5 Lies That Dehumanize Poor People

A person walking with a cup and a small American flag, with text saying "They refuse to work."

A person walking with a cup and a small American flag, with text saying “They refuse to work.” Original Image: The Atlantic

Originally published on Truthout and cross-posted here with their permission.

If you believe that poverty is the domain of the comfortably poor, black, unemployed, unmotivated and uneducated among us, you have been sadly misled. Prepare to be astonished by numbers that tell a very different story.

You’re in the grocery store checkout aisle. Time to cash out. You pull out your food-stamp EBT card. You’re overcome with a sense shame one feels for being broke in a world that measures self-worth according to net-worth.

You hide the card behind your bank debit card — the one that has nearly nothing in it — and try to act natural as you slide it through the machine. “Cash or Food,” it asks. You hit food. No one in the aisle with you is the wiser. But the cashier knows. You wonder if he’s now scrutinizing your food purchases. If he’s so poor how can he afford organic tomatoes? (After all, pesticides only harm the wealthy!) But at least the people behind you aren’t in on it.

“Okay, the balance is $10.99,” the cashier says. You forgot about the laundry detergent. Now you’ve been outed to everyone. “He’s buying this stuff with our money,” you imagine people around you thinking.

People who feel the shame-inducing scrutiny of many judgmental Americans aren’t paranoid.

When the subject of welfare is brought up in my classrooms, many students immediately talk about people they see cheating the system. Whether the people they have in mind really are cheating the system or not, poor people are routinely conceptually linked with those of the lowest common denominator: lazy, stupid, cheats.

Silenced, Closeted, Poor

In 2010, the Census Bureau reported that 1-in-6 Americans (15 percent) are poor, a rate that was held steady in 2011. Even these statistics disguise the real poverty numbers.

A sampling of the existing poverty thresholds — boundaries separating the officially “poor” from the “non-poor” — are as follows: $11,704 for one-person households where the adult is under 65; $10,788 for those where the adult is over 65; $15,504 for households with one adult and a child; $18,106 for two adults and one child; $22,811 for two adults and two children; $30,056 for two adults and four children.

1. The Bootstrap Myth

Negative assertions about poor people are in part a product of the American bootstrap myth: Anyone who works hard enough in America will have a great life. And if you don’t have a great life, then you lack the will, integrity or intelligence to succeed.

These kinds of concepts are what the late Australian philosopher Val Plumwood called “conceptual weapons.” They work together to structure a system of thought that distorts, oversimplifies and ultimately fosters ignorance about, and shame amongst, oppressed groups of people.

2. Poor People Are Unemployed

The bootstrap myth works together with the stereotype that all poor people are unemployed. This thinking gives rise to the conclusion that the best way to address poverty is to get everyone a job.

But these fallacious assertions gloss over the glaring fact that many poor people are working.

The Census reported that, in 2010, 7% of those aged 16 and older who worked some or all of the year were in poverty. And the Department of Agriculture reported that 30 percent of households receiving food assistance had earnings in 2010; 41% of food aid beneficiaries lived in a household with earnings from a job. Nearly a quarter — 21.8% — of non-elderly adult food stamp recipients were employed.

Of course none of this is surprising to those who know from experience what it means to work for $8 an hour. Working for 40 hours a week at that rate yields a $17,000 annual salary. Increasingly these poverty-level-wage jobs (retail, fast-food, etc.) are the most abundantly available to Americans.

But with so many people out of work, even those jobs are hard to come by. And just as being poor is a source of shame for many Americans, so is being out of work, or working a low-end, thus devalued, job.

Who on earth doesn’t know that many working people are poor precisely because of poverty-level wages from a job? In the January 23, 2012 Republican primary debate in Tampa, Florida, Mitt Romney touted his work creating “middle-income” jobs through his companies, like Sports Authority and Staples.

We helped start Staples, for instance. It employs 90,000 people. These are middle-income people. There are entry-level jobs, too. I’m proud of the fact that we helped people around the country – Bright Horizons children centers, the Sports Authority, Steel Dynamics, a new steel company. These employ people, middle-income people.

In a September interview, Mitt Romney responded to ABC News host George Stephanopoulos’s question, “Is $100,000 middle income,” with the reply: “No, middle income is $200,000 to $250,000 or less.”

