This post is cross-published at Good Supply.
“Poverty is not a character flaw. It is a lack of money.”
Hearing this quote by Barbara Ehrenreich, while attending the “Remaking America” event at George Washington University, really struck a chord in my mind and heart. I immediately asked myself, how can we construct a proper policy prescription for attacking the multifaceted challenges of poverty when we approach the problem with a preconceived notion that there is something already wrong with the personhood of the poor?
Unwarranted assumptions about the quality of the character of the poor, or lack thereof, are part of the long-standing war on the poor. In general, society has created imagery to villainize the poor based on their character, and, many times, this imagery is reinforced with overt racial themes and substantiated by more subtle undertones. Recently, there have been numerous attempts and several successes with drafting legislation to drug test welfare recipients. Legislation like this provides an example of how laws are enacted that support the widely misguided practice of making assumptions about the character of the poor, from stereotypes of the Black “Welfare Queen” and stories of welfare recipients living high off the hog on their welfare payments.
In 2011, the average Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipient received $133.70 a month. The average payment for a family of four was $496 a month. To be eligible for SNAP, a recipient must make no more than $24,100 a year to support a family of 3 and must be 130% below the poverty line. If making $24,100 a year and receiving an additional $496 a month is considered living the high life, then what do we consider a family who makes $100,000 per year? By our government’s standards, surely the $100,000 family shouldn’t be considered rich. Let’s face it, I don’t know too many people who would sign up for a $24,000 a year deal willingly and happily. Part of creating better policy for addressing the challenges of poverty is to get rid of the stereotypes associated with or reinforcing the notion that the poor are “getting over” on the rest of society.
After years of villainizing what seemed to be a fringe group of our society, we have now gotten to a point, since our most recent recession, that the ranks of poor have grown. We have all–the rich, the middle class and the lower class–had to come to terms with how close we all are to becoming one of “the poor.”
“Remaking America” used “At Risk: America’s Poor During and after the Recession,” published by Indiana University, as the statistical backdrop for the panel discussion. According to the white paper, 46.2 million (15.1%) people in America live in poverty. As a society, are we willing to believe that 15% of our population is poor based on flawed character? I am not. What has to be considered is how close all of us are to joining the ranks of the poor. Whether it is a lay-off, reduction of hours at work, a medical emergency, salary decrease due to budget cuts or a car breakdown, many of us are closer to poverty than we acknowledge.
We must deal with the perception of the poor before we can make substantial strides in creating proper policy that addresses the plight of the poor. In order to create policy to help lift more Americans out of poverty, we must align our policy with objectives that sustain, elevate and educate the poor. Doing this may help our society identify the root causes of poverty. Anti-poverty policy must first be able to support the poor for the moment and, even further, extend into sustaining territory by helping the poor stay above water in regards to meeting their basic human needs. In order to increase their human capital value in the American economy, policy and funding must be created to further educate and train the poor. With future policy being made, these aims will be able to elevate the poor from poverty to prosperity and ultimately, as a whole, we will have a more prosperous society.
Sean Breeze is the political content and pop culture contributor for Good Supply. He has covered events featuring Michael Eric Dyson, Tavis Smiley, Touré, Cornel West and Steve Stoute.