When I was a small child, sometimes I used to lie awake at night fantasising about a huge windfall of money. Some unknown relative would die and leave us a princely sum, like $2,000, or my father, a bartender at the time, would receive a hefty trip from a grateful patron. I used to think out detailed scenarios about the source of that money and how we would use it; how we could buy insulation to lay under the floor so there wouldn’t be ice on it in the mornings in winter, say. Then I grew older and started working myself and learned that this was never going to happen, that the only source of money in that house was what we could bring in.
ABC’s running a show called Secret Millionaire, with the premise that people with a lot of money go into impoverished communities in the United States, hang out for a while, and then award sums to the ‘deserving poor.’ This concept, the idea of poor people who ‘deserve’ financial assistance, comes up a lot, and is predicated on the idea, of course, that most poor people are not deserving. They aren’t miserable enough or they don’t use their government benefits the way other people want them to, or any number of other things.
Secret Millionaire preys upon the fantasy so many lower class people have, that somehow they will be lifted up out of poverty if they are deserving enough. They will stand out from the teeming masses, attract the attention of a benefactor who will pluck them out of their circumstances and reward them for trying so very hard. This fantasy, of course, is deeply rooted in ideas about the American dream, the idea that everyone can succeed if they just work hard enough, that if you bootstrap just a little harder, you will come out on top, you will attract the attention of the right person and get that little push you need to get ahead.
Sometimes all it takes is a little push. A few thousand can make the difference at the crossroads. Most people are acutely aware of that and they see shows like Secret Millionaire and think about how they would use that money. I admit, I think about how I would use it, if the neighbour turned out to secretly be a millionaire. With property values the way they are, the neighbour probably is a millionaire, at least on paper, although with a sea of billionaires floating around, being a millionaire doesn’t have quite the same cachet.
Shows like this reinforce the idea that poverty is a personal problem, that people are poor through faults of their own, rather than because of systemic inequality, and that what we need to do to address class problems in this country is to randomly hand out clots of money. But only to people who deserve it, of course. This show reminds me of the home makeovers for disabled veterans I see in the news now and then, where the veteran tearfully talks about how wonderful it is to finally be able to go upstairs again using the new lift, where family members talk about how happy they are that Aunt Lucy can finally leave her house by the front door instead of slinking out the ramp in back.
These happy, feel-good stories isolate the realities behind them. We shouldn’t have to make over homes for disabled veterans because we should be using universal design, ensuring that any home is accessible to any person with mobility impairments. I shouldn’t have to wonder about how I would arrange ramps if one of my wheelchair using friends visits, because my house should just be accessible. We shouldn’t have to hand out money to poor people to rescue them from poverty, because they shouldn’t be living in conditions where they desperately need that money to get a fighting chance at something in this world.
I say ‘they shouldn’t’ and people may read this as an indictment of people in these situations, but it’s not. It’s an indictment of a society where we tolerate the existence of these situations, and continue to do so. It’s an indictment of a society where people are satisfied as long as they and theirs are comfortable, and don’t throw a passing thought to the people around them. Who cares about the poor people as long as none of your lower income friends are struggling. They don’t have the time, the energy, the ability to fight, and every time those of us in more comfortable situations turn our heads to the side, we reinforce the idea that poverty is a personal problem, an embarrassment, the fault of the poor person, something to be pitied and avoided but certainly not engaged with.
People have a tendency to personalise things like poverty and disability, ignoring the intersections and complex layers of circumstance that lead to inescapable hereditary poverty, that make it impossible to fully engage with society when you are disabled. We see this reflected in the very approach to disability here in the United States, where most people embrace the medical model; you are disabled by your impairments, your disabilities are your problem. Not society’s. And thus, society can avoid ‘dealing with’ the problem because there is nothing it can do. You’re disabled, that’s that.
It does not escape my notice that in a country where people are constantly told they just need to try harder, people embrace models of class, disability, and race that centre around personalising these things. It’s a neat way to avoid responsibility for the problem. Gosh, I wish there was something we could do for all those poor people, but, you know, they need to do something for themselves. So, here, let’s throw them a bone, a secret hope of a sudden influx of cash from a benevolent millionaire. We won’t explore, at all, where that millionaire got the cash, how many backs that person profits on, because what could that possibly have to do with class inequality in the United States?