Becoming One of "Them"

A friend of mine who volunteered at a shelter in New York City told me this story over Thanksgiving.  The shelter she worked in responded to the range of people affected by the crisis.  Many of them, as always in a crisis, were those who were already struggling and marginalized - illegal immigrants afraid to go anywhere else, the already-homeless whose usual shelters and places of refuge were closed or underwater, the mentally and physically ill who had to be evacuated from hospitals in the flood zone.  Many of the rest were storm evacuees from some of the city's most expensive neighborhoods, people who don't normally find themselves in close quarters with the rest of their shelter mates.

My friend spoke of her frustration dealing with the richer victims, with their sense of entitlement, their horror at their companions.  At the same time, she also recognized that they were traumatized and frightened, and victims too.  What she found most difficult, however, was the constant desire of the more affluent residents of the shelter to let her know that they did not belong here, that they were not like the other people who surrounded them.  Not only did they want better treatment, more resources, but they also were desperate for her to know that this was not their lives, that they were and are fundamentally different than the people surrounding them.

After one woman asked her to carry her cot into several different rooms of the shelter, never satisfied by who she would be sleeping next to, my friend struggled not to say "Look, you aren't ever going to feel comfortable sleeping next to anyone, because they are still mostly going to be poor and not white - and I've got more important things to do than carry your cot around."  At the same time, she felt sorry for the woman, who seemed not less resilient, but more damaged than those who really had lost more.

I think she probably was.  She was dealing with multiple new traumas - not just the shared and unified disaster of the hurricane, but the sudden, painful, ugly realization that the lines between herself and people who seemed very unlike herself were not so very great after all.   That sudden and agonizing realization of her own vulnerability was a trauma that, fair or not, most of her neighbors in the shelter had already confronted - or perhaps they had never experienced a level of stability that would make them feel the world couldn't collapse under them.  That radical shaking of worldview can be incredibly painful - genuinely so, and can make any transition that much harder.   The wild shift in expectation that is required when the world shifts under your feet can break people - far more than the actual physical circumstances.  Indeed, it probably broke many of their shelter mates the first time it happened.

So how do you navigate that sense of loss, the trauma of changed expectations, the sense that all the things that you once believed you had a right to are now things you are a supplicant for?  Because let's be honest, as offensive as entitlement can be, it has its uses - the sense that something should be some way, that this is totally unacceptable can move mountains.  The parents who say "Not good enough, my kid needs the best, most appropriate education for her special needs,"  the grownup who says "Not acceptable.  We need this fixed today, not three weeks from now," the person who can demand, more often gets more.  In a world of abundant resources, outrage that you are forced to suffer to live with something utterly inadequate is a tool, advocacy is a gift.  Knowing when it becomes an abuse, or looks like high-handed entitlement can be hard - and we all have to know when that moment is (if you are yelling at waitresses or anyone with LESS power than you, btw, that's a clue ;-))

There's another thing we may have to do, however, to avoid the trauma endured by the people in that shelter - to recognize that despite all the barriers we perceive between ourselves and the most vulnerable people in our society, in the end, we're like them, and our circumstances aren't something we can fully control.  We need to change our attitude towards the poor  - partly because it is the right thing to do, of course, but also because we may become them.  In fact, that's the most likely outcome of our environmental, energy and economic trajectory right now - that most of us will come to know what I have long called "ordinary human poverty."

One of the most stunning transformations of the cheap energy era was the sheer amount of economic growth it brought, and the shift from a world where most people were both poor and expected to remain ordinarily poor, to one where implicitly, we imagined everyone could be rich - and should be if they were trying hard enough.  Because the rising tide of fossil-fueled economic growth for a time made it seem possible for everyone to do better, we presume that those who don't want to.  Rarely is that true.  Sometimes it is a matter of "don't know how to" but more often it is far more complicated than that.

The families that my foster children come from are generally not only poor, but deeply traumatized, and largely non-functional.  These aren't just poor families - although poverty alone can certainly put you on a track for removal, because if you can't keep your kids fed or clean or safe in their housing, you can lose them - but families that often suffer generational poverty, and trauma, the kinds of repeated personal hurricanes and earthquakes that set them back over and over and over again.

One of the questions nearly everyone asks me about fostering is this: "Don't you hate their parents?"  Or occasionally "But what's their parents' problem?"  I usually can't reveal specifics, so it can be hard to answer in detail, but the truth is, no, I generally don't hate their parents, because most of the time, I can see how I could have been them, how shovelling out from under those quakes might have been beyond me.  As for what their "problem" is, well, they don't have just one.

The majority of the parents I deal with are mentally ill, developmentally delayed, or addicted - sometimes all of the above.  Their family histories are a series of disasters, social and personal.

