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The Faceless “Poor People” and “Basket of Deplorables”: Two Sides of the Same Coin

October 18, 2017

Earlier this month I saved a City Lab post by Arthur Brooks and John A. Powell based solely on it’s title: “America Can’t Fix Poverty Until it Stops Hating Poor People”. In the article Mr. Powell and Mr. Powell lament the “bothering” that is occurring in our nation, where we see “…whole groups of people as unlike ourselves—as the undesirable “other”. They assert that this othering phenomenon is exacerbated by the fact that we increasingly live in bubble communities where groups are increasingly isolated from each other. Because that is the case, there is an increased demonization of one group of individuals— the poor:

Many different kinds of people have been harmfully “othered” throughout our country’s history, and the plights of these groups have received well-deserved attention and focus. But there is one group that we systematically other today—with hugely damaging consequences—while hardly even realizing that we are doing it. Those people are Americans living in poverty.

Mr. Brooks and Mr. Powell offer research to support their contentions, and from my perspective there is no reason to question them. Just as racial re-segregation is rampant in our country, so too is economic segregation. As a result affluent children seldom come in contact with children raised in poverty and as a result “the poor” are perceived as a faceless caste of lazy, uneducated, and dirty individuals. And they also suggest that there is an evolutionary basis for this “bothering”, which makes the problem even more insidious and intractable:

Some evolutionary biologists describe this tendency to sort ourselves into ingroups and outroups as an organic phenomenon that once served a defensive function. But today, othering is a political and social process, and it poses a grave moral problem. Othering uses bonds of shared identity to deny empathy and a sense of belonging to others. It gives elites and dominant groups an excuse to see social problems as distant pathologies, rather than soluble crises affecting people who are like them. And in the specific case of people living in poverty, it creates manmade barriers to the social inclusion and economic mobility of vulnerable people and communities.

Without intervention, this problem is likely to only get worse. A prosperous society like ours will always have the ability to sustain those in poverty in ways that may be materially adequate, but this can be totally bereft of any meaningful sense of autonomy or earned success. We need to address the forces that are pulling us apart along social and economic lines. We need, both personally and structurally, to change the way we see our fellow citizens who are struggling.

It is easy to call for “intervention” on an issue like this, but finding a politically viable “intervention” will require a change of thinking… and, even more difficult, a change of heart. Mr. Powell and Brooks suggest that “traditional welfare programs” create a cycle of dependency but offer no clear alternative. They also offer a list of other systemic changes that might yield less “bothering”: “education reform… criminal justice reform… and broad tax and regulatory reform“.

Mr. Powell and Brooks conclude their post with this:

A competition of ideas is healthy. But it requires a deep moral consensus: a shared belief in the equal dignity of all people. And that entails a deliberate, conscious effort to bridge the growing physical, cultural, and emotional gaps that increasingly set low-income people apart as something other than the rest of America.

Like many in our country who lament the current tenor set by President Trump, I deeply regret the outcome of the last election. In retrospect, there is one comment more than any other that led to the demise of Hilary Clinton’s candidacy, and it was when she referred to some of Mr. Trump’s supporters as a “basket of deplorables”. In doing so, she brought the “competition of ideas” down to Mr. Trump’s level and made it impossible for her to call for a shared belief in the equal dignity of all people. If we aspire to having a high-minded dialogue about the future, we need to not only stop “othering” the poor, the blacks, the LGBT community, and women… we need to strive to understand the mindset of those who support Mr. Trump for whatever reason. To do otherwise is to undercut a shared belief in the equal dignity of all people.


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