In discussions of poverty in 2014, Republican lawmakers reaffirmed their belief in a supposed “culture of dependency” surrounding “entitlement” programs. The Democrats’ response defended social welfare and expressed a need to raise the minimum wage. Both parties want to cater to the lowest socio-economic stratum, but neither has engaged in meaningful dialogue with those families actually affected by poverty. With academia’s confirming a popular assumption that the government of the United States responds only to the wealthiest voices, why even bother speaking to the poor?
But more importantly, why must the needs of the working class enter into public discourse through the filter of the wealthy elite?
Two boys are born almost two years apart to a White, working-class couple in Ohio. The mother has an Associates in liberal arts from a state university, while the father has only his high school diploma. The mother babysits from home. The father works at a steel plant. The husband eventually divorces his wife, leaving her to raise her children independent of his bi-weekly claims to their weekends. These two brothers will graduate from the same public school system. They will play in the same neighborhood. They will attend church as often as their mother makes them.
Twenty years after their birth, the younger son will work at the same factory that once employed his father. The older son will graduate from a private, liberal arts college magna cum laude. One brother will remain in the poverty that affected his parents, while the other will enroll in one of the most respected graduate institutions in the world.
I am the older brother who has been granted the opportunities to engage with my political system by virtue of my education. My education has enabled me to identify and work through the structural barriers that disable upward mobility. I more readily understand the classist implications of political discourse and the material implications of congressional policy. But my younger brother, while aware that his problems are political, cannot access the same privileges that I can. He, like many other in the lowest socio-economic tier of society, remains incapable of interacting with dominant political discourse.
Poverty Is More Than A Wage
Raising the minimum wage cures a symptom of poverty, but it does not remedy the disease. In 1968, the minimum wage in 2013 dollars was $10.77 ($1.60 before inflation). That same year, the annual cost of a public, four-year university averaged $1,254 and the total cost of a private, four-year university averaged $2,673. Given that the prices of many of these institutions have increased at least tenfold over the past five decades, raising the minimum wage is a necessity in overcoming the disabling costs of higher education. Additionally, an increase in minimum wage positively impacts the majority of minimum-wage workers – who have an average age of 35 – by providing additional resources for the basic costs of living. None of these consequences, however, will impact my brother.
Poverty is a multi-faceted problem that begins as early as birth. Belonging to a poor household correlates with financial illiteracy, and students are failing to make up for this illiteracy in school. Poor people are less likely to have a bank account than the general public, and less likely to understand loans and interest. Poor children suffer genetically and are more susceptible to illness. Poor families are subject to decision fatigue in ways that those with wealth are not, which results in malnutrition, little leisure, and shorter attention spans that worsen performance in school and work.
The socio-economic gap growing between my brother and myself exists because of the separate ways that we responded to perceptions of “being poor.” My first friends were middle-class and religious. I participated in a social life that exposed me to a very different understanding of family and self. My brother made friends with kids belonging to his same income bracket, which reinforced the perception that our home life was “normal.”
My Brother and Me
Every Wednesday evening, one of my closest friends had to stay at home for a “family night.” I had to ask my friend what a family night was. The same night I patiently waited for my mom to return from work around nine or ten so that I could ask her if we could have a “family night.” We tried one Sunday to watch a film together as a household – Matilda (1996) – but this night never became a habit. Family dinners were a luxury restricted to my mother’s weekends off, and my dinners normally consisted of heating up pre-packaged meals at my convenience. A sixth grade home economics course finally taught me how to cook without a microwave.
My brother’s diet has changed little since growing up. He still subsists on frozen pizzas and fast food. He’s managed to find a third-shift factory job that caters to the sleep schedule he established in high school. He’s content with a microwave for its speed, because quick meals allow him to maximize the time he spends on leisure and sleeping apart from work.
I currently work with a non-profit referral agency that equips residents of a tri-county area with social resources, and have learned that my brother is not alone in his inability to practice proper nutrition. Poverty is expensive, nutritional food is difficult to purchase even with public benefits, and food pantries are severely limited in their resources. Working-class families are more often than not stuck with jobs with hours inconvenient for raising children and spend a third of their wages on housing, leaving little for nutrition.
