I write this article with one question in mind: can speaking the truth on issues of poverty and racial division make any difference? I write this in hopes of sparking a conversation, and in hopes of ending the bloodshed. I believe that it is time that we take a look at the issue of rural poverty and at how it fits into the broader narrative on the politics of racial division.
Most poor people avoid the topic of their own poverty because they believe doing so admits failure. To be one of the noble poor in this nation is to be silent. As someone who is white, rural, and eking out an existence on an income that is below the federal poverty level, I am willing to say that there is no nobility in poverty and there is no nobility in silence, and that the feelings of shame and failure need to be felt by those with wealth who permit poverty to exist.
Poverty is inherited. It is multigenerational. The roads out of poverty, which include education, national service, and hard work, are increasingly being washed out. The only way to solve the problem of multigenerational poverty is to solve the problem of all poverty; something that cannot be accomplished by doing what we have always done.
Poverty is not a self-originating problem. While poverty is often the root cause of many other problems, including hunger, homelessness, and various forms of criminal activity, the underlying cause of poverty is income disparity. Many prominent conservatives have argued against any effort to limit the income of top earners by stating that equal opportunity does not mean equal outcomes, but that red herring provides no further substance than supplying a bag full of empty boxes to a food pantry.
For many “charitable” people, poverty must only exist in the abstract. This is why the poor person whom the charitable person actually knows gets neglected, or at best, referred to the place where the charitable person has donated. People are more willing to help people they don’t know, even though that actually results in helping people who may be experiencing less need, or helping people who may be exacerbating the problems of other impoverished people.
There are many forms of privilege, but sometimes a person who appears to have many privileges has circumstances that negates most of this. For example, when people look at me, they see a relatively young, highly educated, professional, white woman with many talents. None of that perceived privilege makes much of an impact in my day to day life as I am completely unable to work with any sort of regularity due to multiple chronic health conditions. My disabilities outweigh my abilities, but since they are largely invisible, and I, being homebound much of the time, even more so, the real circumstances are either unknown or forgotten by the vast majority of people I encounter.
I have traversed every roadway out of poverty, but still wound up back at that old familiar place. I earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communication, finished coursework towards a Master of Arts degree, served my country as an AmeriCorps VISTA, and I worked hard, but here I am. I am not the typical face of rural poverty, but I am among the rural poor.
While the bulk of my employment history is made up of positions in higher education and journalism, the last job I held before getting on disability benefits was as the Operations Manager for a local soup kitchen. There is no shortage of non-profit organizations aimed at helping those experiencing poverty and hunger, and yet the problems persist because such organizations exist at the mercy of those who drive economic disparity: those benevolent wealth creators who would rather give alms than grant poor people the dignity to make choices about where they live, what they eat, and how they worship.
In his short time on this Earth, assassinated Black Panther leader Fred Hampton made inroads between poor Blacks and Whites in the Midwest. He met with poor people in rural areas to identify the common enemy of all Americans living in poverty and how capitalism ignores the existence of lasting poverty. The messaging was far too dangerous and effective for the champions of an unequal system to allow Hampton to live. No one since has effectively united our poor masses the way he had despite movements such as Occupy Wall Street.
The Southern strategy became the playbook for election victories for the GOP ever since the ink dried on the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It was a way to appeal to disenfranchised white voters in the south.
When Ronald Reagan hit the national campaign trail for the first time in 1976 (the year I was born to a poor teenage mother), his story about the Welfare Queen ushered in the pervasive lie of food stamp fraud. It is easy to see how the messaging appealed to wealthy individuals wanting to pay less taxes, but through its use of racial stereotypes as scapegoats for corruption, the story resonated with poor Whites who relied on those same safety net programs.
Many rural poor believe the myth that it is Blacks and Hispanics who will take away what little they have. Whites who experience barriers to employment blame their joblessness on Hispanic workers. White people who struggle to receive and maintain benefits offered through government safety net programs see the prospect of reparations for Blacks as taking bread out of their mouths.
Too many Whites living in poverty believe that they only are able to subsist through the benevolence of the wealth creators, and their best chance at actually improving their own situation is to express their fealty to the upper class, believing in trickle-down economics while they are driven further into poverty.
I have spoken to Social Security beneficiaries who pay zero federal taxes who believe that they will suffer a great tax burden if the same benefits they receive are expanded to include others in need. They rally against increasing benefits even though it would also benefit them because those lessons of hatred and division that they learned long ago filter out the facts.
It is difficult to unlearn the irrational, and since the “us versus them” narrative is so tied up with the identity of many poor White Americans, the psyche is constantly rejecting anything that challenges that narrative. Meanwhile, progressive upper middle-class Whites strike further division by conveying that all White people must confront their white privilege, a concept that is difficult for many to understand.
White privilege simply refers to the fact that White people don’t need to worry about being harmed or killed for the color of their skin. It is not to say that every White person has it better than persons of color, but the way some White people present the topic, it can seem to be that way.
It is shameful that irrational people are making things so much worse for marginalized people. Irrational people who identify as part of the Alt-right. Irrational White BLM protesters who want to make this moment more about themselves than actual racial equality.
No one living in abject poverty is going to listen to some well-to-do person shouting them down for their privilege. In fact, when this happens, it only stokes violence. If a person beats a wounded animal, that animal will defend itself. I have taken that beating, and I will tell you that it is hard to muster the restraint necessary to walk away, but it is what is better. We, the nation’s poor, need to walk away from traps set by the economically privileged and focus our energy on uniting and organizing against our common oppressors, those supposed wealth creators.
We need to see difference. Empathy is only possible when we seek to understand the experience of someone else. But we must also allow space for commonality. We, the nation’s poor, whether we are White or BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and persons of color), have many shared experiences. Allowing our oppressors to divide us is spilling our blood and ensuring our continued oppression. There is strength in numbers, and no one knows this better than those who build their empires on the backs of the poor and the oppressed. We are many, and we are powerful, but only if we’ve got each other’s backs.