The Denied Humanity of Poor Folk

Devon Wade

middle-class-refrigeratorOver the past couple of years, I have notice an unnerving trend in my social circles, both on and offline as well as in the media, regarding the way many highly educated and middle-upper class individuals talk about the poor. To be frank, the sentiments have been downright dehumanizing. The use of platforms such as Facebook and Twitter for sharing media content and individual status opinions about social issues (outside of friendships and pictures) is a relatively new phenomenon. And as a millennial, social media has been the primary vehicle for which I have witnessed a proliferation of disparaging views about the poor. The considerable amount of poor shaming both nationally and in my social media networks compelled me to write this piece. And I do not wish for this piece to be a regurgitation of the facts and numbers surrounding the poor and their spending, although I’ll certainly point you in the direction of resources that do. Rather, I wish to make a moral appeal for the ways in which we view and empathize with the poor or those who receive government assistance. Because evidently we have come to unabashedly and routinely punish and shame the poor for being poor.

Examples of poor shaming are everywhere. For example, lawmakers in the state of Missouri who are pushing to ban food stamp recipients from buying steak and seafood; the case of New York City’s highly sought after affordable apartments in new condos with a special “poor door” to distinguish low-income renters from full price buyers; or even in the recent Texas pool party fiasco where the alleged impetus for the dispute began when a white female resident told black female resident to go back to her Section 8 home – because apparently if you are Black and live in a home in the suburbs, the only way you could afford it is if you were receiving some form of government assistance. People often share online articles that demonize the poor attached to a status that says something to the effect of “see these lazy folk are sitting up living good off my hard earned tax dollars” or, “how dare they be walking around [in, with, or doing] xyz and they are on xyz type of assistance. And Lord help me: if I see that exhausted meme comparing an empty refrigerator of a non-welfare recipient to a stocked fridge of a supposed welfare recipient floating around my timeline again, I WILL LOSE IT!

Unfortunately, these sentiments are not in the least bit surprising. You see, in America we tend to believe that all it takes is hard work and strong ethics to succeed. And hell, if you don’t succeed, then you must not have the same work ethic and determination as the rest of us hardworking citizens. Thus, you are the cause for your own failures and no one else. This sort of ‘pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps’ mentality is an irresistible narrative for most Americans in this country to explain our success and the failures of others. It offers a convenient, guilt-free way of disregarding the root causes of our poverty issues. Structural inequalities have a lot more to do with producing stratification and stagnation for certain groups of people than their attitudes and orientation to work.

resized_philosoraptor-meme-generator-if-they-re-receiving-welfare-checks-why-do-they-have-200-sneakers-on-57b3bfSeemingly, we feel entitled to dictate how poor folk should not only live, but also how they get use their private money. The logic being that as policymakers, taxpayers and officials, who are not poor but hard working people, we are best qualified offer you the best advice for how to help yourself out of poverty – key phrase being “help yourself.” The problem with that logic is that we assume that the majority of poor people and those on government assistance do not work, cannot manage their finances or have no aspirations to get out of poverty – assumptions that place all failure back on the individual. In reality however, many are sometimes working multiple jobs, and are still unable to make ends meet – largely due hourly wage inequality. But with that faulty assumption in mind, many employed middle and upper class people go on to draw comparisons between their working hard everyday and welfare recipients, as if these people are not working.

This is where we deny the humanity of poor folk. We do this by putting them under an intense social microscope, watching their every move and dictating what they should and should not do. Waiting for that one moment when they slip up and actually start to live like a “regular person.” Because if you did not know, when you sign up for welfare and government assistance, you should no longer want nice things for you or your family, you should relinquish your taste and budget for non-generic brands and foods, and you should bargain shop for your clothes and goods. Why? Because why should I help you get the same things as I? I am entitled to those things because I worked hard for them. And also, the little bit of money you get from your multiple jobs to make ends meet, yeah, you shouldn’t spend that like regular folk do either. Save it for a rainy day. As if everyday isn’t rainy in the lives of people who cannot afford to think about the future most times!

