On Sunday, September 13th, an opinion piece by Charles M. Blow was published by The New York Times. The article, “Writing for the Poor,” lamented the poverty-stricken life of a woman in rural northern Louisiana. She was Blow’s aunt whom the author declared, was:
“desperately poor, like many people I knew in rural north Louisiana. I don’t know how much money she had or made. I only know the shadow of need that stalked her. She seemed, like many members of my family, one paycheck or severe injury away from insolvency.”
He described her home disparagingly—starving dogs in the yard, foul odors emitting from rooms, waist-high weeds for a lawn. The reasons for this? According to Blow, the usual suspects: “patriarchy, racism, mass incarceration, craven capitalism.”
Blow viewed his aunt as a “disposable” person who “had little money and wielded little power.” The author himself was poor once but no longer—he queried himself about how he could help his aunt. He concluded rather than show personal generosity toward her, he’d focus on “public policy and indifference. The best thing I could do was advocate for all.” He didn’t want to reach in his own pocket to help his aunt, rather his solution is to pull from the public’s coffers.
Missing from the opinion piece was personal responsibility, however, Blow gave some insight into the cause of his aunt’s poverty: “My aunt died in hock to payday lenders, having taken out loans to get the men in her life out of trouble and keep them out, but all the while she sank further and further into debt and despair. And the lenders profited from that pain.” So, his aunt’s decision to take on more debt by borrowing money to help the men in her life isn’t the cause of her pain? According to Blow, it’s the lenders.
The reason the piece in The Times is important is that it demonstrates some writer’s inability to look at a situation from all sides. Blow wants us to pity his aunt and not hold her accountable for the life she led. Why couldn’t she cut the grass and feed the dogs or find a home for them? Why did she tolerate foul odors coming from the rooms in her home? How did mass incarceration have anything to do with her dismal financial situation?
Blow’s aunt was the single most important cause of her unfortunate situation, not the society surrounding her.