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Talking about the Poor


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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  • Archibald Mirenopteryx

    Very simple: I’m one of them and have been almost all of my life, even in those extremely rare occasions that I’ve had a decent income.

    So why have I been poor all my life? I’m a Ph.D. in molecular virology. I was poor as a grad student, poor as a postdoc and now I am truly poor as an unemployed scientist…poor enough to get almost the full suite of welfare – SNAP, Medicaid, etc.

    I’ve certainly turned some heads revealing to the welfare workers I’m a Ph.D. “caught in desperate times.” Not sure half of them believe me. But in a job market this bad, even being white, male, and with a STEM Ph.D. isn’t enough to avoid falling through the gaping chasms in our economy.

    But the thing is, I’ve always found common cause with the genuinely impoverished. I’ve volunteered at soup kitchens, done peer counseling, and so on. An economy that allows them to drown is the sort of rising tide that will sooner or later drown all of us, and what’s happened to me post-2008 only vindicated that position. What helps them, helps me – it’s that simple – and I know who my enemies are.

    They ain’t the poor.

    • DITTO!!!!!
      I’m 56, and I’ve worked since I was 14 – part-time.

      When I graduated from college, I worked full-time at a variety of jobs – including Customer & Sales Trainer, bartender, bouncer, dock/shipping-receiving worker, Adjunct Professor.

      I was never unemployed for more than 3 weeks – and that was to wait for the dock/shipping-receiving position to open-up at IBM.

      When I lost my job at the end of 2008, as a Trainer, I moved out of NC, back to NY.
      I couldn’t find any jobs.
      Bartending was out, because of my severe ankle/back/hip disabilities.

      I finally got hired at a K-Mart a minimum wage (I wanted to work!), but I couldn’t stand on my feet long enough, due to my disability.

      I lost a potential job as a Trainer at a bank, due to a bad credit rating – whose credit rating goes UP, when they’ve been unemployed for 1/2 a year.

      I worked as a telemarketer for long enough, that I got unemployment when I was let go – I sucked as a telemarketer. NOT that I didn’t try to succeed.
      But it takes something that I must lack, to be successful.

      I’m kind of resigned to never finding gainful employment again, which will allow me to be independent.

      And for all of you sociopathic Conservative haters out there, before you criticize me, try walking a mile in my warped, old shoes!
      With a cane.
      And sometimes, a walker.

      You might be a bit more sympathetic, if you had to.

      • Linnaeus

        I lost a potential job as a Trainer at a bank, due to a bad credit rating – whose credit rating goes UP, when they’ve been unemployed for 1/2 a year.

        I’ve never understood this. It’s like debtors’ prison – how can you improve your credit rating without the means (employment) to do so?

        • IT’S NUCKING FUTS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

          This credit-check nonsense was part of the whole hideously, beyond-ugly, pro-bank, pro-credit card, no bankruptcy for individuals, plenty of bankruptcy for businesses, legislation passed by the Republican-controlled Congress in 2005.

          Having said that, doing those checks makes SOME sense in jobs that would handle actual money.
          But the job was for a Trainer, so I’d be in some Training Room, handing out Monopoly money for trainees to handle.

          I had cashed in my 401K Plan when I lost my job, and was a couple of months from paying off ALL of my debt!
          But the damn bank wouldn’t even field a phone call from me, so that I could explain the situation.

          I’m so disgusted with this country, that if I could get a job anywhere in the world, I’d gladly leave it, and wouldn’t even wave goodbye to the country that I once loved.


          And not in the sociopathic bigoted Teabagger sense!

          But back to the fairly civilized and empathetic country we were, back when I was young.

          • GoDeep

            Tying credit reports to hiring is the craziest thing ever. I understand why the credit rating agencies push it. I’ve no idea why a hiring manager would fall for it though.

            Here’s hoping you get your country back, Gulag.

        • UserGoogol

          I believe the logic is that a credit rating is a (very loose, but easily accessed) way of measuring how trustworthy a potential employee is, which is relevant information for an employer. But since “not having enough money” is a fairly major contributor to a poor credit rating, and since having a job is a fairly major way of relieving that problem, it causes a giant vicious circle.

          Although even if there wasn’t that, it’s highly questionable whether people who are “untrustworthy” in one aspect of life should be shunned from other aspects of life. It’s understandable from the employer’s perspective, but that doesn’t make it right. But the financial aspects of it exacerbate the problem significantly.

