Like me, you’ve probably heard it almost everywhere – the news, the Internet, your extended family, folks you’re no longer friends with: “If you aren’t successful, it’s because you were not working hard enough.”
This phrase has many incarnations: “If you work hard enough you can do anything,” “People who are poor just don’t try hard enough,” or the infamous “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.”
These phrases ignore the fact that some of the most hardworking people are living below the poverty line.
You might be one of those hard-working, but struggling folks I’m talking about. Or maybe someone you know is – maybe that person is someone you employ.
I have surely been there, and I’m here to tell you that all of that is bullshit. Utter nonsense. And is, in fact, violent and offensive.
These phrases are so violent because they not only ignore the many systematic ways in which so many of us, especially marginalized people, are stuck in cycles of poverty, they also reinforce the harmful, capitalist notion that someone’s worth is only equal to the amount of money that they can make.
This promotes and validates the idea that people who do not earn a certain amount of money are not worth basic human necessities – like a safe place to live, enough food to eat, a “good” education, and healthcare.
This value system is what conservative lawmakers rely on when they ask us to vote for slashing welfare programs, public school funding, and universal healthcare.
By amounting people’s worth to their income, we inherently devalue those whose lives are deeply impacted by governmentally upheld poverty.
We blame the oppressed for their oppression, and those of us who experience the most oppression learn to blame ourselves.
But I’m here to remind us all that people are not the money they make or the assistance they need. We are more than our bank account, and most of the things that keep us “unsuccessful” are systematic and outside of our control.
Although these issues are complicated and extremely nuanced, I’ll try my best to break it down into what I see as major pillars upholding cyclical poverty.
(And by the way: It’s important to note that these subcategories can never fully be untangled from one another, as systematic oppression operates more like a complicated root system than a pyramid.)
What Is the Cycle of Poverty?
One of the biggest things that success narratives ignore is the ways in which the poor are held in poverty by our current political and economic systems.
One of the biggest contributors to the cycle of poverty is the way the state handles education.
It’s no secret in this country that there’s still severe geographic racial segregation. It’s also no secret that public schools and their funding are broken up by geography.
So, what’s been going on in the US public school system is that poor, non-white areas are left with underfunded public schools for their children.
And yet, rather than acknowledge the myriad of ways this discriminative system makes it difficult for people to excel, we’re instead conditioned to blame and chastise those who are the most neglected and disenfranchised by the system – even when we, ourselves, are those people.
The quality of a person’s education is not their fault.
Our education system was designed to cut certain folks off from opportunities that more privileged folks are handed on silver platters.
These under-funded “fail factories” play a huge role in what is referred to as the “school-to-prison pipeline.”
This is a term used to describe the ways in which kids in poor, usually racially segregated areas are left with subpar public schooling, which causes them to drop out early, leaving them more vulnerable to police violence.
This system is designed to keep these kids from working their way out of poverty and to funnel them into the prison system.
It’s also important to note that when schools in these areas do get funding, it’s usually to put police in the schools that criminalize the students under their watch.
(For a more in depth look at the ways the school-to-prison pipeline operate, check out the testimonies given by kids who work with the Youth Justice Coalition in Los Angeles)
This cyclical poverty is another reason why business owners and politicians are so against having a livable minimum wage.
Trapping people in low-paying jobs forces them to work nearly every hour of the day, at one job or multiple jobs, never leaving them enough money to save so that they cannot take the time or energy to look for a better paying job.
The working poor are the hardest workers in this country, and there are too many fences, gates, and walls being erected every day to unjustly keep struggling folks below the poverty line.
We need to trample those fences, bulldoze those gates, and eradicate those walls right now. Today. With all of our collective might.
3 Pillars That Uphold the Cycle of Poverty
Pillar #1: College (The Academic Industrial Complex)
US Culture: “If you want a good job, go to college and get a degree.”
US Economy: *charges hundreds of thousands of dollars for schooling*
US School System: *admission is based on a test that you need to pay for prep courses to really be able to understand well and has a high testing fee*
US Economy: *doesn’t even supply graduates with jobs and saddles them with massive amounts of debt*
So, I have heard time and time again that if one wants to improve their quality of life, then they should go get a degree.
In the reality of 2015, it is near impossible to get a degree without racking up thousands and thousands of dollars of debt.
This overwhelming debt is also paired with an unstable job market and a minimum wage that makes it impossible to live day to day, let alone save up money to pay off debts.
It’s also a reality that getting a degree does not guarantee you a job, especially if you’re a member of a marginalized community.
For example, a black man with a college degree is just as likely to get a job as a white man with a high school diploma, and this discrepancy doesn’t look at further discrepancies with gender and disability.
On top of the financial gatekeeping of the academic system, admission is based on grade point averages, SAT scores, ACT scores, letters of recommendation, and so on.
The process is difficult, confusing, and expensive for those who have a support system behind them, and can be near impossible for those who do not – especially for those who attend under-funded public schools that do not have the same resources as prep schools or better funded public schools
People who are struggling to get into a university, or simply do not have the resources to go, are no less intelligent and no less worthy then those who have been given these opportunities.
It is a game of luck, not a game of smarts.
Pillar #2: The Workplace
Let’s spend a moment meditating on the job options available to most people in the United States.
While we think about the workplace, let’s think about what jobs we would stereotypically consider to be “good jobs” – that is, jobs that allow a person to improve their quality of life; get access to healthcare, stable living conditions, and a savings account; and allow them to pay off debts.
