Posts Tagged ‘Poverty’

Attitudes about helping those in poverty in the United States have long been connected to the idea of whether the individuals in question are deserving of help. Social Security and worker’s compensation are seen as policies that typically benefit those who “earned” society’s help by working, while welfare is seen as a policy that benefits the lazy who are unwilling to support themselves. Calls for drug testing for welfare recipients reflects the belief that these people are trying to cheat the system. This does not mean, however, that Americans are unwilling to help when somebody is seen as deserving.

In early February the Detroit Free Press published a story about James Robertson, a 56-year-old man who walked 21 miles to get to and from work five days a week. He had done this for a decade. Robertson, who apparently did not make enough money to afford a car, is praised as somebody who never complains and “can’t imagine not working.” He is, essentially, the perfect image of the deserving poor. As a result, within days of the story a collection had been started in his name, raising $350,000, and a local Ford dealership had given him a new car. With more money, however, came more problems, as Robertson recently moved out of fear that his fame and fortune would put him in danger.

Clearly, Americans are not opposed to helping others but we have a strong distrust of those who need assistance. It would be nice if it didn’t take national headlines to convince us that those in poverty are deserving of help.

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One of the challenges when discussing poverty in class is the looming specter of the “welfare queen.” Ronald Reagan’s version may have driven a Cadillac with the money she made from scamming the system, but Ronald Reagan’s version was also imaginary. Today’s “welfare queen” is more likely to have a big-screen TV and an iPhone, at least according to my students. A few recent articles at Slate bear this out, but they also do a good job of detailing why a student’s* perceptions of what poverty should look like don’t match up with the experience of what poverty is.

The first summarizes a recent New York Times article highlighting changing costs (as seen in the graph above) showing that although prices of consumer goods have fallen dramatically, the prices of things that are necessary for escaping poverty have risen just as dramatically. The second highlights some of the things that the bottom fifth of American households spend their money on, noting that they “devote a combined 78 percent of their spending, on average, to housing, food, utilities, transportation, and health care. In fact, they spend more on those basics than they make in total pre-tax income, which they can do thanks to government supports such as food stamps and the Earned Income Tax Credit.” Because they spend more than they make, they are also not able to save for a rainy day, which many Americans would define as “job loss” but those in poverty might be more likely to define as “missed a shift at work” or “visited the doctor about that nagging pain.”

The lack of savings causes problems for some students (and conservative pundits), who argue that the poor should not be buying big-screen TVs or smartphones if they aren’t saving for unexpected events. I wonder if these practices might be connected to Allison Pugh’s concept of symbolic indulgence, in which poor parents sacrifice in order to provide their children with things that will allow them to participate in peer culture. Applying this to adults, a smartphone or big-screen TV (which today is basically just known as a TV) may help adults ease some of the mental burdens of poverty because they are not denying themselves of everything that other Americans have. Pugh also mentions that purchases are sporadic, coming after a tax refund or some unexpected overtime, so this may also be when people make big purchases.

Of course, somebody’s TV may also be rented, in which case they are not only paying a high price in order to have it, but they risk losing it if their economic situation gets worse. Maybe predatory lending and rent-to-own stores will help students gain some compassion for those in poverty, especially when they can relate**.

*These perceptions may also be held by your grandparents or racist uncle.

**Obviously, student loan interest rates are nowhere near the effective interest rates charged by cash advance businesses or Rent-A-Center, but students probably perceive them to be.

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On Facebook I recently came across a game called “Spent” that lets you spend a month in the life of a person who makes just above minimum wage (don’t worry, you don’t need a Facebook account to play it). The game is made by a group called Urban Ministries of Durham in North Carolina and progresses day by day as you deal with various situations (what do you buy at the grocery store? Do you deal with your health problems or put them off?) that people in poverty may face. As you make decisions the game provides information (the sources and information that they provide is summarized here). Essentially, it is like Life except you don’t get to choose a station wagon and there don’t seem to be any happy endings.

It seems like this might be a good game to have students play before a class discussion or assignment on poverty in order to help them contextualize the sorts of choices that people in poverty have to make on a daily basis.

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