      • Five months after my husband mangled my just-surgically-rebuilt right hand, dislocated and crushed my right knee and shoulder, after destroying the cast that had held my right metatarsals in place to heal, and strangled me nearly to death, I woke before dawn and realized I was in trouble. I was 38, passing for 20 and annoyed at grocery clerks’ mentioning same, and had worked hard – very hard, like saving every penny, learning to sew well enough to restore and resell vintage finery on the side, while working full time throughout undergrad and doctoral glory days – and just been shoved from the pinnacle of my career, in film [animation. production.] – to ensure a future free of the survival-level improbabilities of my pre-teen milieu. Tidy nest eggs stashed here and there, only tallied up on tax day then tucked into the don’t watch/don’t spend/don’t even track in Quicken recesses of my files, had long since fallen to my husband’s insistence that his newb fervor trumped my decade in day jobs with tax prep responsibilities, and my lawyer said any private premarital assets fraudulently converted more than 6 months before were his to keep. She wanted me to focus on the crippling injuries that kept me from work, from venturing forth in daylight or relaxing one muscle fibre at night, from feeding or bathing without fear of permanent damage to ligaments or the torn artery that was bleeding from my hip to my left foot. I’d finished my answers to discovery toward the question of spousal support, handed them over, and the next morning saw every injury there noted revisited on me by a pack of guys who took direction from and broadcast the spectacle to the ex from my private IP, on cameras they left behind. I regained consciousness and got to the phone 4 days later. This was day 5.
        I boxed everything I treasured that I hadn’t packed away in storage when my home played host to family, the day after he’d strangled me, Thanksgiving: he had that locker’s key, and had long since emptied it of most of the stuff of my life. I grabbed bottles of wine, grandma’s pearls, all the boots and coats and dresses slated for repair after that night… I boxed what I had that was important, that had not been swept away by that lawyer with promises of return later that day. Maybe those were safe, somewhere. No time to ponder, as the first of three days’ excavation then eviction were about to start, and the way that iconic left wing liberal constabulary ridiculed my torn and broken witness presentation of the spatters on the ceiling had me anxious. I was right.
        I started to see on others what kind strangers must have seen on me. Women braving wind and fog for crepuscular wanderings with file boxes: It’s a thing. I had mine in the car, safe and warm. She had hers on a dolly. She was maybe 70. She had hers stacked on her hip. Probably 54. No eye contact, no nod of acknowledgement, but WTF. Here we were. Where were we going? I had a locker, and knew of a hotel that allowed pets, and somehow still pristing credit.
        No friends. No family. No one who hadn’t heard a relatively rational explanation, weeks before I called everyone I knew for help, for the call that didn’t come. The call that blamed my husband for an increasingly bizarre series of blah blah scripted refusals then hang-ups without noting the dearth of names, of acts, of horrors, nor any definition of “help”. I couldn’t stand, as both hands were cut to ribbons and swollen stiff, and couldn’t say much more than help after hang—
        Domestic violence is a thing. It removes productive citizens from productivity at a freakish rate with in my experience unimaginably permanent consequence. The reason you see those ads sponsored by the secretary of state or the council on this or that is simple: California, for instance, needs my tax dollars. I need to pay them. I need to generate revenue, to survive and to restore some tiny fragment of my identity as a hyper productive overachiever who worked every day from age 12, and hadn’t taken a vacation without serious pangs of waste and malaise since then. Before I can generate revenue, I need to figure out what I can do that is seen as of value, in cash, by others. And I need to find that somewhere I don’t find a perfect fit or otherwise love, with people I think competent enough to believe in but whose kids I don’t expect I’ll meet. Without prosecution, I’m still stalked. Surgical interventions are plagued by interference. I live in areas no standard issue haoli might cruise without proper sanction, but still move house [when a cat is shot, or furniture dissembled, hard drives crushed, shoes unboxed and strewn with paint when I return from running errands] way too often.
        I was born poor. I cobbled together some very sturdy bootstraps, and gave them mighty tugs, and had them ripped from my broken feet and dispatched with a filet knife. Or something. I don’t know how he did it, but those Ariats were brand new, ostrich skin. Tough birds. Sometimes the folks you see suffering in the street, or cowering as they wield their EBT [food stamps] card, are blameless and as ashamed and horrified that they accept handouts, that their welfare and return to contributing citizen status should succeed but this new round of budget cuts and eligibility requirements means the tiny bit of help I’ve needed, just a hand to hold while I file a report, or someone to sit quietly while I confront the fact of, and submit my benefits request toward declaration of, disability.
        Its not fair. The world’s not fair. To the point that, as soon as I discover how to fake the mercenary gene, that thing car salesmen somehow cultivate, and tolerate, I plan to put it to work. With a little help, that dust may settle and I might have leisure to ponder this abhorrent task, theres on question I’d survive impending eviction [house sold while I was in a coma. wasp sting, anaphylaxis, death (I got better) by hospital error. them, I blame, and I’d sue if the task memory snafu thus bequeathed let me learn how to hire a good lawyer.].

