Friday, December 13, 2013

Poverty myths, busted: how the vicious backlash against an essay that went viral illuminates how little most Americans know about being poor

What does a poor person look like to you? When you try to imagine a poor person, do you see an inner city African-American single mother who dropped out of high school? Or perhaps, do you envision a poor, white, Southern, female-headed family living in a trailer park?

Whatever you picture, you most likely have a few strong impressions about this mythical poor person in your head. You believe that this person has been mired in poverty all her life and is likely to remain there. You believe that she has little formal education and no stable work history. Most strongly of all, you believe that there is a clear dividing line between being the conditions we label "poor" and "not poor." There is the poor person who has always been poor and has never had access to any kind of advantages. And then there is you and your (possibly) privileged existence, who has (perhaps) never missed a meal or worried about paying a bill. Never the twain shall meet.

The reality of poverty, however, is very different, and a recent internet controversy offers an excellent opportunity to explore that. Last month, this stunning essay by blogger Linda Tirado about what it's like to be poor struck a nerve, and went viral. (Another great, painfully hilarious internet piece on this theme, by Cracked's John Cheese, can be found here). The essay had grown out of a comment Tirado left on a Gawker thread. It was featured on Jezebel and on the Huffington Post's front page, where it was shared like wildfire. When readers offered to contribute to a fund so she could start a book, Tirado started a GoFundMe page for that purpose, which eventually raised over $60,000. She also signed with a literary agent.

And then, a very disturbing, very ugly backlash kicked in.

Michelle Goldberg has documented the viciousness at The Nation. As Goldberg reports, "the new story" about Tirado "is that she’s nothing but a middle-class fabulist preying on naïve and guilty liberals." Tirado has received death threats and been denounced as a hoaxer by outlets like CNN and the New York Times. Yet she is nothing of the sort.

Though she's not poor now, she has experienced spells of real poverty, and Goldberg has seen the records (court documents about her eviction and records of her Medicaid and WIC enrollment) that prove it. Tirado blames a combination of circumstance and her own bad choices for her economic situation.  “Nobody gets to where I am without a mix of bad luck and bad calls,” Goldberg quotes her as saying.

Someone who, like Tirado, needs to work two jobs to keep herself and her family (just barely) afloat would appear to be working poor by definition -- even if, technically, Tirado's household income placed her well above the poverty line.

So why did some people react so angrily to Tirado, and believe she was somehow scamming them, or lying about being poor? Why couldn't they see a poor person when that person was staring them right in the face?

I believe it has a lot to do with certain misconceptions we have about poverty in this country. Therefore, I'd like to take the opportunity that Tirado's story provides to dispel some popular myths and misconceptions about poverty.

Myth #1: "Linda Tirado grew up middle class, and she's held good jobs in the past. How could she possibly end up poor?"

This ignores the fact that downward mobility is a very real, and very disturbing, problem in America today. A recent study by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that:
A third of Americans raised in the middle class—defined here as those between the 30th and 70th percentiles of the income distribution—fall out of the middle as adults.
The Pew study also found that white women are far more likely to become downwardly mobile than white men.

Myth #2: "But Tirado certainly doesn't seem like the typical poor person. After all, she is white, married, lives in the suburbs, works, and has some college education."

While Linda Tirado does not conform to popular stereotypes of what poor people look like, there are many poor Americans who do indeed resemble her. According to the most recent Census report, of 46.5 million Americans living in poverty, 41 percent are non-Hispanic whites. Twenty-eight percent of American workers earn poverty-level wages, and these days, people living below the poverty line are better educated than ever -- about one-third of poor adults ages 35 to 54 have at least some college education. Surprisingly, there are also more married parents living in poverty than there are never-married ones.

Finally, poverty is becoming increasingly suburbanized. Sociologist and poverty expert Mark Rank recently observed that only about "ten percent of those in poverty live in extremely poor urban neighborhoods. . . [The] dispersion of poverty has been increasing over the past 20 years, particularly within suburban areas."

Rank made another observation that is, I believe, extremely important.  He noted that in America, "the percentage of the population that directly encounters poverty is exceedingly high." For example, according to his research:
nearly 40 percent of Americans between the ages of 25 and 60 will experience at least one year below the official poverty line during that period ($23,492 for a family of four), and 54 percent will spend a year in poverty or near poverty (below 150 percent of the poverty line).
Even more astounding, if we add in related conditions like welfare use, near-poverty and unemployment, four out of five Americans will encounter one or more of these events.
In addition, half of all American children will at some point during their childhood reside in a household that uses food stamps for a period of time.
Rank concluded, "poverty is a mainstream event experienced by a majority of Americans. For most of us, the question is not whether we will experience poverty, but when."
Myth #3: "Tirado admits she's not poor now -- that means she's probably lying about having been poor in the past, right?"

