Unchallenged Poverty: A new normal

Elvis Summers and SmokieA video making the rounds on social media shows a man building a simple “house” — a box with a window and door, really — for a 60 year-old woman he saw “sleeping in the dirt outside his house.”  The video is cheery and positive, one of those heartwarming things you see so often shared among friends online.

The video plays on altruistic messages.  The video tells us people ask him what he’s going to charge for rent, for example.  The reply is indignant.  Rent?  A sixty-year-old mother is sleeping outside and people are worried about rent?  No rent.  This is just the thing good people do for good people.  All shown with Bruno Mars “You Can Count on Me” as a feel good soundtrack.

Eventually we see the woman opening the door of her new house and the words “It Can Only Be Paid For with Love” scroll on the screen.

Well…

The message is kind and thoughtful and I don’t want to take that away.  However there are many things about this video that bother me.  Most obviously, one might think, is a certain naivety.  What is this house going to do overall and in the long run?  How realistic is it as a solution to poverty and homelessness?

The more important concern is more nuanced.  If you see this video on Facebook, you will see a lot of happy high-fiving.  People compliment the builder.  The video is “great” and “awesome” and so on.  And, again, I don’t want to take away from that.

But where is the outrage over the poverty in the first place?

A little more than 50 years ago in this country it was accepted as a given that poverty — for some — would always be with us.  No way around it.  It just is what it is.

Remember the war on poverty?  The Great Society?  It worked.  At the very least, we started to change that narrative and poverty showed signs of decline.   Even at a global level, the number of people living in extreme poverty declined.

But now that trend is shifting.  It is shifting in an era of unprecedented wealth.  At the same time, support for the poor has been cut.  An old American aphorism — The rich get richer and the poor get poorer — has never been more true.  Never before have people fallen into poverty at the rates we see today.  So we celebrate the occasional good deed and call it awesome.

That doesn’t work.

By the way, in my Facebook feed when I saw this video an advertisement for $400 Ferragamo sandals appeared right below this video.  A stark juxtaposition indeed.  And sadly one that I think reflects a world in which we accept extremes of wealth and poverty as a new normal.

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