Until recently, I experienced liberals as people who want to help poor people — highly educated professionals who spend significant amounts of money and time working for social justice. We care. We want to help. We sincerely believe we are all in this together.
Conservatives, I was sure, believed each person was out for him or herself. They didn’t want to support people who had less. Rich or poor, it didn’t matter; conservatives were heartless and unkind. When poor people seemed unwilling to support programs meant to help them — the radical right wing had brainwashed them!
When I hit my financial crisis a few years ago, I learned that how people view “helping the poor” has more to do with their own financial backgrounds than with their politics.
I found out that conservatives who are poor are some of the most committed people there are in terms of helping others. In fact, when it came to finding help in my darkest times, it was easier getting help from my more conservative friends who knew what it was like being poor than it was getting help from my well-meaning liberal and financially stable friends.
The difference was that those who had experienced poverty, whether conservative or liberal, offered very direct and concrete assistance. My more monied friends cared deeply and wanted to help, without a doubt, but they waited for me to tell them what I needed.
I understand why they waited. Like most people of privilege, I live my life with the sense that I determine my own path. Of course, I am the one who knows best what I need.
Just a few years ago, if someone I knew said they were in financial crisis, were applying for food stamps and MaineCare, or flat out didn’t know how they would pay their bills, I would feel deeply for them. I would want to help. But, I wouldn’t know how.
Also, regrettably, I might wonder with suspicion what the person did to get themselves into such a bad place. I might feel the need to distance myself a bit as the person was becoming someone I didn’t understand.
In the last few years, I learned the connections between people who live with very little money are very strong. People help each other. They know what would help — child care, car repairs, information about where to access free food, for example — and they offer those things.
The wealthy people I know want to help. They see how unfair and unjust the distribution of wealth is in our society. They know intellectually the hurdles in the path out of poverty are nearly or actually insurmountable. They want to do what they can to improve the lives of those struggling day to day just to survive. Their desire to help is sincere and honorable. They give money and time doing what they can to help.
The poor people I know also want to help. In my experience, they actually do help when people around them need it. They offer to watch a friend’s children, to lend an extension cord to temporarily share electricity with a neighbor, or to run to the gas station for a gallon of gas to start a stranger’s car stranded on the side of the road.
No matter their financial background, most people want to help people who need it. Surely, the efforts of relatively monied people are not wasted. But, when financial times are tough, a friend insisting she pay for the gas “because you are driving” or a neighbor showing up just before dinnertime with freshly cooked lasagna — now, that’s really help.
Heather Denkmire is a writer and artist who lives in Portland with her two young daughters. After a few challenging years, she is growing her small business, where her team helps nonprofit organizations win grants. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her columns appear monthly.