So now we learn, courtesy of the Census Bureau, that America has a higher proportion of people classified as the “poorest poor” than ever before – fully 1 in 15. That refers to people who are so poor they earn 50% or less of the official poverty level (and we all know how meaningless that “poverty level” is in expensive cities like New York and San Francisco, but that’s another topic).
There are over 20 million such Americans, earning $11,157 or less for a family of four or $5,570 or less for an individual. But for those of us fortunate enough to make a decent living, it’s so easy to over-define “the poor” into a class separate and distinct from everyone else. It’s all very well for Ben Affleck to go on TV and tell us “this problem is closer than you think” and “their kids go to school with our kids,” but Ben’s a movie star, an emissary from the Land of Fantasy, and his public service announcement is careful not to really show us any of those hungry Americans he’s talking about. Imagine a PSA featuring some of the American “poorest of the poor” in close-up, like the ads that focus on starving and tear-stained – but safely distant – African children. Hard to, isn’t it? We don’t want to see this all-American poverty up close, because we don’t want to acknowledge it.
Thus we make it easy for our representatives, particularly on the Republican side, to float cuts to food aid, even at a time when food prices are jumping. Is anyone in power going to notice? Is President Obama, for example, or anyone in his cabinet going to take note and try to do something to ensure aid programs are adequately funded? I’ll believe it when I see it.
It’s psychology. We in the Land of the Free are too prone to the “Just-World Fallacy,” exemplified by Herman Cain’s callous statement that “If you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself.” Psychological testing has shown that when we see someone in dire circumstances, we tend to assume they deserve it, ignoring the reality that, as David McRaney puts it, “The beneficiaries of good fortune often do nothing to earn it, and bad people often get away with their actions without consequences,” yet we have a “tendency to react to horrible misfortune, like homelessness or drug addiction, by believing the people stuck in horrible situations must have done something to deserve it…You want the world to be fair, so you pretend it is.”
So we pretend, and pretend, and go on pretending. Census figures? Just numbers – they don’t mean anything to my real world. “The poor”? Well, I know they’re out there, but they’re not in here. And it’s probably their own fault anyway.