Growing up in and around the Rust Belt, I’ve seen my share of poverty – too much to glamorize it, and too little to grow desensitized to it. I do not imagine some kind of Noble Poor, nor do I ascribe to poverty some kind of vague honor, as though all of us could stand to learn something from deprivation.
By and large, deprivation is just that: too little to go around. It doesn’t transform those who experience it any more than other life experiences do. The generous are likely to emerge from poverty generous. The worried emerge as anxious as ever. There are often changes of habit or lessons learned, but they rarely involve massive personality shifts. Think Scarlett O’Hara: “I’ll never go hungry again” didn’t mean that she had become any less entitled or spoiled. Quite the opposite: she solidified her natural and/or upbringing-related self-concern into something more nearly resembling ruthlessness.
This is why I’m so concerned with conservative efforts to paint the poor as greedy or deceitful. I’ve spoken out before against the stereotype of the welfare queen and the government leech. These characters are useful to the conservative narrative – and they exist – but not to the degree that conservative pundits need for their stories to make sense. If we eliminated every food-stamp mooch in the country, we’d save a pittance – not nearly enough to balance the budget. By cutting food stamp funding to seek out these elusive cheats, we only manage to ensure that people who really need the assistance will go hungry.
What the poor are (mostly) is resourceful. There’s a kind of intelligence that only manifests itself in times of dire need. People conserve, or they scavenge, or they make less go further. I don’t blame the poor for wanting more than they have; that’s a condition almost everyone in America shares.
The problem emerges when conservative pundits glorify the condition of being rich, and split hairs trying to make the same traits seem positive in the case of the wealthy and negative in the case of the poor. To wit: greed. The fundamental difference between the poor person and the wealthy one (especially in our Paul Ryan-inspired re-readings of Ayn Rand) is that the rich person wants to gain and the poor person wants to take.
There’s a key semantic difference in the elimination of the victim between those terms. The behavior of the wealthy is excused as investment or production or any number of other seeming-rosy terms – the rich man merely wants to increase his fortune, and his methods of doing so are generally construed as positive. The poor person is accused, however, of thievery – fraud, misappropriation, or general unsavory cunning.
This may be the main reason why the rich need to build walls between themselves and the masses. There’s a fear there – that much has been established by generations of literature and rhetoric. But the fear of theft or deprivation doesn’t spring from the differences between the rich and the poor. It comes from the aspects of himself that the man in the suit sees in the man in tatters.