Recently, I watched the movie Stardust, based on the novel by Neil Gaiman. A few days later, I read a white paper from ideas42 titled Poverty Interrupted: Applying Behavioral Science to the Context of Chronic Scarcity. A similar idea – or, at least, an idea that looked similar when I saw at them one after the other – appeared in both.
The protagonist in Stardust is a boy named Tristan (Charlie Cox) who lives in a village called Wall. Wall is named for the wall that runs alongside it, a wall that has a gap that leads to a magical world. Tristan has a crush on Victoria (Sienna Miller), who sends him on a quest to bring her a fallen star. That quest leads Tristan through the gap in the wall and to the magical world of Stormhold where he meets and captures Yvaine (Claire Danes), a fallen star. On their journey back to Wall, they have adventures, fall in love, and are pursued by a witch who wants to take Yvaine’s heart in order to gain eternal life.
There is a moment when Yvaine and Tristan have been captured by pirates. Yvaine notes that, when she was a star in the sky, she used to watch people having adventures and envied them. Here’s what Tristan says: “Look, I admire you dreaming. A shop boy like me… I could never have imagined an adventure this big in order to wish for it. I just thought I’d find some lump of celestial rock, take it home and that would be it.”
And here’s how Yvaine replies:
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about all my years watching Earth, is that people aren’t what they may seem. There are shop boys, and there are boys who just happen to work in a shop for the time being. And trust me Tristan, you’re no shop boy. You saved my life. Thank you.((Matthew Vaughn (writer, director) and Jane Goldman (writer), Stardust (Los Angeles: Paramount Pictures, 2007), Netflix))
“There are shop boys, and there are boys who just happen to work in a shop for the time being.” That’s a big statement.
There are boys who are shop boys. There are people who, deep down in the very fiber of their being, belong in a shop. It is who they are. It is who they always will be. Even if they work somewhere else – if they become pirates, for example, or kings – they will still be shop boys.
And there are boys who just happen to work in a shop for the time being. They are something else.
Similarly, in Poverty Interrupted, I came across this:
How do you describe the services your organization provides? What about the people you serve? The role your staff members play? These questions have implications far beyond organizational “branding:” the language you use and the labels you apply can have an outsized impact—positive or negative—on who takes up your service, how they use it, how your staff treats them, and the way their participation affects their self-esteem or self-image. If you conceive of someone as a “recipient” or “case,” for instance, it’s easier to adopt a mental model of her as a passive recipient of support than it would be if you referred to her as a “member,” “customer,” or “participant.” Because your mental model will shape your behavior toward her, a “recipient” may begin to believe that she is indeed needy or dependent.
In this paper, for instance, we’ve deliberately avoided using constructions like “needy families” and “poor people” to describe families living with low incomes. When used in this way, these words subtly reinforce the widespread perception that these families are qualitatively different from the rest of us, rather than regular people caught in a particular economic circumstance. When they are people first, and low-income second, it becomes easier to acknowledge individual situations, rather than to fall back on personal or societal stereotypes about “the poor.”((Allison Daminger, Jonathan Hayes, Anthony Barrows, and Josh Wright, “Poverty Interrupted: Applying Behavioral Science to the Context of Chronic Scarcity” ideas42 (2015), 44. The authors also discuss the importance of how we title staff and name programs. What we call things makes a difference.))
To put that another way: there are poor people, and there are people who just happen to live in poverty for the time being.
Actually – and I think the authors of Poverty Interrupted would agree – I’m not so sure that there are poor people. There are only people who just happen to live in poverty. And that’s an important distinction. A lot of organizations act as though there are poor people, as though there’s something ontological about poverty. A lot of the people making the case against charity act as though there is something ingrained about being poor.
But there isn’t something ingrained. ‘Poor’ isn’t an ontological status. There are simply people who just happen to live in poverty. And if we work together as a community, they just happen to live in poverty for the time being.
And while I can’t promise that I’ll be good about avoiding terms like ‘the poor’ and ‘poor people’, I will try to be aware that even in my writing it is important to treat people as people first and low-income second (or third… or thirtieth).
There are, after all, shop boys, and there are boys who just happen to work in a shop for the time being.