For example, in one family,  Grandfather died suddenly of a stroke in his 40s, leaving grandmother alone with three kids in a poor family that was barely making it to begin with.  Grandmother worked long hours trying to do right and keep her kids fed and wasn't there when her kids got home, and the poverty and violence of the streets around them took several of them - one died, one has been a drug addict for 25 years.  The drug addict had a baby with developmental delays.  Grandma is still working two shifts to care for her grandbabies now, and didn't have time or knowledge to advocate for her developmentally delayed granddaughter.  Because she attends an impoverished urban school with few resources, no one ever gives the granddaughter any services, and she staggers through school, concealing her lack of ability to master material with disinterest, and drops out as soon as she can.   Impoverished, unable to get and keep a job, she trades what she has for money to help her grandmother, and eventually, for drugs, because that's what everyone does and there isn't much to do in a housing project with no employment or hope.  Inevitably, she has a baby, maybe another, and now Grandma, retired with no pension (because the kinds of jobs she did didn't have those), and a host of health problems caused by lack of insurance and bad food and poverty and standing on your feet two shifts a day for 38 years  is caring for great-grandkids, along with her granddaughter and her addicted daughter when she comes home - and one day, she gets sick, and can't do it any more, and the Mom, who with intervention and help might have been able to do more, might have been able to care for her kids, can't meet their needs independently.

There are other birthparent pictures as well - the former foster kid never adopted struggling with the lack of ability to attach, lack of job skills and chronic homelessness, the mentally ill mother who stops taking her medication because she is afraid it may hurt her baby but then spirals out of control, but this one isn't atypical, and it doesn't derive from an easy cause and effect.  Is the root cause generational poverty?  Personal failures?  Disability?  Death?  Who knows?  What we do know is that every trauma and small disaster, whether the purely personal (illness, addiction, depression) or on a larger scale (racism, sexual violence,  natural disasters, displacement).  As Amit Chaudhury writes "While it may be true that the poor are people like you and me because we were all created by God, it is only through an understanding of a country’s history, and the history of the poor, that we can begin to appreciate that, indeed, the poor were people like you and me before something happened to them."     Something happened.  Sometimes many things, sometimes self-inflicted things, often things from outside.  So no, I can't hate them.

It isn't that you can't hate people like you - people do it all the time.  Once you acknowledge, however, that their fate could be yours, though, it is hard to be indifferent, and anger has to be tempered by understanding.  I don't like what the birth parents have often done, intentionally or non, to their children, but I can't hate them, and I can't see myself as fully unlike them.   That, I think is the key to avoiding both hatred and that additional layer of trauma when someday someone who has never been truly, deeply, utterly aware of their vulnerability comes up against something they can't control or overcome.  It won't save you - because no one knows how they will react.  It just takes a layer of disaster away to know that being poor isn't a moral failure and that you aren't evil because you have to hold out your hands.

I was lucky - I was born without severe mental illness or handicap, into a family with health insurance and the skills of advocacy, where no one died young, where the family wasn't overburdened by poverty and ground down by the boundary destruction that destroys supplicants.  I lived in housing that wasn't filled with rats and violence, in neighborhoods were drugs, while present, weren't part of every corner.  I had parents who read, who loved me, who had time for me, who didn't work three shifts.  My home was never demolished or destroyed, I never moved from shelter to shelter, I attached to my parents who had the ability to love me back and lived with them my whole childhood.  I did some drugs, but by luck never became addicted.  I did some foolish things but never did irreparable harm to myself or others.  I failed and was able to compensate with the heady pleasures of sometimes success.  I never fell into the mire of hopelessness.  I did not live personally through fire, earthquake, hurricane, redevelopment, the opening of the psychiatric hospitals.  I did live in the only century of human history in which class mobility was as great as it was, and where the sense of possibility (as opposed to the reality, which never quite lived up to the hype, but was still much greater than in most of human history) was endless.  No war struck my shores, I lived in a time of unparalleled peace and prosperity and by good luck, good health, family circumstance and more good luck was not one of those individuals and groups mostly passed by.

Working with these families (and I work with them not as clients, but in a rather strange shared-family-and-parenting relationship that is duplicated nowhere else), I see myself.  I see my neighbors in the impoverished urban mill towns I grew up in.  I see the family members who struggled too, but were whiter, luckier, healthier, missed that one disastrous stroke - or they didn't, but had gifts of resilience that others don't.  But resilience has its limits, and it can be surpassed for anyone.

The time of unparalleled prosperity is over.  The shelter denizens went back - or will hopefully go back - to their lives.  Some are lives of unbearable strain, misery and fragility.  Others are lives of comfort...and fragility, because the one can so rapidly become the other.  Many of us will be lucky enough to survive one disaster, to rebuild after that first time - but what about the next time, and the one after that?  How many hundred year storms before the strain affects your health?  Sometimes the answer is only one - a neighbor of mine lost his business to Hurricane Irene last year.  Last I heard he had attempted suicide and was in psychiatric treatment because he could no longer support his family, because it all seemed so hopeless - what was the point?

