Sunday, November 10, 2013

Reading Poverty

According to a new formula devised by the federal government, the number of poor in the United States stands at 16% of the population, not 15% as calculated by the existing, official formula. And without federal programs such as Medicaid and SNAP (oh, no), that percentage would grow significantly.

Reading this, I was reminded of a blog post by Tressie McMillan Cottom on the logic that drives poor people to buy conspicuously expensive things, especially clothes. She recounts this story of how her well dressed mother helped a neighbor work her way through bureaucratic morass of the local social services agency:
The woman had been denied in the genteel bureaucratic way—lots of waiting, forms, and deadlines she could not quite navigate. I watched my mother put on her best Diana Ross “Mahogany” outfit: a camel colored cape with matching slacks and knee high boots. I was miffed, as only an only child could be, about sharing my mother’s time with the neighbor girl. I must have said something about why we had to do this. Vivian fixed me with a stare as she was slipping on her pearl earrings and told me that people who can do, must do. It took half a day but something about my mother’s performance of respectable black person—her Queen’s English, her Mahogany outfit, her straight bob and pearl earrings—got done what the elderly lady next door had not been able to get done in over a year. I learned, watching my mother, that there was a price we had to pay to signal to gatekeepers that we were worthy of engaging. It meant dressing well and speaking well. It might not work. It likely wouldn't work but on the off chance that it would, you had to try. It was unfair but, as Vivian also always said, “life isn’t fair little girl.”
Ms. McMillan Cottom is African American, and her blog post addresses how racism exacerbates class insecurity, but as someone growing up in a white, rural, and poor area of Canada (and there are plenty of these, don't let the "we have health care; we're better than you" cracks fool you), I've seen for myself how being the same race is of little consequence. I don't think it's a coincidence that the kids teachers dismissed as troublemakers or losers in school showed visible signs of poverty (poor hygeine, old, dirty, off-brand clothes), while kids of doctors and teachers who acted up in similar ways were thought of as simply needing "guidance."