Essay: The Social Significance of Poverty in Contemporary America
It is with great unease that I begin this intentional academic study of the problem of poverty. I was raised in an overwhelmingly white suburban context in which poverty issues went largely unmentioned. My guess is that few families spent much time below the poverty line, with the exception of residents of the subsidized housing complex, Silver Meadows, which was openly re-designated “Silver Ghettoes” by adults and children alike. Since many of the residents of Silver Meadows were also African American, the breezy derogatory treatment of the neighborhood was laced with both classist and racist assumptions. Aside from that one significant exception, I was sheltered from seeing or considering poor people. I vaguely knew that homeless people existed in far-off cities, and I cared about them with a generic, distanced, and lazy compassion. As I have aged and learned more about the injustices endemic to the U.S. and global economies, I still maintain what amounts to an ineffectual compassion for impoverished persons. As a middle-class graduate student preparing for ordained ministry, I am acutely aware of my white, middle-class privilege. I am humbled by the Latin American liberation theology concept of the epistemological privilege of the poor. The reality of poverty is a lacuna, a hole in my understanding of the American experience.
This silence that surrounds poverty is the core of the social significance of poverty in America. People who are materially poor do not only lack basic needs. Their deficit of food and shelter is a source of social discomfort. The poor are blamed for their plight, and are thus socialized to be ashamed. Therefore, even though unjust economic and political systems contribute to poverty, the poor are shamed into silence. Likewise, when people who are not impoverished are directly faced with the realities of scarcity, they often react within a spectrum of negative emotions. Some people point fingers—immediately assuming that the homeless man is an addict, that the single mother was promiscuous, that the child selling oranges on the street corner is merely a lackey for exploitative parents. Yet others react with guilt. Perhaps nothing paralyzes one more than the guilt of complicity. The consequence of this cycle of blame, shame, and guilt is silence and marginalization. It is emotionally simpler for everyone involved to just pretend that there is no correlation or causation morally relating the wealthy to the destitute.
People who are poor in America also often lack social agency. John Iceland writes about relative poverty, “Those whose resources are significantly below the resources of others, even if they are physically able to survive, may not be able to participate adequately in social organizations and relationships, and are thus incapable of fully participating in society.” For instance, poverty is the object of academic study—ironically, because many if not most poor people are economically barred from post-secondary education. This pattern of objectification without agency is mirrored in many social spheres. When media and popular culture formats do depict lower-income people, it is often through the perspective and for the entertainment of the wealthy. The result is often derogatory, such as with the proposed reality-television show based on the Beverly Hills Hillbillies. Even in this age of so-called political correctness, impoverished people are rendered the brunt of the joke. Even empathetic portrayals of persons who are poor, such as the artistic portrayals offered by Dororthea Lange, John Steinbeck, and Johnny Cash, propagate the role of the poor as the object of art, study, charity, etc., and not a subject of society.
The intersection of racism, sexism, and classism is particularly significant. The three are so tightly interwoven that it is truly impossible to explore one without exploring the entirety of the unholy trinity. For instance, in their sociological study of rural single-mother families, Anastasia R. Snyder and Diane K. McLaughlin necessarily write, “Attributes of female household heads that are associated with poverty include: younger age, being Black or Hispanic, low education, not participating in the labor force, children under age six, and never married status.” That race is such a politically sensitive issue makes it easy to exploit for the further marginalization and oppression of poor people. The recent attempt in California to cease the government collection of racial data was advocated as a progressive campaign to make the state more colorblind; the proposition’s opponents rightly recognized that it was an attempt to make it harder to connect social services with the people who needed them. Racism and sexism compound the systematic oppression of low-income people.
Much of American poverty is relative to American wealth; this is why 97% of households that are considered poor own television sets. To relate the American poverty line to global poverty lines is a very different picture. The statistic regarding the depth of global poverty—“At present, 3 billion people live on less than $2 per day while 1.3 billion get by on less than $1 per day” —is simply appalling. The disparity between the rich and the destitute is shameful. Are Americans below the relatively high American poverty line really poor? Shouldn’t the focus of policy work and economic transformation be the impoverished people of third-world countries? But what right do I have, as a comfortable white graduate student, to question the poverty of my American brothers and sisters, when my consumption of unfairly manufactured and traded goods is unquestionably part of both the American and global poverty problems?
I am being transparent about my reactions to poverty statistics because I think that my reaction is part of the social ramifications of poverty. My sense of helplessness and guilt and my abject frustration with the American consumerist culture is part of the generalized social discomfort poverty engenders. The pain of addressing poverty is usually enough for me to avoid the matter altogether. However, as a person preparing for ordained ministry, I know that I have a calling to join my voice with the prophets of the Hebrew Bible. I must proclaim God’s justice and compassion for the oppressed; as Isaiah wrote, “Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” The religious language of fasting is potentially salvific. Given the economic and environmental destruction produced by Western overconsumption, isn’t a fast appropriate? Church organizations, like the rest of wealthy society, have mostly hidden themselves from their impoverished kin. While I know that policy-making and economic restructuring is the heart of the eradication of poverty, I believe that a transformation of heart is also necessary. Middle class and wealthy Americans must open their eyes to what I would call their sin of omission—their failure to invite poor people to the table of abundance. It is time to take up the prophetic fast: through prayer and hospitality, through policy reform and hard academic investigation of root causes of poverty. Yes, there is a log in my eye and in the eye of rich America. The log is greed, consumerism, apathy, paralysis, racism, classism, sexism, silence. I echo the cry of The New York Times editorial from January 22, 2005: “Let’s get started, America. The world is waiting.”