The line between the person in the shelter who has never been dirty, hungry and cold before and the one who has done it for years is very fine - there was a first day on the streets for everyone, and while good fortune and ill fortune do not lead always to the same places, they can.  We like to believe that the story of poverty is a clear one - of bad choices.  And that's a factor - but most of us will make a bad choice or two in our lives.  Those of us who have been lucky enough to be cushioned, to survive our bad choices, to have enough positive going that some ill was only a small disaster have been lucky - but that luck may not last forever.

How many 100 year events can your family survive?  How many energy crises and food price spikes?  Job losses and natural disasters?  Most of us may need to ask that question of ourselves.  We can work to make our systems more resilient, we can work to build redundancy and security into our systems, but we can't stop there, there is something else we must do - we must meet our impoverished neighbors and begin to see them as fully human, as fully like us.  If we do not, we cannot expect others to see us that way when the time comes.  Moreover, if we are reeling from the shock that our lives too are vulnerable and fragile, that we too could find ourselves desperate and frightened with those who have been suffering that state for a long time, we will not be able to step up and rebuild what we can from our losses.  For ourselves, and for those who have already had one too many disasters, we must shake out of our heads the idea that the poor are not like us, that we are not, ourselves, tomorrow's poor.







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By Elizabeth (not verified) on 25 Nov 2012 #permalink

The saying that "there but for the grace of God go I" has been around a long time, and too many people interpret it as "therefore I am favored and bad things don't happen to me."


Thanks for the reminder, Sharon.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 25 Nov 2012 #permalink

Thank you for this excellent post.

I wish that people who believe in 'American Exceptionalism' would all read this. It doesn't just apply to individuals: on a larger scale, it applies to countries and societies as well. (See Jared Diamond's 'Collapse'.) One blow too many, and a whole culture, a whole society can...well....collapse. (I cannot think of a better word for it.)

By Pat Meadows (not verified) on 26 Nov 2012 #permalink

I've been lucky so far, in that I have always had reserves to fall back on, and places to go when power is out for more than 24 hours (I'm on town water, and the hot water heater holds enough for one more shower when power goes out, so brief power outages are just minor annoyances for me). I'm also fortunate to have partial immunity to the consumerist culture that pervades this country.

But many people--even people who appear to be prosperous--have not made any such preparations. Many people--the ones you find in such shelters in "normal" times--have never had the means to make those preparations (and not necessarily through any fault of their own). Many who have the means never acquired the skills to do so--this includes the more entitled post-hurricane shelter seekers, as well as the twits with six-figure incomes who complain of poverty because they are too busy trying to live like millionaires.

There is a reason everyone who dispenses financial advice recommends keeping at least three months' income in cash before investing in anything else. I can forgive people not doing this because they need every penny of income now to survive. That people with the means to save don't is something I still find mind-boggling.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 26 Nov 2012 #permalink

I would share this with so many people if only they would read it.

Things are about to get SO bad, on so many fronts, I long for the days when I innocently thought all we had to face was peak oil, wirh a garden and bicycle at hand.

By Stephen B. (not verified) on 26 Nov 2012 #permalink

"Because let’s be honest, as offensive as entitlement can be, it has its uses"

It's another prong of disaster for the rwighting pundits who claim all those on benefits are scroungers. When you find yourself in the same situation "I'm not like them" is code for "Unlike them, I'm not a benefits scrounger".

If they hadn't been bombarded with such rubbish, they would not be trying to erect a wall between them and having to deal with the idea "Well, maybe my taxes going on Social Security and Welfare were not a waste of my taxes".

Go to PAYE for taxes.

If you never got the money to begin with, you don't feel as though you're having money taken away in taxes.

A cascade of ecological events with unforeseen consequences is occurring around us. There are multiple causes. But human overpopulation of Earth is the prime factor.

By Steven Earl Salmony (not verified) on 26 Nov 2012 #permalink

I would be careful about labeling some of these "entitled" folks "rich." The truly rich or even just upper-middle-class, they ended up in hotel, or with family or friends. Or at their second home somewhere outside the city. These "complainers" sound like elderly white folks with limited resources and relatives, who were hanging onto the middle-class by a thread. Likely, they are people who long ago prided themselves on getting out of the poverty they were born into. Now their pride is all they have left.

