I was standing in a grocery checkout line with a friend. As the woman in front of us paid with food stamps, my friend said to me, "I know one thing. I'm tired of working to buy my groceries and all these people with food stamps are getting it free."
I thought her remark was callous and insensitive. When we were out of earshot of the woman, I told my friend exactly that.This was not the first nor the last such experience I've had with middle-class acquaintances. It reflects what I believe is a common attitude - prejudice against the poor.
I take personal offense at this attitude. For much of my life, I, too, was part of the great unwashed. My family was poor. I lived with my mother and seven brothers and sisters in a one-bedroom duplex. We received welfare and food stamps.
What follows is admittedly biased advice from a former poor person to his current middle-class peers. Think of it as a primer on what it means to be poor.
Poor people want to work to support their families -just like you.
My mother cleaned other people's homes to support our family. She worked at this and other jobs throughout my childhood and into my early adolescence, going on welfare only after she became too sick to work.
Many poor people labor long hours in low-paying, boring, demeaning jobs that are often dangerous, to boot. It is outrageous to claim that such people don't want to work.
Poor people love their children - just like you.
I remember once that to label all or even most poor people as criminals is like saying that all people of Irish descent are alcoholics or that all those of Polish descent are stupid. It's bigotry, plain and simple.
Poor people respect the law and human life - just like you.
Polls show that poor people are often tougher on crime than other income groups. They favor the death penalty, stiffer sentences, no parole. They are tougher on crime because they are more often the victims of crime.
Poor people have small vices and weaknesses - just like you.
I've heard people complain about going to the grocery store and seeing a food stamp recipient with, say, a tub of ice cream in the basket. The implication was that here was someone squandering tax dollars on "luxuries." But that ice cream may have been that person's only "luxury" for a month.
In the end, then, my point is this: Poor people are not some alien race, devoid of the same feelings and desires that you have. They're not bad people or even necessarily weak people. They're not criminal or violent or lazy or stupid.
They're just poor.