Poor by Character Flaw

February 27th, 2012, by


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.

  • Derek Steele

    Sean there isn’t much more to say. You definitely hit the nail on the head. The thing is, I feel there are so many in the powers that be that benefit from the status quo. If real policy was put in place “with objectives that sustain, elevate and educate the poor,” the economic structure would fundamentally change and there would definitely be a shift in the distribution of wealth. This is something that those getting wealthy off of their reliance on keeping things the way they are don’t want to see. (i.e. the CEOs who have salaries 100%+ more than their minimum wage earning employees, the Koch brothers of the world, banks like BOA who is the bank that handles the Unemployment Insurance debit card accounts in CA…the more who are on UI the more money BOA get in fees…) So if I were to add to your bottom up approach of looking at this situation, I would say we also have to look at the top and change policy that takes the financial influence of who i like to call “super haves” out of the conversation (Lobbying reform, Campaign Finance reform, and all of the likes) so that the policy makers can do what is right for the people. As President Obama says, “create an atmosphere where everyone has an equal fair shot, and plays by the same rules.” No matter how much you have or don’t have.

  • Krystle

    Interesting read! Poverty can be attributed to many things as you stated. Mental illness, physical disability, getting laid off because of the market- we all know somebody that is negatively affected by the society that we live in today. However, to soley blame poverty to character, I would not dare be that bold and associate the two; I have to agree with you on this one. Keep the articles coming!

  • Ré Harris

    I am one of those in need of the SNAP program, and angry about it. I know others like me who are not unintelligent or on drugs, but are having trouble because we don’t ‘fit’ into the present job market. There are myriad physical reasons that take some out of the running for many kinds of employment, especially when we’re surrounded by fresher, younger applicants. But many of us have personalities that don’t fit well with the marketing focus that most jobs have these days. Some of us aren’t comfortable with jobs that require us to lie and misdirect clients on a daily basis in order to meet sales requirements. I know because I tried very hard, but wasn’t kept on at one of those jobs.

    I’m also shocked by how many people would argue with “creating proper policy that addresses the plight of the poor.” I was recently in conversation with a man who described himself as an independent voter who feels the government is too big because it tries to take care of the poor when taxpayers shouldn’t have to unless they want to. His main point was that no person should be forced to look after the well being of another.

    He described his own willingness to support charities he’s interested in and to help others through his children’s school programs or his church, but he thought the world would be a better place if local communities got to decide what they wanted to support with their tax dollars and wanted not to support. It seemed to escape him that certain people and groups of people could be easily marginalized and persecuted in that scenario. Or maybe not. He did say they could move away and start their own communities. That hurt to hear.

  • Marty

    You are so right, what about CEOs getting millions in yearly bonusus for cutting their budget to gross the company millions of dollars by starting employes salaries at minimum wage or sending jobs to India and China. As Martin Luther King quote ” Until all people are free, No one is free”.
    Sean keep writing the facts, perhaps someone, maybe, someone will listen.

  • Catirah

    I agree that the solution has to focus on actions that will correct the issues, rather than condemn those that are in need of assistance. With the US considered to be a global super power, it is shameful to allow such a large contingent live in such a depressed state. Of course there are some people that abuse the system for various reasons; however, there are an equal or larger number of rich people who have manipulated the system to stay in their economic comfort zone as well. So let’s compare apples to apples and ensure that those who need/want help get it. I don’t know of anyone receiving public assistance that truly thinks that they are living well or getting over; if they do, that is a sad situation.

    It is important to note that although poverty does not equal a character flaw, it often is indicative of an educational shortfall. With the current policies allowing property taxes to determine allocation of school funding, how will we ever provide the educational sustenance necessary to prevent and/or recover from impoverished circumstance?

  • Cerrita

    This is a very interesting but true topic and I totally agree, I will speak on the matter that hits home for me I have experienced this when it comes to higher education at this point I can not contiune due to the fact that in 2006 I went back to school to persue higher education and was informed that I had to take a loan of 6,000 more than my grants to cover my schooling after a lay off, now remember this was based on my last tax refund amount so now that I’m in the process of still paying that amount back I can not continue advancing my education to keep up with the changes in the workplace and the economy which does now put a strain on my finances. I totally agree that we are all just a bill away from proverty.

    Min. Cerrita

  • Human


    Elements to work into your future publications:

    Fear. People are scared. Labeling those less fortunate as flawed helps the insecure to ignore their fear of economic failure. The reality is all of the 99% are equally at risk, even those who consider themselves as perfect.

    Ignorance. People are ignorant about how easy and fast they can fall into poverty. Why? Because these humiliating stories are concealed. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t millions of these stories all around us. These stories need publicized.

    Humanity. There seems to be a belief that if you trash a problem that it will go away. Like if you eliminate safety net expenses and health care support that these problems will disappear. But even in our degrading culture, tossing live people into dumpsters and burying them in landfills isn’t acceptable. People aren’t disposable stuff that can just be tossed into the trash can when they break. People remain people until they die. But the ignorant aren’t looking this far ahead because they already have too many problems in their face.
    The educated know that most health problems are less expensive to resolve when addressed early. The informed know that helping those who have stumbled to return ASAP to productivity serves the best interest of all. Stories contrasting the outcomes of those who slipped through the safety net versus those who were caught and restored need publicized.

Last modified: February 28, 2012 at 7:27 pm