By Darryl Lorenzo Wellington
When my older brother and I were in elementary school, the teacher assigned the class to bring a bug into class that was familiar in our neighborhood. My brother, who was probably seven years old at the time, immediately thought to bring a cockroach. The house we lived in was low-income, shoddy and infested with roaches.
My mother was an elementary school teacher. She earned a modest income and had three children to raise. Her husband had left her abruptly, leaving her and her family in severe financial straits.
When she discovered my big brother’s intentions, my mother sat us down and told us never to tell anyone our home was roach-infested. Ever.
I quipped, “But we have really big cockroaches!” My mother cut her eyes at me, letting me know the joke was 100 percent “unfunny.” She suggested that my brother complete the assignment by catching a grasshopper.
It is a funny story in some ways, but less funny when I realize that America is a nation in which poverty is rampant. Yet poor people have to pretend it isn’t.
We had to hide the home infestation problem. Never mind that the prevalence of substandard housing in America and the lack of availability of well-maintained affordable housing units was more at fault than a beleaguered single mother.
My mother encouraged her boys to remain presentable regardless of circumstances. I am thankful and impressed by how well she succeeded at raising three children who never missed school, went hungry, or looked slovenly, and all attended college. She should be respected for her work and her resilience. Not shamed.
And because I appreciate this, I also appreciate more deeply that her face showed the weight of knowing that having roaches in the house could make her a laughingstock. She knew that poverty carries a stigma. I’ve seen a very similar look over the years on the faces of food stamp recipients who had to pull their cards out in front of friends and neighbors, or the recently unemployed when they bumped into acquaintances at the unemployment office.
I’ve seen that look of pained humiliation on the faces of people who should inarguably receive sympathy above all else: The homeless or soon-to-be homeless.
I have known four adults over the last ten years who in spite of their diligence and integrity financially “bottomed out.” Two lost their government jobs due to cutbacks; two were woodworkers whose steady cash flow trickled to nil during the Great Recession. I knew that each was receiving unemployment benefits because they called me privately asking if I knew where they could find work.
I eventually discovered that each of them had resorted to living in their cars, while spending an occasional night at a shelter. Call them transient. Call them “residentially challenged.” Or call them homeless. They preferred as few people as possible to know they were “on the street.”
One homeless friend told me over a meal that I purchased for him that he believed that if employers knew the truth they would be less likely to offer him a steady position, making him less likely to return to solvency. He told me that while his very close “real friends” would stand by him, his contacts and connections would shun him. He suspected he would receive less sympathy from society – not more. Even the help he received from social programs, such as $194 a month in food stamps, was a pittance that would not compensate for the stigma.
Statistics show that given the prevalent attitudes towards poverty my friend-in-need was not being jaded, but brutally honest. A 2013 Pew Research Center study showed that Americans tend to think people are poor because they are lazy. Successful people by this logic make the best employees. Fewer than half of the respondents surveyed believed people became poor, destitute, or homeless through circumstances beyond their control.
The study showed that Republicans gave even less credence to the forces of the economy that bring about calamity, including job loss or low-paying wages. Some Republicans believe that if someone is destitute it is because of a “lack of effort on his or her part.”
These are incredibly crass attitudes, but conservative politicians have promulgated these attitudes. Their policy proposals to cut health care, food stamps and other government resources that help families thrive show a disrespect and ignorance of the hardships suffered by the hungry, the unemployed, and the homeless. Proposals, such as naming food stamp recipients in local newspapers, drug testing welfare recipients, or advising low income workers save money to pay for health insurance by foregoing an I-phone, are meant to humiliate people who are financially on the brink.
The poor already feel humiliated by life circumstances. I know because I looked into my mother’s eyes, and into the eyes of hundreds of other disenfranchised Americans who have real economic needs for themselves, and their children.
Conservative politicians will never bury the truth that my mother, and the millions of poor across America deserve respect. They have the least, and make the most of it. They deserve to be congratulated for carrying on with obstinacy and resilience, even when the economy worsens, or when they are victimized by government cutbacks. Despite the “poverty stigma” they will find their agency. They deserve to have their own voices. They will have their stories told because they will never be shamed into silence.