You see the terrifying thing about poverty and structural inequality is that they are persistent and deep. The sad truth is that, if a poor person decides not to pay $170 for a pair of Air Jordan’s, refrains from going to the nail shop or salon, and completely abstains from buying steak and shrimp a few times, that would not pull them out of the depths of poverty. Being poor has much more to do with stubborn and complex inequalities than it has to do with an individual’s spending patterns. And what is even more alarming than the ways we talk so disparagingly about the poor, are the way in which we deny them the ability to bring some sort of solace and comfort to their lives because they are poor. Here, I am reminded of Nikki Giovanni’s 2007 public critique of Bill Cosby’s respectability politics on the matter of poor Black parents. She in essence argues, how dare we critique Black parents for aspiring to endow and give their kids the best – whatever they think that to be. It is contradictory to this country’s capitalist orientation and the way other parents reward and treat their children through the purchase of goods. All parents ultimately want what is best for their kids, but poor Black and Brown poor parents get surveillance and policed in strict ways.

More importantly, does it not seem like an insensitive encroachment into an individual’s personal life to dictate how they seek to bring happiness to themselves or their families in whatever way they deem fitting? Because when living in perpetual poverty, largely due to generations of structural inequalities, one way of coping or surviving is to invest in things that bring joy to you and your kids lives. Even if that means going into debt for Christmas to buy toys or gifts, spending the last little bit of money you have on a family outing because it will bring you all closer, or buying that expensive prom dress for your daughter because you know it is a night she will remember forever. The blunt reality is that many won’t escape poverty. Those bills will still be there, the struggle of living paycheck to paycheck will still be there no matter how much they deny themselves and their family’s pleasures. But what is possible, is to use the little bit of means they do have, even while being on assistance, to bring joy to their loved ones or themselves every once in a while. We shouldn’t deny them of that choice by saying they shouldn’t be able to do things others with money can do simply because they are poor. Our tax dollars, even the extremely small amount that actually goes to welfare, does not give us the right to take away their dignity. The poor should be able to do more than just worry about surviving. That is dehumanizing.

The way we talk about poor folk has to change. We must resist the classist, and yes racist (Google welfare queens), narratives we draw upon and then ascribe onto the lives of poor folks. The ability to resist these narratives and develop empathy for the poor was a learned process on my end. Over the course of the last eight years, all of which I have mostly spent in or near institutions of higher learning, I have experienced the unique transition of moving from an impoverished neighborhood and family context to mostly isolated middle-class environments – a difficult move to make in America. I went from an environment where many of my peers and family members were simply surviving, although they did not see themselves as poor, to an environment filled with notions of meritocracy and disparaging views of the poor. My social networks expanded tremendously, but in a skewed sort of way. As a bright eyed, fresh-out-of-the-hood young college student experiencing newfound mobility, who was I to resist this dominant socializing narrative that told me, I made it because I worked hard and that my peers were left behind because they simply did not try hard enough? Fortunately, a few sociology and ethnic studies courses revised this faulty logic early on. However, for many others, the dominant bootstrap narrative is never really disputed. This pushed me to think more critically about my evolving class identity and the expectation that higher education would make me upwardly mobile. I began to consider what it meant to hold views about the poor as a boy not far removed from poverty. This sort of introspection about my class identity and background allowed me to develop a more empathic view of the poor. I hope the thoughts I’ve shared here inspire you to revisit your thoughts about poverty in the same way that critical sociology and ethnic studies spawned a new way of thinking for me.