        If you see me on a street some afternoon, and swear that’s that girl who worked at [hope to again, now the ex ushered in is long gone], what the hell has she been smoking,etc., know that I don’t. Never have. I just shared everything I knew with a coward, who took everything else and destroyed all my tools for making more.
        I’m still me. Lots of skills, with myriad applications, and so much reward to be realized, but for want of a little help. A network, of introductions, of a word or smile to comfort and bolster the wounded ego to the feats of chutzpah a return to work requires. Faith, cordial reflection, and just one of the suits I invested in, restitched to petite perfection, and now need to stow somewhere…I’m ready to go, really.
        If you see me, say hi. And if you think of it, help.

        • I’m truly horrified by, and sorry for, what you’ve gone through.
          I hope things get much, much better for you.

          “Its not fair. The world’s not fair. To the point that, as soon as I discover how to fake the mercenary gene, that thing car salesmen somehow cultivate, and tolerate, I plan to put it to work.”

          But please, please, don’t turn mercenary!

          I’m not religious at all, but I still think we have something like a “soul.”
          Don’t do it.
          It’s a terrible thing to waste ones soul.

        • Lee Rudolph

          “Firefox can’t find the server at http://www.domesticviolencecasualties.hadapassel.” Can you try that again?

        • Dave W.

          Jessica – that is indeed horrible. I hope you are able to find better times very soon.

    • Dave W.

      Archibald – I sympathize. I spent a couple of years out of work in my field a few years back, also with a STEM PhD. What I did might not work for you, but I’ll offer it as a potential source of ideas for maybe getting back into the job market.

      What I did: started my own tutoring business, tutoring high school and college students in math, science, computer science, and SAT prep. I also went through the hoops to get certified as a substitute teacher in my local school district. Took advantage of lunch time on substituting jobs to meet other teachers and build referrals for substituting (somewhat successful) and possible tutoring work (less successfully).

      I got about 3/4 of my tutoring clients through wyzant.com, which works as a broker. Their model involves travelling to the client’s location, so it might be hard to find clients if you don’t have a car. But there are other tutoring businesses in many communities who might be interested in someone with a STEM PhD.

      The money wasn’t great – after expenses, I cleared around $11K-$15K per year, by hustling like crazy, though I was on track to clear about $20K my final (partial) year, before I found full-time employment. And I started with several advantages that you might not have – savings, good health, unemployment insurance to supplement my income, a working spouse who could cover me on her insurance, a fuel efficient car, a laptop, and a cell phone. Outside income might also interfere with your existing benefits in a bad way – I know that unemployment looks at gross instead of net, reducing my benefit by 75% of my gross, while only around half of that gross was my profit. That meant that in the beginning, I was losing around 25 cents on each dollar I made when unemployment was taken into account. I considered that worthwhile to get an income stream that wasn’t dependent on the whims of Congress, but I had enough safety margin to take that risk.

      The net result was that I helped over eighty kids over those two years, including a few really life-changing turnarounds. I also made several contacts who could have been helpful in my full-time job search (parents who can afford to pay for private tutoring tend to be professionally connected), and avoided a resume gap.

      As I said, this approach won’t work for everybody, and may not work for you. But it might provide some ideas.

      • Archibald Mirenopteryx

        Well, truthfully, tutoring is exactly what I had in mind, and I’ve begun setting up a tutoring business. I do lack a few key things – no working spouse, no unemployment, very few savings, and good health – but I do have a fuel efficient car, a laptop, and a cell phone, all paid off, and live with a friend that covers all my housing expenses (rent, electricity, heating, etc.). I just have to cover my car expenses.

