Spectators at Atlanta Braves gameSeveral years ago, before the real estate bubble burst, Sean and I (or at least I) felt a lot of pressure to buy a home. Everyone said it was the thing to do, that it was the best investment you could make. Sean’s take was always that home prices were too high and that we didn’t have enough money for a proper down payment at those prices. To placate various individuals we went to a bank to see how much credit we could get, and Sean was astonished to discover that with our income, credit, and what we had in savings as a down payment, they would loan us enough for a $230,000 home. He told me privately that this was predatory, that the bank had to know we were not in a position to make payments on that kind of mortgage comfortably.

I see his wisdom now, but at the time I thought he was being unreasonable, and some people even said as much to me. So I looked into other financing options myself…one of which was a home loan through NACA. Sean wasn’t interested in the slightest, but to his credit, he went right along with me to a meeting to learn more about the program.

We ultimately decided that a long-term loan with a super-low down payment wasn’t best for us either. It would financially trap us in a way far worse than a traditional 30-year mortgage, without really providing anything in the way of profit. The end result is that we have never owned real estate. But that day, flush with nervous excitement and a feeling that we should be doing something and maybe this was the answer, I told Sean that the meeting was at the Augusta downtown library and we headed out.

Unfortunately, the meeting wasn’t at the library. After a few confused minutes, I asked someone on staff and was told that that day’s meeting was being held elsewhere. We got the address and hurried over, already late. I thought about just giving up for the day and going home, but we had preregistered and I thought it would look bad if we didn’t show. Besides, I reasoned, everyone is late in Augusta. At worst we’d get a disapproving stare.

We found the correct location and signed in, then tried to slip into the meeting. The door was at the front of the room, so everyone saw us as we muttered “Sorry” and attempted to shuffle down to seats in the back. And then–

“Oh, no,” said the woman at the front of the room, as if she was admonishing children. “You come in late, you sit up front.”

I was mortified. My first instinct was to flee. But everyone had already seen us; we were committed. We walked back to the front of the room and sat at the first table.

I spent the rest of the meeting feeling like I shouldn’t be there, like something was dreadfully wrong, but I couldn’t quite figure out what it was. I had the vague sense that the other people in the room were not my peers, with the possible exception of the woman in charge, only she’d not recognized me as such.

Years later, I can finally admit that I was being prejudiced, as was the lady running the meeting.

NACA is a program for people with low incomes. The purpose is to help stabilize communities by keeping families in homes. It’s not about helping people profit on a financial investment; it’s about making sure they have a lasting place to live. From everything I’ve seen, it’s a great program that helps neighborhoods and advocates for homeowners.

My sense of not belonging came from recognizing that the other meeting attendees were not at our economic level. Meanwhile, the woman–whose actions should not reflect on all of NACA–had assumed Sean and I were low-income and treated us that way.

As if there is a way you are supposed to treat low-income people, as opposed to other people.

I was flummoxed that day because in my adult life I had never been treated like I was irresponsible. I’d run into sexism, but classism hadn’t touched me. I’d always been powerful enough economically to fall under the “customer is always right” umbrella, and so I hadn’t realized just how much disrespect you can face when you don’t have that power. How people can stop seeing you as an adult and start seeing you as a child.

It’s not hard to imagine how your pride, work ethic, self-respect, and respect for others would suffer if you were constantly being reminded by people’s words and deeds that you were a good-for-nothing drain on society. What motivation do you have to prove them wrong…especially when there doesn’t seem to be a way out of your situation? (Upward mobility has pretty much ceased to exist in this country.) I was shocked and confused by one small interaction, and it took years for me to see it for what it was. Imagine a lifetime of that. Imagine being indoctrinated into a culture of utter disrespect.

It’s easy to say that you can avoid this sort of treatment by doing everything right. But, first of all, it is impossible to do everything right. Everyone has different expectations and everyone has different circumstances. You can’t meet everyone’s expectations at all times, and no one can meet all of your expectations. Further, that statement isn’t even true. Even if you somehow manage to do everything perfectly by the book, in such a way that no one can complain about your behavior, there will still be people who will judge you based on other factors. People who will dismiss you outright without even getting to know you.

I see it every day, with every “Drug tests for welfare!” and “Food stamps teach people to be dependent on the system!” email forward and Facebook post.

These blanket statements imply that without regard to individual circumstances, all lower income people are unreliable and can’t be trusted and should be cut off. Well, I suppose the issue of poverty would go away if everyone who was poor simply died, but that’s not really a solution I can get behind.

The real issue here, the problem that is causing the cycle of poverty, is a lack of people willing to respect and take chances on other people. The government does what it can, but government can’t fix this. Only community has the power to right this wrong. Currently, the community seems to be split between people who pretend not to see and people who actively spew hate. As long as this continues, we’re not going to see any improvement.

As long as we look at other people and classify them based on how much money we think they make, we are not an equal opportunity society.