Resources for extra reading outside of links provided in article:

– Welfare and Risk Indicators – Government Report to Congress

Putting Welfare Fraud in Context 

No Poor Aren’t Poor Because They Waste Money

J’s On My Sociological Feet: A Social Observation of a Harlem Jordan Sneaker Release

Devon Wade

Photo May 23, 17 41 40I’m not a big Jordan wearer, but every now and again, I’ll cop me a pair of classics. Growing up, I was surrounded by a community of “Sneakerheads” with my brothers and cousin being the foremost embracers of the title. As a result, I’ve always been curious about the process of consumption around sneakers – especially around the infamous Jordan’s and it’s interaction with race. So last night, as I stood in line for the new Jordan 11 Low Bred’s that I really wanted, I naturally went into sociologist mode and became a participant observer LOL. Hey, what can I say! Y’all know me… So here are a few things I observed:

  1. Many of the people, particularly adults, are highly aware of the social judgment and stigmatization that occurs as onlookers gaze while passing as they wait in the long line out front of the stores. This stigmatization is rooted in constructed narratives about Black consumptive practices and class status for poor and working class families – often that this is a bad investment for people who they assume are already struggling financially.
  1. They’re often prepared defensively to rebut these judgmental shots. Many used the rationale “I don’t normally do this.” Some made snarky remarks about onlookers to suggest “they don’t know me.” Or they created cognitive dissonance by passing judgment on others behaving poorly in the line or at other stores – they do this to suggest they are not like the other buyers in line.
  1. They are aware of the danger and violence that could be lurking with such a purchase, so they either (1) travel in groups, (2) parents accompany their children, or (3) devise strategies to discreetly get package to safe destination once purchased. Stores generally have a couple of security guards present and NYPD occasionally make their surveillance rounds.
  1. Parents I spoke with talked about the purchase as an incentive for good behavior/actions of their child. They also emphasize responsibility and self-efficacy with arrangements such as the child raising a portion of the money on their own.
  1. Many people in line had an entrepreneurial spirit or orientation to their purchase. Whether it was reselling bands/tickets to get shoe, or placing shoes back on market for higher value, they had an eye on making a return on their investment. For example, a group of young teens, who had waited in line since around or before midnight, asked each other whether they were going to wear the shoe or resell right away.
  1. There seems to be a highly connected network of independent sellers and collectors, in Harlem at least, and they seem to have a system of workers/line waiters or relationships with store owners/staff that better optimize the number of shoes they are able to get – given that there is a limit of 1 pair per ticket.

From my impromptu social observation, I took away a few things:

Photo May 23, 01 26 01First, is that we don’t allow enough room for Black consumers to articulate their own understandings consumptive practices. The white supremacist gaze seems to always ascribe narratives on the Black consumer and their practices. Although not representative, what I see here is that these consumers, in line at least for the case of the shoes, are actually savvy investors that run counter to the dominant construction of Black consumption in sneakers as illogical investments. They have created an elaborate market and network structure to make investments profitable. One guy even makes more selling shoes than his main profession of teaching in New York City Public Schools.

Second, was the way many both understood and combated the stigmatization and negative stereotypes placed on their decisions to wait in line for a pair of $170 tennis shoes. Often Black consumers are not given credit for understanding the complex social dynamics going on in their daily lives. However, they are very aware and it is refreshing when we can account for that and give them credit. As a researcher, I don’t need to make sense of their lives, they already can, I just place in a larger theoretical narrative and facilitate that to a wider audience.

Third, there’s often not a narrative of responsibility, self-efficacy and good parenting practices attached this phenomenon of shoe consumption when talking about people of color who wait in lines for these purchases. Highlighting the fact that parents use these purchases to incentivize good behavior and work, as well as push kids to take on some form of responsibility in financing shoe pushes back on the overwhelmingly negative image attached to Black parents who buy these shoes for their children.

I did not intend on this casual shopping endeavor turning into a social experiment, nor did I intend on writing about this. But my experience allowed me to meet many people and see things that contradict narratives I have always heard about Jordan consumption. I’ll admit, there were moments when I had to confront my own feelings of cognitive dissonance as I waited in line and felt the stigmatizing gaze of onlookers. These were things I wanted to make note of. However, most importantly, I wanted to use this opportunity to disrupt common assumptions and stereotypes about these Black consumers, who somehow always seem to get a bad rap for their consumptive choices compared to other groups. My main purpose here is to add nuance to the conversation surrounding Black sneaker consumption practices rather than make an argument about the good or bad spending choices of poor people of color. Thus, I found this a very fun exercise to do so. I hope you enjoy and I encourage dialogue and feedback!

