Is America’s Poor Held to a Higher Standard?

I had an interesting conversation with a parent almost two weeks ago. The discussion was why the scout troop was doing a fundraiser to buy shoes for children in another country when there are so many children in our country who do not have these necessities. This parent’s response was that even though her mother didn’t have wealth, she had the foresight to position her child in programs that would make it possible for her to have a brighter future. Basically, American children were blamed for their parent’s lack of vision and planning. My family did the same for me, but are the children, whose parents don’t provide those opportunities, to be denied help?

Americans often do missionary work in other countries—it is almost expected.   Yet, when asked why the charity doesn’t begin at home, the many chances available in the United States are sited, and those who have not availed themselves of those opportunities are viewed as parasites that are undeserving.

I remember my grandfather’s church raising money for mission work. The congregation was not a wealthy one, yet the members felt it their duty to help those in faraway places who were less fortunate. As we know by now, some of the people in the countries where the funds are shipped were not more impoverished, and in the 21st century, many are quite wealthy. The poor live among them, but quite often the successful neighbors don’t make it their responsibility to uplift the people in their own nations.

Even more striking, is no matter how poor Americans might be, the well to do in other countries don’t think they have a calling to help some of America’s poor. The thought is those in “the land of opportunity can help themselves” if they would but get with the program. The charity does not flow both ways across the oceans. I really came to grips with that way of thinking when I was in an African history seminar this past summer. In questioning African graduate students about their encounters with average Americans and poor people, the consistent response was that there were no regular interactions. The groups were not going out of their way to see how bad some conditions were in this country for themselves. They weren’t concerned, and we were in Michigan. They were here to acquire an education and that was the focus. The scholarships and opportunities that had been provided to them were not questioned, as the guests held onto the notion that those in the US who were not getting ahead were responsible for their fates. The person, who understood this thinking better, cleared up my concern and confusion about this perspective.

She is a coordinator for student teachers. In that capacity, she has the opportunity to see regular Americans, not just fellow graduate students and people who share her academic and economic status. The many people who come to this country for advanced degrees are here for a specific goal, and they rarely encounter the masses in their world that is centered on the ivy tower. Though some may have begun life poor, and are experiencing the chance of a lifetime, they are usually not necessarily concerned about the poor here because they are invisible.

After giving her list of experiences in the non-profit sector the scout mother and the leader continued to explain how important it was that the girls learn to help others. I could barely suppress my disappointment that they were perpetuating the myth that unfortunate Americans are that way because they failed to take advantage of opportunities, but those from other countries were more deserving because they hadn’t begun life here, so they are working hard for change. Not every person in every country we support with our donations, has maximized on every available opportunity, and in some places there are local people who could help, but don’t.   Not all people outside the US collaborate, and support each other in a fair and equitable way. Just looking at human trafficking and exploitation in the manufacturing sectors, and we know this.

So why are struggling Americans held to a different standard? If I could, I would try to ensure that every child has the opportunities listed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights! Not one time was it mentioned in this document that the exception was Americans because they had better odds.   Having knowledge of America’s history, it is clear that this is not necessarily true. Our fortunes are still dependent upon a bit of luck—as in the luck of being born into one family or in one location versus another. Fortunes have shifted with economic ups and downs. Our kids deserve shoes too, and our children can learn to help by contributing to the local community too—not just abroad. These efforts will not be reciprocated by people who are invited to this country for upward mobility, because they too believe the stereotypes, and are indifferent to acquiring a different perspective.


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