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Poverty: It’s So Personal

Did you see my post yesterday called Trailer Park Gothic, about the messed-up lives of the broken, nicotine-addled family that Charleston shooter Dylann Roof lived with before he committed his crime? This came in from a regular reader of this blog, who gave me permission to print the letter here:

It was quite a shock to open up (digitally) the Washington Post article from the other day about the Meek family, since I had one of those boys in my class for several years.  Having met Mrs. Konzny on a few occasions, it was also so sad to read about her in those pages.

That piece brought home something I’ve felt for a long time, which resonates with your call for a socially conservative Bernie Sanders.  Basically, it’s that one of the great, deep problems with our elites that is that none of them, left or right, know (or care to know) poor people.  Red Bank, SC, is half an hour from the nicest neighborhoods in Columbia, and 10 minutes from the nicest real estate in Lexington, and at first blush, it’s not too bad.  But then you start taking a look down the dirt roads and into the trailers, and you realize that just behind the surface in this country is an awful lot of poverty, poverty that’s sometimes (literally) invisible.

To conservative elites, poverty is something to be eradicated by free enterprise, by a hand up, not a handout.  There’s a vague whiff there that poor people are poor because they’re stupid, or lazy, or just people who the Market (blessed be its name) has decided in its wisdom not to favor.  Even when words of charity are mouthed, there’s a vague sense of blame, that somewhere, either this man or his father sinned, so to speak, to cause this to happen.  Never mind that if that poor person hustled his butt off 60 hours a week at minimum wage he would earn, at best, around $20,000 a year…look at your own household budget for that 20K and tell me you could blame a poor person who could maybe save $10 or 20 a month for buying a six-pack with it instead of faithfully saving it….when they could save a few hundred a year for two DECADES before scrounging together a decent down payment on a home, never mind the inevitable blown tires, medical bills, etc.

To liberal elites, poverty is what excuses tacky and common social views.  If only they weren’t poor, or had those good factory jobs, they’d stop clinging to guns and religion, says our president.  If only those idiot poor people had the good sense to see that Democrats promise them more money, says Thomas Franks in “What’s the Matter with Kansas?,” then they’d vote the right way.  For liberal elites, poverty is what keeps the poor dears taking pride in the rebel flag, or in Jesus.

It reminds me of Ralph Ellison’s wonderful novel of Black identity, “Invisible Man.”  The protagonist starts out at a thinly allegorized Tuskegee, where he is held up as the model of the clean, socially acceptable White man’s negro.  Then, he ends up in New York, where he is held up as the iconic working Black man by 1930’s era communist organizers.  Finally, grotesquely, he is fetishized as the “savage Black lover” by the wife of one of the tony upper-middle class socialist gadflies.  In each case, he serves as a symbol of a cause, but no one actual cares about him as a person–just as a projection of their own ideologies about Blackness.

Similarly, right-wing neo-libertarian elites will look at the Meeks as we see them in the WaPo piece and say “serves them right.  Look at how lazy they are, playing video games all day, drinking, and smoking.”  What Mrs. Konzny really needs are privatized social security benefits!  Left-wing elites will look at the Meeks and say that we need more spending on social services, or better jobs, and while that may be true, is a check really going to change what’s fundamentally broken in this picture?

Think about it: If you’re an upper-middle class accountant, say, you work all day with other people of the same educational level, more or less.  Your clients are businesses or relatively wealthy individuals.  You go to a church full of middle class people, and you likely live around them too.  You spend your whole day without ever having a meaningful interaction with someone who makes less than $50,000 a year.  And that is going to shape your worldview, no matter how conscientious you are.  Before our culture can solve any of the problems afflicting the Meeks, we have to be willing to know them as people with agency made in the image of God.  All the money/ pro-market policies in the world won’t solve anything until that happens.

Readers, your thoughts?

I’m going to be in and out of pocket today. I’m traveling to Martin, Tenn., to give a talk on Dante tonight at the University of Tennessee’s campus there. It’s free and open to the public. Come on out and say hey. Thursday night, I’m at Union University in Jackson, talking Dante, and haranguing Hunter Baker until he buys me a beer. Details of that free-and-open-to-the-public talk here.

UPDATE:See this brief First Things meditation by theologian Chris Roberts, on contemporary Christianity and the poor.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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