Who Do We Think Of as Poor?

New York Times Sunday Review • July 9, 2017

Several years ago, during a harsh Detroit winter, I swallowed my pride and applied for food stamps. I wasn’t sure I’d qualify, but I knew three things. I had little money in the bank, little chance of quickly earning more and I needed to eat. So I tried my luck with the government.I received $16 a month in benefits. By my cynical calculation, the eight hours I had spent applying would pay for itself, at minimum wage, after four months. I was grateful for the help. Usually, my $4 a week bought bacon, which could stretch several batches of beans.

Being broke wasn’t new to me. Food stamps, officially known as SNAP, were. My family had battled medical debt and unemployment when I was a kid, and I started working at 14. When I got a partial college scholarship and left my rural Michigan hometown, I made tuition and rent by juggling up to five jobs at once. I prided myself on never asking for help.

At age 34, though, I faced the awkward, privileged dilemma of a working-class journalist: I’d accepted a book contract to write about poverty, but it turned out to be too small to cover my health insurance and rent. I saw two options. Get a job, return my advance and abandon two years’ worth of work — or somehow continue working on my book without an income.

So food stamps it was.

I knew I qualified, but it still felt like there was some kind of mistake. After all, I was a college-educated white woman who worked. I wasn’t “really” poor.

And that raises a thorny political question: Who, exactly, did I think was poor?

It’s tempting to say I thought anyone who worked couldn’t be poor. That’s naïve. Real wages for the two-thirds of Americans without a four-year degree have dropped since 1979, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Meanwhile the cost of a degree has roughly doubled over the past three decades. Today, half of American jobs pay about $37,000 or less each year, a quarter pay about $23,000 or less, and a family of four qualifies for SNAP at $32,000 or less. No wonder just over half of all SNAP families work, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. In America, “real” poverty is not about a lack of work, but a lack of compensation.

It’s also tempting to say I balked at food stamps because of the culture in which I was raised: rural, white and working class, in a state that went to Donald Trump. Most poor families I knew as a kid avoided food stamps; they believed in bootstraps, not getting help. But to say this was only about independence is to claim an innocence I didn’t entirely possess.

The truth is there was a shameful idea woven into my conceit of self-reliance, something so ingrained in American culture I’d never thought to say it out loud: I didn’t really think I was supposed to get food stamps because I was white.

Having an implicit belief that poverty didn’t really happen to white people did me more harm than good, and nearly prevented me from seeking help I needed. It also ignored reality. While it’s true that blacks and latinos disproportionately live in poverty, if you analyze who gets food stamps, they are most likely to be white.

The year I applied for SNAP, for example, whites were the largest racial group on food stamps and of the poor. As a reporter, I knew this, just as I’d known plenty of poor whites growing up. But when I considered SNAP for myself, I felt keenly that it was not for “people like me.” The unspoken corollary was that poverty was normal for everyone else.

I want to be clear: These passive assumptions were racist and classist. I am embarrassed to have made them. The qualification for being poor is not race or education, but an insurmountable gap between income and cost of living. But those assumptions, which I think are commonplace, say a lot about who we think is really poor.

The best proxy for who we believe is poor is what we see in media. And media professionals tend to portray poverty as if it is rare for anyone but black Americans. In one assessment of three American news magazines between 1950 and 1992, . Martin Gilens, a professor of politics at Princeton and one of the study’s authors, told me that those articles tended to focus on welfare and other “unsympathetic” frameworks that can suggest poverty is caused by personal choice.

Poor whites, meanwhile, mostly showed up in stories about hunger and old age — poverty often considered blameless — and in fewer than half of stories on poverty, far below their share of the poor. Two later studies found that poverty among Asian- and Hispanic-Americans was consistently underreported, too. The only periods where the proportion of white poverty was accurately represented were economic downturns, when there is more sympathy for the poor, said Professor Gilens. And while those divides have softened today, said Rosalee Clawson, a Purdue political scientist updating the data through 2017, stories of the working poor “always” depict white subjects.

None of this is surprising given newsrooms’ demographics and locations. National journalism outlets often have staff that are significantly whiter than the United States population as a whole. Ninety-two percent of journalists hold a college degree, compared with one-third of the population. And today, media jobs are more likely to be in cities, where poverty skews black and brown, than in rural areas, where it skews white.

The people who depict the poor, in other words, are unlikely to have much proximity to poverty themselves. What poverty they do see is usually black or brown. And that makes them more likely to repeat stereotypes about the poor than to interrogate them.

Covering poverty as if it is predominantly a black issue is a problem. It’s a problem because it can suggest that black suffering is a natural fact rather than a manufactured problem we should correct. It’s a problem because it fosters resentment against communities of color from economically struggling whites, who have some reason to feel their hardship is played down. And this all creates a political problem: the obliteration of the common ground that being poor can help illuminate across racial lines.

As last year’s election showed us, losing sight of that really matters. And if my experience on food stamps is any indication, that common ground is easiest to see — at least for white people — when you’re poor.

For the last seven years, I’ve kept my food stamp card, which I used for a year, on my desk. I put the card there thinking it would remind me how my career has depended on it.

But lately, it reminds me of how ingrained racism can be — and how my understanding of it went from principled-if-abstract to concrete. I’d known for a long time that racism was wrong, but seeing how my own racist assumptions nearly kept food off my table was different. It was as clear a lesson as I’ll ever get that, while racism hurts people of color the most, it ultimately doesn’t do me much good, either. And if we want more white people to see that, we have to be very honest about what, and who, we mean when we talk about the poor.

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