Human dignity in helping

Since when does accepting kindness from a stranger make someone assume that they are a charity case?

Kelsey Kudak

I was working yesterday in a coffee shop downtown. The event was spent with business-folk and our regulars dropping in to buy their four-dollar lattes and two-dollar drip coffees. One particular gentleman, wearing a suit with a cranberry double Windsor, sauntered in around seven. As he paid and began rummaging around his pocket for loose change – two cents to be exact – I offered him a couple of pennies from my pocket so he wouldn’t have to break another bill. While it seemed this was an ordinary interaction, he respectfully declined saying, “No, no, no. I couldn’t do that. I’ve got it myself so as not to be a charity case.” Seconds later, he finally produced two Abe Lincolns covered in pocket lint.

Interesting it is that such a simple interaction can incite the fear of a stereotype. Since when does accepting kindness from a stranger make someone a charity case? And why, for a businessman of thirty-something, is this an ominous thing?

But in truth, we all look the other direction passing people on street corners with cardboard. Maybe it is because we know there are plenty of resources for the human population and we, those who are born privileged, do nothing to help. Great are the assumptions that those on the street have done some grave deed or are simply lazy and deserving of a cold winter. But the human race has discriminated against the poor for centuries.

Social psychologist Anthony Lemieux from Purchase College studies just such ideas. In his publication in 2003 “Poverty and Prejudice,” he writes, “Poverty does not persist because there is a scarcity of resources. Nor does poverty exist because some societies have inefficient economic systems, lack natural resources or because poor people lack ambition.”

Instead, his studies imply that poverty is a product of human social relationships, and how these relationships distribute wealth and resources. People from similar ethnicities and economic backgrounds tend to form social groups with one another and reinforce the existing boundaries of class systems in place.

People are afraid to cross over in relations, as in the case of the man buying coffee. Though I am making an assumption about his status, he has likely established himself through privilege and ambition. But ambition is significantly more difficult to carry out without the pretense of the privileged middle or upper class.

Bigotry toward the societal label of poor individuals is spattered throughout history; colonists have crushed indigenous peoples in all corners of the world. Other societies have deemed those fighting for survival as “Untouchables,” mandating their status by law. Still yet, people assume struggling immigrants are “stealing jobs” from “proper” Americans when few of the privileged have created understanding relationships with those who are attempting to break a cycle of poverty induced by society in their own country.

Lemieux refutes the idea that poverty is the result of short supplies. “Indeed, a small proportion of the world’s military budget could feed and provide heath care to everyone throughout the world. In the 1990s, 3 percent of the world total production was spent on military production. Additionally, war (e.g., assembling and maintaining armies, development and production of weapons) is estimated to cost 180 times more than peaceful efforts including education, healthcare and food.” The United States is comfortable spending a quarter of the world’s resources and wasting a significant portion of what we spend. Because we group ourselves socially toward similar backgrounds, we systematically reinforce the situation of the poor in our own country as well as those with different borders.

I took the time, one afternoon in August, to talk to a couple I’d seen on the street each day as I walked to work. Their perch was covered in rosaries and Bibles, and we sat and talked for an hour. They told me about losing the mortgage on their house and having to move out to the streets. Shelters filled up fast on winter nights, and they sometimes found themselves in the entryway of the Basilica at night. The stairs were frigid. After being robbed of all their possessions in a poor housing situation, they were on the move toward stability by August – only a couple hundred dollars short of a month’s rent their landlord had allowed to pass. Both were working, and swapped their time on Nicollet. Their family stopped by to check on them and offer conversation while I became an observer.

In the most basic sense, the individuals we see on the street are human. It seems that in passing, if we stare ahead we are relieved of our responsibility and obligation to aid those humans on the curb. But we remove their dignity when we refuse to look them in the eye and take away that dignity we all have in common.

Kelsey Kudak welcomes comments at [email protected]