who make us feel that way, since we don’t deserve it.

Because we feel justified to punish the poor, we then come up with reasons to punish others.  These reasons don’t have to be realistic or proven by experience or studies.  All they have to be is plausible, and they will be accepted.

Bill Cunningham said, "People are poor in America ... not because they lack money; they're poor because they lack values, morals and ethics. "  In a similar vein, Bill O’Reilly said, "You gotta look people in the eye and tell 'em they're irresponsible and lazy .... Because that's what poverty is, ladies and gentlemen.” 

These reasons, as feeble and unconfirmed as they are,  are accepted by a large percentage of the population, not because it explains poverty, but because it explains why people feel comfortable and justifies punishment and poor treatment of the poor. 

Teachable Moment
Finally, the solid reason to punish the poor is for the sake of discipline.  The poor are “lazy” and “ignorant” and so it is the responsibility of society to make things harder on the poor, to train them to be solid, hardworking citizens again.   One either learns the discipline of working hard in one’s poverty, and so receive the natural consequences of prosperity, or one deserves what poverty one gets.  It doesn’t matter that the studies show that the poor work just as hard as any other segment of society.  It doesn’t matter that poverty is usually accompanied by depression and to put a hardship on a depressed person is an invitation for them to give up.  The ones who give up are considered “lazy” and so deserving of starvation, homelessness and receiving a social stigma. 

What can our society do to provide opportunities for the poor, not blocks or stigmas?  Perhaps we can provide work projects for people to get on their feet, not more difficulties?