By Former Foster Mama (not verified) on 26 Nov 2012 #permalink

@Wow: I have to assume from your comment that you have never worked for a wage or salary in the US. This country already has income tax withholding, which is another way of saying PAYE. That covers the majority of Americans, who get most or all of their income from wages or salaries. The exceptions are (1) people who own businesses, rental real estate, or farms, and get a substantial fraction of their income from these sources, and (2) people who get a substantial fraction of their income from investments (and do not or cannot have extra withholding from their paychecks). People in these categories are expected to pay quarterly estimated taxes. There are substantial penalties for paying less than a certain fraction (for most people, 90% of or $1000 less than the actual amount due) in withholding or quarterly estimates. State and local income taxes, where applicable, are generally handled in a similar fashion.

Note that most of the people in category (2) are people near the top of the income distribution (top 20% or higher). Category (1) includes many from the lower and middle classes, but the nature of their income makes withholding difficult if not impossible to implement.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 26 Nov 2012 #permalink

Live in the UK.

But most of the "comedy" when the USA infer what happens at tax time is that the IRS pops round and nicks everything.

Some reading of the IRS statutes and procedures for tax submission also infer very strongly that you get your money and pay out tax after getting it.

"These “complainers” sound like elderly white folks with limited resources and relatives, who were hanging onto the middle-class by a thread."

Propoganda has put them as not a scrounger unlike "the poor". They didn't think they'd drop. They did.

And the propoganda how has them desperately trying to remain different because they've been inculcated with the idea that those needing welfare are lesser people.

Worse, the US libertarian screed has that only those God wishes to punish (i.e. never the one who is talking of God punishing or rewarding) or do not want to work use up welfare.

They're working hard in many cases to pretend that there's a difference because then they can say "They're still scroungers, I'm just unfortunate".

Without years of repeated dogma on the issue, they'd not have to divert coping mechanisms to this and would be a lot better off psychologically.

If the situation lasts long enough, they'll see others who they would otherwise have denigrated as actual people. No longer "them". And the pool of "them" will get shorter as they stay there.

People are generally thoughtless and lazy rather than actually mean spirited. Put someone in a group and stop thinking about them is real easy.

Hey, this is a very thoughtful and thought provoking post indeed. It is full of great insights and understanding that is a cut above the fray by some ways.... and that's saying a lot. It's possibly one of the best posts, perhaps, on this subject I have seen, and that is over many years and tons and tons of people who love to harp on about such things in the blogosphere.

I really look forward to hearing more, not only what you already know, but further understanding... Btw, just to add, not to criticize, I think it is important to recognize the role that predation plays. I think all the causes mentioned can be divided intp nature (like some illnesses) and on the other hand predation or other damage caused by other people (additions are largely a result of the predation of the drug producers, and larger society that acts in a way to exacerbate the problem for political reasons etc) . It's important to recognize what things are actually caused by other people, and it is a lot, being forced to live in crappy dangerous subdivisions because you are not allowed to live elsewhere in the city because other people have decided that land "belongs" to them and violently defend their privilege to leave it sitting there unused, or for decoration, is, for instance, an essential part of the picture.

I've also been involved in with foster care, my parents adopted one of the children they were caring for, which I think has given me the outlook and appreciation for just how lucky I have it. I also have a highly dysfunctional part of the family that seems entrenched in the sort of generational poverty you described so clearly. I can't thank you enough for this article, I am constantly amazed by some people's unwillingness to look beyond their own personal circle and recognize we are all the same, and while they may have been blessed with good circumstances, circumstances are not per-ordained nor permanent.

By Sara Benitez (not verified) on 28 Nov 2012 #permalink

Thank You Sharon, I am Impressed. You have compassion. I was Raised in a middle class Family. Very much like ,Your life description, and try to have the same level of compassion, as you. There is nothing Like "There, but for the Grace of God, Go I." To realize how much it takes to maintain a life in this month to month World. Run low on money and find out real fast that You can be "One of them"
I had things in control until 2001, and needed to retire for health reasons and found that, I would be refused SSD, now after 12 years I am still fighting for my SSD benifits.
It looks like "Bad Faith" they never intended to pay.
I will likely either get the SSD or a Tent in the woods. Not a good place for someone thats Disabled. But it is better than being in a shelter, and I find it difficult to get out, and away from Shelters, it is a full time Job in itself.
I also found that You have to have an address, to own a car, and to get food stamps, or a Job. So many things have changed, it is harder to get Back up if homeless.
I notice that Disabled folks are mainly by themselves, and I miss having the Social life that i had, when I worked. The folks out here are so isolated, We sometimes do not notice that, They haven't Been seen for a while. Sometimes they pass and are not found for days or weeks. EEEK.
I have lost three neighbors, this year, I think all of them were self inflicted, no one says anything, except how long it was before discovering them.
Count Your Blessings, even I have a bunch of good things in my days, Just do not allow the bad to outgrow the positive.
Your Doing a Great Service, By Writing about Your experiences, God Bless You.

