A recent study by The Associated Press indicated that 80% of adults in America, at some point in their lives, face joblessness, poverty, or dependence on welfare. As of 2012, poverty rates in America had reached the highest rate in half a century, yet both the problem and the people who face it are “invisible” in America. The study particularly highlighted the enormous growth of economic insecurity among white Americans, noting that poverty is no longer necessarily an issue of race. However, the image of white poverty that the study presents also reminds us that even among those promoting change, the often inaccurate stereotypes surrounding poverty contribute to America's failure to support its poor.
Americans tend to view poverty, especially white poverty, with judgment, derision, and blame. By objectifying poverty, Americans allow themselves to perceive the poor as mere stereotypes of laziness or stupidity, rather than people worthy of compassion and support. Though America has plenty of wealth to go around, even Obama doesn't "want handouts for people who refuse to help themselves." As long as poverty equates to laziness and unworthiness in the public mind, Americans can continue to oppose government safety nets by blaming low-income people for their status. This entails two major problems — the first is the willingness of Americans to view their fellow citizens as less-than, and the second is that this tendency allows us to keep poverty at arm's length.
Even NBC's story, as it espouses the importance of being attentive to the rise of American poverty, uses as its example a family that is "a caricature that is easy to mock and deride." They resemble the distant "Other" of a country Honey Boo Boo-esque family, held back by a criminal history. The article describes a woman smoking outside, lamenting the difficulty that her past drug conviction presents in finding new work to provide for her family, and the family photo falls neatly into a hillbilly stereotype. It is an image that taps into many Americans' tendency to judge those they perceive as below them.
People tend to look at obesity, drug problems, and poverty as choices that could be avoided if people just tried harder. Comments on a New York Times article on poverty and public health indicate how strongly many Americans believe it is possible for all people to choose their way out of such issues. One commenter in particular argues that "people of all economic circumstances need to stop blaming society for their choices." While accountability certainly is important, the reality remains that "Americans in poverty are more likely to suffer from a variety of chronic health problems, both psychological and physical." Many Americans believe that if people cannot recover from devastating circumstances, they are not worthy of better lives, which prevents our seeing fellow citizens as real humans facing real challenges.
Washington University professor Mark Rank, describing the phenomenon of growing white poverty, noted that it is "no longer as issue of 'them,' it's an issue of 'us.'" Inherent in this statement is the problem in the way we think about poverty. Making poverty an issue of "them," whether the "them" means minorities or rural, country whites, enables the "us" to separate ourselves from the humanity of the problem. In 1964, presidential candidates talked about poverty because it was a prevalent issue for which people received support and human compassion, rather than blame. In the 2012 election, it was hardly mentioned, despite poverty rates being comparable. Americans have become "very tolerant of inequality" and fearful of the safety net. By turning poverty into an issue of the Other, we allow ourselves not to see what it really looks like, or how pervasive it is.
So, what does modern American poverty really look like? It looks like 46 million people in poverty, and 80% of the population at risk of economic insecurity. It looks like something that is far more complex than a simple correlation with race. Though black Americans are about twice as likely to face poverty, white Americans nonetheless comprise 42% of the American poor, relative to black Americans at 28%. It looks like recently middle class Americans who have lost their jobs and homes, and now live out of their cars in parking lots. It may even look like someone you knew in college. Homelessness in college often hides itself well — one homeless student notes that “being homeless doesn’t mean you walk around looking like a bum, or that you aren’t eating or that you aren’t showering,” but it exists nonetheless. Though there are few statistics on the subject, 3,039 college students identified themselves as homeless in the 2010–2011 academic year. In other words, American poverty doesn't look like some distant other. It actually may look a lot like you.