A cartoon in the San Diego Union-Tribune shows a father walking his little girl past a man and woman seated on the grass by the side of the road. Their heads are bent over a baby cradled in the woman’s arms. “No, honey,” the father tells his little girl as they pass, “that’s not a manger scene.”
Americans are hardened to the sight of grizzled old guys, flasks hidden in their raggedy coats, holding up cardboard. But now we are seeing young families holding out cups at stoplights and spending cold days sitting cross-legged on small-treed islands in suburban parking lots. “It’s a scam,” a friend informed me. “I’ve seen people dropping them off.” Which means somebody else is taking a cut of the pocket change.
I found that cartoon in the latest issue of The Week, which also includes a roundup of proposed solutions. More housing! Housing does not work! Too many of “these people” have paranoid schizophrenia, so they panic when they are closed in tightly—which is exactly how we want them, so they are out of sight. Tough love! Involuntary commitment in a mental institution! We do not have enough mental institutions. They will be released in a few weeks. The last line of the roundup? “It’s time for something different.” Which just hung there, unspecified.
Not one of the world’s cutting-edge architects can come up with a small, cheap modular house that feels as open as a tent but provides better shelter? Not one of the multinational pharmaceutical companies can figure out a medication that could be given only once a month? Top social work schools cannot find a way to win or barter enough trust to obtain consent in calm moments? In a country that wastes one-third of all food bought, we cannot figure out how to share that food before it hits a landfill?
Those who do not have enough are by definition lacking, incomplete, and, in a country with Calvinist roots, unworthy. Advocates and religious leaders have tried for centuries to explain how often people are poor for biochemical or systemic reasons. Their want is everybody’s problem; it should not cut them off from society and leave them dangling at the margins.
But they scare us.
Those who do not have the most basic shelter and sustenance remind us how easily we could lose our own comfort. They remind us that mental illness and addiction can scramble the brains we rely on to succeed. They remind us that existence is precarious at its core. The precariat is a sociological term for “a social class formed by people suffering from precarity, which means existing without predictability or security, affecting material or psychological welfare.” Evicted, stripped of savings, living hand to mouth. But we are just better able to wall off unexpected tragedy than they are.
Unnerved by the presence of the precariat in our comfier world, we expend our energy judging them, deciding how much blame they deserve for their current condition. We decide they failed to make it and forget that the social contract—forged to allow every citizen to pursue a happy, free, and meaningful life—failed them.
I rarely give money at streetcorners. I tell myself it is only a patch that lets people keep begging instead of seeking real help. A group of guys in a shelter told me that once, and I have clung to the excuse ever since. But do I save up that pocket change and send it to a not-for-profit agency looking for real solutions? I am more likely to tuck it into my own IRA. Because I am scared.
Adela Cortina, a philosopher in Spain, came up with a word for it: aporophobia. An instinctive rejection of the poor by the non-poor. Aporophobia includes antipathy, contempt, disgust, disregard, even hate, but I think the central emotion is the one that hides in the second half of the word: phobia. Stark, irrational fear.
Our economic system pits us against one another and encourages exploitation for profit’s sake. Ad copy, marketing strategy, and the new deluge of influencers work in concert, constantly reminding us that we do not have enough, will never have enough.
What looked hopeful to me, for a change, was the movement for effective altruism, an insistence on pragmatic sacrifices, made by those with resources to spare, that make a real difference for those who are worst off. The EA movement started at Oxford University and has permeated Silicon Valley. I read about it with rising excitement.
Then I reached the part lauding one of the most promising young converts, a vegan idealist named Sam Bankman-Fried. That would be SBF, founder of the FTX cybercurrency company, recently arrested for wire fraud, wire fraud conspiracy, securities fraud, securities fraud conspiracy and money laundering. His exchange filed for bankruptcy three months after The New Yorker ran its piece. Instead of saving the world with effective altruism, FTX made a dent in a lot of people’s material security.
He could do that, because we live in an especially weird world these days, one of instant billionaires and instant bankruptcy. During the pandemic, the world’s billionaires increased their fortunes by more than $5.5 trillion, a gain of more than 68 percent. We are about to watch the largest transfer of wealth in human history: over the next quarter-century, those with obscene accumulations of cash will die, transferring $68.4 trillion dollars to their heirs.
That kind of money is hard to even imagine. Especially if you are angling for a ride to a suburban parking lot. While 2,690 billionaires were watching their assets grow by more than 68 percent, the pandemic pushed more than 200 million people into poverty. In a fair game of tug-of-war, a team of 200 million would have a clear advantage over a couple thousand folks on the other side. But the 200 million are standing on quicksand, and the 2,690 are pulling from a fortified tower.
Cortina says aporophobia is the biggest problem facing the world today. It lurks beneath anti-immigrant sentiment, because the real fear is that they will take without giving back. It coincides with racism, because racist policies have made it so hard to accumulate wealth and pass it to the next generation. It meshes with disability, addiction, and mental illness, because those conditions make it hard for people to work or find help.
Back in 2016, France added “discrimination for social precarity” was added to the list of discriminations forbidden by its constitution. But fewer than twenty people sued for that sort of discrimination. How could they afford a lawyer, let alone enough education to recognize the legal grounds and articulate the injustice in a way a judge could respect?
Noblesse oblige is dead. Effective altruism is easily corrupted. So what happens to a society whose wealthiest and poorest move farther and farther away from one another, with less and less incentive to reach across that chasm? Those in the middle fight for a toehold, terrified of falling. And those way over on the other side are hard to even see clearly, and easier and easier to demonize.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.