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I don't deny the reality of poverty, but this discussion leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

The world is full of pain and nastiness, but this particular list accentuates and celebrates it. Can you imagine a similar piece writing about the woes of Terminal Cancer or Business Failure or Having An Autistic Child?

Everyone's got problems, but people who are actually suffering don't write this way. Nobody defines themselves by their problems; ask a poor person if he's poor, and he'll probably say, "Oh no, I'm not that poor, I have an X." Or maybe, "Oh, I'm poor all right, but I'm not unhappy." Or perhaps even, "Yeah, I'm poor, and it is kind of miserable, but X makes it okay."

What you won't get is, "Oh, I'm so poor and miserable, and you have no idea what poverty is like, let me list the ways I suffer, and let me drive home how very impossible it is for you, from your life of privelege, to ever comprehend how much I suffer every minute."

Well, unless you ask an angsty teenager. ;)

Just about everybody has problems, but nobody defines themselves by their troubles. Everyone thinks of himself as a complex person, with some miseries and some joys, some problems and some opportunities, some strengths and some weaknesses.

Think over your own life; you could almost certainly write a piece like this about some problem you've had. Something has been miserable and unjust for you, in a way people who haven't been there would have a hard time identifying with.

But do you define yourself by it? Neither do The Poor.

That gets at the heart of what I find troubling about this piece.

This is not about a particular person's or a particular community's experience of poverty. This is about The Poor, as a monolithic, mythical entity. And anytime you see someone cast a community of people, who are inherently diverse and complex by virtue of being people, as a simple, mythical stereotype, you're seeing intellectual dishonesty in action. Leftists are socialists, Christians are stupid or evil, Hacker News readers are well off, Iraqis approve the occupation, Americans are arrogant. These things can only be said from a distance; those who have spent time with these communities up close and personal would be hard pressed to say anything was true of all of them. People are diverse.

Let me call these sentiments what they are: bigotry. They divide the population into "us" and "them", and say we are this way, and they are that way.

(That's not to say you can't make useful generalizations. You can. But an honest generalization acknowledges that it is a simplification of a complex reality, and welcomes statistics and counterexamples that heighten the clarity of the image. Bigotry says reality is simple, and don't argue with me, dammit.)

Step back a moment and you know that poverty is complex, and poverty is relative. There are transient homeless and chronic homeless. There are ambitious immigrants without a dollar to their names, there are musicians living the bohemian life, there are barely-profitable-but-proud startup founders living on ramen, there are third generation prostitutes who will never know their fathers, there are children sold into sexual slavery before they're even teens, there are women trapped in polygamous, fundamentalist Mormon communities, there are parents who helplessly watch their children starve to death. So what "is poverty"? By what authority does this author say, "Poverty is..."?

This is not a rational attempt to characterize poverty. This is not a reference to studies which say "67% of households in XX neighborhood in 2008 had to go without a meal at least once a week for lack of funds." This is a series of emotional statements. This says, "Poverty is having to hunt squirrels in the park for food and being so hungry that you'll even eat the nasty bits."

And if someone comes back and says, "Actually, poverty isn't that bad," is their diverse viewpoint into a complex problem welcomed? No, the response is, "Clearly you've never experienced true poverty, you insensitive bastard."

What's going on here?

Emotional, self-serving bigotry. These are not poor people talking about contemporary problems, looking for practical solutions. These are people who know what Poverty Is one-upping those who Don't Know What Poverty Is with their superior Social Awareness. It's a race to see who can be the most heartbroken by this emotional Reality of Poverty, criticizing nothing, adding to the tales of woe, acknowledging that yes, by God, it's true, it's all true.

I have no doubt that the anecdotes are true, that they have roots in real experience. People really do suffer despair, hunger, and degrading treatment. But an emotional characterization without any roots in reason, a construction of a mythology of The Poor as objects of pity? I think that's actually destructive.

Impersonal pity is degrading and infuriating. You see it in some of the experiences recounted in the original post and comments. People would anonymously leave us food or presents, one commenter says, and even though we needed them it provoked us to white-hot rage. We were not that poor.

Kindness and compassion are encouraging and uplifting, whether you are going out to lunch with a poor friend or complimenting a rich friend on his poetry. It doesn't matter how miserable or happy a person is; he can be made happier by love, by personal kindness. But depersonalized pity is always degrading. If you do not think of yourself as The Poor, how insulting is it that your neighbor does, that he thinks your life is so unbearable that you would rather have a few crumbs from his table than keep your sense of dignity?

There is a subtle art to being kind. It's all about treating people with dignity, respecting their personhood.

Kindness is your friend, the rich professor, treating you to an extravagent dinner at the best club in town as a thank you for your hard work helping him grade papers. Pity is an anonymous millionaire giving you $200 for the same dinner just so you can "feel like a human being for a night." Kindness is your neighbor, the fit, poor, stay at home mom, offering to help her elderly and disabled neighbor with some chores after chatting over lunch. Pity is $50 in an envelope taped to your door with a note that says, "I can see your living room from the street and feel sorry for you; this is to hire a housekeeper for a day."

