Legitimizing the Poverty Problem

Sophie Gonick

A good friend of mine recently told a story of ill-fated philanthropy. She’d just attended a richly-catered Harvard event and was walking home, carrying a tray of leftovers. Suddenly, it struck her that it’d be quite lovely of her to offer some scraps to the numerous homeless people she mindlessly steps over daily. Dazzled by her own benevolence, my dear friend eagerly approached the nearest vagabond and inquired: “Sir, would you like one of these sandwiches?” The man sneered, and shot back: “I only accept money.” Appalled, my friend walked to a dumpster—undoubtedly disregarding several other dispossessed—to make a sizeable deposit of untouched food. You see, the ungrateful man—who was, perhaps, mentally unstable—had confirmed my conservative friend’s deep-seated beliefs: These unseemly vagrants, who we so casually neglect, are down-and-out due to their attitude, and their own volition; their lack of motivation, their laziness, keeps them from realizing the American dream that has served as the liberator of so many others. Of course, this is naïve, though all-too-common, thinking.

Since coming to Harvard, I’ve frequently been surprised by the sheer ignorance of so many smart people. I’ve had innumerable debates over social issues and they often end in a stalemate—an insurmountable impasse in which my opponent simply can’t conceive of the idea that some impoverished people really can’t break “the cycle.” How could it be, after all, when you can cite the countless instances of immigrant populations that have thrived due to hard work and determination? They spout off inspirational anecdotes of underprivileged students who “made it to Harvard” and tell stories of their once-destitute parents who made it big because of their entrepreneurial or otherwise outstanding abilities. (Of course, neither luck, nor good fortune, factor into the success of these “winners.”) Clearly, it’s all a testimony to the fact that those roughly 35 million Americans living in poverty are simply not driven or innovative enough to improve their plight. To these debaters, the very poor are most likely happy to lazily wait around for the government’s handouts—which, according to many of my misinformed opponents, are tantamount to stipends that allow for an incredibly comfortable life.

But, as easy and attractive as it is to simply blame the poor for their position, it’s this type of anecdotal evidence that often deludes people into thinking that the poverty problem is one that really shouldn’t concern them. The easy way out of addressing this very prevalent social problem is, of course, to chalk it up to others’ lack of motivation to improve their own lot. By doing that, it allows you to evince a sort of sympathy for those in destitution, without actually advocating that something be done about it—it isn’t your problem that “they” don’t want to work.

And though the illusion of the lazy poor plagues us at a national level, it seems that at Harvard—the land of the over-privileged and self-entitled—this “their fault, not mine” mentality is wholeheartedly embraced by all too many. However, the Harvard Political Review, with its recent “American Poverty” issue, is taking some admirable steps towards unseating many misconceptions regarding those in the lowest quintile. In one particularly compelling article about the “working poor,” writer Tobias Snyder adeptly points out “that for a large number of the poor, structural economic factors constrain their ability to advance,” and thus “the American dream remains elusive, despite considerable work and effort.” Hopefully, the reality that this recent issue attempts to illustrate will serve to raise awareness and temper much of the insensitivity embraced by those blissfully ignorant.

Morgan R. Grice ’06, a Crimson associate editorial chair, is a government concentrator in Winthrop House.