THE BLOG
01/07/2015 11:07 am ET Updated Mar 09, 2015

Shaming The Poor Hinders Our Ability to Alleviate Poverty

Bloomberg via Getty Images

The time is upon us when we review the year behind and resolve to do better in the year ahead. Throughout 2014, social programs were once again on the chopping block. Congress implemented dramatic cuts in the food stamp program and allowed long-term unemployment benefits to lapse. Poverty shaming took center stage in garnering support for these cuts. Jon Stewart summed up this tactic quite well, criticizing Fox News for its reporting on food stamp fraud and abuse. Stewart condemned the reporting for creating a narrative "that ties people's poverty to their own lack of virtue and says that programs created to serve the impoverished are in fact the reason that those are still impoverished."

Conservative lawmakers employed this tactic as well. Both Speaker John Boehner and Congressman Paul Ryan criticized the unemployed for creating their own circumstance. For example, Speaker Boehner lamented in a speech before the American Enterprise Institute that it has become a trend for the unemployed to think: "You know, I really don't have to work, I don't really want to do this, I think I'd just rather sit around." Meanwhile, Paul Ryan claimed on Bill Bennett's Morning in America that laziness is especially a problem in the "inner city." According to Ryan, "inner cities" are rife with "generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work."

This rhetoric is not only demeaning, it is also destructive. It completely ignores the reality that many Americans live without the necessary resources to thrive. And, that social programs serve to help these people during difficult times.

This is a reality that I myself have experienced. 16 years ago, I left home for college and was immersed in a world that was completely foreign to me. At the time, I knew few people who had been to college and the radical change in environment proved to be immensely challenging. I ultimately failed out of school. In the years that followed, I struggled. My expenses frequently surpassed my income. The reality was that there was little I could do to get ahead of my debt, and I had little time to focus on much more than my survival.

I found it easy to believe that my struggles were a reflection of poor character. I frequently beat myself up over the bad choices I made. But, despite strong feelings of shame, I understood, at least intellectually, that my ability to make good choices was compromised by my lack of resources. I did not ignore bills while late fees and interest accumulated because I was irresponsible. I did so because I did not have the funds to pay on time. And, I did not fail out of school because I was lazy. I did so because I had no idea how to engage in academic life.

This awareness empowered me to ask for help even when I did not think I deserved it. I enrolled in a number of government and community programs that provided me with food and healthcare. A few even paid to keep my heat on during the cold winter months. Life got a little easier. Before long, I returned to school. This time around, a professor connected me with academic counseling and support services. With the additional aid, I quickly began to excel in my studies and eventually graduated from college with honors. After graduating, I began to work and volunteer in public service, and I developed lasting relationships with passionate social justice advocates. These advocates encouraged me to go to law school. With their guidance, I not only became an attorney, but also served as a law clerk for a federal appellate judge. This is a position widely regarded as a crowning achievement for a new lawyer.

Throughout my journey, a number of people have told me that my success was inevitable. They believe that my aptitude and initiative are what propelled me forward. This assumption is misguided. First, it undercuts the role that certain privileges have played in my life. I was born a white, apparently able-bodied woman who learned early that asking for help was my way forward. Many were eager to help me succeed without once questioning my capability, which is not the case for everyone. Second, that assumption undercuts the role human connection had in my success. I barely knew how to survive, let alone thrive, until someone showed me. Furthermore, I could have lived my whole life unaware of my own potential if someone was not there to help me see it.

In a famous commencement speech given this May, Jim Carrey so aptly noted, "Beware the unloved because they will eventually hurt themselves... or me!" The inverse of this is also true. Be mindful of the loved because they will eventually help both themselves... and others. The people who showed me the way are my heroes. I thrive because of them and I have dedicated my life and career to helping others realize their potential.

Many of these heroes are dedicated to public service. They are caseworkers, educators and attorneys. Unfortunately, they are in short supply. Congress has gutted their budgets and demoralize the recipients of their services. As a result, many in need will never have the opportunity to meet the person who would encourage them to thrive.

The situation is dire. By placing moral judgment on the impoverished, we do everyone a disservice. We fail to harvest the potential of so many bright and talented people in this country. And by doing so, we fail to thrive as a nation. It is imperative that we change the dialogue.