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How Shame Keeps the Poor in Line

September 1, 2011 4 comments

Home Sweet Home

While I was in Detroit earlier this summer I had a conversation with a wonderful old woman who had been just at the bottom of the middle class all her life. She had gotten by working two, sometimes three hard and under-appreciated food service jobs, making just enough to get by. Now 62 and suffering from several ailments, including diabetes, she was waiting patiently for her unemployment to kick in, so she could stop standing on her feet sixteen hours a day. She had acquired a tiny bit of debt along the way, not enough to amount to lunch money for a rich person, but for her it was like an insurmountable mountain.

As the story goes, she had been almost starving in order to pay those bills, until a good friend convinced her to buy food first, and tell the companies that she was indebted to that they would just have to wait. Like many of the poor and almost poor, she was conscientious to a fault, and had to be convinced to take care of her own basic needs. Never mind that the interest rates she was paying were usurious. Never mind that there are whole industries in the business of exploiting people like her. It had never even occurred to her to miss a payment or negotiate a better deal.

This is just one of the ways that the poor are kept stuck. I have been traveling the country writing about the economic collapse of 2008 and the depression that has followed. It is amazing to me the number of people who have been harmed by these events, or even had their lives destroyed that will not speak out about it. The overwhelming emotion is shame. Shame in the face of a groaning table full of riches meant for others that they will never partake in.

And why are they ashamed, when the abominable condition they find themselves in in clearly not their fault? I believe it comes from an ugly strain of neo-Calvinism that the rich use to justify behavior that no true Christian would tolerate in themselves, and which the poor internalize. The result is massive shame instead of the appropriate emotion-galvanizing rage!

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