It happens every time there’s a news story or a blog post on poverty. The comments section fills with attacks on the poor: they’re lazy, they’re entitled, they lack responsibility. Or their poverty is challenged: if you own an iPhone or a colour TV, if you’ve ever taken a trip anywhere, you’re not really poor. The Poor Police come out in full force.

For example, following federal cabinet minister James Moore’s dismissal of child poverty this week, my Facebook feed lit up with comments defending the minister, arguing things like “It’s time that people start to take responsibility for their own lives, decisions, and children, and do whatever they need to do in order to take care of themselves.”

Similarly, a CBC news story generated over 4000 comments (with the majority scolding the minister) which included such gems as “Children are expensive and time consuming to raise. If you are not in great financial shape, you should not be having children,” and “When you look around at some people with their French manicured nails, well-coiffed hair and designer everything, you wonder if the money could have been better spent on warm clothes for their children or food.”

Class Warfare

Something is seriously wrong with our culture. When people comment on the unfairness of extreme income inequality or complain about the behaviour of the wealthy, it is immediately derided as “class warfare” or the “politics of envy.” Yet punching down – at those who are less fortunate and more vulnerable – is perfectly acceptable and is sometimes even applauded.

People feel free to denigrate poor people in the worst terms for daring to speak up about their experience – even if they’re merely telling their story and not asking for help. When Eric Girard wrote about his experience of being poor at the University of Ottawa law school in the Globe and Mail, he was attacked for his choice of university degrees, for trips he had taken, his student jobs and his credit rating. Nothing was off limits to these poverty police. 

And these comments are often couched in the context of the commenter’s own virtue. He or she has inevitably worked hard, made wise choices, depended on no one and succeeded thanks to their own merits.

The substance of the attacks is easy enough to debunk. Poverty is the result of multiple factors, and personal choices are usually only one small part of a complex web of social and economic causes. When poor people do make choices that don’t make sense to the privileged, they’re often perfectly logical by the torturous, twisted logic of poverty. (For more on this, check out “This is Why Poor People’s Bad Decisions Make Perfect Sense by Linda Tirado in The Huffington Post or The Persistence of Poverty by Charles Karelis.) If that weren’t enough, the complicated system of support we’ve set up contains all kinds of perverse incentives. For example, the maze of rules pertaining to people on welfare can mean that earning one dollar through employment can result in the loss of more than a dollar in benefits. This makes it very difficult for people to climb out of poverty.

Furthermore, those “luxury goods” the poverty police love to deride might not be the luxuries they seem at first glance. That iPhone might simply be the phone that came with the cheapest contract, and serves as both the phone used to contact potential employers and the internet connection used to search for job opportunities. And as Tressie McMillan Cottom has pointed out, lack of status goods can actually hold the poor back. Showing up for a job interview in a thrift store suit can convince the employer “You’re not my kind and you don’t have the right kind of image to work here.”

Motivations

So if they’re light on facts, what motivates these persistent attacks on the poor?

One theory is that people realize how vulnerable they themselves are to poverty – one missed paycheque, one serious illness away – and therefore they lash out to reassure themselves of their own security because of their own virtue. They are convinced their own hard work, their own wise choices, separate them from the possibility of being poor, providing a safety net that will never let them fall into that perilous gap that lies waiting beneath them.

Many middle class Canadians are extremely vulnerable to poverty, but I’m not convinced that this is what motivates the Poor Police. In my experience, many of them have no idea how easily they could find themselves in poverty. Instead, I think there are two key elements: the status anxiety created by extreme income inequality and the values narrative successfully peddled by small-c conservatives.

As Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett have effectively documented in their book, The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone, inequality is so insidious for human well-being because it exacerbates the status competition side of human nature, rather than our cooperative side. Everyone feels worse off as a result – even the wealthy. (Even billionaires fall prey to status anxiety.) Unless you’re at the very top of the income scale, there’s always somebody better off than you. So how do you make yourself feel better in this uncertain, unfair world? You kick those below you.

This culture of social anxiety has also been promoted by a conservative narrative of values. In an essay on “The Corrosive Politics of Virtue,” James Malone highlighted the way in which the values narrative creates a neat and tidy storyline of us versus them: “The lazy, self-indulgent, criminal poor are responsible for their own troubles, the growth of liberal welfare government, and the dwindling opportunities for the hard-working, moral us.” The anxiety and outrage this narrative fosters then make it easy to convince people to adopt the conservative agenda as the prescription for what ails society. We have to punish these people into making good choices, not reward them with social programs that provide economic security.

The trouble with this approach is that there’s no space left for community, for social solidarity, for cooperation and generosity, and that results in a situation where everyone is worse off. It might feel good to feel self-righteous, but it would probably feel better to be socially connected and economically secure. So enough with the Poor Police already. This Christmas, let’s give empathy and generosity full reign instead.