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Lies of Plutocracy: Exploding Five Myths that Dehumanize the Poor.

If you believe that poverty is the domain of the comfortably poor, black, unemployed, unmotivated and uneducated among us, you have been sadly misled. Prepare to be astonished by numbers that tell a very different story.

You’re in the grocery store checkout aisle. Time to cash out. You pull out your food-stamp EBT card. You’re overcome with a sense shame one feels for being broke in a world that measures self-worth according to net-worth.

You hide the card behind your bank debit card – the one that has nearly nothing in it – and try to act natural as you slide it through the machine. “Cash or Food,” it asks. You hit food. No one in the aisle with you is the wiser. But the cashier knows. You wonder if he’s now scrutinizing your food purchases. If he’s so poor how can he afford organic tomatoes? (After all, pesticides only harm the wealthy!) But at least the people behind you aren’t in on it.

“OK, the balance is $10.99,” the cashier says. You forgot about the laundry detergent. Now you’ve been outed to everyone. “He’s buying this stuff with our money,” you imagine people around you thinking.

People who feel the shame-inducing scrutiny of many judgmental Americans aren’t paranoid. When the subject of welfare is brought up in my classrooms, many students immediately talk about people they see cheating the system. Whether the people they have in mind really are cheating the system or not, poor people are routinely conceptually linked with those of the lowest common denominator: lazy, stupid, cheats.


The Silenced, Closeted Poor

In 2010 the Census Bureau reported that 1 in 6 Americans (15 percent) are poor, a rate that was held steady in 2011.1 Even these statistics disguise the real poverty numbers. A sampling of the existing poverty thresholds – boundaries separating the officially “poor” from the “non-poor” – are as follows: $11,704 for one-person households where the adult is under 65; $10,788 for those where the adult is over 65; $15,504 for households with one adult and a child; $18,106 for two adults and one child; $22,811 for two adults and two children; $30,056 for two adults and 4 children.

1. The Bootstrap Myth

Negative assertions about the poor are in part a product of the American bootstrap myth: Anyone who works hard enough in America will have a great life. And if you don’t have a great life, then you lack the will, integrity or intelligence to succeed. These kinds of concepts are what the late Australian philosopher Val Plumwood called “conceptual weapons.” They work together to structure a system of thought that distorts, oversimplifies and ultimately fosters ignorance about, and shame amongst, oppressed groups of people.

2. The Poor Are Unemployed

The bootstrap myth works together with the stereotype that all poor people are unemployed. This thinking gives rise to the conclusion that the best way to address poverty is to get everyone a job. But these fallacious assertions gloss over the glaring fact that many poor people are working. The Census reported that, in 2010, 7 percent of those aged 16 and older who worked some or all of the year were in poverty.[3] And the Department of Agriculture reported that 30 percent of households receiving food assistance had earnings in 2010; 41 percent of food aid beneficiaries lived in a household with earnings from a job.[4] Nearly a quarter – 21.8 percent – of non-elderly adult food stamp recipients were employed.[5]

Of course none of this is surprising to those who know from experience what it means to work for $8 an hour. Working for 40 hours a week at that rate yields a $17,000 annual salary. Increasingly these poverty-level-wage jobs (retail, fast-food, etc.) are the most abundantly available to Americans. But with so many people out of work, even those jobs are hard to come by. And just as being poor is a source of shame for many Americans, so is being out of work, or working a low-end, thus devalued, job.

Who on earth doesn’t know that many working people are poor precisely because of poverty-level wages from a job? In the January 23, 2012 Republican primary debate in Tampa, Florida, Mitt Romney touted his work creating “middle-income” jobs through his companies, like Sports Authority and Staples.

We helped start Staples, for instance. It employs 90,000 people. These are middle-income people. There are entry-level jobs, too. I’m proud of the fact that we helped people around the country – Bright Horizons children centers, the Sports Authority, Steel Dynamics, a new steel company. These employ people, middle-income people.

In a September interview, Mitt Romney responded to ABC News host George Stephanopoulos’s question, “Is $100,000 middle income,” with the reply: “No,middle income is $200,000 to $250,000 or less.”[6]

Putting these assertions together, one must ask: How many workers at Sports Authority and Staples are actually earning more than $100,000, let alone $200,000 to $250,000? The reality, as so many retail workers know all too well, is that the majority of employees at these companies earn poverty-level wages, and only a relative few climb into the ranks of management and even begin to approach this mythical “middle-income” status.[7]

Some will say Romney’s ignorance about the poor is unique. Think again: On January 5, 2012, then-Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich blended racist and classist stereotyping, when he told an audience that he believes “the African-American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps.”

A few days earlier, on January 1, rival candidate, Rick Santorum had said that he did not “want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money; I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money. And provide for themselves and their families.[8] Both of these men’s statements contain the logical implication that those receiving food assistance are not working.

3. Poor (i.e. lazy, uneducated etc.) Equals Black

You’ll notice that Gingrich and Santorum exclusively concentrate on the black community’s reception of food assistance. This not-so-subtle message is that black people are getting by on white America’s dime. But the fact of the matter is that about 1 in 7 Americans are receiving food assistance,[9] and most of them are white: 35.7 percent of head of households receiving food aid are white, 22 percent are African-American, and 10 percent are Hispanic.[10]

This shows how racist and classist ideologies work together. Black and other people of color continue to be used as a symbol of impoverishment and all of its wretchedness: lazy, selfish, crude, ignorant, animalistic and so forth. Ben Adler writes that:

Veteran South Carolina politicos readily agree, off the record of course, that Gingrich is intentionally tapping into this long vein of racial animosity. In the years since the Civil Rights Act, white South Carolinians may have largely ceased pining for the days of segregated water fountains. And anyway no politician can call for returning to them. But they often resent African-Americans and social welfare programs that they view through a racial lens.[11]

When politicians start declaring that they don’t want to give black people welfare checks, but rather want to put them to work, poor whites have a decision to make: Challenge the lie that poor people are all lazy and not working, or direct their anger and frustration with their own conditions, all of the shame it brings them, at black people. Too often the latter is chosen.

This is “horizontal hostility,” when oppressed groups turn on other disadvantaged groups rather than address the root causes of inequality.

But these interlocking systems of inequality don’t just hurt people of color. They also undermine the interests of poor conservative whites. When dominant culture promotes stereotypes that degrade the poor, it creates a rush to the exits of self-identifying as poor. This “internalized oppression” prevents the unification of the poor to realize common claims to dignity despite economic impoverishment. Read more