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
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]