Putting these assertions together, one must ask: How many workers at Sports Authority and Staples are actually earning more than $100,000, let alone $200,000 to $250,000?

The reality, as so many retail workers know all too well, is that the majority of employees at these companies earn poverty-level wages, and only a relative few climb into the ranks of management and even begin to approach this mythical “middle-income” status.

Some will say Romney’s ignorance about poor people is unique. Think again.

On January 5, 2012, then-Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich blended racist and classist stereotyping, when he told an audience that he believes “the African-American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps.”

A few days earlier, on January 1, rival candidate, Rick Santorum had said that he did not “want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money; I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money. And provide for themselves and their families.

Both of these men’s statements contain the logical implication that those receiving food assistance are not working.

3. Poor (Read: Lazy and Uneducated) Equals Black

You’ll notice that Gingrich and Santorum exclusively concentrate on the black community’s reception of food assistance. This not-so-subtle message is that black people are getting by on white America’s dime.

But the fact of the matter is that about 1-in-7 Americans are receiving food assistance, and most of them are white: 35.7% of head of households receiving food aid are white, 22% are African-American, and 10% are Hispanic.

This shows how racist and classist ideologies work together. Black and other people of color continue to be used as a symbol of impoverishment and all of its wretchedness: lazy, selfish, crude, ignorant, animalistic and so forth. Ben Adler writes that:

Veteran South Carolina politicos readily agree, off the record of course, that Gingrich is intentionally tapping into this long vein of racial animosity. In the years since the Civil Rights Act, white South Carolinians may have largely ceased pining for the days of segregated water fountains. And anyway no politician can call for returning to them. But they often resent African-Americans and social welfare programs that they view through a racial lens.

When politicians start declaring that they don’t want to give black people welfare checks, but rather want to put them to work, poor whites have a decision to make: Challenge the lie that poor people are all lazy and not working, or direct their anger and frustration with their own conditions, all of the shame it brings them, at black people. Too often the latter is chosen.

This is “horizontal hostility,” when oppressed groups turn on other disadvantaged groups rather than address the root causes of inequality.

But these interlocking systems of inequality don’t just hurt people of color. They also undermine the interests of poor conservative whites. When dominant culture promotes stereotypes that degrade the poor, it creates a rush to the exits of self-identifying as poor.

This “internalized oppression” prevents the unification of the poor to realize common claims to dignity despite economic impoverishment.

By identifying poverty with people of color, the powerful manipulate those poor whites who are either outright racists or who unconsciously fear identification with the stereotyped character of non-whites.

Though aimed at people of color, the thinking that suggests the poor lack respectable work ethic and virtuous moral character becomes a conceptual lever that functions to induce shame that makes the poor easier to manipulate.

This is why dominant culture works so hard to identify scapegoats (black people, undocumented workers, feminists, LGBTQIA+ folks) to channel anger and self-hatred.

4. Poor People Refuse to Work

A cornerstone in plutocratic mythology is that the poor just won’t take responsibility for their lives and get to work!

This belief is logically implied in Romney’s now infamous remarks about the Obama-47%. In addition to inaccurately representing the political-orientation and make-up of those who pay no income taxes, Romney chastised poor welfare beneficiaries (many of whom turn out to be Republicans!) for refusing to take responsibility, but instead demanding government solve all of their problems and provide for their every need.

“I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives,” said Romney.

Such thinking speaks to a woeful ignorance about the fact many recipients of government assistance such as food aid are children, elderly, and/or disabled.

According to the Department of Agriculture, “In fiscal year 2010, 76% of all SNAP households included a child, an elderly person, or a disabled non-elderly person. These households received 84% of all SNAP benefits.”

In fact, 46.6% of food stamp recipients are children, and another 7.9% are elderly. Add those together and you realize that the “just get a job” solution is inappropriate for upwards of half of all food benefit recipients.

Of course, this figure does not even include those who are not children or elderly but who have a disability that either prevents them from working or limits their work options.

Equally interesting, those who are able to work, but are unemployed and receiving food aid account for less than 20% of all recipients. Only the most egregious classist thinking would confidently assume such persons are simply lazy, happily poor freeloaders.