By James Fenton III (not verified) on 28 Nov 2012 #permalink

Shelters are always very busy and uaefrstndfed. The best thing you can do is go talk to the shelter manager. Explain that you have a project and you'd like to use some of the dogs as models but give it a twist use the pictures you take for you, but find a way to help the shelter as well. Use dogs that have been there for a long time as models and donate the pictures to the shelter for publicity free of charge.

This post greatly disturbed me, and it has taken me quite a while to figure out why. It is not the post itself, which is quite excellent, but some of the comments ridiculing the people in the shelter for not wanting to be one of "them." Yes, the class divide in this country is crazy and getting worse, and yes, it's wrong, but it EXISTS and we have to deal with that. Telling people to suck it up is not the way you do that.

I grew up being one of "them." We were so far on the wrong side of the tracks it took me a long time to realize there was a right side. I have been homeless, I have eaten out of a trash can and been thankful for the meal and now, at almost 30, I have clawed my way up the socioeconomic ladder to the point where I have one foot in the lower middle class.

Those people in the shelter have a legitimate reason to fear looking like one of "them." Everything, literally everything, is harder when you are poor, and not just because of lack of money. The way you are perceived and the way you are treated in this country (and truthfully in every country) is dependent on your class, which boils down to the way you look and act. Poor people don't get any respect in this country. None. We can talk about how wrong that is all day long, but it will still be true. Doors close in your face when you look poor, people won't help you, higher class people yank their children out of your proximity for fear they'll catch something, etc.

The dividing line that runs down this country turns on respect.

I learned a long time ago that when you look and act middle class, even when you're not, you can get things done faster and quicker. You can convince people to help you out; you get respect. You have OPTIONS. If someone thinks you are poor, you get dismissed, denigrated, and ignored.

Yes, people are afraid of looking like one of "them" and with good reason. That's unfortunately not going to change any time soon. Even as the pool of "them" gets wider and wider, a suit and tie and a nice haircut will often be the difference between a door opening and remaining stubbornly closed.

"Those people in the shelter have a legitimate reason to fear looking like one of “them.” "

No. They have an emotional issue of fearing to look like one of "them".

There's a reason to fear a change in circumstance that puts you there, but once you ARE there, there's no damn reason to fear BEING one of "them", and I hope like hell you meant "being" rather than "looking like", 'cos the latter is pretty damn sick in the head.

So what you do is you make contingency plans for "the worst that could happen" and hope for the best.

But people are lazy.

Thinking of "them" as "them" and different, even if you're in the same situation means you don't have to change how you think.

And changing your perceptions is painful.

So best not to, eh?

As to the haircut-n-shirt thing, it's one reason why the downtrodden keep getting trodden down: where do they get a clean shirt? Where do they get a haircut? They haven't got anywhere to stay! So doors keep closing.

Unortunately, your country runs (much like mine) on privilege. Not respect. The "respect" is for the appearance of being connected (more so if you ARE connected).

You have no right to call me sick in the head, Wow. And it is not an emotional reason; it is legitimate and quite practical. A clean shirt and a nice haircut can be the difference between getting a job interview and not; it can be the difference between getting the attention from the clerk right away and having to wait because you're not important. Add to the shirt and the hair a decent late-model car, and it's the difference between being told to shut up and hand over your license and being called ma'am or sir when you're pulled over. Even at the emergency room, what you are wearing and how you act means you are treated differently.

This is the TRUTH whether or not you like to hear it. I'm not saying it should be this way or that it is right; the answer to both questions are obvious, but this is the case.

I've lived on both sides of the divide, I have seen the difference. You may not care about someone's class and neither do I or most of the readers of this blog, but as long as the majority of people in our society do care, it has to be dealt with.


1) I don't need a right to call you sick in the head.

2) I went out of my way to accord you NOT sick in the head (" I hope like hell you meant “being” rather than “looking like”, ‘cos the latter is pretty damn sick in the head.")

3) If you think it's reasonable to FEAR ***LOOKING*** like "them", well, yes, you ARE sick in the head.

I love how people who want to ignore real issues and the use of logic just resort to name calling. If you want to have a real discussion, fine, but otherwise, go back into your own little world because I don't play with trolls.


Yes, you being sick in the head is "my" fault. Right.

a) Where do I need a "right" to call you that?

b) Being afraid of LOOKING like "them" is seriously batshit nuts.

PS when whining about people calling others names, you may want to avoid doing that yourself, you daft bint (see "troll").

Wow, I'm not seeing it.

...but once you ARE there, there’s no damn reason to fear BEING one of “them”...


There clearly is.

Once you "are there", which from your explicitly stated context means that you "are now one of them", then not just being but also "looking like one of them" makes it harder to get back on your feet. You even agree with that in the same comment. This effect is real and well-documented, so fearing it is legitimate.

