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Poverty is not a disgrace, nor is it filthy.

by Maya Paley

May 3, 2013 | 12:56 pm

Image from Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority's 2011 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count Report

I have this calendar of Yiddish sayings on my desk. I never really think about the sayings on the calendar. I just tear off each day’s page so that I feel like I’m making good use of this gift I got from my grandparents’ friends. But today I arrived at the office and quickly noticed yesterday’s quote (May 2, 2013).

It reads:
“Orem iz nischt kayn shandeh, abi nischt shmarkateh.”

Meaning:
“Poverty is not a disgrace, nor is it filthy.”

This may sound like an exaggeration to some, but this statement, in all its simplicity, forces me to think about how I perceive of others and of myself when it comes to poverty.

I received my Master’s Degree in International Affairs with a concentration on Economic and Political Development. My fellow students and I had arrived to Manhattan from around the world to learn how we can champion ending global poverty only to learn the depressing truth about our chosen field: most of the history of “economic development” has been nothing but a continuation of the patriarchal, colonial, condescending, and unsuccessful paradigm paralleling the rest of America’s international history (aside from a few unique exceptions).

I talk about poverty often. I like discussing the importance of fighting the inequalities and societal structures that impede people from moving out of poverty both here in the US and abroad with friends and colleagues. But I rarely think about how I and others around me look at those in poverty and whether or not the way I’m thinking about them is patriarchal, colonial, and condescending as well.

Honestly…it often is. I often feel pity for people living in poverty. I often assume they want my “help” and that “help” is something I can give them.

When I think about homelessness, I am angry with our government, our system, our population for not doing enough to help those in need of shelter. But when I walk by a homeless person on the street, the truth is that I usually either try to avoid eye contact or getting too close to them so they don’t have a chance to ask me for money or I give them a dollar as quickly as possible so that I can move on and not deal with the reality of who they are and how they got to this point. And truthfully I am afraid and sometimes embarrassed by the way they look after not having access to a shower for some time.

So I’m asking myself: do I consider poverty to be filthy or disgraceful? What are the prejudices I’m carrying with me that have been embedded into my subconscious through the history books I’ve read and the etiquette I’ve seen throughout my life. Is there a clear line between wanting to help because it’s the right thing to do and helping because you feel that you are better than others because you are not in their position?

The most recent statistics from 2011 refer to at least 51,340 homeless people In LA County. 12,560 are chronically homeless (for at least a year or more), over 9,000 are veterans, 33% suffer from mental illness, and 32% have a Bachelor’s degree or higher.

With our mayoral elections upon, the least we can do is ask the next mayor of Los Angeles do something about this issue. According to United Way, L.A. is the “homeless capital of the nation.” But beyond governmental assistance and philanthropic support, should we be asking ourselves this question: how are we looking at those in poverty? How are we judging them? Are we seeing them through lenses of prejudice and assumption and are we seeing poverty itself as a disgraceful and filthy?

Please share your thoughts on our perceptions of poverty or on issues of homelessness and poverty in Los Angeles.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Maya Paley is Director of Legislative and Community Engagement at the National Council of Jewish Women/Los Angeles. The programs she works on include the annual Jewish...

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