The stereotype, that the poor and work-able lack the desire or self-respect to seek work, is a product of genuine ignorance and class privilege. Those who know something about being poor, having a bad stroke of luck and generally lacking privilege know that this is a gross stereotype; something said by those who know the least about such circumstances.

5. Education Necessarily Remedies Poverty

Another plutocratic myth suggests that a lack of education is the root of poverty, and that education is the answer to poor people’s plight. This is also an assertion many liberals like President Obama regularly make.

Joining them are conservatives like Newt Gingrich who, in the lead-up to the South Carolina primaries, defended his earlier remarks about the poor and food stamps, stating: “I’m going to continue to find ways to help poor people learn how to get a job, learn how to get a better job and learn some day to own the job.”

These ways of thinking legitimize the plight of the poor, effectively blaming victims of exploitation: blaming low-income workers’ conditions on their failure to possess areal job, which means a job that requires a degree.

When politicians of both dominant parties incessantly repeat the mantra that world-class education is needed to acquire good jobs, what does this say to farmworkers, retail workers, housekeepers, childcare laborers, and other so-called relatively “low-skilled” workers?

The inescapable logical implication of these assertions is that they do not deserve to earn enough to sustain themselves and their families. This line of thinking is rendered absurd when we consider how essential such workers are in our economy and social structures.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) reports that Florida Tomato pickers have to pick more than two tons of tomatoes in grueling conditions to earn the equivalent of Florida minimum wage for a 10-hour workday. Workers make an average of 45 cents per 32-pound bucket of tomatoes, a rate that hasn’t meaningfully changed since 1978.

CIW cites a 2008 USDA report indicating that farmworkers are “among the most economically disadvantaged working groups in the US” and “poverty among farmworkers is more than double that of all wage and salary employees.”

Despite including sample wages from managers and supervisors, who make up just 21% of all farm workers, The National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS) shows that the average individual income is less than $13,000 and the average household income is less than $18,000.

But rather than addressing the unethical business practices of extracting wealth from workers’ labor with less than subsistence-level wages, the “get an education” mantra tells the poor that they should only expect to be treated with dignity once they have earned a college degree.

Both ignoring the working poor, and assuming the solution to the working poor’s poverty is education, functions to disappear the routine, systematic exploitation of the poor for the benefit of CEOs and investors.

The rising number of impoverished graduate degree holders further demonstrates that the “education is necessarily the solution to poverty” mantra is a fallacious oversimplification that distorts reality.

As ABC News reported in May 2012, the number of people possessing a PhD who received some kind of public assistance increased more than three-fold between 2007 and 2010, and nearly the same for those with master’s degrees.

Ironically many of these impoverished academics are engaged in full-time work at part-time pay in the institutions of higher education that are said to remedy the problem of poverty!

The exponential rise of poor graduate-level educated people is driven by the fact that non-tenured, part-time instructors (adjuncts) comprise nearly 70% of college and university faculties.

In June 2012, the Coalition on the Academic Workforce (CAW) released a report, finding that the median adjuncts were paid for a standard college course was $2,700 in fall 2010, $2,235 at two-year colleges and $3,400 at four-year doctoral or research universities.


In The Apology, Plato relayed Socrates’ defense in court against charges that he was an atheist and corrupting the youth of Athens. Socrates argued that he was on trial because of his mission to expose the arrogance and the ignorance of the prominent, supposedly “wise” men of Athens.

The chief error of these men was that they thought themselves wise or enlightened when in fact their beliefs were superficial and often contradictory. This experience prompted Socrates to determine that: “Although I do not suppose either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is – for he knows nothing and thinks that he knows.”

Putting it differently, the feminist poet Adrienne Rich wrote that “power seems to engender a kind of willed ignorance, a moral stupidity, about the inwardness of others, hence of oneself.”

The immortal wisdom here is that despite the prominent suggestion that the powerful are better positioned to understand the goings on of our world, it is often those who lack such power, privilege, and the ignorance-arrogance it breeds, that are better positioned to know and articulate the truth.

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Jeff Nall holds a PhD in Comparative Studies: Feminism, Gender, and Sexuality from Florida Atlantic University. He teaches philosophy and gender studies at Indian River State College. For more of his work or to contact him, visit his site.