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An American Tradition: Shaming the Poor
Photo by Matt Black

An American Tradition: Shaming the Poor

After Mikki Kendall divorced her abusive husband, she lived with her son in public housing and relied on food stamps. “What I remember is hunger,” she writes in her new book, “Hood Feminism.” “And crying when I couldn’t afford a Christmas tree.” For Kendall, the worst part of her poverty was the fear that she would lose her son. “It’s hard to take a rich woman’s children,” she writes. “It is remarkably easy to take a poor woman’s, though.”

Kendall, who earned a master’s degree, came out of her hard times with a stark understanding of how America misunderstands the poor and creates a toxic portrait of those struggling to get by. “As a society, we tend to treat hunger as a moral failing, as a sign that someone is lacking in a fundamental way,” she explains.

Blaming the poor for their own condition is so prevalent that it features prominently in at least four new books, including “Hood Feminism,” “The Shame Game” by Mary O’Hara, “Tightrope” by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, and “Invisible Americans” by Jeff Madrick. The books all seek to counter the social premise that the poor, by their own character and actions, or inactions, are responsible for their troubles.

In “The Shame Game,” O’Hara, like Kendall, dips into her own life to explore poverty and how it’s portrayed in the United States and Britain. She grew up in Belfast without an indoor toilet, central heating or a refrigerator. She heard often enough that the destitute must have done something dreadful to end up in tight straits, rather than having been caught in a network of long-term constraints such as underfunded and failing schools and redlining in the housing market. A “destructive poverty narrative,” she writes, “dehumanizes and dismisses the poorest people in our societies.” Some politicians and social media chatterers repeat the narrative so often, she writes, that the story line “has proven to be a huge barrier to building support for positive policy action.”

According to a 2019 survey by the Center for American Progress, twice as many Republicans as Democrats — 60 percent — agreed with the statement, “People get stuck in poverty primarily because they make bad decisions or lack the ambition to do better in life.” Only 4 in 10 Republicans agreed that “most people who live in poverty are poor mainly due to factors beyond their control.”

As the director of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, a journalism nonprofit that supports reporting on American poverty, I know firsthand what some people think about the poor. I receive countless emails in which readers point to the bad choices the poor make, such as being single mothers or failing to retrain adequately for new jobs. (In her book, O’Hara acknowledges our project’s mission, particularly its support of financially struggling writers.)

Kristof and WuDunn’s book is a powerful tale of Kristof’s working-class friends in his hometown of Yamhill, Ore., men and women whose middle age unwound into addiction, impecuniousness and early death. Like O’Hara, Kristof and WuDunn record how Americans turn barbaric toward those who struggle personally and financially. A woman named Libby, for instance, responds to news that Kristof’s friend Kevin Green, who had ballooned to 350 pounds, has died in his 50s: “Kevin made choices,” Libby tweets. “He had free will. Obesity kills, not inequality.” Others pile on, taking Green to task on social media for screwing up his life or living off public subsidies, and for his bad eating habits and drug use. “The harsh assessments of people like Kevin miss the mark,” Kristof and WuDunn write. “They reflect an increasingly cruel narrative that the working-class struggle is all about bad choices, laziness and vices.”

The authors observe that the tough treatment that Kevin and others receive “emerges from a growing empathy gap,” which begets “scorn for those left behind.” It’s an attitude propagated, they write, by Fox News coverage, a “cruelty” that “speaks to a skewed moral compass, not to mention a dollop of hypocrisy, since the wealthy also receive substantial financial subsidies.”

In “Hood Feminism,” Kendall also targets the widespread denigration of the poor, providing both a deeply personal portrait of want and a polemic that brings race and gender into the discussion of poverty. The “modern politics of respectability,” she writes, demand that “Black people pull themselves up by imaginary bootstraps in order to be found worthy.” Kendall criticizes mainstream feminism for focusing on narrow issues that don’t apply to many women. Feminists tend to debate “last names, body hair, and the best way to be a CEO,” she writes. “We rarely talk basic needs as a feminist issue. Food insecurity and access to quality education, safe neighborhoods, a living wage, and medical care are all feminist issues.”

In his book, Madrick takes a less personal approach. Instead, “Invisible Americans” addresses the history of poverty shaming. Madrick charts the narrative from the 1970s to today, exploring the impact of accusatory phrases like “welfare queens,” “the underclass” and “the culture of poverty.” The result is that about 25 percent of children in America today are destitute. “These children are well aware of their poverty, and they live not merely in deprivation but also in shame. They see themselves as irredeemable outsiders,” Madrick writes. “They watch television and observe how others live; they see movie ads even if they can’t afford to go to the movies. . . . When middle-class Americans scoff at poor kids because parents buy them the latest expensive sneakers and iPhones, they are unaware that these kids demand these things not to show off but mostly to belong, a deep need of which they are mostly deprived.”

Together, these four books illuminate the disparagement that the poor confront in a prosperous America. They point to our collective need for better social supports, including cheaper medical care, improved access to education and even periodic government cash giveaways through programs like universal basic income. They all insist on a shift in the narrative of how we think and talk about the millions of people who are struggling day to day.

As O’Hara puts it: “There is a long history of the poorest being shunned and shamed and ‘kept in their place,’ but there is also a history of these practices being challenged with genuine successes. . . . Ultimately, finding solutions to poverty, including ending the blaming and shaming of the poorest among us, rests with all of us.”

Alissa Quart is the executive director of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. She is also the author of four nonfiction books including Squeezed and Branded, and two poetry books, most recently Thoughts and Prayers.

Co-published with the Washington Post.

Save An Endangered Species: Journalists

Alissa Quart is the executive director of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and the author of the poetry collection Thoughts and Prayers and the nonfiction book Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America.

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