There is a sameness to it, an endless, soul-sucking semi-existence that offers neither a way out nor a way through but only a way to exist. It is the banality of poverty.
We feel sorry for the poor. Sorry that they don’t live the way we do, sorry that their values are not ours, sorry that they smell bad or don’t pick up the trash in their yards or have all those loud and undisciplined children with the runny noses and the wild, animal eyes. Sorry that they stay poor. We pity them, for we are not in their dark cavern with them.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta wrote that “the poor do not need our sympathy and our pity. The poor need our love and compassion.” Of course, she was a saint, so she often said outrageous things. Love and compassion are too much to ask for in a society where if you don’t have a job, you should blame yourself, as former and probably future GOP front-runner Herman Cain said the other day. We can feel sorry for the poor (probably Herman Cain does), but we will be damned if we are going to love them and feel compassionate towards them.
Love, particularly in the Judeo-Christian tradition, has the sense of self-giving. It is not about throwing money at a problem, it is about throwing one’s very life at it. And compassion? It means “to suffer along with.” Teresa threw her life at the problem of the poorest of the poor. And the problem didn’t go away, in spite of all her prayers. And so she moved on to compassion for the poor—suffering along with them. She immersed herself in the poor, lived, worked and died among them. Still, poverty didn’t budge. It just went on and on.
The nature of poverty is to design itself for perpetuity. When Bill Clinton, that famous Reagan Democrat, conspired with current and probably soon to be former GOP front-runner Newt Gingrich to “end welfare as we know it” he succeeded. Welfare, as it existed from the time of the New Deal until the late 1990’s, ceased to exist. People were expected to get an education and then get a job. They would get temporary assistance from a society that felt sympathy and pity but not love and compassion. Thus ended welfare. Still, poverty didn’t budge. It just went on and on.
Today, the welfare system has been transformed into Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program. The first assumes that after 48 months of a poor person’s life, he or she would have the capacity to stand up and take responsibility and join the great American middle-class, replete with SUV, two-car garage, flat-screen television and soccer games on Sunday morning. The second assumes that the food budgets of the lower class would be “supplemented” until they accumulated enough wealth to be respectable and responsible consumers of gadgets, clothes, houses, and marble slab ice cream. But the assumptions were wrong. Poverty didn’t budge. It just went on and on.
The banality of poverty is clearest in its food: cheap, low in nutrition, but high in fat and processed sugars. It’s sameness is numbing. After awhile, you don’t even think about it, you just eat it. After awhile, it even starts to taste good.
Like my grits ($.15) from this morning. Or my peanut butter and preserves sandwiches on white bread ($.35 ea.) at lunch. Or my spaghetti with canned green pepper flavored sauce ($.88). It’s not bad. Not good, either, but not bad. It leaves you numb. Full, but not satisfied. And it goes on and on, just like the problem it was supposed to fix.