Continuing the discussion on conservatives and poverty, I’m reminded of a TV show, Alaskan Bush People, about the Brown family. This is a bit of reality TV fluff allegedly chronicling the antics of some modern-day homesteaders in Alaska. I actually grew up this way for real, back woods, off the grid, sustenance living. No school, no technology, seldom any neighbors. Needless to say, it is not the adventuresome, idealistic, entertaining lifestyle portrayed on television, even in the best of circumstances. We were never in the best of circumstances.
The real story behind the Alaskan Bush People is Billy Brown’s ingenuity. He comes from a well off family and he’s a writer who figured out how to tap into people’s dreams and idealism, our sense of rugged individualism, and our thirst to go forth and conquer. Freedom! The freedom to provide for yourself, the freedom to conquer your environment, the freedom to enjoy the fruits of your labors. Billy Brown sells frontier dreams, packaged in a TV show.
That is what most of us desire, the ability to provide for ourselves, to create and innovate, to say, “I built that.” Most of us live lives far more like being a hamster on a treadmill, you work for someone else to pay bills so you can work to pay bills, and you can never get ahead, you can never get off that wheel. There is no chance of advancement, no ability to work your way up. Raises, promotions are simply swallowed up by taxes and the increased cost of goods. Any chance for upward mobility is simply a dream passed along to the kids, maybe they can break free, because we sure can’t.
Now, it isn’t like that for everyone, there are still success stories and people living beyond their means, and McMansions, and a whole slew of lifestyles variations, but for the most part that is the working class, hamsters on a wheel to a financial no where, dreaming of freedom.
So what is freedom? It is pretty much the ability to make your way in the world unhindered, to provide for yourself. When you are poor, it is a form of bondage, you do not get to make your way in the world unhindered, there are dozens of stumbling blocks, obstacles and walls in front of you. Some of them are psychological, emotional, but a great deal of them are systemic, they are entwined with bureaucracy, regulations, restrictions.
One thing that I think is a real stumbling block is the way poverty is still perceived as immorality, so being poor must mean you are lazy, stupid, you made bad choices, you deserve it, and if you need help or ask for help, you better show up feeling repentant and ashamed. In the Western world especially there are many false ideas that suggest money, success is somehow related to morality and poverty therefore, is a lack of morality. So often our work with the poor can become more about expressing our own moral superiority and declaring our own virtue, rather than actually helping someone else.
It’s kind of a bummer because one thing that successful people do is ask for help. They create relationships and connections. They recognize that they are not an island, that they are going to need lots of help and support. That asking for help is not something shameful, something requiring repentance and humility, it is just good business sense.
The poor seldom have that.
One obstacle that is often thrown in front of the poor is shame, not that people aren’t prideful, but that respecting their right to human dignity is uncommon. I once asked a woman to introduce me to a man who runs a newsletter because I wanted to pitch him an article. She said she would, never did, and then offered me a job cleaning her bathrooms while handing me two giant bags of old clothing I did not want or need. What that’s called is a smack down. She thought I was being uppity, I had challenged her feelings of moral superiority by implying I was an equal in some way, and she felt the need to remind me of my place.
When people experience that kind of thing a few hundred times, it begins to take its toll on you, you stop asking for help, you stop trying to make connections, you start to believe the system is rigged against you and in many ways it is. It is a system built more on WHO you know than WHAT you know.