Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Despising the Poor

David Brooks notes that Victorian attitudes toward the poor -- often depicted by middle-class writers as not much different from apes -- are reappearing in our neo-Victorian age:
Today we once again have a sharp social divide between people who live in the “respectable” meritocracy and those who live beyond it. In one world almost everybody you meet has at least been to college, and people have very little contact with features that are sometimes a part of the other world: prison, meth, payday loans, a flowering of nonmarriage family forms. In one world, people assume they can control their destinies. In the other, some people embrace the now common motto: “It don’t make no difference.”

Widening class distances produce class prejudice, classism. This is a prejudice based on visceral attitudes about competence. People in the “respectable” class have meritocratic virtues: executive function, grit, a capacity for delayed gratification. The view about those in the untouchable world is that they are short on these things. They are disorganized. They are violent and scary. This belief has some grains of truth because of childhood trauma, the stress of poverty and other things. But this view metastasizes into a vicious, intellectually lazy stereotype. Before long, animalistic imagery is used to describe these human beings.
I also worry about this revival of class prejudice, because it undermines both basic compassion ("He was a shoplifting thug, so who cares if the police shot him?") and attempts to actually help people. I remember (with great confidence!) hearing Gary Johnson say that the poor don't need help because anybody with guts can make $100,000 a year cleaning houses.

The notion that education is the solution to poverty strikes me as particularly foolish. A life of poverty leaves most people ill-equipped to succeed in college, especially at the sort of generalized liberal education beloved of academics. And even if we did send everyone to college, middle-class jobs wouldn't simply materialize for them.

Really the only things that have been shown to help poor people join the middle class are stable work that they can get without much education (factory work played this role historically) and just giving them money.

1 comment:

G. Verloren said...

"The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread."

-Anatole France