        The one difference is that I won’t go near Wyzant. They’re a good clearinghouse, but they take a huge amount of what you make, and Medicaid is life and death for me – I lose coverage, I will also lose my life (see: lack of good health). It’s cash under the table, which Wyzant doesn’t allow.

        I’ve also done the substitute teaching thing. Didn’t adapt well to it (for reasons too complex to go into here), but managed to keep a small income coming in during my last severe bout of unemployment.

        Email me sometime. I’d love to hear how you managed to get your tutoring business off the ground, and some of the things you did to protect yourself, etc.

        • Dave W.

          Archibald: I don’t have your email, but you can reach me at: dave at sebastian9 dot com. Also, c u n d gulag, if you’re in the NYC area, I have an idea that might generate some leads if you want to drop me a line.

          Anyhow, Archibald, if you’re in a state that hasn’t signed on to the Medicaid expansion, you have my sympathies and a wish for better politicians. Otherwise, I think the ACA is supposed to provide a fairly smooth transition from Medicaid to a subsidized policy on the exchanges as your income increases, although given the stakes, I certainly appreciate that you might prefer to wait and see how that works for other people before jumping in.

          Wyzant is all documented income. Their cut isn’t part of your income, though – they act like an agent, where the client pays them, and then they pay you your cut, which is reported on a 1099. That’s the amount I had to report to unemployment, and I assume other government programs will work similarly. As you probably know if you’ve checked them out, the tutor’s cut ranges between 60% and 80% of the nominal amount, depending on experience, and Wyzant offers bulk discounts that come out of their cut to those clients who are willing to pay in advance (up to 15% of nominal now; 20% when I was doing it). So their cut can be as little as 6% (with a senior tutor and a maximum discount) up to 40%. I figured it was worth it to me to get the additional clients, but that’s something each person needs to judge for themselves.

  • Ezra

    “too often we […] erase the agency of the workers”

    Not often enough. Not talking about the “agency” of workers is a valuable first step to not talking about “agency” completely, not just of workers but of everyone, because the thing doesn’t exist. The variables of which human behavior is a function lie in the environment.

    • njorl

      I was about to say something along those lines, though not as extreme. The problem with this:

      talk about them as though they are easily manipulated children rather than adults making a decision.

      is not that it is unfair to the poor, but rather that it is false praise of the non-poor. Manipulation works wonders. That’s why people get paid a lot of money to do it. Discounting it as a part of our social, economic and political struggles is insane.

    • GoDeep

      People are more than the sum of sociology and economics. There’s also this thing called “psychology”. Human agency is indeed very real. Talking abt people as if they’re just cogs in a machine, or the output of some formula is to see the forest without seeing the trees. But then those sciences tell you that themselves. There’s always unexplained variation. I’ve yet to see the multi-variate equation with a R^2 of 1.000.

  • how journalists and ^non-poor activists talk about the poor:

    • Also

      but we need to ^workers 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.

      The first step is to realize the only distinction that really matters is employee vs. employer. Thinking in terms of white/blue collar will just cause the same problems you’re trying to address.

      • postmodulator

        Yeah, this distinction of different kinds of work has been pretty destructive. If you’re not sitting at home and collecting checks on capital investments, you’re a worker.

    • Anonymous

      I think lumping in activists with journalists is unfair to activists of any stripe. Certainly one can find examples of tone deaf activist language, but journalists cover the poor from a position of hostility and suspicion by default.

      IMHO, this is driven by the same impulse as “both sides do it”. We have one group that clearly has a lot to answer for, but to be “fair”, we must exaggerate the flaws of their critics as well. We must all be to blame so that no one is to blame.

      • So I was too lazy to delete journalists and insert an ellipsis. Sue me.

  • Aimai

    I’m not sure what I think about the essay’s emphasis on agency. I think a bigger problem is talking about poor people as though they are the bearers of a shameful disease and not so much “people without money or power” but a congeries of pathologies any one of which would return them to poverty even if heaven were to send them a great, high paying, job. You see this all the time when upper class journalists deign to do ethnographic accounts of actual worker’s lives.

