Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Pity leads to charity; dignity, to entitlement

How hard have rising food prices and economic recession hit Pittsburgh? A recent Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article compares numbers of people served by one food pantry in South Hills in February 2007 -- 276 -- to February 2008 -- 425, an increase of 64 percent. The Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank distributes food to this and over 350 other pantries and agencies in 11 counties; their director estimates one in three Pittsburgh residents meet the service's income guidelines (making less than 150 percent of the poverty level).

The article does a good job of painting a picture of the need. But what about attitudes expressed toward the poor? Here's how the piece begins:

If as you grocery-shop this month, you see Boy Scouts standing at the doors of the supermarket soliciting donations to the Scouting for Food drive, don't think of the food going to some anonymous "poor" person.

Instead, picture it going to your neighbor or to the family of your child's classmate. That is where it will likely go, according to food bank directors in the South Hills who said that the number of clients they are serving has spiked in recent months.

Layoffs, the mortgage crisis and the shaky economy have pushed more people into food pantry lines, and among the new clients are people whom what once had been the solid middle class -- those who, in the past, might have been more likely to donate than to use a food bank. (emphasis added)

Now hold on a minute. Sure, it makes sense to remind potential donors that the food they give is likely to benefit their neighbors and people like themselves (assuming most newspaper readers identify as "solid middle class," whatever that means). But it is unacceptable to imply that an "anonymous 'poor' person" is somehow less deserving than someone who recently fell from this so-called "solid middle class."

This is a subtle attempt to persuade readers to consider giving to a charity -- and it reveals much about what the newspaper assumes about readers, not to mention the very notion of charitable giving in America. Conventional thought tells us only those we pity deserve charity. A struggling person who demands food might offend "solid middle class" sensibilities. Likewise, a struggling person in the midst of drug addiction or might elicit little sympathy. An able-bodied individual unable to find a job? The scarcity of jobs is no secret -- yet our solution for this person is simply to demand again that they "get a job."

Unfortunately, the Post-Gazette article perpetuates this categorization of poor people into categories of "deserving" and "undeserving." Its persuasive power comes from the reminder that our donation is likely to benefit the "deserving" poor.

Bravo for the Food Bank and the excellent work they do. And bravo to the reporter and the Post-Gazette, as the local effects of poverty seldom attract media attention. But as for rhetoric that discourages us from acknowledging the common dignity of all human beings -- and that encourages us to think that only a familiar, well-behaved few truly deserve "charity?" Such rhetoric is poison. It's the kind of rhetoric that has and continues to divide struggling people across the globe who would do well to recognize their common plight and work together to address it.

Remember, this is one third of the population of Pittsburgh, or 111,521 people we're talking about.

In response, we who seek to end to poverty need to embrace a rhetoric of human dignity and entitlement. Say it with me now: "Everyone deserves enough food." Otherwise, our constant defensive stance will force us to focus on battling for what little government benefits remain, and our dream of ending poverty will remain just that -- a dream.

-Rick Claypool

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