The Wheel of Fortune: Why Looking Down on the Poor and Disadvantaged Is a Bad Idea

Sep 22, 2020Commentary, Economic Mobility, Human Dignity

Have you ever seen a person who is homeless taking refuge under a shade tree in the summer heat, with his sleeping bag and bundles of meager belongings, and thought: “I’m so glad that’s not me,” or even something like, “How did he end up here? He must have really messed up in life.”

It’s common to view those who are poor and disadvantaged this way, and difficult not to do so, but this attitude is based on misperceptions of reality. Many people in need, if not most, found themselves in those circumstances through no fault of their own. Just like you and me, they were doing their best to stay afloat and succeed in life until insurmountable obstacles forced them into poverty. Or, perhaps, they started their lives in poverty and no one taught them or showed them how to live a productive, self-reliant life.

The truth is that we’re all in the same boat as the people we’re tempted to look down on–that person under the tree could be you, it could be me–in an instant.

The Wheel of Fortune

Consider Fortuna, a Roman goddess and her rota fortunae, or wheel of fortune. Blindfolded, she spins her wheel that a person symbolically rides during life, and those at the top who enjoy wealth, happiness, and leisure can quickly fall to the bottom of the wheel, whereas those who have fallen to the bottom and experience poverty and misery can just as quickly rise to the top.

Image Credit: National Trust, Waddesdon Manor / Mike Fear

Fortuna’s wheel is a reminder that wealth and prosperity can be fleeting. Similarly, in “The Monk’s Tale,” Geoffrey Chaucer recounts the tragic endings of historical figures like Lucifer, Samson, Nero, and Julius Caesar to show how a person can rise up and then fall through the workings of fortune. Fortuna’s wheel also reminds us that under the right circumstances people at the bottom can rise to the top, joining those already there, or even trading places with them.

We Should See the Poor and Disadvantaged as We See Ourselves

We should remember that any of us could find ourselves in the same circumstances as those who are poor and disadvantaged, especially amidst a global pandemic. A disabling injury, a job loss, a natural disaster, and many other unexpected events could quickly turn our wheel of fortune upside down. Because of this fact, we should view and treat those currently at the “bottom” as we would want to be seen and treated if we were to fall.

For example, we wouldn’t want people to think we are lost or hopeless or sub-human and worthy of abandonment. Rather, we would want others to recognize that while our circumstances have changed, we still have dignity as human beings with the potential to rise up and find success again.

Indeed, with a helping hand any of us in need can gain or regain self-reliance and success. Accordingly, our public policy should create and maintain a supportive environment that recognizes each person’s human dignity, no matter his or her current circumstances, and provide all of us every opportunity to find stability and earn success.

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