The Privilege of Being Poor


Most of us have heard about, or read, the article about the woman who went to pick up ‘food stamps’ with her Mercedes.  Though, from what I read it looks like she really went to get WIC benefits, which are a whole different thing, but let’s not get caught up in semantics.

The snapshot is this: an upper middle class white lady with kids has a blip on her economic radar and has to get benefits and has an awakening about what it means to be poor.

This is not poverty.  Not even close.

She’s not part of the population of women stigmatized and shamed for being poor.  She’s part of the pat on the head, look what they had to do to get by, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, better days are coming, poor for a few minutes poor.  When the conservative right talks about welfare reform, they’re not targeting her.  They’re targeting the millions of people in culturally propagated poverty.  People whose mothers and grandmothers were on welfare.  People who were raised in a multi-generational culture of poverty and lack and struggle and oppression, who often don’t know any different.  And if those folks raised in this ‘norm’ of poverty do know, if they want to escape the oppression, finding the way out can be harder than just staying in it.

I once had a teenager on my caseload when I was a Child Protective Worker.  One of her primary objectives as she approached her 18th birthday was not to graduate high school, get a job or go to college.  It was to have a baby so that she could get on benefits.  She grew up in a constellation of abuse, mental illness and addiction.  I don’t fault her at all – she knew no different.  For her it was a way to be independent, ironically, in the only culture of survival that she knew.

Welfare reformists might use this case to point out the need for reform, but that’s missing the mark as well.  Poverty for some is a jail they have lived in their whole lives where they have been, if they are lucky, provided food and shelter.  It becomes the only means of survival they know.  You cannot rip the roof from their heads and the food from their plates and expect they will ‘figure it out’.  Living in abject, multi-generational poverty is traumatic in and of itself.  And we can’t simply ignore the underlying contributors to poverty like mental illness, addiction, and racism – things that keep people in the cycle of poverty – and expect people to land on their feet when we pull the rug out from under them.

It’s not welfare that needs reform, it’s how we approach our humanity and the humanity of others that needs a complete overhaul. We need far better access to mental health services, to substance abuse treatment and services, and we could use a whole lot of compassion.  “Those people” aren’t the other, they are us.  They are us because we are all human.  We all deserve dignity, respect and love.

farmers market

Our warped sense of poverty and classicism was highlighted for me this week in an exchange that I’m still shaking my head at.  A fellow social worker was venting that she did not think it was “fair” that people on WIC and SNAP get a “50% discount” at our local Farmer’s Market.   Her rationale is that the Farmer’s Market is “so expensive, y’all” and she lamented that she can’t even afford it and she has a “job”.  She thinks everyone should get a discount, you know, to be “fair”.  Oh and, by the way, she’s not going to be giving the Farmer’s Market a cent of her money.  So there.  ::: insert stomping feet and hands on hips :::

The fact that SNAP and WIC recipients really don’t get 50% off the run of the Farmer’s Market is really moot.  What is also moot is the fact that many, if not a majority of, SNAP recipients work.

What this person does not seem to grasp is that she has the privilege of having choices that people who rely on SNAP and WIC do not.  Every day that she gets up in her 4 bedroom house where her children all have their own rooms, gets in her car that is not falling apart, drives herself to her job that allows her paid sick and vacation time, goes to Whole Foods for lunch or Starbucks for a coffee, leaves work early to go to her kids sports games, she has choices that those living in poverty simply do not have.

She gets to choose if she takes the day off with her sick child because she has a job with sick time.  For many working parents, taking the day off to be with your sick child means you do not get paid.  That means no money; at least 20% of your weekly paycheck gone.

She gets to choose if she spends $50 this week between Starbucks, Whole Foods hot bar and the local sushi place or spends that money at the Farmer’s Market.   Many parents on SNAP have a simple choice between eating and not eating; between cheap boxed chemical laden junk and healthy food full of nutrition (that they hope can help their children’s bodies combat the stress and trauma of living in poverty).

Please tell me what’s wrong with improving SNAP and WIC recipient access to fresh, local, often organic, produce.  I’ll wait.

The reality is, there are no privileges to being poor.  There is no red carpet of choices that opens up like the heavens when you finally are ‘lucky’ enough to have your head dip below the poverty line.  It’s not a privilege to have to justify your worthiness as a human in order to have access to healthy nourishment for your body.  It’s not a privilege to be trapped under the weight of shame, stigma, racism, sexism, mental illness, addiction, trauma and all the other things that keep people firmly planted in cyclical, generational poverty. It’s not a privilege to learn how to stuff and swallow that shame just so you can look at yourself in the mirror, get yourself on the bus, drop your kids off at daycare, go to your minimum wage shit job that no one else wants, go back and get your kids, throw some moderately healthy food at them, try to find enough love for yourself to give to them and pray for the strength to get up and do it all over again tomorrow.

Privilege is knowing, like that woman in the Mercedes, that one day she’ll drive away from that church basement never to return again.  Or better yet, like my former co-worker, that she’ll never have the ‘privilege’ of needing to go in the first place.

photo credit via photopin cc

photo credit via photopin cc


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