While my brother and I share many political opinions and have mostly the same level of intelligence, we have vastly different methods of applying ourselves. I enjoy stress, hate leisure, and feel the constant need to be burdening myself with productivity. He works for the sake of a paycheck, and needs a constant threshold of relaxation in his life to function. We have both read Marx, Nietzsche, and Tolstoy, but I have read them in a college classroom, whereas he waits to read what books I drop off at the end of every semester. I am motivated by a deadline, while he is motivated by his freedom from deadlines.
But my mother’s poverty was not the most significant factor in determining our characters; rather, public education was. I associated with the middle class, and for that I was rewarded. I was early-on placed into a gifted student program. I even had the (untaken) opportunity to skip grades. During second-grade, three of my friends were placed into an accelerated reading program. My teacher once chastised me for choosing to read these “accelerated” novels over the picture books I had been assigned. When she fell ill at the end of the year, our permanent substitute elevated me to the accelerated level and I became the top reader of the class. I dressed like my friends, spoke like my friends, and enrolled in the same secondary, college-prep curriculum as my friends.
My brother also dressed as his friends did, and spoke like them too, but to his own disadvantage. As early as elementary school he was segregated into the low-tier classrooms. In high school, the same teachers that praised my abilities and expectantly waited for my college acceptances dismissed my brother as intellectually inept. His math teacher once distributed a test to the class and, before allowing the class to begin, walked over to my brother and threw his test away on the grounds that he would “fail anyway.” The same English teacher who motivated me to major in English sarcastically remarked to my brother that he would never amount to anything.
My brother became convinced that he simply could not do schoolwork. He was convinced that he lacked the patience necessary for education, even while he exercised this same patience in other tasks. He learned to play the guitar, he became fascinated with Noam Chomsky, and he cared for my mother with alzheimer’s when I left for college. He only failed at working in a classroom space, which prevented him from applying to college and restricted his options to minimum-wage jobs or factory work.
The Policy of Poverty
Raising the minimum wage is not enough change my brother’s status, because his life is not the result of low-income. We both work just as hard with respect to our professional interests, but he will never share in my same degree of mobility simply because he spoke like a poor person, acted like a poor person, and – most sinfully of all – associated with poor people. His status results from his internalization of the prejudgment of others, an arrangement that prevents the opportunity for mobility.
Poverty is not a social disease with a distinct pathology. Poverty results from the constant need of some of those with wealth to keep blaming the poor for the conditions of poverty, which results in policies that conveniently restrict wealth to those who already have access to it. Outside of academia, public discourse assumes that the poor can ultimately wield their own destinies if only we decide to work or have more money thrown our way.
While I am grateful for much of the federal aid that has contributed to my education, money does not itself solve poverty. Admittedly, policy changes in the opposite direction – such as Republican Senator Rubio’s desire to replace federal loans with a privatized pay-it-forward program – will reinforce the problem of poverty. But more money is not itself enough to bring back the American middle class. A real solution to poverty involves fixing the broken education system, ending the American belief in solum opus, and equipping impoverished communities with adequate food pantries. A real solution involves the recognition and destruction of the structural barriers that prevent socio-economic mobility, as fearful as the American public might be at recognizing that our abilities alone do not determine our future. A real solution involves asking the poor to speak to how their lives function differently from the wealthy in order to articulate to the public that hard work will not result in wealth if those with wealth are not actually rewarding those who work hard.
Why do the needs of the working class enter public discourse through the filter of the wealthy elite? Both because most of those elected to office cannot understand the systematic opposition society inculcates against the poor having never been poor themselves, and because advocacy in support of the poor most often takes the form of policies that continue to benefit the wealthy. If we blame a lack of work, then we restrict wages on the grounds that “common sense” dictates wealth should correlate with work, which leads to the wealthier maintaining their wealth by preventing the expense of paying workers a higher wage not even adjusted for inflation. Higher profits correlate with higher political contributions, and higher political contributions correlate with winning elections.
I am rising out of poverty because I made decisions as a child and got lucky. My brother remains in poverty because he made decisions as a child that weren’t as lucky. In the land of opportunity, poverty should not be the result of decisions we make as kids.