The original post provokes pity, and I find that degrading. Here, for comparison, is what compassion sounds like:

http://jmchoul.spaces.live.com/Blog/cns!F04579021E6249A3!143... http://www.delanceystreetfoundation.org/grads.php

Poverty is real, complex, and generally miserable, but even the poor are human. Treat them with human dignity and kindness, not with self-righteous pity.

  this particular list accentuates and celebrates it.
It doesn't do that in any objective way: that's your interpretation, which you use as a stool to easily climb on a hobbyhorse.

  Can you imagine a similar piece writing about the woes of
  Terminal Cancer or Business Failure or Having An Autistic
Yes I can. Actually, I think I've read those and they were equally inspiring as a reminder of my wealth and health and how small my problems really are. What of it?

  people who are actually suffering don't write this way.
But people who have suffered may. Survivors of any traumatic experience can reflect on their experiences in a wide variety of ways. Your typification of the author in this way is not supported by any evidence.

As to the rest of this piece: I find several of the viewpoints commendable, but you're conflating them by interpreting this list as 'self-serving bigotry'. The problems of generalisations, pity and lack of understanding really don't need to have anything to do with this list. Only the author can tell.


Survivors of any traumatic experience can reflect on their experiences in a wide variety of ways.

John Scalzi is not reflecting on his own experiences. He is just as privileged as you or I; he is merely claiming to be so much more aware of poverty that he has the authority to emotionally define it.



I believe that Scalzi grew up in a household which was "poor", at least for some years, and that he was simply hard-working and lucky enough to be able to get out of it. See his comment on the OP here: http://whatever.scalzi.com/2005/09/03/being-poor/#comment-64...

Which is not to say that he isn't doing well for himself now, and it's hardly surprising that this wouldn't feature prominently in his "brief bio".


I dunno. In that comment, he describes being the first in his family to graduate from high school or college, and his mom sending him away to live with an aunt so she could work.

In the original post, he described not being able to scrape together $300 for a test to go to college at all, and "not taking the job because you can’t find someone you trust to watch your kids". Sounds like exaggeration to me.

I still don't think he's writing from experience. He went to a high school he liked, a nice out of state college, and got a nice job. Just like the rest of us. He hasn't had to "try to think of a way to make the kids understand that the box [of Raisin Bran] has to last." Maybe his parents or friends did. Or maybe it's exaggerated and mythologized.

Who knows?

I'd rather access the reality of poverty through reason than emotion. Practical compassion for the people I know personally (and he is not the only one with friends and family who are poor!); statistics for communities and definitions and trends.


In the original post, he described not being able to scrape together $300 for a test to go to college at all, and "not taking the job because you can’t find someone you trust to watch your kids". Sounds like exaggeration to me.

Minor correction: the $300 for college story is from a person called Soni in the comments, not in the original blog post. The bit about not taking a job, I can easily see being observation of his parents; that's how I interpreted a lot of the items in the list, as things he saw his family go through as he grew up. He himself has obviously done pretty good, but that's not to say he couldn't have shared at least parts of these experiences.

In general I agree with the superiority of reason over emotion; but there are a lot of people out there who can't be reached easily through reason, for whom statistics just sit there, meaningless. I think it's useful to have these emotional appeals out there, as it hits at a different level.


  John Scalzi is not reflecting on his own experiences.
But the point is that you can't decide that from what he wrote. A work of fiction can contain extremely accurate descriptions of peoples' experiences, as judged by people that have experienced what is descrined, even though the author hasn't lived through those experiences himself. The ability to conceive such descriptions is one of the skills that can make someone a great writer. You're basically arguing against that and asserting that someone that hasn't experienced something cannot and should not write about it.


I think there's many things to take away from the post given the way it is written, all of which are valid interpretations. I got the exact opposite of you. The end take-away I read from it was "The destitute are people. There are real problems and real situations that cause it. They don't want pity, they don't want handouts, they want to be in a better place but there is no hope left of that so they just make do and try to be happy like everyone else." I may be biased and read more into it than was intended given my personal past, but I got the message from the post that you ended with, "Treat them with human dignity and kindness, not with self-righteous pity."


You hit on what I don't like about this post better than I could, so I'll mention something else.

Yesterday was Anthony Bourdain hammering home the message that if you aren't young, fit, talented and working in the top 10 restaurants in the world you are nobody and may as well not bother trying.

Today it's this essay harping on about how if you haven't below his arbitrary level of poorness then you arent worth bothering with and how dare you think to have an opinion.

This seems a common enough attitude around - that only the top few or the extreme failures are real people and everyone else is a schmuck, and it's mechanistic, compasionless and unhelpful.


Not that I disagree with you. I've been poor and would never had thought along the lines of this piece in that present tense. But looking back now, I certainly do in the past-tense.


Many people once where poor. My father grew up poor in the US and missed many a meal. The closest he ever came to describing it was "15 pounds in basic training from actually having enough to eat." However, after he started making 6 figures he could joke about being poor. It's not really complaining so much as saying, relative to that things are great.


It's a poem.


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