Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Rendering the Poor Invisible

Whether you think there is a societal responsibility to provide assistance to the poor or not, the fact is the poor among us are growing in number. More about this later.

If there really is a growing antipathy toward the poor, labeling them makes it easy for us to hold essentially hateful attitudes toward them and speak hatefully about them.

It helps us to render them invisible.

We tend to think about poor people (some of them) according to the circumstances which we consider repulsive. Even if we know them, we regard them and refer to them according to their condition, not their name, not their story.

They are lazy, they are immigrant (documented or undocumented), they are homeless, they are uneducated, they are addicted, they are minority, they are ethnic.

When we hold to those stereotypes, it helps us not to see the poor that don't fit those categories. Those who work low wage jobs, those who are poor because of health problems and the inability to access expensive health care. In other words we create ways to keep the poor invisible by slotting them in categories that make us feel comfortable, if not superior.

Pulitzer Prize winning author David Shipler addressed this in his book called, "The Working Poor: Invisible in America". One story in this book tells just what I mean:

"Tim Brookes, a commentator on National Public Radio, once did a witty screed against overpriced popcorn in movie theaters. Indignant at having been charged $5.00 for a small bag (this was in 2000), he conducted research on the actual expenses. He calculated that the 5 1/4 ounces of popcorn he received cost 23.7185 cents in a supermarket but only 16.5 cents at prices theater managers paid for fifty-pound sacks. He generously figured 5 cents in electricity to cook the popcorn and 1 cent for the bag. Total cost: 22.5 cents. Subtracting sales tax, that left a profit of $4.075, or 1,811%.

"Evidently, the theater had the remarkable sens not to hire any workers, for Brookes gave no hint of having noticed any people behind the counter. Their paltry wage, which wouldn't have undermined the excessive profits, were absent from his calculation. The folks who popped the corn, filled the bag, handed the bag to him, and took his money must have been shrouded in an indivisibility cloak. No NPR editor seemed to notice."

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