    One of the worst things in this economy is the deskilling of work and the sheer oppression of the worker as a thinking, feeling, person. There are innumerable ways in which the worker is faulted (poor grooming, lateness, illness, having a family crisis) and made to feel vulnerable at work. People with bad teeth or skin can’t get “front of the house work.” People with families to support get fired because children and elderly have crisis that create problems for the manager’s schedules. People are watched, spied on, forced to pee in cups, denied work because of poor credit.

    Almost all these “flaws” in the worker could be fixed with universal health care and dental coverage, higher pay, subsidized child care, subsidized elder care, better public transportation, focus on freedom and privacy in the work place (I’d take that over hysteria about the NSA any day). All of this goes under the heading of “more money more money more money.”

    But instead the reality of lower wage workers lives is described in terms of their flaws: poor education, poor health, poor work ethic, “crabs in a bucket” (this is an incredibly common description of poor people who are dragged backwards by their family and neighbors and it occurs in a popular and pseudosympathetic social worker’s text).

    • Murc

      The crabs in a bucket thing is particularly telling for me. When I was first made aware of it, I was like “Well, of course. People help out their friends and families, because most people aren’t sociopaths. That’s just common sense, right?”

      It took me awhile to cotton onto the fact that this was perceived as a flaw of some sort to be corrected, which is just monstrous.

      • njorl

        The problem is not the other crabs, it’s the bucket.

        • Lee Rudolph

          Well said.

      • mpowell

        I don’t know about that. Whenever I’ve seen a description of this problem, it’s just that: descriptive. It’s usually included in an account of why poor people make decisions that look irrational or destructive to upper class people. And these kinds of explanations of poverty are important because they explain why the exhortation to pull yourself up by your boostraps is not a reasonable replacement for poverty alleviation programs. That doesn’t fit very well, though, with the complaint that these accounts don’t grant agency to poor people. Well, that’s a very flexible type of criticism. But it tends to undermines the case that poor people are really sharply limited by forces outside of their control.

    • Lasker

      What puzzled me a little bit about the essay is that Jaffe labeled it in part as self-criticism – but I’m reasonably familiar with her work (mostly through her podcast) and she seems to focus pretty squarely on what employers do to workers, (not culture of poverty stuff) and is quite good about drawing connections between what is happening to the most vulnerable workers and what is happening to all of us. In short, she is already doing exactly what I see her to be calling for – emphasizing the common ground between the middle-class and the poor. Unless the self-criticism was purely a rhetorical move it left me feeling as if perhaps I hadn’t understood her critique after all.

      While there may well not have been room in the Op-Ed, (And even the fact that she is appearing in the WaPo calls for a certain degree of celebration) it would have been nice to see some specific examples from sympathetic labor journalism of what Jaffe sees as problematic.

    • carolannie1949


    • Jay B.

      Hey A,

      I took it as a little liberal self-abasement, an echo of the “both sides do it” bullshit. It distracts from a much larger point, but ultimately doesn’t mean anything in the larger scheme of how the different parties approach poverty. Of course there’s a limo liberal approach, top down, etc. And an academic approach with a lot of graphs. But there are also plenty of liberals who don’t see the poor as an “other” but as an “us” — even if we aren’t poor or lower-income. When we talk about fast food workers organizing, it’s to support the effort, isn’t it? What the fuck is she talking about when she talks about “whether they are demanding it on their own volition”? I assume they are. But if the SEIU wants to help them understand the benefits of unionization, I don’t see the problem with it. Nor do I see the fact that the poor usually vote in their own self interest as being patronizing.

      Empathy is a perfectly fine approach, I’d think. Followed by the support of humane policies. It’s not that hard. Don’t know why she’s got the hairshirt on for this one.

  • JL

    This is something that I think about a lot, and that my activist circles (which include people who are themselves poor – it’s a mistake to think of activists and poor people as being non-overlapping groups) talk about a lot. Not that that necessarily makes me immune to the same traps described in the article. I’m sure I fall into them sometimes.

    The slogan “solidarity, not charity” gets thrown around a lot (or maybe that’s only in my email inbox), but it made a big impact on me the first time I heard it, and I think there’s something valuable at its core – the idea that everyone has something to give, everyone has something to receive, and we should work toward our collective liberation in an attitude of mutual respect rather than framing it as the people with more saving the poor downtrodden folks.

