Wednesday, November 2, 2011

What's wrong with this picture?

A friend of mine posted this to her Facebook page:

Sounds good, right? Reminding us to care for the poor and needy rather than our own selfish wealthy Western selves? But I would argue that this is a dangerous distortion that hurts the poor.

It's clear to me that the photo on the top is the 1%--the poorest of the poor. This kind of thing is often referred to in aid circles as poverty porn, used by charities to drum up donations.  This skewed view of poverty leads to discrimination throughout society.  Fox News did a segment during the summer on the "so-called poor" complaining--complaining--that 99 percent of them have a refrigerator. The Heritage Foundation uses the Census Report to proclaim that
For most Americans, the word “poverty” suggests near destitution: an inability to provide nutritious food, clothing, and reasonable shelter for one’s family. However, only a small number of the 46 million persons classified as 'poor' by the Census Bureau fit that description. While real material hardship certainly does occur, it is limited in scope and severity.
THAT is why this picture is so dangerous. It establishes a picture of poverty that requires the poor to be absolutely destitute before they deserve any pity. Clearly if "the poor" look well-fed and happy then they're not really poor, are they? Just lazy whiners.

Let's take a look at another picture of poverty, one I took while I was working with Kiva in Uganda.

These women are all entrepreneurs getting microfinance loans. They fit any definition of "poor" you care to name. Do they look miserable enough? Should they even be getting a loan? In fact, there was another photo (that I didn't keep) of this same group hamming it up and smiling which I didn't post to the Kiva website because I was afraid that lenders would think they didn't need the money because they looked too happy.

Luckily in the picture I took, at least the poor in question are African women. At least they are the right color and gender to appear properly poor. How dare a white male suggest he could be part of the 99 percent! Except if he earns less than $47,500 a year, then he is. Not just in the U.S., but in the world. Leaving aside  any other consideration: what do we know about this guy? Absolutely nothing. He could be doing  an unpaid internship. He could be unemployed. He could have a good job somewhere. He could come from a wealthy family--we don't know.

But it is presumptuous to claim that he is part of the top 1 percent without information. We are basing that on a stereotype of rich and poor that is not helpful to anyone. It certainly does not get to the issues behind the Occupy Wall Street protests. This image is a cheap shot and it isn't good for anyone.  

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