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Tuesday, August 13, 2013

There But for the Grace of God Go I, Again


Do the well off to do disdain the poor? According to research conducted by psychologist Susan Fiske, the answer is “yes.”  In the project subjects were placed in neuroimaging machines and shown photos of the poor and homeless.  The brains of subjects responded as though the photos depicted objects, not humans. This, apparently, is a sign of revulsion.

I find the claim here of poverty disdain to be very interesting chiefly because of the questions that the claim raises. What were the gender, race, class and educational levels of the subjects and of the observed persons? The answers to these questions would, I think, make a tremendous difference in assessing the subjects’ responses. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the research is the asserted connection between seeing people as objects and reviling them. I have no trouble believing that objectification is tied to revulsion. Whether discussing racism, misogyny, homophobia, or any other number of human ills, objectifying people is often a key element. But what is perhaps missing here is the consideration that an adverse reaction to the poor may not be triggered by disdain but rather by a well-founded fear of rejoining the ranks of the poor.


We like to posit that those who observe the poor and homeless should ideally experience a strong feeling of “there but for the grace of God go I.”   “There but for the grace of God go I” is a saying that is often meant to express humility at the recognition that the misfortune of others could be easily be one's own, but for divine or other fortuitous intervention.  It is also an expression of charity and amity towards the unfortunate. Fiske’s research tends to suggest that there is a good deal more enmity than amity towards the poor. This is not surprising. I find it odd that we would ever expect that the primal response of those observing images of the poor would be to acknowledge the role of providence or luck. We live, after all, in a society where many people persist in believing that both privilege and disadvantage are earned and/or deserved. Privilege and disadvantage are sometimes earned.  But just as often, maybe more often, they are not. Even where those viewing images of the poor do express humility and amity in professing a sense of “there but for the grace of God go I,” my sense is that these viewers are among the very comfortable and long-term well to do. For those viewers whose tenure in the middle class is newer and more tenuous, “there but for the grace of God go I” may express not humility but fear.  This latter group are often people who, like me, have already lived in poverty and do not want a return trip.


As a young child I lived with an aunt and her ten children. I am sure, to most observers, we hit all of the negative stereotypes--impoverished, black, poorly fed, unwashed and poorly dressed, barely housed, badly behaved (I speak for myself--I was a demon child with a cunningly angelic demeanor during that period of my life). My aunt did have a husband, though he was not the father of all of her children and she usually sent him out when the social worker came over to "inspect" how she was using her welfare benefits. I honestly do fear that I will live like that again, and that fear will never leave me. Some years back, when I was practicing law, I had to make a phone call to reach a client who had not appeared for a court hearing. As there was no available phone at the court, I had to use a public phone in a nearby welfare office. I found myself trembling as I waited for my turn using the phone and stood looking at all of the people around me and a flood of memories washed over me.

I experienced a very visceral and likely very measurable reaction to the poor people around me that day in the welfare office. But I did not tremble because I reviled the people or because I was afraid of the people; I was afraid of the possibility of living in that condition again. Some people may scoff at the notion of an apparently middle class person fearing that she will rejoin the ranks of the very poor. For some people, discussions of poverty in such a context may seem purely academic and so they are dismissed along with most other discourses on poverty that challenge the notion of the journey from poverty as a one way street. But for those of us who came from poverty and who continue to work for a living, however “professional” our jobs, past poverty does not make future poverty a moot possibility. This is anything but a moot point. The silence around the threat of re-impoverishment is part of what allows it to occur. By the time re-impoverishment happens, it is often too late for talk to prevent it. Like so many other social scourges that we refuse to talk about, re-impoverishment is a harm that, while imminently capable of repetition, evades review. 

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