A poor showing: Why the stigma attached to poverty is wrong

The poor as a constituency are invisible in the political landscape of the United States.

Denver Presidential Debate
Both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama failed to mention the word "poverty" during their debate on October 3 [EPA]

Conventional wisdom says that politicians ignore the concerns of the poor because poor people don’t vote. This election cycle hasn’t been any different, as exemplified in the first presidential debate between President Barack Obama and challenger Governor Mitt Romney. Obama neglected to mention the poor or poverty of the course of the 90 minute debate, while Romney found himself saying the word poor only to backtrack and use the more guarded term “low-income”. Jim Lehrer, the moderator, asked no questions about poverty and neither candidate spoke to programmes they intended to implement aimed directly at alleviating poverty.

That’s to be expected. The poor as a constituency are invisible in the United States. And there are numbers to support this theory: In 2008, those making less than $15,000 a year were 13 per cent of the total population but only 6 per cent of the entire electorate, compared to those making over $200,000 being only 3.8 per cent of the total population and still making up 6 per cent of the voting population. To get elected, it’s prudent to pander to the voting bloc more likely to show up to the polls.

The problem with this view is who does and doesn’t get counted among the poor. The federal poverty line is set at an annual income of $11,130 for a single person, $14,218 for couples, $17,374 for a family of three, and $22,314 for a family of four. We call these people poor, but those surviving at an income level just above them are sometimes called working class, but generally lumped into the increasingly amorphous entity known as the middle class when they are anything but. A New York Times story from November of last year reported on the so-called “near poor”, those people with incomes less than 50 per cent above the official poverty, totaling some 51 million Americans. All told, one in three Americans, more than 100 million, are considered poor or are in the tenuous and fragile class right above it. But why not call them poor?

In a story for GQ, “Amber Waves of Green,” author Jon Ronson in one sentence describes a family getting by on $900 a week as middle class, and in the very next sentence as poor. This is a family of three battling daily the rising cost of food, gas, and health insurance, to the point they can’t afford to drive from one side of Florida to the other without thinking of it as a major financial commitment.

If their economic situation is such that missing a single paycheck could completely devastate their finances and alter their lifestyle in a way that would be extremely difficult to recover from, how are they not poor? Their lives are not ambiguous. We should come right out and say it: One third of the United States is poor.

If a full third of the country is poor, our refusal to devote any real political energy to ameliorating poverty becomes even more sinister. To dismiss the needs of more than 100 million citizens is a humanitarian crisis. Yet, this is the state of politics.

It wasn’t always this way. Politicians used to mention the poor. In his third inaugural address, President Franklin D Roosevelt said, “The hopes of the Republic cannot forever tolerate either undeserved poverty or self-serving wealth.” In the book, Searching for America’s Heart: RFK and the Renewal of Hope, Peter Edelman wrote about Robert F Kennedy that there was “no high public official… more at the forefront of thinking and action about poverty”. And of course, President Lyndon B Johnson took the opportunity of his first State of the Union address to declare a “War on Poverty”, enacting a number of programmes that still constitute the modern social safety net. Poverty and the poor did have meaning and true allies at a time in this nation’s history.

 Inside Story US 2012 – Ignoring America’s poor

Then the face of poverty became darker. Politicians used to speak to the concerns of the poor before President Richard Nixon and Pat Buchanan implemented the infamous “southern strategy”, which succeeded not only in establishing a new majority coalition for the Republican party, but also in making the face of poverty in the United States the black and brown youth of America’s violent inner-city.

Nixon stoked racial anxiety to great electoral success and turned the problem of poverty into a black-and-white issue. Later, President Ronald Reagan would further the cause by creating the mythical “welfare queen”, a greedy and conniving black mother scheming to take from the government more than her just deserts, but those of hard-working white Americans all over, in order to avoid putting in her own hard work to achieve the American dream.

People of colour, relative to their population numbers, are disproportionately in poverty, this is true, but the majority of those who are poor, even when only considering the official federal poverty line, are white Americans. Yet, the national perception of the poor is that of lazy black and brown faces who would rather live off the government dime than contribute anything worthwhile to society. When you’ve stratified the identity of the poor along racial lines, it becomes harder to convince people, particularly white Americans, they are indeed the poor who should be demanding more of their elected officials.

Monica Potts, in a piece for The American Prospect, does an excellent job of describing the conditions of a white rural family living below the poverty line in America, lending to a reset on the ideas of who the poor really are. But despite her efforts, even the protagonists in Potts’ story refused to be identified as poor. The mother of the Eastern Kentucky family of four attempting to make it by on $30,000 a year (in a good year) believed that being poor meant you had given up, and thus would not call herself or her family poor. The stigma attached to poverty, partially due to its racial connotations, keeps many struggling Americans from identifying as poor and fighting for programmes to help the poor/themselves. We are an aspirational society, but aspiration can not become delusion.

We can not continue to say that the poor don’t vote if we don’t even know who the poor are. We can not misrepresent a people, purposefully shut them out of the electoral process (via voter ID laws, cutting early voting, and refusing to make election day a federal holiday and day off of work), and then claim they have no voice. The problem isn’t that the poor don’t vote, it’s that the people who vote don’t think of themselves as poor. If we more accurately assessed the levels of poverty in this country, we could no longer say that poor people are not voting, politicians could no longer ignore the concerns of the poor, and as a nation we would be forced to confront one of our greatest moral shortcomings. The official poverty number is too high, but the one we choose not to acknowledge is downright tragic.

Mychal Denzel Smith is a freelance writer, social commentator, and mental health advocate. His writing covers a range of topics, including but not limited to politics, social justice, pop culture, hip-hop, mental health, feminism, and black male identity.

Follow him on Twitter: @mychalsmith