Why do we always want to make things harder for poor people?

That was a question posed by the late Joe Kreisler, the University of Southern Maine social work professor who founded the Preble Street Resource Center as a place where people in extreme need could find help without having to jump through a lot of bureaucratic hoops.

Over the years, the Bayside institution has grown to meet those needs. Preble Street has a soup kitchen even though it’s not primarily an anti-hunger organization. It partners with Maine Medical Center to run a clinic, even though it’s not a health care provider. It has housing programs for teens, women, chronically homeless men and veterans, even though Preble Street is not a housing agency.

It is an organization built on the idea that people can climb out of poverty if they can address its cause. Unemployment, hunger and homelessness are often just symptoms of the problem. Once clients take care of their immediate needs for food and shelter, they can start doing the hard work of healing from traumatic lives.

Lowering the barriers to people who need help has never been easy, but it seems especially hard these days. Neighbors of the resource center in Bayside and city-run homeless shelter on Oxford Street are understandably alarmed about what they see as rising levels of dangerous and uncivilized behavior on the streets where they live. Some are blaming Preble Street, as if the organization were responsible for the problems it’s trying to solve.

The biggest opposition, however, is not local. It’s philosophical, and it comes from people who don’t believe that a life of poverty is too hard – they think it’s too easy.

That’s what’s behind the war on welfare led in Maine by Gov. LePage, who hates bureaucracy unless it involves piling paperwork on a parent who is trying to get food stamps to feed her children. LePage got a standing ovation at the 2012 Maine Republican Convention when he growled, “Maine’s welfare program is cannibalizing the rest of state government. To all you able-bodied people out there: Get off the couch and get yourself a job.”

He was singing the same tune as Paul Ryan, speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, who said: “We don’t want to turn the safety net into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency, that drains them of their will and their incentive to make the most of their lives.”

It’s a popular position, but if you give it any thought, it makes no sense.

Saying that people choose to be poor is like saying people choose to be sick. Multiple factors combine to make us who we are and limit or enable our growth.

The amount of hunger, violence, drug abuse and insecurity you face as a child can limit how much you can learn in school. Mental illness, even if you are “able-bodied,” can prevent you from holding a job. A lot of what we attribute to hard work and good character is really luck.

We tend to believe that people who live different lives from us are different “kinds” of people, but we are more alike than many of us want to admit. In a 1977 paper exploring the phenomenon they called the “fundamental identification error,” psychologists Lee Ross and Richard Nisbett wrote that our environment shapes us as much as we shape it.

“Clerics and criminals rarely face identical or equivalent situational challenges,” they wrote. “Rather, they place themselves, and are placed by others, in situations that induce clergy to look, act and think rather consistently like clergy, and criminals to look, act and think like criminals.”

Or as a public health nurse in Portland recently told me, when you see a drunk passed out on the sidewalk, she sees somebody’s baby, somebody’s brother, something that went wrong. “They are human beings,” she said. “Yes, they do horrible things to themselves, but every single one of them has a story.”

There’s no easy answer to the problems in Bayside. Funding drug treatment programs (through expanded Medicaid, for instance) would make a difference. Developing low- and moderate-income housing would, too. Portland never intended to concentrate all of it’s homeless services in one small neighborhood, and moving the city’s overcrowded homeless shelter probably makes sense.

But no one should believe the line that we have made a life of poverty too easy. It’s hard, very hard.

And why do we always want to make it harder?

Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: gregkesich

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