Sorry, I Don’t Know Anyone Who is Poor . . .

Do you have a friendship with anyone who is poor?

Since writing and continuing my work with Just a Little Bit More, I’ve had a lot of conversations with others in my own socio-economic status range – upper-middle – about those in our society who live in poverty. Currently, the US poverty rate is around 16%. (I’m aware that there are some who bicker about the rate – how it’s determined and calculated. I’m using the government poverty threshold rate – for 2014, income of $23,850 for a family of four – which helps lend consistency over a fifty-plus year period, going back to 1959 when the US government published the first national poverty rate – 22.4%.) A lot of folks in the upper classes talk about the poor in our society, but the majority of those who speak don’t know – not by acquaintance, and certainly not by friendship – anyone who is poor.

Author Bill Bishop tells us why this is so in his book The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart (Houghton Mifflin, 2008). He argues that even as America becomes more diverse in overall demographics, we increasingly live in neighborhoods – and socialize – with people who think, vote, and sort their values just like we do. Remember the days when a mechanic and a doctor could be next door neighbors? The America of yesteryear was segregated racially; the dominant segregation in today’s America is socio-economic and often political – reflecting, in part, the polarization that dominates our strained social interactions. Bishop claims only 25 % of American counties in the 1976 presidential election were deemed landslide (more than a 20 point margin of victory); in the 2004 presidential election over 50% of American counties were landslide.

Sorry, I don’t know anyone who is poor, but I certainly have an opinion about the poor.

So true. I’ve learned by listening to middle/upper-middle/upper class folks (white, mostly – all my Latino and African-American friends and acquaintances do know people who are poor) to know what they say about those living in poverty, because I’ve been asking this question consistently for a couple of years when conversing about social inequality: Do you know anyone who is poor? The answer typically breaks down into four opinions/viewpoints: 1) personal knowledge (or an anecdote heard) of a bona fide slacker who doesn’t work and sponges off the government; 2) the story (the one answering the question) of his/her rise from poverty back in the 1940s or ’50s (the implication being that social mobility is alive and well in America); 3) the claim that poor people lack discipline and are lazy – again, the implication being that social mobility is alive and well in America; and, 4) the reality that people living in poverty in the United States have it so much better off than poor people in other parts of the world.

Yes, there are bona fide adult slackers who sponge off the government – without question. It’s tempting to think, however, if you don’t know anyone who is poor – the law of generalization – that all people living in poverty consequently fit this same pattern. Those of us who know people living in poverty realize that such a generalization is nowhere close to the truth. A small minority of adults sponge off the government; consider that half of those living in poverty in the United States – some 22.5 million – are children or elderly. The United States has an abysmal 23.1% child poverty rate. According to a 2012 UNICEF report of the thirty-five richest countries in the world, the United States ranks 34th in childhood poverty. Thanks to Romania’s rate of 25.5%, we avoid the cellar in childhood poverty rankings.

As for social (or economic) mobility – work hard, save money and you’ll succeed by moving up – it works well for middle and upper class, educated Americans (with the usual caveats for ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation). But that same rate of social mobility doesn’t apply to those who are born into poverty, especially among ethnic minorities. The former group – higher classed and educated – is privileged, systemically. Today it’s best to be born rich in America: it’s three times more likely as compared to a generation or two ago that your father’s income will determine your own income. Upward social mobility, overall, is not what it used to be in America.

And, yes, those who are poor in American have it much better off than those who are poor in Africa, India, Russia, and China. My mother tried to get me to eat my boiled asparagus by referencing the starving hordes in Africa (or was it China?), but it was largely unsuccessful. I had no idea or vision of what life was like in Africa. That type of comparison thinking was too abstract for my juvenile mind to process, especially when it was fully engaged in potential strategies to avoid the mushy asparagus that sullied my plate. Similarly, personal income differences within countries matter much more than income differences between countries.  Economic differences can and do serve to motivate the less fortunate to aspire to greater heights, and poor people living in America can count on a better social safety net than poor people, for example, in Belarus. But, prominent economic deprivation in relation to the rest of society is what can warp a young mind and spirit, because the differences are blatant, noticeable, and real. And if the opportunities to advance are few and far between, then many of the social variables affected by poverty (incarceration, teenage pregnancy, and school drop-out rates) are simply and sadly reinforced.

Do you know anyone – a friend or someone who is more than a passing acquaintance – who is living in poverty?

Linda Tirado is someone who has lived most of her adult years in poverty. Her book Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2014) tells it like it is. She got lucky; a blog post of hers that described living in poverty went viral and she ended up with a book deal. As she rightly claims, it’s more like she hit the lottery than worked her way up via a vibrant economic mobility. Her book is a top-seller and she tells a tale that is compelling, insightful, and real for many Americans. There are those, of course, who attempt to dismiss her telling of the tale of living in poverty in today’s America as overdone and exaggerated. I’ve read her book and done my own bit of investigating. Whereas she can tend toward over-generalizing (I’m guilty of the same charge at times), how often does a minority or shunned voice get the stage? She liberally uses profanity, but her voice is genuine. She speaks for a number of Americans who are rarely heard.

From the last chapter in her book, “An Open Letter to Rich People,” Tirado states “I hope at this point you are feeling like maybe you hadn’t thought this whole [socio-economic] stratification thing through all the way. You guys don’t really ever talk to us and have no idea what our daily lives are like.” When we don’t know anyone in a certain people group, it’s easy to stereotype and even demonize them. The majority of people living in poverty are not undisciplined, lazy, or necessarily deserving of their current fate. How might we all work together to remake our society into one where egalitarianism is valued more so than the propagation of entrenched privilege for the most fortunate among us? Tirado asks would you “want to live in the nation you’ve created; if you were born tomorrow into the lower classes, would you be quite so sure that America is the land of opportunity?”

Some of us in the upper classes are effectively cocooned off from those who live in poverty. We don’t know personally anyone who is poor; our interaction with people living in poverty is limited to random interchanges of commerce that bring us together. We who are well-off purchase or receive services from the working poor whose jobs pay the minimum wage of $7.25/hour or slightly more. As if it’s a religion, we teach to our kids and grandkids the unifying belief: If you’re poor, you’ve done something to cause it to happen, and, consequently, you are at fault. When we trust this premise to be true every single time – without exceptions – we create a society with an intentional lack of compassion. What social critic R. H. Tawney described generations ago is still true today: “A society which reverences the attainment of riches as the supreme felicity will naturally be disposed to regard the poor as damned in the next world, if only to justify making their life a hell in this one.” (From his classic of 1926, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism.)

What would it be like if there was more interaction between the socio-economic classes, as equals on a person-to-person level? Take it from Tirado: “There are poor and working-class people everywhere, guys. You can just have a conversation with one, like a real human being. Give it a try. You’ll like it. We’re entertaining. We have to be; we’re stuck entertaining each other because cable is ridiculously expensive.”

 

This blog post and others on this website are representative of my views and writing in Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, available at http://www.blueocotillo.com, Amazon, or any other bookselling venue.

Pick it up with Linda Tirado’s Hand to Mouth – highly recommended!

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