The fact that there are two related fears - of being in great need, and of extra difficulty in acquiring assistance because one looks to be in great need - does not make one of those fears illegitimate because the other has been realised.

Even the fact that one or both of those fears has been realised does not automatically make the realised fear(s) illegitimate or invalid or illogical or "sick in the head" or "seriously batshit nuts". Especially since the fear we are talking about continues to legitimately apply to the future, even after it has first been realised.

By Lotharsson (not verified) on 13 Jan 2013 #permalink

"There clearly is. "


There's an emotional feeling that makes you do it, but nothing rational or effective.

And apparently you didn't read very much, only enough to see what you wanted.

"I hope like hell you meant “being” rather than “looking like”, ‘cos the latter is pretty damn sick in the head"

In much the same way as someone claiming that their local river levels MUST MUST MUST be proof sea levels have dropped would be "sick in the head" or "just plain nuts".

However, in BOTH cases, there is a probability that this is merely a misstatement or deliberate obfuscation and the issue is not mental instability but some other issue.

But like becky, you read what you thought would be there.

And that is nuts, isn't it.

There’s an emotional feeling that makes you do it, but nothing rational or effective.

You're gonna need to be a bit clearer if you want to be understood. What is "do it" in this context, especially since we're discussing fears rather than actions? How does this sentence connect in any way with what I wrote?

And apparently you didn’t read very much, only enough to see what you wanted

Wrong, wrong, wrong, tediously wrong. Perhaps you only saw "saw what you wanted" in my comment?

I didn't WANT to see what I saw which refutes your claim. (As does the fact that I read it several times. Your mindreading skills are appallingly ineffective.)

Rebecca was clear enough and spoke from personal experience. The fear she expressed has a reasonable rational basis, no matter how many times you say otherwise. I have no idea why you mention effectiveness, as that's not generally considered a criterion for whether a fear is legitimate or an indicator of being "sick in the head". Either you communicated really poorly, or you were deeply offensive for no obvious good reason. I'm hoping for the former.

By Lotharsson (not verified) on 13 Jan 2013 #permalink

I thought Rebecca's post was excellent - essentially she's saying that being poor is a choice. You can be lazy and unmotivated or you can be like her and work for a change in your circumstances.

In Sharon's original story about the Grandma, you can clearly see that the problems of poverty are exacerbated - if not created - by people having children they cannot afford. Those children then grow up poverty-stricken from the outset. If we truly wanted to fix this we would support serious birth control programs aimed at helping the poor *not* make themselves poorer in this way.

Where I live, 1 in 7 children is growing up in a 100% welfare-dependant household. It's a disaster that can only be reversed by a government making some serious choices.

One thing I think the government should be doing is offering a free nanny to any dual-income family and getting rid of the freebies and giveaways that are currently incentivising the poor into having more children.
Thus, people like Rebecca, who will obviously make a great and responsible parent, can remain in the workforce bettering themselves while at the same time having more well-brought-up children to the benefit of society.

By Vince Whirlwind (not verified) on 13 Jan 2013 #permalink

"essentially she’s saying that being poor is a choice"

I didn't have a problem with that, apart from the choice is often out of your hands completely.

What I have problems with is her assertion that it's right and proper to feel AFRAID of (not just BEING poor), but LOOKING LIKE "them".

Now I can see how you can be afraid with "I don't want to be that poor". But "I don't want to be dressed like a scruff"???

"You can be lazy and unmotivated or you can be like her and work for a change in your circumstances."

You can work your arse off in a texan sweatshop and no matter how hard you work, you won't ever get out of poverty.

If you don't try, you won't get out of poverty, but being in poverty isn't proof of not trying.

Stop making the poverty people are put into their fault.

"What is “do it” in this context, especially since we’re discussing fears rather than actions?"


Why are you *afraid* of LOOKING like a poor person?

Not "I wouldn't like to" or "I'd feel uncomfortable" or "I like to look good".


That's the "it".

Wow, I'm right with you on "being poor often isn't a choice" and "one can often be poor despite trying really hard not to". This is well documented and arguing otherwise has long been a tool of people with lots of power and money who want even more and are quite happy to exploit large numbers of poor people to get it.

But on this fear thing you are apparently operating from a fundamental definitional error.

Fear is not an action. It is an inherently emotional experience, and it is almost always involuntarily triggered. One experiences a fear, one does not do a fear.

Because one does not "do a fear", let alone have a goal that one seeks to advance towards by "doing a fear", assessing the effectiveness of a fear is a category error. One may assess the validity or rationality of the basis for the fear...but not its effectiveness. If you're looking to apply an effectiveness test you need to find an action that is chosen in order to advance some goal.

