Picking on the poor

For many years we had an old gray horse named “Wonder”. She was sweet and lovable. She lived to herd cows. As she got older, a pleasure ride meant a constant struggle to keep her moving away from the barn. She plodded along and acted like the old horse she was. Yet, if there were cows to herd, her manner dropped ten years, and she would work for hours.

Horses are interesting animals. Some horses are the leaders. Some of them kick and bite to get the rest to fall in line. Others lead quietly, but firmly. Some of the quiet leaders have a designated sergeant who does the actual biting and kicking, taking subtle cues from the leader. Some horses are on the very bottom of the pecking order. They eat last. They drink last. The boss horses often pick on them.

Wonder was the “least of these” of our horse herd. She was always the one to be nipped and kicked. She ate last. She drank last. And after the lead horse and the “sergeant” horse had taken their drinks, sometimes the sergeant would even tip the water buckets over, making sure Wonder went without.

Chickens, too, have a pecking order. The smallest, weakest hen often  gets her feathers pulled out by her higher-ranking sisters.   Among cows, the daughters of “boss” cows inherit their position in the herd.

Is it tempting for us to behave in the same way?

We look up to those who have wealth and power. We assign privilege to wealthy people, even to those who inherited it from their parents and grandparents. We have an ongoing debate about the disparity of wealth in our society and whether the rich deserve what they have, and whether the poor, using the same logic, deserve their place in line. The current Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Dr. Ben Carson, recently said he believes people who stay poor have “the wrong mindset”.  Facebook posts accuse poor people of being drug addicted, tattooed, smoking, alcoholic cheats, who get expensive manicures, the latest cell phones and generally abuse the welfare system. The comments sections for articles about the plight of the poor often are filled with anger and hate.  The commenters seem to be those who live close to poverty themselves or are perhaps those who of average means but still hope to be wealthy and privileged someday. Yet, we all know someone who has lost everything due to ill health, mental illness, divorce, death of a spouse, natural disasters, disability or age. Statistics show that the majority of us live one or two paychecks from poverty.

Undernourished mothers are more likely to have babies with low birth weight. Children who do not have enough to eat do poorly in school and are more likely to miss school. They are sick more often. They are, paradoxically, at greater risk of obesity. Their poor education, illnesses and lack of physical fitness cost our country’s economy in the long run. Some 6.4 million older Americans live at or below the federal poverty level. Poor nutrition among the elderly leads to loss of independence, increased hospital costs, and long-term institutionalization.

The President’s latest budget proposals cut the safety-net programs  for the poorest of us, but increase military spending and cut taxes for the wealthiest taxpayers.

We are not chickens, cows or horses. We do not need to move up in line by picking on the most vulnerable among us.

Let our Senators and Representatives know that we expect a budget that protects the safety net for the poor.

If you want to know more about how politics and legislation affect the poor and what you can do to help, see the Bread for the World web site at www.bread.org.