I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Oh, sure, a moment ago I’d been annoyed at having my body language ignored when the man had leaned toward me, hand out.
“Blue jeans, blue shirt…yes, white male….oh, probably his fifties…”
The woman two seats ahead of me craned her neck, looking back after the retreating form of the man begging silently for food. A single shake of the head or a “no” send him on his way. And yet, her was this woman, clearly contacting the transit police to come after him.
What is it about poverty and particularly homelessness that makes people so angry and afraid? Why recoil so sharply? What happened in this woman’s head that made a simple request for food so despicable?
Unpacking poverty can be a dangerous move in this world where it has been so politicized. There is an underlying fear that poverty, like a disease, is catching. And in a sense, it is. That is, many poor people are schooled together, raised in the same neighborhoods, immured to the same expectations about violence, trust, and their own options. But being poor itself doesn’t make a person violent. (Being sure that violence is the best or only option to get what you want makes people violent.) This man on the train with us was clearly not violent. He wasn’t a physical threat.
The threat the woman perceived was to her self-image. She, along with many others, had absorbed the message that she shouldn’t have to deal directly with poor people. She had learned that poor people came in two types: the sort that were in a temporary bad spot (didn’t discuss it, worked hard, and would eventually pull themselves up by their own bootstraps) and the sort that would stay stuck at the bottom of the pile (looked different, went around begging for handouts, were lazy or on drugs or had some mental condition). The latter were infectious, passing their condition on to any child they were unfortunate enough to have.
The man begging on the train, to this woman’s eyes, clearly belonged to the second sort. She imagined him as the sort who “made a spectacle out of his condition”. She called the police to act out cultural paradigms about acceptability. Since he couldn’t be quiet on his own, she enforced his silence. She acted out her class differences without self-reflection, flinching away from the stark reminder that not everyone can earn their way in a capitalist society. Through her actions, she declared him worthy of censure, not help. She ignored the social forces at play that stacked the deck against him and decided that there was simply something wrong with him- and she would not be forced to deal with him herself. In essence, she erased him from her landscape. She disappeared him.
What do you think about poverty? Share in the comments.