The San Francisco Bay Area is a place of vast extremes. I have encountered more wealth and privilege in the 9 short months that I’ve lived here than ever before in my life, and I have seen this same wealth juxtaposed with tremendous poverty. This is a place where both the riches and the impoverished sensibilities of capitalism dwell side by side.
The interdependence of one upon the other has never been more obvious to me. Every morning I walk down the Embarcadero, where homeless men and women beg amid a sea of high heels and designer suits, and the latter have no idea how dependent their prosperity is upon the existence of the former.
At the national level, meanwhile, our political discourse continues its descent into absurdity and ignorance-flattering rhetoric, and I am deeply struck by the blindness of privilege to itself. Beyond that, I am struck by the lack of empathy that seems to accompany this blindness. By how many people hold the poor and disenfranchised in contempt. And especially by the expectation that, in order to be deserving of help, or even deserving of access to the same rights that the privileged take for granted (quality healthcare, a debt-free education, and legal representation, to name just a few), then you must first be a saint.
Truly, a saint – you can never have made any mistakes that might be traceable to your current circumstances, you must be humble and generous and never angry about the unfairness of your plight, and your situation must be attributable entirely to horrendous luck. By these standards, only the victims of natural disasters could come close to qualifying for aid, and even then, it’s a big “if”.
When I was a kid, my mom worked for the public defender’s office. Her clients had all lived hard lives. Most had known only poverty, their worlds torn apart by early abuse, bad choices (both theirs and other people’s), and lack of social support. Many were bitter, angry, and unpleasant. The lawyers in my mom’s office were probably the only people in the world, and almost certainly the only people in the United States legal system, advocating for their rights under the law.
It was hard, low-paying, thankless work, and I was always proud that my mom was part of it. I was proud because her work was to uphold the rights of society’s most vulnerable, even and perhaps especially when they were anything but saintly, and for no other reason than that they were human beings, flawed, fallible, and entitled to the same rights as everyone else.
We are not saints, any of us. That we live in a society where wealthy bankers can defraud an entire financial system while states consider drug tests for the unemployed ought to be proof enough of that.
How many bitter, angry, unpleasant people do you encounter every day? How many bad choices have you made? How would your situation be different had you not had access to whatever privileges you had? And why do we work so hard to ignore the ways that privilege is rewarded and poverty punished?
Perhaps the spectre of poverty amplifies our own sense of vulnerability, our uncomfortable reliance on a system that simultaneously generates great wealth and great penury. Perhaps by blaming the disadvantaged entirely for their fate, the privileged among us can convince ourselves that – due to our superior character, work ethic, intelligence, whatever – we will never share in it.
Unfortunately, the most important difference between a bitter, angry, unpleasant poor person and a bitter, angry, unpleasant rich person has nothing to do with character or hard work or personal responsibility. The most important difference is that the latter can afford a good lawyer.
And what a difference it makes.