Blaming the poor

An Alabama past time nearly as popular as football is blaming the poor.

Irresponsible personal decisions, claim many who themselves are one calamity away from poverty, are responsible for the desperate circumstances of the poor.
The poor don’t take care of themselves, we like to believe, as evidenced by obesity and diabetes rates. They don’t raise their children right, as demonstrated by school discipline problems. They have children out of wedlock and have high divorce rates. They too often abuse alcohol or drugs. We file away these factoids as proof that they have brought their poverty on themselves.
A study released last week by the U.S. National Institute on Aging is a reminder that we may have the causal relationship wrong. Poverty often is a cause, not a result, of the behaviors we so eagerly document.
The study found people who suffer job loss are at the greatest risks for heart attacks.
Numerous other studies find a relationship between poverty and high rates of obesity and high rates of mental illness, such as depression and anxiety.
This should come as no surprise. Stress kills. In addition to the stresses common to all humans, those who lose jobs or live in poverty must deal with additional and extraordinary pressures.
How will they find health care for their families? How will they stay in their home or maintain the car they use to seek or continue employment? How will they pay to keep their children in extracurricular activities at school? Will they find enough money to keep the power on? Will the landlord cash the rent check before they can deposit the money? If cash runs out Thursday, how will they feed the kids on Friday?
The poor and unemployed are not unique in struggling to cope with stress. All of us are more prone to bad decisions when life seems hopeless. Our relationships, both with spouses and children, tend to fray when we feel inadequate. The temporary escape of intoxicants becomes a greater temptation. Planning for the future seems futile.
In Decatur, 31 percent of households have annual incomes below $25,000, according to the census. One in four families with children live in poverty. Sixty-two percent of Decatur City Schools students qualify for free or reduced lunches.
We get satisfaction from convincing ourselves that the poor are fundamentally different from us, that they deserve their plight. We want to believe we would react differently.
The sobering truth is that humans are more alike than different. What separates the poor from everyone else has more to do with circumstance than character.


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