Why are you *afraid* of LOOKING like a poor person?

Rebecca explained very clearly why TWICE, and I explained why too. She gave reasons and examples. I pointed this out in my first comment above.

You seem to be the only who here operating as if she didn't, and I didn't. Wake me up when you decide to address the reasons rather than pretend they weren't given.

By Lotharsson (not verified) on 13 Jan 2013 #permalink

"Fear is not an action. It is an inherently emotional experience,"

And that's why it isn't RATIONAL.


And please remember, becky was going on about fear not of BEING poor, but of LOOKING LIKE them.

Remember, there are still people afraid of black men raping their daughters and are afraid of people who LOOK a bit dark skinned.

That's just as sick in the head.

And that’s why it isn’t RATIONAL.

Aren't you embarrassed by that pathetic misdirection attempt? True, it is a lovely strawman you've skewered.

But how about you try dealing with what was actually said?

For example (my emphasis):

One may assess the validity or rationality of the basis for the fear...

See? Pretty clear there. I'm clearly not talking about the fact that an emotional experience is not a rational intellectual assessment, no matter how fervently you "Duh". Fears may have a rational basis, or an irrational basis, and we can assess their bases in that way. (The only reason I emphasised the emotional experience angle in the last comment was to try and sort out your apparent confusion regarding "doing a fear" and "effectiveness of a fear".)

When one claims that a particular fear is rational, it is shorthand for the claim that the fear in question has a rational basis. It is not an assertion that the experience of fear itself is a rational assessment! This is a well understood concept - at least by people other than you.

But wait, it's not just me! Someone else used the same concept (my emphasis):

Those people in the shelter have a legitimate reason to fear looking like one of “them.”

Yep, Rebecca specifies a legitimate reason to fear something - in other words she claims a rational basis for the fear. So the that's been part of the discussion since Rebecca's initial comment!

And wait, another person used the same concept (my emphasis):

...there’s no damn reason to fear ...

Yep, that was you asserting that the reason for - the basis for - a fear being discussed was not poor or irrational, but entirely non-existent - right after Rebecca gave a bunch of reasons. So you can't argue you aren't aware of the concept, and you can't argue that you did not understood that was what Rebecca was claiming. Even your own comments demonstrate that YOU were disagreeing with Rebecca about whether there were good reasons for the fear or not.

And yet, Rebecca gave reasons. Your claim to the contrary was an assertion that is trivially rebutted by noting that yes, Rebecca actually gave reasons. You didn't even argue that her given reasons weren't rational or weren't valid or the like - you merely asserted they didn't exist, and then questioned her mental health on that basis. If you're going to speculate on that front you're arguably looking in the wrong direction.

By Lotharsson (not verified) on 14 Jan 2013 #permalink

In what way is it irrational to see smelly, defeated homeless people and fear ending up like them when you've just been made homeless yourself?

As for the suggestion that being poor is not a choice - a society that doesn't believe in free will is not a society that will contribute much to civilisation unless you have an unusually rose-tinted view of theocracies and single-party dictatorships. I prefer to think I live in a society where people can choose their destiny. As Rebecca has done. Or Kerry Stokes.

By Vince Whirlwind (not verified) on 14 Jan 2013 #permalink

Vince, it's not "either society believes in free will, or being poor is not a choice for many people".

Those two concepts are not mutually exclusive. Free will is not some magic elixir that overcomes every external constraint and impact.

By Lotharsson (not verified) on 14 Jan 2013 #permalink

"In what way is it irrational to see smelly, defeated homeless people and fear ending up like them"

There was no " when you’ve just been made homeless yourself?"

And it was also "to LOOK like homeless people", not SEE homeless people, smelly or not was also never in it, but that's merely prudery.

And what is irrational is that homelessness isn't bloody infectious and many very rich people dress like scruffs (they don't care what you think of them) and a lot of the poor dress smart (they have pride).

So LOOKING like them is absolutely no bloody indication of homelessness.

And looking like them won't MAKE you homeless, either.

So fearing it is irrational.

And looking like them won’t MAKE you homeless, either.

Another strawman!

This was not Rebecca's fear. The fear she discussed was held by people who were already in great need of help.

So LOOKING like them is absolutely no bloody indication of homelessness.

Another strawman!

That wasn't Rebecca's point either. Let me fix your black and white strawman which might be getting your thinking stuck, and then see if the light dawns:

So LOOKING like them is absolutely no bloody not a 100% reliable indication of homelessness, but nevertheless many people take it that way and then react with prejudice to their assumption.


Rebecca's stated fear was NOT PREDICATED ON the "look" being a 100% reliable indicator of homelessness. It was predicated on THE PREJUDICE that people apply to those who "look like that".

This is basic high school level comprehension. Ask a high school teacher if you don't believe me.

