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Talking about the Poor

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How do you talk about the poor? Are they you or are they someone else, someone who we need to enact some policy

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upon? Are they your brothers and sisters or are they objects of sympathy? My former co-blogger Sarah Jaffe has an excellent op-ed in the Washington Post about how journalists and activists talk about the poor:

It’s a particular kind of emotional labor that we ask of these workers. In addition to the strength and courage to tell the boss, to his face, that you’re walking out because you’re sick of how you’re being treated, we demand that you perform the role of the poor person for us, and we squabble over the right things to do for you. Our discourse on poverty is fed by stories of misery; it gorges itself on tales of cracked ceilings and no heat and feeding the family on a few dollars a week. But this is just another way that the poor must prove themselves “deserving” and for the better-off to feel righteous for helping them.

The right claims that raising the minimum wage will make these jobs disappear altogether and that if they don’t like jobs they’re in, they can get another one. (Perhaps they will like being a home health care or personal care aide, since according to Department of Labor statistics those are the fastest-growing career paths for most Americans, and they pay a whopping $20,000 a year.)

The left wants to raise the minimum wage, which is a good start, and perhaps even endorses fast-food workers’ demand for a union. But too often we — and I do mean to include myself here — erase the agency of the workers, debate whether they’re really demanding these things of their own volition , talk about them as though they are easily manipulated children rather than adults making a decision. We, too, talk about them as though they are not us.

Of course they are most of you (certainly me anyway) with a missed paycheck. The punditocracy, which I suppose I am part of too, values analysis over solidarity, serious sensible thinking about immediate political ends over long-term movement building, criticism over support. I guess it’s a bit easier for me to see through this because I grew up in the working class, but that hardly makes me immune from these problems or this language either. This is one reason why Sarah’s piece is so important–it’s the all-too rare calling out of how journalists actually operate. Another reason is to remind us all of the importance of seeing ourselves as workers in the same (or similar) boats as fast food or home care workers. Not only does the instability of the modern economy mean that such is quite likely our future (mine too, I have no confidence that I be able to retire as an academic and not because I think I will be denied tenure), but we need to craft meaningful alliances that prioritize solidarity with workers so that together we can build a movement to take back this nation and world from the plutocrats. Without that, you and I fall together.

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