In an impressive, old-school takedown that doesn’t use the words “mansplaining” or “privilege,” New Republic writer Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig explains why NYT columnist David Brooks — who I think of as white bread with glasses — is mistaken about poverty.
Brooks’ underlying assumption is wrong: The baseline moral values of poor people do not, in fact, differ that much from those of the rich. Poor people feel ashamed of the incarceration of relatives. The poor, too, want to get married at roughly the same rates as the rich, though the rich have an easier time pulling it off. Matrimonial aspirations, then, are decaying no faster among the poor than the well-off; it’s only the ability to maintain a marriage under the stressors of poverty that seems to put poor families on unsteady ground. Lastly, lest anyone suspect the welfare-queen narrative about poor people eschewing hard work and responsibility holds true, Stephen Pimpare observes in his book A People’s History of Poverty in America that the stigma and shame of poverty and welfare are alive and well …
It is so, so easy, criminally easy, to assume people are poor because they’ve done something wrong and so deserve it. “They” make bad choices, “they” have bad values, “they” buy too many lattes or drugs or fancy sneakers or whatever. It is comforting to think this way because it allows the people making these judgments to enjoy the often fleeting illusion of feeling a) superior, and b) safe.
In the last decade, concentrated poverty has gotten significantly worse. In some regions of the country, over a third of residents now live in what are called “poor neighborhoods.” A Slate writer took a look at the 2010 Census data:
In 2010, the overall U.S. poverty rate was about 15 percent. However, about a quarter of all Americans lived in a so-called “poverty area”—defined as a census tract where more than 20 percent of the population lived below the poverty line. … The problem was especially severe in Appalachia and across the South and Southwest, where in most states 30 percent or more of all residents lived in these communities.
As recently as a decade ago, the situation was much less dire: in 2000, around 18% of the total US population lived in “poor neighborhoods.” Now over 25% of us do. 15% of all Americans — and an unconscionable 21.8% of all children – live in poverty (“In 2012, 73.7 million American children represented 23.7% of the total U.S. population, but made up a disquieting 34.6% of Americans in poverty and a full 35% of Americans living in deep poverty”). Increasingly it seems Poverty is an actual place where Americans live, packed together in isolation, forced to cope with fewer resources, fewer services, fewer jobs, more violence, and the kind of high walls that make Poverty difficult to escape. Metaphorically speaking.
An unrelated article by several economists in Slate suggests that, on a local level, at least, people are acting: towns, even or especially less affluent ones, are doing like Denmark.
This is not news, but in case you needed more ammunition to shoot down the rags-to-riches dreams of the naïve up-and-comers you meet between the dive bar and the OTB, there’s a 30-year, longitudinal study of 800 Baltimore children that proves, as Mother Jones happily summarizes, that “family determines almost everything, and that a child’s fate is essentially fixed by how well off her parents were when she was born.”
And (surprise!) the data reveal additional barriers to upward mobility for black children:
Alexander found that among men who drop out of high school, the employment differences between white and black men was truly staggering. At age 22, 89 percent of the white subjects who’d dropped of high school were working, compared with 40 percent of the black dropouts.
These differences came despite the fact that it was the better-off white men who reported the highest rates of drug abuse and binge drinking. White men from disadvantaged families came in second in that department. White men also had high rates of encounters with the criminal justice system. At age 28, 41 percent of the white men born into low-income families had criminal convictions, compared with 49 percent of the black men from similar backgrounds, an indication that it is indeed race, not a criminal record, that’s keeping a lot of black men out of the workforce.
Now, I realize that for those among us who, through poor planning, were born poor and/or black, there’s not much to do but keep on struggling and hope to beat the odds. But I do sometimes wonder how long the American Dream will continue to edge out Armed Insurrection Followed By Workers’ Paradise as our favorite unrealistic formula for working class salvation.
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