So fearing it is irrational.

Yep, the strawman trifecta!

That assertion fails to address what was actually claimed.

By Lotharsson (not verified) on 14 Jan 2013 #permalink

There was no ” when you’ve just been made homeless yourself?”

Given that this has been explained to you already, we're apparently into flat out denial (my emphasis):

Those people in the shelter have a legitimate reason to fear looking like one of “them.”

She's clearly talking about people in a homeless shelter (and from the point of view of her own experience of being homeless!) People in a homeless shelter are generally, by definition, CURRENTLY HOMELESS, even if it is temporary. Specifically, "those people in the shelter" refers to people who have indeed JUST BEEN MADE HOMELESS.

I repeat, this is basic high school English comprehension.

Your entire attack seems to rest on hyper-fine parsing which has the added demerit of being incorrect - not to mention an incredible tone-deafness. They lead you to attack an uncontroversial point on the basis of some alleged irrationality that would be at best - were it an accurate allegation - a simple looseness of expression of the kind that is widely used every day without listeners thinking to themselves "geez, that person might be mentally ill". And even more bizarrely, I suspect from your other comments that if you were to acknowledge the actual point you would be in sympathy with it.

I'd consider seeking help. One could start with a High School English teacher.

By Lotharsson (not verified) on 14 Jan 2013 #permalink

"Those people in the shelter have a legitimate reason to fear looking like one of “them.”"

They haven't been made homeless.

a) Their house was flooded, not destroyed.
b) Even if it had been destroyed, insurance.

You are not very good at thinking things through here, are you.

It's like the difference between an evacuee and a refugee.

My previous comment is awaiting moderation (two links).

In the meantime let us temporarily allow for the sake of argument the claim that everyone new to the shelter experience courtesy of Sandy had wonderful insurance and everything was sunshine and kittens after a couple of months. That allowance doesn't mitigate your driven determination to misinterpret Rebecca - or your complete tone deafness.

In English, the first sentence and often the first paragraph are typically used to introduce the subject of one's writing and to set the context. Let's take a look at Rebecca doing so.

It is ... the comments ridiculing the people in the shelter for not wanting to be one of “them.”

Here she indicates that she's talking about people who don't want to be one of "them", which in context is understood as being so poor that they need to patronise a homeless shelter. She goes on:

Yes, the class divide in this country is crazy and getting worse, and yes, it’s wrong, but it EXISTS and we have to deal with that.

She's elucidating her subject - the class divide, so (roughly speaking) poor vs not poor. And she expands further:

Telling people to suck it up is not the way you do that.

It's about the treatment of, and "advice" given to the poor.

She then goes on to present her credentials by outlining her past experience of being on of "them".

We then come to the sentence that you went off about:

Those people in the shelter have a legitimate reason to fear looking like one of “them.”

One immediately sees that her introduction of this particular fear is situated squarely within the context of being poor. A typical reader who paused at this stage would expect that she is most likely talking about the fear of looking like one of "them" COUPLED WITH actually being one of "them", because the preceding context strongly indicates that. If they were to wonder whether she was really ditching that context and discussing the fear of looking BUT NOT BEING poor, they would probably read on to see if their question was clarified.

Everything, literally everything, is harder when you are poor, and not just because of lack of money.

Question clarified.

Both the preceding and succeeding context show she is talking about those who ARE POOR, so the "fear of looking poor" is PREDICATED ON actually being poor. She's not talking about having a fear of looking "poor" whilst still having access to those financial resources. The only way one can make that interpretation is to cherry-pick that sentence and leave the rest of the context behind. In other words, to assert that it refers to a fear of looking "poor" whilst not being poor is just flat out wrong. It is denying the context, and denying the clear enough intent of the writer. Doing so may indicate a significant difficulty English comprehension, or some other issue.

In that light, your tone deafness arises from your single-minded focus on speciously parsing a cherry-picked sentence to "find" an irrational argument instead of grokking the main thrust of her comment. Rebecca was using the shelter visitors' experiences to connect to her previous experiences of being homeless and being treated prejudicially, and thus to talk about how people who ARE poor AND "look poor" being treated prejudicially by other people, especially those who might be able to help - and doing so in response to comments suggesting poor people should just "suck it up".

From your other comments I imagine your sympathies would lie with those on the receiving end of prejudicial treatment rather than those telling the poor to "suck it up", but instead you went and treated her comments - and then her - with massive prejudice by denying what she wrote in favour of your own cherry-picked interpretation, and then using your own interpretation to suggest that she might be mentally ill, and then following it all up with a sexist insult for good measure.

Do you really want to be the person who nastily attacks an ex-homeless person who is pointing out prejudice against homeless people that works against their climbing out of poverty?

By Lotharsson (not verified) on 15 Jan 2013 #permalink