The Social Contract Has Been Broken

The moment in human history that it became clear that one could enhance their social and economic status by demanding that others labor for a share of their resources, there have been poor people. The relationship between those who have and those who do not have has basically not changed.

Every society and culture is based on assumptions, expectations, values, and behavior. In the 21st Century US, the expectation is that poverty is the fault of poor people and therefore they are not entitled to assistance or support. And since they do not have many resources, the larger society behaves in a manner that denies poor people support. For example, quality education is denied, health care is limited, housing is unavailable (unaffordable) and criminal and civil justice for the poor is meagerly provided. The assumption is perpetrated that poor people that poor people have limited value. The assumption is essential to making a pool of people work for those who have the resources and if you work hard and generate resources for those who have them, then they, the rich, will share with you.

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What I heard from individuals and families who testified at the Truth Commission was that no matter how they tried they could not escape the brutality and assault of poverty. They were courageous and clear about their struggles: not having enough food, not making enough  money, not being able to afford a place to live, not having the education, and not having decent health care. They know that these resources exist and are simply denied to them. This is what makes  poverty unique in the 21st Century. The social contract  to provide support to the poor in order to cushion the impact of poverty on individuals and communities has been broken. Even Dickens’ A Christmas Carol points out that those who have must share and in the sharing individuals and communities will benefit. The struggle of poor people today is rooted in the destruction of that covenant. When we have a white man wearing a $1,500 - $2,000 suit saying to the nation that the food stamps which help the poor to feed themselves and their families must be cut, and he says it without any shame and with blame and contempt of those who need the food stamps, we have lost our compassion and our humanity. If this Truth Commission has done anything it has allowed us to publicly stand up to those who lack compassion and concern for the poor, for our fellow human beings. What is concerning is that it has become acceptable to abandon our moral, ethical concern for the poor among us.

Celia "Cessie" Alfonso, is a nationally recognized expert in forensic social work, domestic violence and organizational development in the area of cultural competence and valuing diversity.