I recently had a huge argument with a friend about poverty. He may never speak to me again. Seriously. It's been weeks. We used to at least text every other day. It's total radio silence.
It started as a result of our local mayoral election. One of the candidates recently caused a stir with her answer in a debate to a question about poverty. My friend and I started out by discussing the role of religion in politics, since the mayor got herself in hot water by answering the question from a perspective of faith. Despite my friend being significantly more religious than I, we were in agreement that religion has no role in governance. So far, so good.
The conversation turned to whether or not people who believe one way or another and/or participate in any religious activity are less likely to be poor. Again, harmoniously, we both agreed that was highly unlikely.
But then I asked this question:
Me: "Do you want to cure poverty?"
Possibly assuming this was a rhetorical question, he answered this:
Him: "Of course."
But I wasn't asking rhetorically, and so then it went down like this:
Me: "Well, we know what the cure for poverty is."
Him: "What's that?"
Me: "Give people money."
Him: "That's not a cure."
Me: "Of course it is. Poverty means you can't meet your basic needs for food and shelter. If you give people enough money to cover those needs, they are no longer living in poverty."
Him: "We can't just give people money."
Me: "Then you don't really want to cure poverty."
Him: <visibly annoyed>
This exchange represents the more civilized part of the conversation, which ultimately resulted in the actual physical slamming of my back door by a grown man who has lived for nearly a century and has in 100% of all my other interactions with him behaved in a perfectly reasonable, rational manner*. But this topic clearly made him crazy. Or maybe my stance on it.
When we ask "Should we give people money?" we get these questions and assertions in return: "Why?" "No one gave me money." "I work hard for my money." Or my favorite: "They'll just spend it."
That last one happened with my friend**:
Him: "They'll spend it on drugs."
Me: "I agree there are complications of poverty."
Him: "We should fix those."
Me: "We agree on this."
Him: "But you still think we should give them money."
Me: "Yes, so they are not hungry and homeless."
Him: "But there are programs for that."
Me: "Do we know which ones work the best? Have they cured the problem?"
And round and round.
At one point we were talking about how much money I'd be willing to give them and how I could possibly get the majority of tax payers to agree to this. I probably went too sanctimoniously far when this happened:
Me: "Shouldn't we give as much as it takes so that our fellow human beings aren't hungry?"
Him: "There's a judgement there that I'm ok allowing people to go hungry."
Me: "It sounds that way to me."
Him: "So while you work your ass off in your job, you're happy to just give people who aren't working, as much money as they need?"
Me: "Yes! How much money do we all really need? We all exist on this planet together. We have to help each other out."
Him: "You clearly were the kid in school who when the teacher assigned group projects you picked up the slack for the slackers who never did any work."
Me: "What's wrong with that?"
Me: "And you were the insufferable bully who looked down your nose at the slackers making them feel even less capable and relevant than they already did."
Him: "Yes and then I went to Business School and made a ton of money and you became a social worker and worry all the time about retirement."
Me: <oh dear>
The last thing he said to me before the door slammed was something to the effect that I was idealistic, unrealistic, simplistic and stubborn, and that none of the problems I worry about will be solved with my attitudes. He's got a great vocabulary. And maybe a point.
The next night I texted him this article and commented that I want people to be able to focus on making and achieving their life goals, but if they use all their energy on survival, when they lack basic dignity, when their life is reduced to a "hand out," how can we expect them to have anything left for strategic thinking? Especially if they didn't get the education they needed as a kid.
I tell myself that I can't really be friends with someone whose values don't align with mine, but this isn't really true. For years I've skirted around the issues with friends. It might be that as I get older I'm less willing to compromise, to gloss over the things that cause social problems to persist so disastrously. When I was 25, I was sure that poverty and equality would be worked out by the time I was older. At 50, I'm shocked by the lack of progress and I'm afraid that for many of those years, I was part of the problem.
So where do I go now? I was so sure that if we all came together we could find common ground and move forward, but values are strong barriers. If we can't even talk about the issues constructively, if the gaps between our values has widened so much that we are incapable of relating, where do we go now?
I don't have any answers. For the past decade it's become increasingly clearer to me that the older I get, regardless of the more I learn, the less I actually know.
I don't apologize for anything I said to my friend, or about how I feel, but it seems pretty useless to even have the conversations at this point.
*Except when massive quantities of alcohol were involved.
**Or un-friend as the case may be.