I notice that a lot of the people who have said this are, if not actually affluent, certainly managing to put food on the table and live fairly comfortable lives.
I'm uncomfortable with poverty.
I want everyone in the world to have enough. I want no children to starve, no middle aged people to have to work three jobs, no old people to feel like they have to steal the sugar packets from the restaurant around the corner. I want our society to value all people equally and to provide services to those who can't provide them for themselves, but, really, I want them to be able to provide them for themselves, and, so, what I want is a society that helps people gain the skills to do that.
But I am uncomfortable with poor people.
In truth, I don't have a lot to do with poor people these days. When I was growing up, one of my best friends probably counted as poor, but I was pretty oblivious to the signs. I knew I loved her and I knew her family was different from mine, but I didn't really care. And when I was very little, my family was poor, too, but it was middle class poor: we didn't have fancy stuff, but there was never any question that we'd be going to college.
I don't know how to relate to poor people.
I'm a smart and educated person who sympathizes with people in difficult circumstances, but I don't know how to talk to someone who's not generally well educated. I don't need everyone I interact with to have a high school diploma, but I'll admit that it's easier for me to know how to relate, face-to-face, with someone who has the same cultural referents that I have. I'm uncomfortable with inequality, with inequity, and I'm happier knowing that it's "out there" than that it's "right here."
I'm not proud of it, but there it is. And my discomfort with all of this makes me look at the high-horsing going around, and it makes me wonder: How many of us work against poverty in our day-to-day lives? Sure, we can criticize the situation in New Orleans, which, I agree, is appalling at a bone-deep level, but what were we doing about inequality a month ago? And what will we be doing in six months or a year?
I haven't been doing much. Most of my charity money goes to the ACLU, Planned Parenthood and MassPIRG. I haven't been volunteering in a soup kitchen or a shelter, and I don't always have an apple or a boiled egg to give to the homeless guy on the corner. In fact, I often skip buying Spare Change because I just can't be bothered.
And I think I'm a big part of the problem of inequality in the US and the world, because I care, but I'm not really doing anything about it. I know there are lots of people with plenty of money who just don't care, and that's pretty outrageous, but I do care, damnit, so why am I not doing anything?
It's because I'm comfortable in my life and uncomfortable facing these issues that seem so insurmountable. It's so easy to look at it and think that whatever I do, it can't possibly make a difference. I'm not sure that's not true, even, but I don't feel good about not doing anything.
And that's why I don't think anyone should shut up about New Orleans. I think we should ask why people didn't leave, because if we don't ask the damn question, then we can't very well talk about the answer, can we? Does it make someone a bad person that he or she didn't think about the difficulty for poor people in obeying a "mandatory" evacuation that didn't provide means for people without their own transportation to get the hell out of dodge? No, I think it makes that person someone who simply didn't know. And why? It's because we don't talk about class in the US. We haven't, and we don't want to.
If anything good comes out of the disaster in New Orleans, it might possibly be a bit of national dialogue about class, but I'll admit I have my doubts. We're all deeply invested, both individually and socially, in thinking of the US as a pretty egalitarian place, maybe with a few problems, but, really, for the most part, a pretty great place to be, and a place where poor people have a chance to rise up and make a fortune. Never mind that that rarely happens.
I'm sure it makes us all feel better to be able to say, "How dare you ask that question? Sit down and shut up until you can be more sensitive to Those People," but I think that's the wrong approach. Stand up, don't shut up. Ask the questions. And maybe in a few months or a year, we'll all still be talking about it, and maybe we'll be doing something about it.
Or maybe we'll have forgotten that being poor in America, in the world, happens every day, not just during disasters.