  • Poverty is poorly understood– but Preston Sturges got it:

    You see, sir, rich people and theorists – who are usually rich people – think of poverty in the negative, as the lack of riches – as disease might be called the lack of health. But it isn’t, sir. Poverty is not the lack of anything, but a positive plague, virulent in itself, contagious as cholera, with filth, criminality, vice and despair as only a few of its symptoms. It is to be stayed away from, even for purposes of study. It is to be shunned.

    Very little has changed. George Will and Paul Ryan and the rest can smugly assert that if poor people would just get up off their butts they wouldn’t be poor, and ignore the reality of what poverty really means. Why shouldn’t they? Obviously being poor is a moral failing, otherwise how do you explain how all their friends aren’t poor?

    • witless chum

      Yup. People believe that the poor are stupid and immoral partly to assuage their consciences, but also because the corollary is that the person looking down upon them is moral and smart, because they’ve got more money.

      • GoDeep

        George Will has explicitly written that people’s poverty indicates their immorality.

    • Poverty is poorly understood

      Au contraire. Countless people are experts on this subject.

      criminality, vice and despair

      What does Wall Street have to do with anything?

      • Lee Rudolph

        What is your evidence that there’s any despair on Wall Street?

  • DrDick

    A big part of the problem is that far too many of those commenting on and setting policy for the poor have never been poor or really known anyone who was. They speak from privilege, which does not recognize or acknowledge the very real limitations on poor people’s lives and choices.

    • Lasker

      That’s certainly true but isn’t that a different problem?

      You seem to be talking about successful people who think the poor are just like them but lazy, and therefore undeserving of help.

      Isn’t the essay more aimed at the errors of people who think the poor are a sympathetic but alien species? People who, realizing the limitations on poor people’s choices, go on to imagine the poor as having a totally unique set of cultural problems unrelated to the economy as a whole?

      • DrDick

        Actually, I am talking about people who see the poor as a separate species. These come in different flavors and situate the causes of of the plight of the poor in different ways, but still see it as somehow located in the people themselves, rather than something done to them.

        • gmack

          I think this is a bit misleading in that it assumes that “the poor” is the name for a specific demographic group that one is objectively part of, and that being part of this demographic ipso facto provides some special sort of unique insight or solidarity. Consider, for instance, Craig Nelson’s famous statement, where he acknowledged receiving food stamps, but then in the very next sentence asked “Did anyone help me? No. No.” The point is that he very clearly was a “welfare recipient,” but he refused to identify himself with that category, largely because he accepted the idea that “welfare recipients” are some pathological group (another species, as you so aptly put it). Thus, it seems clear to me that having concrete experiences as poor, or listening to the poor is not at all sufficient to identify with them or express solidarity with them.

          I mentioned this yesterday on another thread, but a lot of welfare recipients (by which I mean participants in programs designed to aid the poor, such as food stamps or TANF–one does not see the same dynamic among participants in other programs like Social Security) nearly always distinguish between themselves and the other shiftless, lazy welfare recipients who abuse the system (“I receive welfare, but I really need it and only use the benefits to feed my family, unlike those folks over there who are lazy system-abusers”). Again, it’s the same story. Concrete life experience as poor does not necessarily imply or generate solidarity.

          • Linnaeus

            Yeah, it’s interesting how some of the places that have the highest numbers of people receiving government assistance are also the most heavily Republican. Now, there’s probably a number of factors at work here, but I would guess that some of it is the compartmentalization that you describe.

          • GoDeep

            Crabs and buckets, crabs and buckets. That type of thinking is not uncommon where I’m from.

            I will say this, though. Poor people are just like everyone else. They face the same hang ups that middle class and upper class people face. Same as you have some lazy/crazy/dishonest trust fund babies you have some lazy/crazy/dishonest middle class and poor people.

            Poor people face too much despair as it is, acting as if they can’t beat the system and prevail is a recipe for disaster. My sister succumbed to that fatalism and its been a lifelong handicap. So do poor ppl have fewer opportunities than rich ppl? Well yeah. But do poor ppl need to make the most of the limited opportunities we get? Most def.

          • some special sort of unique insight or solidarity

            Some smaller word than insight counts though. Being poor for a long stretch is deeply affecting. You can still miss broader lessons, but some understanding is there.