What do these jobs require? Who has the most access to these spaces? Who is discriminated against in these spaces?
Most of the time when people are spewing nonsense about folks with low incomes, they love to say that those people should work harder (lol) to get “better” jobs.
But they neglect to think about what it actually takes to acquire these “better” jobs.
So let’s take a look, shall we?
Societally recognized “successful” employment: doctor, lawyer, CEO, rich business owner.
What these positions require: expensive schooling, training programs, networking, time and a place to study, the ability to look and act “professionally.”
Gatekeeping methods: extremely expensive schooling, a minimum wage so low that you cannot afford to take time to study, networking that is made primarily of cis, non-disabled, white, male “professionalism.”
What is professionalism?
And appearing “professional” by the white supremacist capitalist standards can be impossible for black folks who rock natural hair, houseless folks who do not have access to showers, people who cannot afford “professional” clothing, or folks who do not speak “professionally” (those who speak English as a second language, who have heavy accents, or speak AAVE).
When it comes to acting “professional,” these actions are also heavily embedded with neurotypical ideas of how a person should behave.
This denotes all visible/readable neuroatypical behavior as “unprofessional,” and can include, but is not limited to, stimming, little to no control over voice level, “abnormal” communication (folks who are non-verbal, or who do not understand/follow traditional communication patterns), ticks, rituals, stammers.
Again: Not being able to conform to these standards isn’t your fault. This idea of professionalism was designed to keep certain people out of “professional” environments and away from systemic power.
Further, if someone is able to break through these barriers, they’re left working in unsafe environments lush with racism, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism.
These barriers are not only placed on highly “professional” professions. For many marginalized people, getting any job is a difficult task.
- POC with non-white sounding names
- Trans folks whose gender signifiers and birth name immediately out them
- Undocumented folks with no access to social security numbers
- Formerly incarcerated folks*
*This is especially important to note during this discussion since many people, especially trans folk and POC, are imprisoned for participation in survival crimes (like selling drugs or sex work) because they couldn’t get traditional employment, or their traditional employment did not pay enough to survive on.
Folks are not their jobs or their ability to get or keep a job. We are more than the ways we make money and how much of it we can make.
Pillar #3: Neurotypical Ideology
As a neuroatypical individual with a handful of chronic, physical limitations, I know all too well the cycle of guilt that occurs when you cannot produce enough or work to be considered a “hard worker” or “successful.”
And this sucks because capitalism has dictated that our worth as human beings (and our physical survival) is dependent on how much money we are able to make and how many hours we are able to work.
Society: “Get a job.”
Society: *gives limited sick days*
Society: *doesn’t make buildings wheelchair accessible*
Society: *pays disabled folks under minimum wage*
Society: *heavily stigmatizes neurodivergence and disabled bodies*
Society: *doesn’t allow our bodies and minds to heal or rest*
Society: *denies us affordable healthcare*
On top of all that bullshit, getting and keeping a job looks much different for disabled and neurodivergent folks.
Consider how the most basic tenants of acquiring and sustaining employment looks for those of us who are neurodivergent:
This can be a difficult task for those who live in an area that is not wheelchair accessible.
It can be difficult for those whose bodies or minds have flare ups that can make the day of your interview a day that you can barely get out of bed or open your eyes.
It can be difficult for those who have limited “traditional” communication styles (like folks with speech impediments, deaf folks, mute folks, autistic folks, or folks with debilitating anxiety issues).
2. Showing Up for Every Shift
When you don’t know how your body or brain is going to behave day to day, it’s extremely difficult to set a schedule.
What happens when your shift starts in a couple of hours and you wake up to find you are in too much pain to leave the house, or your mood has swung back down unexpectedly and getting out of the house seems like too much to take on?
These factors also can have a lot to do with people’s ability to get the medication that they need, which can be difficult to near impossible when working a minimum wage job with no benefits.
3. Physical and Emotional Labor
Many neuroatypical and disabled folks simply can’t safely work in traditional work settings.
Traditional employment may require a degree of physical labor that’s unsafe or impossible for some, it may be over stimulating, require too much conversation or contact with others, or may not allow for people to call out when they have flare ups of certain symptoms that make it impossible to work.
Traditional working schedules, especially for those who are trying to survive on minimum wage/multiple jobs, don’t allow enough free time for healing and necessary self-care.
Conventional success under US capitalism is inherently tied to imperialism, colonialism, anti-blackness, transphobia, ableism, and classism.
The economic system that is currently at work within the United States depends on exploitation and cyclical poverty.
Not only is “pulling yourself up” near impossible for many people, but even when one can make it to the top of the economic ladder, there are still too many being exploited at the bottom.
So, for all of us who are struggling, we must remember that we are not the reason we cannot find traditional “success.”
Regardless of what the conservative pundits or their followers say, we are not lazy, we are not worthless, and we are not a burden.
We live in a society that profits off of exploitation and cyclical poverty and we have been trained to blame ourselves.
But we are not the problem.
Kris Nelson is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. They are a queer trans witch with a BA in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies. Kris runs a blog full of short queer-centric radical prose, which can be found at thequeertimes.tumblr.com and a poetry blog that can be found at songswithoutlyrics.tumblr.com. Kris also runs an online store by the name of Spell-Bound, where they sell handcrafted wire work jewelry, crystal pendants, hand sewn tarot bags, and pendulums. They can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and trans-witch.tumblr.com.