Understanding Poverty, Racism, and Privilege Again for the First Time

Once again, predictably, when my South Carolina should focus on education opportunity, not accountability was published at The State, comments included convoluted arguments demonizing people who are poor while discounting racism because “I was poor but I worked hard and succeeded” (this last claim invariably comes from a white person who is oblivious to the example proving the power of white privilege even against the weight of poverty).

Recently, as well, Teaching Tolerance confronted Ruby Payne’s poverty industry that speaks to and perpetuates stereotypes about poverty, race, and privilege (see here for research discrediting Payne’s work).

My public work addressing poverty, race, and education consistently reinforces that political leaders, the media, and much of the public in the U.S. suffer corrosive and inaccurate views of poverty, race, and privilege—stereotypes that are incredibly powerful.

When I argue about the need to address poverty directly, many respond by claiming anyone can succeed if she/he simply works hard enough. When I argue about the need to address racism, many concede poverty is burdensome, but add that racism no longer exists—again, people of color simply fail to take advantage of the opportunities all people have in the U.S.

Despite the great potential of social media and online publications with commentary (a way to democratize whose voices matter), those open forums allow anyone to respond un-vetted and perpetuate one of the great failures of public debate—arguing a single example proves or disproves a generalization: One black person excelled means there is no racism; “I was poor but” proves everyone has an equal opportunity.

Evidence appears ineffective against stereotypes—the illogical and irrational—but I invite you to step away from your assumptions and understand poverty, racism, and privilege again for the first time.

Focusing on poverty, the most enduring myths include some of the following (see the reader below for ample evidence disproving each):

  • Adults and children living in poverty somehow deserve that condition because they do not work hard enough, lacking the “grit” that successful people have.
  • The impoverished struggle because of their inferior literacy skills, often referred to as the “word gap.”
  • The culture of poverty is the result of a number of qualities among the poor, and thus, it is up to the poor themselves to break that cycle.
  • Poverty is a sham because of a number of common sense observations: the impoverished often seem to be obese and many people in poverty still own things (TVs, cars, cell phones).
  • The poor are prone to criminal behavior and substance abuse.

Research, however, refutes and discredits all of these.

One of the most powerful ways to reject false narratives about the poor is to consider that in the U.S., the cheapest foods are high in fat and processed sugar; and thus, it is a matter of practicality that the poor tend toward obesity.

Good health and safety are more expensive—shopping at Whole Foods or purchasing a car with added safety features—and thus both are accessed more easily by privilege.

Yet, we are a people stuck in false narratives about meritocracy and rugged individualism.

To understand poverty, racism, and privilege, however, systemic dynamics such as slack and scarcity must be examined. Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir in their Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much examine the research base that shows the same person behaves differently under slack and scarcity.

Privilege begets privilege because slack allows a great deal of room for failure, and poverty begets poverty because the margins are so tight that irrational behavior seems rational.

But, again, these dynamics are the result of the conditions and not inherent qualities in individuals.

Below I offer a reader because the facts about poverty, racism, and privilege are dramatically different than the false narratives we live with in the U.S. For even good people with good intentions, the myths are hard to set aside.

A Reader: Understanding Poverty, Racism, and Privilege Again for the First Time

Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir

George Saunders’s Allegory of Scarcity and Slack

Miseducating Teachers about the Poor: A Critical Analysis of Ruby Payne’s Claims about Poverty, Bomer, et al.

Pathologizing the Language and Culture of Poor Children, Curt Dudley-Marling and Krista Lucas

Savage Unrealities, Paul C. Gorski

The Myth of the Culture of Poverty, Paul C. Gorski

Problematizing Payne and Understanding Poverty: An Analysis with Data from the 2000 Census, Jennifer C. Ng and John L. Rury [pdf]

The Culture of Poverty Reloaded

5 thoughts on “Understanding Poverty, Racism, and Privilege Again for the First Time”

  1. The flawed logic of the “they didn’t work hard enough mentality” is wrong headed, ignorant and stupid. I was born into poverty. My parents never finished high school because of the depression and circumstances that they, as children, had no control over. I won’t go into detail, but my parents worked hard and managed to pay off a small three bedroom one bath house after losing another house. My dad worked in construction and as hard as the job was, construction has its ups and downs. My older brother lived in poverty his entire life and died with his body a mess because of the hard labor he worked for poverty wages and before he died he was proud to claim that he never collected welfare or food stamps.

    The only reason I broke out of that poverty trap is because I sold my life to the government when I joined the Marines out of high school and was sent off to fight in Vietnam. Serving the country by serving in combat in one of its illegal wars based on lies led to the GI Bill, the VA for medical and VA loans for two of the houses I’ve owned. Without the GI Bill or the VA, I would have also been stuck living in poverty for my life working for poverty wages where I started out at age 15 working thirty hours a week nights and weekends while barely making it through high school. I didn’t work any harder than my father, mother or older brother. The U.S. military offers people who live in poverty a chance to escape if they are willing to risk their lives in wars based on lies that in the end only beneift a few very wealthy and powerful usually old white men like the Walton family, the Koch brothers or even Bill Gates.

    For thirty years I taught in schools that had high rates of children living in poverty in communities mired in poverty that were dominated by dangerous and violent street gangs and every year I offered the advice that if they wanted to go to college and break out, the military was an option if you made it out alive and with all your body parts still there, and a few of my students followed the same path I followed to escape. I know because a couple of them came back and visited me to let me know it had worked for them, but what about the ones that never came back to let me know. What happened to them?

    I wonder how many of these critics who think poor people don’t work hard enough joined the U.S. military and went off to fight in a war risking their lives to escape poverty by serving their country in a war based on lies, fraud and the growth of wealth and power for members of the 1%.

  2. You are right. Those who are privileged and, therefore, wealthy advance this flawed logic that people who are poor have themselves to blame because they are too lazy to work or do not want to pursue the path educating themseves. As pointed in your article, people are indigent because of the conditions they find themseves in and not because they are inherently incapable of improving their lot.
    Where I come from tertiary education is punishingly expensive and if your parents are illiterate or semi-literate and as such poor to pay for your tertiary education; you are likely stuck in the poverty rut.

    It is not a joke that your still have families who have nobody to show who has a college education or anyone who owns a car.

    Those who (‘escaped’ poverty) are lucky enough to have achieved success and now arguing that anyone can do it if they tried harder must not think it is that simple.

  3. I had never heard of Ruby Payne and her terrible basis for “teacher development”. Thanks for red-lighting this.

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