The same scenes unfold almost every morning on my way to work.
A middle-aged man stands by a bus stop, holding a sign, asking for assistance. He stands there while us commuters try to look away while waiting for the lights to turn green.
Similarly, on my way back home, amidst two busy streets filled with people driving back home from work, an elderly man is holding a sign. We can see that the man is a veteran and he is asking for money. Please help.
And finally, when driving back from the grocery store, we often see the same family standing in the corner of a busy intersection. While their children play on the concrete, their parents stand facing the cars, selling ice cold water for a dollar. Your donations will help a family in need.
These are everyday scenes and faces of poverty from the U.S.
Here is something I would like to be able to contribute to in my professional life: to help question the pervasive attitude that poverty is merely the result of individual failure or lack of trying. Poverty is not a choice. Nobody born into this world grows up wishing to be homeless or poor. We all have aspirations and dreams. People do not become poor because they are lazy.
To begin questioning this attitude, it is helpful to try and implement a fundamental shift in thinking: a notion which assumes that the majority of people on this planet have good intentions. They wish to be in good health, they wish to contribute to society in their small but significant ways, and they wish to take care of their children. Their wish is not to stand in street corners.
Some call such thoughts naive. Yes, there are also unwise life choices that individuals make. And yes, there are sick exceptions. However, these exceptions often are disproportionately reported in the news, reinforcing the feeling that the world is filled with people with bad intentions or people who are too lazy to contribute. This is not true.
Maybe, just maybe, if we believe in the basic good in people, we can open up to asking more questions instead of blaming or feeling defensive.
What might have caused that situation for the veteran? For the middle-aged man? For the family?
We are inclined to blame the poor, if not out loud, then as an unconscious reaction towards our own uneasiness in situations of inequality. Nobody is immune to these feelings, at least I am not.
We are also inclined to define correct ways of being poor. Think about the three cases I mentioned earlier: are we more sympathetic towards one of the cases over the other? Why? What kind of ‘poor behavior’ are we willing to accept? Who is an acceptable beggar? How would your reactions have changed had I described more details for these cases: the color of their skin, their bodily figures, the things they were eating? Why does it matter?
Let’s start asking these questions.
With that, I wish everyone happy, thoughtful, relaxing, and peaceful holidays!