    • Being privileged isn’t the problem. Being unwilling to talk to people who are poor and listen to them, that’s the problem.

      • DrDick

        That is part of the privilege. You know what is best for other people and do not have to ask their opinions.

        • Lee Rudolph

          Oh, come on now. Noblesse obliges one to ask for their opinions, before dismissing them.

        • That’s being a dick (no offense) and you find it across classes.

          However, the economically privileged dicks can cause more mayhem because they’re in positions to set policy.

    • wengler

      Part of this attitude is the ‘we are willing to piss away trillions turning millionaires into billionaires but every single penny to the poors must be accounted for.’

    • BoredJD

      I agree with this. You especially see it in the highest levels of the “meritocracy” produced by the elite colleges and universities. Everyone’s background is various levels of upper-middle class with a few really rich and a few lower-middle class scattered around.

      Personal relationships are also much more stratified now. People date and marry (or not marry) within their class, simply because they are only ever exposed to people within that class as dating options.

      Even with the best of intentions, it’s very difficult to appreciate how complicated it is to “be poor” unless you’ve lived it or known someone who closely lived it.

  • MacGyver

    I thought Katherine Boo’s book “Beyond The Beautiful Forevers” on life in the Mumbai slums did a nice job balancing analysis and empathy. Boo also did great work on the poor in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, IIRC.

    • MacGyver

      “Behind The Beautiful Forevers” I mean.

    • Ronan

      yeah i agree, its a great book.. a lot of it available at nyrb

  • Tyro

    The upshot of these articles is that someone argues that the poor need to have more ownership/agency when it comes to activism on their behalf, but when it turns out that no one is willing to fill in the gaps of activism, it makes it easy for everyone else to just give up.

    If the poor could serve as their own activist vanguard, then they would have already done so.

    • gmack

      If the poor could serve as their own activist vanguard, then they would have already done so.

      The poor are obviously capable of engaging politics. They did so in in the 1960s (in resistance to and sometimes in cooperation with the Community Action Programs); they did so in the Welfare Rights Movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. And they are doing so right now in the various strikes and protests having to do with the minimum wage (and also, a few years ago, around questions of undocumented immigrants). The question of “solidarity” is whether we are able and willing to acknowledge this activity as actual politics. This to me is Jaffe’s key insight. When we debate the questions of “why don’t the poor do X?” or “Is this protest *really* coming from the poor or is it astroturfing?”, we are contributing to the broader tendency to see the poor as another species who (for some reason or other) are not yet capable of action.

      • Tyro

        I don’t think anyone regards those strikes as not “real.” But the question is why things like the Welfare Rights movement don’t exist today. The answer shouldn’t be “they just need to organize now, and because they don’t, nothing can be done.”

        • JL

          I don’t think Jaffe’s piece is claiming that that is the answer. It’s not saying that people shouldn’t do ally work. It’s saying that people who do need to be careful about how they frame what they are doing to themselves and others, to avoid perpetuating condescending attitudes in the course of their work.

        • gmack

          I got you; I broadly agree with your assertion here, though I would add that “doing something to help the poor” is not at all the same as the kind of political solidarity Jaffe is talking about.

          At any rate, your original comment hit a nerve only because it reminded me so much of some of the positions that various activists articulated in the 1960s, in the Community Action Programs. A lot of the folks organizing these programs argued that the poor were not yet capable of action: they were so ground down by poverty and discrimination that they have become powerless, apathetic, and generally incapable of articulating and defending their own interests. So the CAPs were supposed to organize the poor and then induce them to act (i.e., the CAPs were supposed to “empower” the poor, to form them as a group and then get them to participate). There were all sorts of problems in these programs, both in theory and in practice, but my own argument is that this way of thinking about things ends up setting up one more hierarchical division between poor people and everyone else. (Apologies for being long-winded; I happen to be finishing a paper on this subject right now, so it’s a bit on my mind).

          • Tyro

            You see, it strikes me as intuitive that you would want to figure out a way to get them organized and “empowered” to manipulate the levels of power in their communities. So what went wrong with this approach, and what’s a better approach?

            • Pseudonym

              Maybe it’s the attitude that these are things that need to be done to the poor rather than with them.

        • Origami Isopod

          How much of the problem is that they don’t exist, and how much of it is that their existence is unacknowledged by most of the media?

