Robin DiAngelo, author of What Does It Mean to Be White? is a white woman who grew up poor. Her parents, a construction worker and a switchboard operator, divorced when she was two. She writes, “We were evicted frequently, and moved four to five times a year. There were periods when oatmeal was the only food in our house.” She had no health or dental care, and by the time she was 10 all her front teeth were rotten. They occasionally had to live in their car. She adds, “My teacher once held my hands up to my fourth-grade class as an example of poor hygiene, and with the class as her audience, told me to go home and tell my mother to wash me.”
She adds, “Poverty hurts.”
Still, she emphasizes no one should equate the hardships of class with the injuries inflicted and obstacles imposed by racism.
Our Society Hates Poor People
It’s very clear that our society simply hates poor people. We speak of “sweeping” tent encampments of people who have no place else to go, as though they were garbage. Homeless people are not the only poor people around us, though they may be the only ones many of us notice. Poverty is invisible to most of us, although the people who live in poverty are not.
Many of us sneer that poor people are lazy and should “just get a job.” A lot of them have jobs. Many of them work at McDonald’s or Walmart. A study issued in October 2020 by the non-partisan Government Accountability Office found that millions of full-time workers relied on federal health care and food assistance programs. That was just looking at eleven states and their records on Medicaid and the SNAP program, which a lot of us still call food stamps.
Nowhere in the United States can a person making minimum wage afford a two-bedroom apartment. That’s not just according to a recent CNBC report. The National Low Income Housing Institute regularly publishes a study called “Out of Reach,” about housing prices for poor people. The CNBC story pointed out that “the average minimum wage worker in the U.S. would need to work almost 97 hours per week to afford a fair market rate two-bedroom and 79 hours per week to afford a one-bedroom, NLIHC calculates. That’s well over two full-time jobs just to be able to afford a two-bedroom rental.”
Last year I met a woman in a homeless encampment who had three jobs, two of them full-time. She still couldn’t afford any place to live except her tent.
What Does This Have to do with White People?
This has two things to do with white people. One is that white privilege does not protect you from misery. Bear in mind, though, that most forms of misery in this country are worse for people who are racial minorities.
The other is that our racism has made white poverty invisible to us. It makes many people in this country think we shouldn’t work to make life better for anyone who’s poor.
The Racializing of Welfare
The creators of the New Deal safety net had in mind as a welfare recipient a white widow of a worker killed in an industrial accident, and their children. Since these programs were (and mostly still are) state administered, Jim Crow laws and other forms of racism had full rein in the administration of them. Starting in the Civil Rights era, Black people began to organize for welfare rights, particularly the National Welfare Rights Organization. Pushback wasn’t long in coming. The idea grew in the Nixon Administration that women with children, rather than receiving some payments so they could stay home and raise their children, should be out in the workforce.
Ronald Reagan’s Welfare Queen
It was with Ronald Reagan that full-bore anti-welfare sentiment became acceptable, he told stories of people buying T-bone steaks with food stamps, of a Chicago “Welfare Queen.” He said she used 80 names, 30 addresses, 15 telephone numbers to collect food stamps, Social Security, veterans’ benefits for four nonexistent deceased veteran husbands, as well as welfare.
He was talking about Linda Taylor, who was arrested in 1974. She did some of the things Reagan said she did, but not all of them. And she wasn’t Black. She was listed on all official documents as white. It didn’t matter.
Reagan’s audiences inferred that she was Black. Not a real human being, but a caricature, perfect to establish a myth.
Giving Poverty a Black Face
Ronald Reagan succeeded in giving poverty a Black, dishonest, immoral face. A false face, one that makes powerful people think they shouldn’t care about the less powerful. It hides the reality of poverty from our public gaze. It keeps us from seeing that the face of poverty comes in many colors.
Yes, it is true that Black people are more likely to be poor than white people. The most likely racial group to be poor are Native Americans, according to a 2018 analysis, and they aren’t usually even included in such studies. This study showed a poverty rate among Native Americans of 25.4%. It’s even higher for people with disabilities—all races—25.7%.
In 2017, Donald Trump was addressing the Black Congressional Caucus, and one representative told him potential welfare cuts could harm her constituents, “not all of whom are Black.” “Really?” Trump shot back. “Then what are they?”
In the times before Covid-19, I was a regular volunteer at Real Change, Seattle’s street newspaper. Our vendors are homeless, formerly homeless, or generally poor folks who sign up to sell the paper. They buy their papers at the sales window, then take them out to sell. Vendors are white, Black, Asian, Hispanic, Native American. I’d check their records in our computer in order to sell their papers, and I could see their birth dates.
Poverty ages people.Years of crummy food, uncertain shelter, sporadic medical care, and little or no dental care will do that to you. A 50-year-old chronically poor person often looks a lot older than 50. Being poor wears down your body and grinds down your soul. It struck me that a lot of times someone who looked 10 years older than I did was in fact 10 years younger.
Death is a frequent visitor in that community, and I’m not talking about death due to substance abuse, but strokes, heart attacks, kidney failure, diseases of old age, often taking people who were not old. When we learned about one of our community dying, the sadness and shock would ripple through the office, and one of my co-workers would say bitterly, “Poverty kills.”
Making Poverty About Race
When we make poverty about race, it keeps us from doing anything about it. It blinds us to the reality of poverty. It blinds us to the humanity of all people, especially poor people. It saps our political will to do what we must do to carry out the promise of this country, to give everyone an equal chance at the pursuit of happiness.
WHITE TRASH: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, by Nancy Isenberg. Isenberg shows how, in her words, “class has its own singular and powerful dynamic, apart from its intersection with race.” An excellent review of her book in The Washington Post says, “If slavery is America’s original sin, class may be its hidden one.”An astringent and interesting read, even with some obvious exaggerations.
There are a fair number of resources on who actually receives welfare. There’s an excellent summary on Thoughtco.com.
For poverty statistics, it’s hard to beat the U.S. Census Bureau’s tables on income and poverty. If you use the link, go look at Table 14 for poverty statistics broken down by race.
This is the sixth part of a series. Here’s the first part, “What Does It Mean to Be White?”
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