Again, this misbegotten notion is based on ignorance about the pattern poverty typically takes. Research has shown that the usual way most people experience poverty is not as a lifelong, static condition, but as periodic spells they fall into and out of. Here's Mark Rank again:
The typical pattern is for an individual to experience poverty for a year or two, get above the poverty line for an extended period of time, and then perhaps encounter another spell at some later point. Events like losing a job, having work hours cut back, experiencing a family split or developing a serious medical problem all have the potential to throw households into poverty.
Myth #4: "Well, if she was poor, it had to be her own fault."

This may be the powerfully destructive myth of all. Even Tirado herself buys into it somewhat -- her essay, after all, was called "Why I Make Terrible Decisions." Tirado is hardly alone; polls show that many Americans tend to blame poor people for their economic circumstances, rather than bad luck or systemic factors.

These attitudes go deep. As early as England's Elizabethan-era Poor Laws, distinctions between the "deserving" poor -- respectable, virtuous folk who were believed to be poor through no fault of their own -- and the "undeserving" sort -- lazy, dishonest, unmotivated -- were encoded into public policy. That ideology persisted, was enforced with particular cruelty the Victorian period, and came back with a vengeance in the 1980s, when poor-bashing and victim-blaming became all the rage. It persists to this day.

But according to Mark Rank, researchers have found that the behavior of poor people differs little from that of more economically advantaged folks:
Yet my research and that of others has consistently found that the behaviors and attitudes of those in poverty basically mirror those of mainstream America. Likewise, a vast majority of the poor have worked extensively and will do so again. Poverty is ultimately a result of failings at economic and political levels rather than individual shortcomings.
Sure, Linda Tirado has made mistakes in her life. So have we all, especially when we were young. The main difference is that economically privileged folks can indulge in countless bad behaviors and make any number of boneheaded decisions without paying any serious consequences. Theoretically, if you're wealthy and well-connected enough, you could spend your twenties hoovering up quantities of cocaine equivalent in worth to the the GDP of a small country, then stumble through your thirties as a hopeless, falling-down drunk -- and yet still manage to ascend all the way to the office of the presidency of the United States.

And, um, right, somebody actually did that.

But a poor person who exhibited similar behaviors might well end up homeless, in prison, or worse. Particularly in this unforgiving economy, one misstep could mean losing your toehold in the middle class, forever.

You don't become poor because you're a terrible person or a defective human being. People are poor because of the way our economy and our society is arranged. As Mark Rank has written, "American poverty is largely the result of structural, rather than individual, failings. There simply are not enough viable opportunities for all Americans." For example, compared to other rich nations, the U.S. has what is by far the highest proportion of its workers in low-wage jobs. Yet as hard as they work, those workers have found it impossible to work themselves out of poverty.

I really like Mark Rank's comparison of poverty to a game of musical chairs:
In class, I often use the analogy of musical chairs to help students recognize this disconnect. Picture a game with ten players, but only eight chairs. When the music stops, who’s most likely to be left standing? It will be those who are at a disadvantage in terms of competing for the available chairs (less agility, reduced speed, a bad position when the music stops, and so on). However, given that the game is structured in a way such that two players are bound to lose, these individual attributes only explain who loses, not why there are losers in the first place. Ultimately, there are simply not enough chairs for those playing the game.
The critical mistake that’s been made in the past is that we‘ve equated the question of who loses at the game with the question of why the game inevitably produces losers. They are, in fact, distinct and separate questions. So while characteristics such as deficiencies in skills or education or being in a single parent family help to explain who’s at a heightened risk of encountering poverty, the fact that poverty exists in the first place results not from these characteristics, but from a failure of the economic and political structures to provide enough decent opportunities and supports for the whole of society.
By focusing solely upon individual characteristics, we can shuffle people up or down in terms of their likelihood to land a job with good earnings, but when there aren’t enough of these jobs to go around, somebody will still end up in poverty.
Myth #5: "There's nothing we can do to end poverty."