Social Media as a Space for My Activism and Advocacy

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Sometimes I am told that I spend entirely too much time on social media sites such as Facebook. In fact, in a former relationship it created a tremendous source of tension unfortunately. While I do agree that I can sometimes spend an exorbitant amount of time reading, posting, and engaging in discourse on Facebook, I feel it is not without valid reasoning. You see for me, I have always been interested in engaging in meaningful conversations and sharing socially relevant information – particularly as it pertains to issues of race and inequality. I have nearly 3,000 friends on Facebook (which I am happy to say of most I have a connection with since I am a relatively guarded person) from all walks of life that cut across all demographics (race, class, sexual orientation, etc.).  Very few spaces, in my opinion, allow such a platform for information dissemination across a wide-ranging viewership. It brings me a great deal of joy to share new information, controversial outlooks, and debate-sparking articles that encourage dialogue and thinking that perhaps would not have happened or been seen to my social media friends had I not posted it. In my privilege of being able to pursue higher education and study intensively issues of inequality, I have always tried to remain grounded in my interests to use the knowledge gained through my conventional educational route in unconventional ways. Social media, Facebook in particular, has provided that platform for me. This manifestation has been most evident with a segment of the population to which I am most interested in sharing information with – those from underprivileged background who mostly due to structural inequalities have not had access to such knowledge and conversations. I am constantly receiving messages from my social media friends who say they use my Facebook page as a site for the location of socially relevant information for them. When I post articles, and put information out, it is seen by many who probably would not have seen or entertained such viewpoints and ideas unless it drifted across their Facebook feeds. This is especially salient in that younger generations of Americans are no longer reading print journalism like that of their predecessors, and even more true of those from underprivileged backgrounds. However, the beauty of social media, in conjunction with the rise of technology use by minority populations via phones, is that access to social media sites are now accessible to nearly everyone regardless of class background.

The information sharing on my Facebook is bi-directional in two important ways for me. One, it allows for cross-community dialogue between those from underprivileged backgrounds or identities and those from more privileged ones. This is particularly important for me because marginalized or underprivileged voices are almost never heard in the mainstream narrative around their positionality, yet they are usually ascribed thoughts based on faulty assumptions. Their participation in a dialogue that may ensue from a post gives them voice and visibility in the larger conversation via the platform and network that my Facebook provides. Second, the information and positions I share, informed by my lived experiences as a black male who came from an underprivileged background, contrast dominant ideologies and beliefs of my social media friends from more privileged and homogenous backgrounds and identities. This, perhaps, for many of them function as one of the few spaces in which they see informations and discussions that challenges their normative perceptions. This plays out a few different ways on my page. Primarily, this has been race – conversations with my white friends about issues of racial inequality. While I feel that my posts about race have alienated most of my white friends from engaging because of their uncomfortability talking or grappling with opposing views on the issue (a complex problem that I’ll save for another blog), the ones who do stick around and engage, the post have been extremely amazing and exciting on both ends of the dialogue. Other interesting ways conversations play out are along gender lines, and with religion and sexuality in the black community that usually incites intense, but informative conversations across the many variations of perspectives, identities, and positions of my Facebook friends. This is what makes my time spent on social media so meaningful and justifiable (….Hmmm I should have made this as clear to my ex LOL). This is one form of activism and advocacy for me. It also operates as a way of remaining grounded in a purpose as I pursue a career of lifelong learning. It is cathartic and part of my self-care, albiet some conversations really gets my blood boiling lol.

Now what I will say, however, is that my trajectory from an underprivileged environment to college and now grad school in different states and communities has given me a wide range of sustained interactions with a variety of different people to whom have become my “social media friends.” If my life experience had been one to which I came from and stayed in pretty homogenous spaces, then my variability in friends on Facebook may not have have positioned me to use this platform in the way I have as a space for information sharing. That being said, I hope that this blog will be another place to share my views and experiences with a diverse and captive audience!

Best,

Devon