As the ongoing war on the lower classes in the United States ramps up with increasing fervor, we’re seeing a recurrence of a lot of very old and tired attitudes about poor people. And, increasingly, these are happening without comment. Poverty and its significant intersections with a lot of social issues goes underaddressed in many social justice circles. Poverty, and the fact that society deliberately works to keep people in positions of enforced poverty, to reinforce and entrench generational poverty, is a serious problem.
As are the tremendous intersections between poverty and race and disability in the United States; the fact that people of colour, disabled people, and nonwhite people are far more likely to live in poverty is not coincidental and it contributes to a domino effect of oppression. To be poor is to lack legal representation in court, making you more likely to be convicted of a crime you didn’t commit. To be poor and a person of colour is to be more likely to be accused in the first place. To be poor and disabled is to be killed by budget cuts. Hiding these things, not talking about them, is not going to make them go away.
There’s a common attitude that poor people should keep their heads down and be grateful for what they’ve got. There’s no acknowledgement here that there’s actually a lot poor people have to be angry about. Like an outdated and oppressive tax structure that penalises people for trying to claw their way up the class ladder, for example, a structure that ends up pitting people against each other. Like the fact that exploitative employers are everywhere and their efforts to limit unionisation, lift worker safety protections, and avoid providing benefits go unremarked. Like the fact that people living in impoverished regions are less able to access education and employment opportunities.
The ‘model minority’ of poverty is someone who works hard and bootstraps, and above all, does not complain. Complaining is for people who are weak whiners. It is not for adult-type people like responsible poor folks just working to get ahead. The model poor person doesn’t complain, doesn’t talk about poverty, because this makes other people uncomfortable. The model poor person rejects social welfare programmes and tries to make do independently, ‘too proud to accept charity.’ The model poor person knows that working hard enough, long enough, will eventually result in a reward. The model poor person criticises poor people who do not fit the model, reinforces it as the right way to act, the right way to behave, the right way to be poor.
Outspoken poor people who do not comply with this model, who do not shut up about poverty, are marginalised not just because of their poverty, because of the lack of access to the platforms that other people have. They are also marginalised because they are doing poverty wrong, and thus cannot be trusted as authorities on poverty. Because they aren’t quiet and submissive, people ignore them. They seek out the ‘noble poor’ who never open their mouths and pose for tragic photos in lines at job fairs. They seek out the poor people who reinforce their visions of what poverty should be, who do not challenge the status quo.
To listen to poor people, to talk about poverty, is to admit that there is something deeply wrong in our society. Poor folks shouldn’t be ‘grateful for what they’ve got.’ They should be furious about what is being stolen from them. They should be angry about the rise of corporations, the increasing concentration of wealth into a handful of people, many of whom didn’t work for it. They should be angry about the deliberate creation of systems intended to maintain strict class stratifications. They should be angry about the fact that even the good poor people, the ones who do it right, the ones who are quiet and submissive and patient, the ones who work hard, they are still poor.
They should be angry about the fact that poverty is on the rise. They should be angry about unemployment, about corporate tax breaks, about lobbies that control Congress, about the fact that the Supreme Court basically wrote a blank check that millionaires can cash any time they want to buy political campaigns. They should be angry about the rise of poverty porn on prime time television, whether it’s ghastly shows like Secret Millionaire or grim documentaries on Detroit. They should be angry about the exploitation of poverty and poor people in the pages of magazine. They should be angry about the fact that people have to win the lottery to pay for health care in the United States.
No, there’s really not a lot to be grateful for. And it’s possible to be grateful for some things, for a supportive community or a loving family or a warm roof over your head, while still being spitting mad and refusing to put your head down, step back into the traces, and go to work. You can work your fingers to the bone while screaming from the rooftops; these things are not mutually exclusive. You can try to organise a union at your primary workplace while working a second job to make sure that your children don’t starve. You can be a lover and a fighter, and there’s nothing absolutely wrong with that.
Society churns out shit sandwiches for the lower classes and tells them to eat them up and say ‘thanks.’ Who can blame people for throwing those sandwiches right back?