It’s a comforting thought. Or at least, I guess it must be, because the Iain Duncan Smiths and the Richard Littlejohns and the Melanie Phillips of this world spend a lot of time banging on about how the poor are not like us and I imagine this must bring them some kind of pleasure. In their dystopian world the poor are lazy, stupid, drunken oafs who think the world owes them a living. They spend all their money on fast food and all their time watching TV. They’re either career criminals or they’re living off the generosity of the state, and whichever it is, they’re robbing you blind, you big sap. They’re skivers not strivers. The poor are not like us. Got that?
If this caricature were true, there’d be no need to repeat it, because we’d know it anyway. But it isn’t, so they do, because we haven’t quite learned to believe it yet. And it’s important that we believe it. It’s important that we forget to remember the old adage about There but for the grace… and learn to believe instead that the poor are poor because they’re not like us, and that they’re undeserving.
See, the undeserving poor – who are always unemployed, always scroungers, always drunks or addicts or wife-beaters – aren’t real people. They’re not like you, or me. They never have hopes, never have fears, never have illnesses or disabilities, they never go looking for jobs that don’t exist, and they absolutely never ever ever work all day in a job they hate, where they can be sacked in an instant, and where they pay the rent and the bills and look at what they have left and wonder how it’s going to get them through the week. Never.
The poor live on the far side of an invisible line you can never cross, in a foreign country you can never go to. That’s the lie which Iain and Richard and Melanie would have you believe. And maybe you think this is just a little lie, and it doesn’t really matter, but it does. Because once you accept the lie that honesty and graft and diligence and integrity and application are qualities you have and the poor don’t, once you believe that you are forever on one side of the line and they’re on the other, once you fall for the gross untruth that you’re a fully rounded human being and the poor – by implication – are something less, then all of us lose.
From there it’s a short step to benefit cuts and welfare-to-work. Iain and Richard and Melanie know that. It’s what they have in mind. But when you caricature and demonise the poor, and convince yourself they really aren’t the same as you, that they’re venal and criminal and up to no good, then somewhere down the line you get a George Zimmerman who believes the assholes always get away and decides to do something about it. And you get a Trayvon Martin too.
And, too late, you learn the poor aren’t a foreign country at all.