If you’re getting a garden in these days, you’ve probably been making sure that your soil is in good shape, perhaps feeding it with some extra nutrients. You’ve raked things smooth and removed the rocks. You’re watching for rain and supplementing with the watering can if necessary. In some parts of the country, you may be ready to rush out with burlap and plastic if a late frost strikes.
Here’s what you don’t do: You don’t insist that the plants “toughen up” before they even get a chance to put down roots. You don’t put them in sandy soil and order them to make do on whatever rain happens to fall. You know that your harvest would suffer.
Enter Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Benjamin Carson. He recently visited some low income housing units in Ohio and was pleased that they lacked basic amenities:
… he nodded, plainly happy, as officials explained how they had stacked dozens of bunk beds inside a homeless shelter and purposefully did not provide televisions.
I wonder what it is like in there during cold and flu season. I wonder how many cases of pneumonia head into a Medicaid-funded clinic thanks to that set up. I hardly need to tell the secretary, who is a physician, about the dangers of tuberculosis and other infectious diseases when you put medically compromised people in close quarters.
Health implications aside, I wonder how he thinks these conditions can foster independence. Imagine you have a job interview. Do you think you’d show up on your game if you’d just spent the night in a room with dozens of people – snoring, getting up to go to the bathroom and so on?
Many Americans have a great and abiding fear that if the poor receive even an ounce of comfort they will become content and will not work to improve their situation. But here is the thing: An ounce of comfort helps you to become self-sufficient. We demand a good harvest, while banning water and sunshine.
Carson told The New York Times that programs should avoid providing “a comfortable setting that would make somebody want to say: ‘I’ll just stay here. They will take care of me.’”
I have worked with chronically homeless people. I did not find that their situations were caused by a lack of ambition. But I saw plenty of illness, mental and physical; low skill and education levels and little opportunity to improve either; poor access to transportation and childcare; even inability to pay for basic hygiene products. Not so easy to make a good impression when you haven’t brushed your teeth, and you show up late because one of three buses you need to take to the job site broke down.
There is nothing novel about people expressing objections that the poor are not suffering enough. But the sentiments usually do not come from the secretary of housing and urban development. To return to the metaphor, it’s like a secretary of agriculture who is against irrigation.
People in poverty are odd targets for resentment. Yet that resentment seems quite widespread. We peer at their grocery purchases to look for signs of indulgence; we begrudge them televisions. One correspondent told me that my non-profit, the National Diaper Bank Network, indulges mothers in poverty. How can getting clean diapers to families ever be indulgence?
I am a social worker by training, not a psychiatrist. I imagine a person with the right expertise could make a lifetime study out of why people are so concerned that the poor aren’t suffering sufficiently. My amateur guess is that they think their own lot in life is not good enough and want to blame someone. So why not the poor? It isn’t as if they can fight back.
It would be great if there were a public campaign to change perceptions about poverty. We would be a stronger country is there were more widespread understanding about poverty’s causes and remedies. But surely people whose job is to address poverty should not need any help to realize that beating people down into extreme poverty is not a strategy to inspire self-sufficiency. It is simply cruel.
It will be a great day when we approach people in poverty with the same kindness – and commonsense – that we currently lavish on our tomato plants.