While not directly related to Linda Tirado's story, this is a widespread belief in America. But it's yet another myth, and an intensely pernicious one at that. The U.S. has a poverty rate that is dramatically higher than that of any other rich nation. Other nations have lower poverty rates because of their more generous social welfare policies, and because strong unions, a higher minimum wage, and other labor market institutions help increase earnings for workers at the bottom of the pay scale.

Even though America doesn't do nearly enough to combat poverty, the policies that we do have help a great deal. Ronald Reagan used to like to taunt liberals with this nasty gibe: "In the sixties we waged a war on poverty, and poverty won." Yet on the contrary, government programs to reduce poverty have been remarkably effective. A recent study by researchers at Columbia University demonstrated that, when poverty is measured in an appropriately rigorous way, the results show that anti-poverty programs reduce the poverty rate in the U.S. by about 40% -- from 26% to 16%. Such programs have been especially successful in reducing child poverty:
Our estimates [. . .] show that historical trends in poverty have been more favorable -- and that government programs have played a larger role -- than OPM [Official Poverty Measure] estimates suggest. [Snip] [W]ithout taxes and other government programs, poverty would have been roughly flat at 27-29%, while with government benefits poverty has fallen from 26% to 16% -- a 40% reduction. Government programs today are cutting poverty nearly in half (from 29% to 16%) while in 1967 they only cut poverty by about a one percentage point.
Results are particularly striking for child poverty and deep child poverty. In 2012, government programs reduced both child poverty and deep child poverty by 11 percentage points. In 1967, by contrast government programs (through the tax system) actually increased child poverty rates, and reduced deep child poverty rates by only 4 percentage points.
I can't help but see the Linda Tirado backlash as illustrative of a deeply pathological strain in modern American life. Instead of feeling empathy and a sense of "there but for the grace of God go I" about her poverty, or rejoicing over her success in jump-starting a writing career, many journalists and internet commenters have been cruel and vicious. Deeply unequal societies tend to breed high levels of social mistrust, and that may be what we're seeing here. Simmering resentments boil over, and rather than taking pleasure in someone else's good fortune, there's a pathological tendency for people to turn on their fellow humans: "Why should she have all the luck?"  It's the same sort of thing you see when striking public sector unions are denounced as greedy -- there's no sense of solidarity. It's as if people think, "Everyone else's lives are being turned to shit by this economy -- what makes this person, or that group of workers, think they should be any different?"

By dint of a lucky break and her own writerly brilliance, Linda Tirado may well have devised a permanent escape from her history of poverty. But other poor people are not so fortunate, and will spend their whole lives slipping a little above, then a little below, the poverty line. Poor peoples' lives are hard, and not just in the economic realm.

Even beyond their economic struggles, poor people tend to suffer disproportionately from a host of social ills.  People who are poor have lower life expectancies and experience significantly higher rates of health problems, mental illness, disability, domestic violence, sexual violence, substance abuse, and child abuse and neglect. Basically, if there's something bad in the world, chances are it happens to poor people a lot more often.

The causal relationship between poverty and these problems runs both ways. Poor people are more likely to suffer from these conditions, which in turn tend to exacerbate their poverty. There is no question but that lowering the poverty rate will reduce the degree to which poor people experience those ills and many others.

How do we alleviate -- or better yet, put an end to -- poverty? The answers are simple. We have abundant proof that anti-poverty programs work; we just need to significantly expand them. In addition, educational policies that offer particularly strong benefits to low-income people such as universal pre-K and free public colleges should also be adopted. Finally, we need to increase the earnings of low-wage workers by raising the minimum wage, expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit, making it easier to join a labor union, and enacting fiscal and monetary policies that create a full-employment economy. Not everyone is as lucky, or as talented, as Linda Tirado. But they shouldn't need to be. It is well within the power of one of the richest societies the world has ever known to ensure that each one of its citizens has access to the resources she needs to live a decent life.


  1. Thank you for this post and blog. You write: "Not everyone is as lucky, or as talented, as Linda Tirado. But they shouldn't need to be." Agreed! It seems to me a "real" middle class society is one where significant majorities are middle class. That must mean that not only "average" people are middle class, but even a significant number of "below average" people (e.g. skills, intellect, education, ambition, etc.) are middle class when you account for luck (good and bad) and other factors across the entire population. If America is to have a predominantly middle class society, it can't be one where only an elite minority (whatever their attributes) live a "middle class" existence. Beyond that, as you write, each of us should have "access to the resources she needs to live a decent life."

  2. Whew, fabulous post! You cover lots of very pertinent ground in this one post, should do much to dispel some of these myths about the poor and poverty.

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