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Awareness Empowerment Poverty

The Denied Humanity of Poor Folk

Over the past couple of years, I have noticed an unnerving trend in my social circles—both on- and offline—as well as in the media regarding the way many highly educated and middle- and upper-class individuals talk about the poor. To be frank, the sentiments have been downright dehumanizing. The use of platforms such as Facebook and Twitter for sharing media content and individual status opinions about social issues (outside of friendships and pictures) is a relatively new phenomenon. And as a millennial, social media has been the primary vehicle for which I have witnessed a proliferation of disparaging views about the poor.

Examples of poor-shaming are everywhere: Lawmakers in the states of Kansas and Missouri are pushing to ban food stamp recipients from buying steak and seafood. New York City’s highly sought-after “affordable” apartments in new condo buildings had, until they were banned this June, “poor doors” to distinguish low-income renters from full-price buyers. We stigmatize poor people for making shoe purchases. Even in the recent Texas pool fiasco, the dispute began allegedly when a white female resident told black female resident to go back to her Section 8 home, because, apparently, if you are black and live in a home in the suburbs, the only way you could afford it is if you were receiving some form of government assistance.

People often share articles online that demonize the poor, attached to a status update that says something to the effect of “See? These lazy folk are sitting up living good off my hard-earned tax dollars,” or, “How dare they be walking around [in, with, or doing] xyz and they are on xyz type of assistance!” And Lord help me, if I see that exhausted meme comparing an empty refrigerator of a non-welfare recipient to a stocked fridge of a supposed welfare recipient floating around my timeline again, I will lose it.

Examples of poor-shaming are everywhere: New York City’s highly sought-after “affordable” apartments in new condo buildings had, until they were banned this June, “poor doors” to distinguish low-income renters from full-price buyers.

Unfortunately, these sentiments are not in the least bit surprising. You see, in America, we tend to believe that all it takes is hard work and strong ethics to succeed. And hell, if you don’t succeed, then you must not have the same work ethic and determination as the rest of us hardworking citizens. Thus, you are the cause for your own failures and no one else. This sort of “pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps” mentality is an irresistible narrative for most Americans in this country to explain our success and the failures of others. It offers a convenient, guilt-free way of disregarding the root causes of our poverty issues. Structural inequalities have a lot more to do with producing stratification and stagnation for certain groups of people than their attitudes and orientation to work.

Seemingly, we feel entitled to dictate how poor folk should not only live, but also how they get use their own money. The logic being that as policymakers, taxpayers, and officials who are not poor, but “hard-working” people—we are best qualified offer you the best advice for how to help yourself out of poverty; key phrase: “help yourself.”

The problem with that logic is that we assume that the majority of poor people and those on government assistance do not work, cannot manage their finances, or have no aspirations to get out of poverty—assumptions that place all failure back on the individual. In reality however, many are sometimes working multiple jobs, and are still unable to make ends meet, largely due hourly wage inequality. But with that faulty assumption in mind, many employed middle- and upper-class people go on to draw comparisons between their “working hard” everyday and welfare recipients, as if these people are not working hard, or working at all.

Seemingly, we feel entitled to dictate how poor folk should not only live, but also how they get use their own money.

This is where we deny the humanity of poor folk. We do this by putting them under an intense social microscope, watching their every move and dictating what they should and should not do, waiting for that one moment when they slip up and actually start to live like a “regular person.” Because, if you did not know, when you sign up for welfare and government assistance, you should no longer want nice things for yourself or your family. You should relinquish your tastes and budget for non-generic brands and foods, and you should bargain shop for your clothes and goods. Why? Because why should I help you get the same things as me? I am entitled to those things because I “worked hard” for them. Also, the little bit of money you get from your multiple jobs to make ends meet, yeah, you shouldn’t spend that like regular folk do either. Save it for a rainy day. As if everyday isn’t rainy in the lives of people who cannot afford to think about the future most times.

You see, the terrifying thing about poverty and structural inequality is that they are persistent and deep. The sad truth is that if a poor person decides not to pay $170 for a pair of Air Jordans, refrains from going to the nail shop or salon, and completely abstains from buying steak and shrimp a few times, that would not pull her out of the depths of poverty. Being poor has much more to do with stubborn and complex inequalities than it has to do with an individual’s spending patterns. And what is even more alarming than the ways we talk so disparagingly about the poor are the ways in which we deny them the ability to bring some sort of solace and comfort to their lives because they are poor.

Here, I am reminded of Nikki Giovanni’s 2007 public critique of Bill Cosby’s respectability politics on the matter of poor black parents. In essence, Giovanni argues: How dare we critique black parents for aspiring to endow and give their kids the best—whatever they think that to be! It is contradictory to this country’s capitalist orientation and the way other parents reward and treat their children through the purchase of goods. All parents ultimately want what is best for their kids, but poor black and brown parents get surveillance and policing in strict ways.

The sad truth is that if a poor person decides not to pay $170 for a pair of Air Jordans, refrains from going to the nail shop or salon, and completely abstains from buying steak and shrimp a few times, that would not pull her out of the depths of poverty.

More importantly, does it not seem like an insensitive encroachment into an individual’s personal life to dictate how they seek to bring happiness to themselves or their families in whatever way they deem fitting? Because when living in perpetual poverty, largely due to generations of structural inequalities, one way of coping or surviving is to invest in things that bring joy to you and your kids’ lives. Even if that means going into debt for Christmas to buy toys or gifts, spending the last little bit of money you have on a family outing because it will bring you all closer, or buying that expensive prom dress for your daughter because you know it is a night she will remember forever. The blunt reality is that many won’t escape poverty. Those bills will still be there, the struggle of living paycheck-to-paycheck will still be there, no matter how much they deny themselves and their family’s pleasures.

But what is possible is to use the little bit of means they do have, even while being on public assistance, to bring joy to their loved ones or themselves every once in a while. We shouldn’t deny them of that choice by saying they shouldn’t be able to do things others with money can do, simply because they are poor. Our tax dollars, even the extremely small amount that actually goes to welfare, does not give us the right to take away their dignity. The poor should be able to do more than just worry about surviving.

That is dehumanizing.

The way we talk about poor folk has to change. We must resist the classist, and yes racist, narratives we draw upon and then ascribe onto the lives of poor folks. We must empathize with those who the dominant bootstrap narrative seeks to vilify.

Remembering their humanity resurrects ours.

By Devon Wade

Devon Wade is a fifth-year PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at Columbia University. His research focuses on the understanding of inequality along racial and class lines as it pertains to criminality and urban areas. Devon is a native of Houston and enjoys traveling the world in his spare time.