Walk a Mile

Arrogant man giving a haughty, condescending stareThey are phrases we’ve all heard a million times and show up in comments on social media:

  • “If you’re on food stamps you don’t belong buyin’ a candy bar.”
  • “I shouldn’t have to pay for your shrimp and steak dinner.”
  • “The nanny state offers no incentive to work.”
  • “Poor people are just lazy.”
  • “It’s not my fault you suck at getting a decent job.”
  • “Aid gives the undeserving an unfair advantage I never got.”
  • “Well, I’ve been through hard times, and I never took a handout.”
  • And the list goes on.

At the core of these views are two beliefs. Poor people cheat, and I am self-empowered and don’t – the cheater trope and the alpha trope. Both divide working-class and low-income people, in particular, and prevent collective solutions to our class-divided Deprivation-State.

Empathy vs. “Temporarily Embarrassed Millionaires”

The proven successful alternative to the two tropes is empathy. Empathy opens paths to collective problem-solving. It is the foundation to changing institutions and systems that rely on deprivation to function. Empathy is being able to walk-a-mile… Unfortunately, our U.S. culture tells us that empathy is a personal weakness, a liability in a ruthless social Darwinian competition between the millionaires next door and “temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”

The twin tropes have shunted walking-a-mile to the point that few can or even want to do that. So, how do we dismantle the twin tropes far too many Americans honestly believe?

I grew up a leftneck in a mostly redneck world, a fortunate part of the Appalachians where tourism was the primary industry. Our community had mountain folks, skilled workers, military, resort and restaurant workers and the people that owned the resorts, along with some mom and pop retail. More than half of the population was poor or working poor during the brutal 1970s and ‘80s.

Poor people cheat, and I am self-empowered and don’t – the cheater trope and the alpha trope.

Boot-Strappers vs. Cheater

In that part of the world, the overarching common belief was that if you were poor, it was “yer own damn fault.” If you took “handouts,” you were a cheater. If you could get by on your own, you weren’t poor, and you got by because you didn’t cheat. Poor people cheated by getting something for free that you didn’t, and they got it “offa yer back.” The companion belief was if you were good at the game, then you could not become poor. You were rugged individuals, boot-strappersalphas.

In prior decades, I’ve known several boot-strappers who’ve gotten by, suffering a little while accepting no aid. That was back in an era where many more could qualify. Their adherence to the tropes remained unchanged because they didn’t hit rock bottom themselves. The relief that brings with it creates a personal pride that inflames the alpha trope, which fuels the cheater trope. The latter doesn’t seem to die without the alpha falling first. Those who still have enough income to scrape together rent, but don’t qualify for assistance, won’t stretch the walk-a-mile to those below them. The alpha trope remains dominant, and the cheater trope remains entrenched.

From Twin Tropes to Empathy

Getting clobbered senseless seems to be the catalyst to shift from the tropes to empathy. Lately for most people, aid is pretty tough if not impossible to get. I’ve known many, mostly Gen-Xers, who’ve actually hit rock bottom and stayed there, pinned. I do not know anyone who has lost their home since 2008 who has qualified to buy another one. And rents are so high nobody can save up the required 25-30% down.

In your 30s that’s a problem. In your forties, that humbles the hell out of you, because you’re not getting out. Something shifts, and you get whiplash from how quickly your mind moves from the cheater/alpha-Trump to the walk-a-mile–Berne. It is super easy to walk-a-mile when you’re right there with others in the same ditch. When you have not hit bottom, not so much.

Experts say more will tumble down here among we who have been humbled. Maybe when the alpha trope fails them, they’ll lose the cheater trope and finally walk-a-mile. As much as anyone with empathy does not want to see others experience similar loss, maybe that’s what has to happen to get people on the same page at the same time, with enough weight of numbers to end the Deprivation-State.

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