The Mythology of Poverty

Whoever said “There’s honour among thieves” obviously hadn’t met many thieves.  This is one of those modern day truisms that simply isn’t true.  Thieves steal things; that’s their job.  When there’s no one else about, they will steal from each other.  Haven’t you ever seen The Sting?  Our world is chock full of these pseudo aphorisms — all widely accepted and all utter crap.  For the most part, they’re harmless, even cute.  But lately they’ve been creeping into our fundamental thinking, causing trouble, distorting our ability to handle problems.

For example, “Honour among thieves” suggests that there’s some kind of a Rogue’s Code out there that governs the little bastard who stole your iPhone™.  There isn’t!  He doesn’t belong to a fleet-footed fraternity of contemporary Robin Hoods, dedicated to redistributing technology to the less fortunate.  The only creed he lives by is economics – straight up and down.  He stole your phone for money: that’s it!  We attribute a modicum of honour to his profession because most of us simply can’t fathom an ordinary person following a moral compass that has no dial.  However, the reality is the gentleman thief is a fiction, created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s brother-in-law to amuse his Victorian friends.  Unfortunately, it has somehow gotten stuck to our psyche, with disastrous results.  And it’s not the only one.  There are others way more serious.

There is a general misunderstanding that poor people have a moral leg up on the rest of us.  It is widely believed that if you are struggling to make ends meet, you’re absolutely bursting with integrity.  Not only that, but if, for whatever reason, you jump off the moral balance beam, the assumption is you were forced into it by an unforgiving society.  Let me set the record straight.  People who take the early bus to menial, minimum wage (or below) jobs do not necessarily have either honesty or empathy hardwired into their DNA.  Yes, they are working hard and, quite probably, getting the shaft on a daily basis, but I doubt very much that moral intrepidity is based on an unfavourable income tax bracket.  The “Poor but honest” stories we all grew up on are wonderful tales for children.  However, unless you’re seriously into economic profiling, there’s no reason to believe that poor people are any less corruptible than your average middle-class, 80K-a-year systems technician (No offence, systems technicians!)

And while we’re at it, the other prevailing myth about poor people is they all want to live together.  There is an unshakable belief among NGOs, city planners and politicians, that the cure for homelessness, slumlords and squalor is social housing (sometimes euphemized as affordable housing.)  Surprisingly, this legend is still with us, even after half a century of building gigantic, high and low rise concrete bunkers to warehouse the poor.  These urban battle zones are low rent Mogadishus and probably contribute as much to our low income social problems as cheap, hardcore drugs.  The real head scratcher, however, is the biggest proponents of social housing all live in tidy little neighbourhoods with painted fences, dogs on leashes and manicured lawns.  Either that, or they’re in gabled condo communities with assigned underground parking and more security than the Green Zone in Bagdad.  Is it just me, or is the disconnect here so wide you could sail the USS Abe Lincoln through it?

These are just two examples of truisms about poverty that just aren’t true.  There are piles more.  Think about it.  Poverty is not one homogenous entity.  It covers a huge area of land and has millions of people in it.  It’s also a relative term.  Poor in Detroit is quite a bit different from poor in Seattle.  The below average family in Biloxi has more in common with their wealthier neighbours than they do a statistically similar family in Newark.  Yet, we continue to think, talk and act as though poverty were a one-size-fits-all affliction you throw money at.

Furthermore, some of those most willing to perpetuate these myths are those socially and politically active people who are walking examples of exactly what I’m talking about.  Ever since Bob Geldof couldn’t figure out what to do with Tuesday, wealthy activists have been making a part-time profession out of poverty management.  Sometimes, they’re celebrities but mostly they’re just people with money and time on their hands.  Unfortunately, extended amounts of leisure do not qualify anybody to dabble in economics, education, social or urban planning.  Their opinions are no more valid then the local drycleaner.  In fact, the very success that gave them this free time is actually a detriment to their thinking.  For the most part, they are isolated from the real world and some have become so cocooned they wouldn’t know how to cope with reality (poverty-stricken or otherwise) if it bit them on the bum.  I’m sure these people truly care, but that doesn’t mean they know what they’re talking about.  Sympathetic does not equal smart.  That’s just another truism that isn’t.

Our society has some serious problems, and most of us sincerely want to fix them.  Unfortunately, we’re never going to come close to solving any of them as long as we keep taking mythology as our starting point.