    • wengler

      ACORN was one of those organizations. Republicans effectively destroyed it after the hit job with Democrats wiping up the ashes.

      • The Democrats actively partook in the hitjob. Why? The Democrats controlled both the House and Senate at the time. Scott(or is it Erik?) thinks the Democrats are more to the left than ever. That’s a mark against their thesis.

  • Linnaeus

    Slightly off topic, but does touch on some of the things we’ve been talking abuot, is this infuriating Obamacare article by Kudlow’s producer.

  • Solidarity. Before before, during, and after- analysis.

  • Rob in CT

    How do you talk about the poor?

    As sympathetically as I can, without any pretense that I actually know all that much about being poor. I do what I can to empathize, but as I’ve never walked a mile in those shoes, I really don’t know what it’s like. Hopefully I never will.

    But then I’m not a reporter or an activist. If I was, the question would have additional urgency.

  • Rob in CT

    I’m not sure it’s solidarity, necessarily, but I sure as hell think of myself as a worker. I have a boss. I am no one else’s boss. I am salaried, and well-paid, but I generally do what I’m told to do. I have some flexibility on hours and such, which is great. But fundamentally, I’m a worker, and you bet your ass I’m not gonna forget it.

    My wife, low-level manager, is betwixt and between. I still snark at her sometimes, to keep her honest. ;)

  • ThesEus

    Um … these comments seem to have gone off topic. Allow me to get us back to the issue under discussion.

    Personally, when I talk about the poor, I like to affect a highborn british accent and refer to them with terms like “smallfolk” or “base-born”.

    Example (please read in British accent): “I recently found out that a commoner in my employ had recently married a comely young maid. I was hurt and offended because he had not even asked my permission or given me the chance to claim my right of Prima Nocta. Of course, while one must expect such skulduggery from the base-born one cannot let such insolence go unpunished lest the smallfolk get ideas, so I had him lashed and then fired him on the spot.”

  • Anonymous

    The folks I hate listening to when they talk about the poor are ‘New’ Democrats. Republicans are at least honest in their expressions of contempt (except, of course, for the clergy of the religious right who claim the right to determine which of the poor are deserving and which are not). Indeed it was reading the thoughts of ‘New’ Democrats on Daily Kos that convinced me to become a political independent. I refuse to donate to a party that elevates someone like Rahm Emmanuel or Harry Reid and tries to destroy the careers of men like Howard Dean.

    • Pseudonym

      So in exchange for a feeling of purity you lose the ability to influence primary elections. Sounds reasonable.

      • Anonymous

        Thank you for quickly and succinctly demonstrating why I dislike listening to ‘centrist’ Democrats talk about anything. It’s like trying to reason with a Rand Paul supporter. useless.

  • ThesEus

    Hey, but seriously … Question for the lawyers …. would a “Prima Nocta” clause in an employment contract hold up in a court? The labor market is pretty slack and it would be a shame if employers were “leaving money on the table” as it were.

    What about claiming first-born sons/children? Would that hold up? What if there was a “You can keep your kid if you can guess my name” rider?

    • NewishLawyer

      No and there is very little historical evidence that the Prima Nocta was much of a thing in the first place.

      • Anonymous

        And if you can’t even spell ‘jus primae noctis’, what makes you think you’re going to get any anyway?

        • ThesEus

          Ohhhh wow …. I can use the intertubes to look up spellings on my google machine. I am so smrt.

  • Pseudonym

    I could use some help becoming a better traitor to my class. Any suggestions?

    • joe from Lowell

      Neck tattoo.

  • joe from Lowell

    I’ve been thinking about this. I don’t talk about “the poor.”

    I talk about “low-income people.” I talk about “the long-term unemployed.” I talk about “children who qualify for school lunch programs.” I talk about “people in low-income households.” I talk about “the bottom fifth of income-earners.”

    I talk about “people in the Acre and the Lower Highlands.” I talk about “people on food stamps.”

    I talk “the poor” the way I might talk about “Mazda owners” or “people with seasonal allergies.” Their poverty is a situation or trait, but not one that defines them to a degree that makes it possible to discuss them as a “them” beyond a very narrow range of analysis directly related to the trait in question.

    I’m not sure what that means. I don’t see them as different from me? I don’t have enough class-consciousness? I dunno.

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