What is poverty?
Poverty does more than inflict suffering; poverty reduces people and their experiences to the invisible.
Poverty is painfully invisible in national statistics. The national minimum wage is $7.25 an hour but this is hardly a living wage. Due to inflation the real value of minimum wage has been falling since the late 1960s. One of the many consequences is that over 60% of those requesting emergency food aid actually have a job. In fact, statistics used for measuring poverty radically underestimate how much the average family needs to get by. While the government deems that families should spend no more than 30% of their income on rent, 1 in 4 poor renting families must spend over 70% of their income on rent.
Because the poverty line set too low, welfare doled out to those in need is also too low. In spite of the housing crisis, 67% of poor families receive no housing assistance. While President Clinton’s expansion of the EITC program continues to lift millions of working families out of poverty, welfare reform has left the non-working poor increasingly ignored. In fact, unemployed families are more likely to fall into deep poverty now than in 1964, and those in deep poverty have experienced a 35% decline in government aid since 1984. These trends are exacerbating income inequality. Meanwhile, national indicators show that worker productivity and federal spending on anti-poverty programmes (mainly for the working poor) have grown since the 1960s. The disparities between what we see and what is happening leave Americans hesitant to believe that over 1.5 million households live on less than $2.00 a day — yet, this is our reality.
Having your hardships masked by statistics, however, is nothing compared to the human experience of being made invisible. One of my all-time favourite books is Seth Holmes’ Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies, which tells of the exploitation of undocumented migrant workers from Mexico. He describes the various laws that allow American agriculturalists to benefit from the low cost of hiring illegal migrants on their plantations. Specifically, he tells of the migrant berry pickers from Oaxaca, Mexico and the way in which they destroyed and sacrificed their bodies to increase American agricultural output. In spite of such sacrifice these people are invisible under American law, so they forced to accept abysmal working conditions, less than adequate wages, and a lack of medical attention when it is needed most . He argues that the migrants are even encouraged to think that they are less than human so that they continue to accede such conditions of abuse.
But American workers are often also treated as invisible. A woman I met on one of my trips home woefully described the gruelling physical work she does at the airport, and how her managers have often manipulated her into working overtime but never paid her for it as they promised. In all of my investigative work, people living in poverty have consistently described feeling like they were treated as disposable and unworthy of attention or respect. The financial hardship of this lady at the airport was so irrelevant to her employers that she wasn’t even being paid for an extra hour of her time and effort.
There are also poor Americans who are forced to do “invisible” work because they cannot afford government issued identification. Like migrants, they are not adequately rewarded for their work and their upward mobility is severely restricted. Despite efforts to make identification cards more accessible, a majority of the homeless American population still does not have them.
Barbara Ehrenreich, in her infamous book Nickled and Dimed, goes on to suggest that bag searches, drug tests, and rules against gossiping in the workplace make low-wage workers “feel untrustworthy”, while low wages themselves often cause people to believe “they are paid what they are worth”. She makes a good point. Where materialism a cornerstone of American culture, buying power largely decides your sense of place in society. In my experience, I have found that low wages also cause people to internalise a sense of powerlessness. For example, Hispanic mothers in East Boston frequently told me they do not want to get involved in protests or report abuse by their landlords because they don’t think they can make a difference, or, worse still, they think they will be evicted if they speak out.
Poor Americans are forced to be invisible in many ways other than receiving under-compensation for their work. Decline in union power has also denied the poor their most powerful tool for guaranteeing fair wages and having a stake in politics. At the same time, gentrification has been forcing poor people out of their homes. In East Boston, I discovered tenants were facing a “tsunami” of rent increases as four massive investors were trying to buy up all waterfront property. With thousands of families now at risk of being evicted, some of the only organizations trying to protect them are Vida Urbana and a coalition of East Boston Churches. Problematically, neither of these organizations actually have any elected officials that can try and take direct action. I recently ran around to “at-risk” housing to hand out pamphlets about how tenants can resist eviction with Harvard’s Project No One Left (PNOL) Behind, but we were too late. Every property I visited had been vacated.
An old but golden book called Poor People’s Movements remarks that “only under exceptional conditions are the lower classes afforded the opportunity to press for their own class interests”, and I found this to be agonizingly true in Boston. Some might even argue that capitalism itself is fuelled on a system of class exploitation that depends on the poor being politically and economically invisible in this way. I need not look far to see how this might be true. That the low income Hispanic community in East Boston does not have the financial ability to fight gentrification, isolation, and insecurity stemming from poverty means that they are hesitant to engage politically. The fact that people going to eviction court are not automatically provided with legal counsel only provides further evidence of how allowing the interests of the poor to go unaddressed enables exploitation by wealthier property owners.
When being poor in America is associated with such powerlessness, it is no surprise that low-income Hispanics in East Boston told me they felt too embarrassed or ashamed to ask for financial help from others. The problem is that by actively refusing to speak up, the low income workers I met had also often made their needs invisible to the friends, family, and community members that might be able to help them. In his book, In Search of Respect, the famous ethnographer Philippe Bourgois gives special attention to the consequences of making the poor feel invisible. He suggests that working in the formal economy, his main subjects, Primo and Caesar, were made to feel stupid and undervalued. As a form of defence against this humiliation they instead chose to embrace street-culture, which promotes achieving a more dignifying sense of self-sufficiency through various (often illegal) methods. At least in the underground economy other drug dealers would respect and fear them. Rape was another method through which these men attempted to achieve a sense of dominance and power in a society where they felt emasculated by the corporate world. Astonishingly, violent forms of overcompensation are rarely ever adopted by the poor, and poor Americans continue to embrace the ideal of honest work in spite of all its false promises.
Jobs aside, police brutality and mass incarceration makes the poor feel especially invisible to the government, and in consequence, promote even more violence and insecurity. Young men in the predominantly black district of Mattapan in Boston described to me how being constantly stopped and frisked made them feel like second-class citizens whose honesty and dignity was constantly being denied by the policing system. Michelle Alexander shook America in 2010 when she confidently put forth her thesis that “mass incarceration is the new Jim Crow”, and I can’t help but agree. Incarcerating massive proportions of black men (1 in 3, to be exact) is the most effective way that America excludes and makes poor blacks invisible in society — exactly in the way that Jim Crows laws aimed to do. Mass incarceration denies low-income workers a dignified existence in prison, but also after. In Wisconsin, for example, all criminal records are public, and during my fieldwork white, black, and Hispanic men have repeatedly told me that they found it difficult to secure a job if they had a criminal record. For some young men, the only adequate response to a judicial system that considers their skin colour and criminal record as their most apparent characteristics is to actively fight the policing system by becoming even shadier characters. These defensive characters slip through the cracks of the formal world and firmly back into the dark and dangerous invisible spaces often crammed into the outskirts of our cities.
We must stop denying the poor their humanity, and at least begin with guaranteeing them a living wage. By dramatically reducing spending on public housing without increasing spending on housing subsidies, we have denied any low income Americans the ability to look beyond their most immediate needs, like shelter. Failure to address the housing crises also means that a variety of benefits granted to the poor, like SSI, are used to pay rent instead of help in the way they were supposed to. Amidst this crisis affecting anti-poverty policy, we have rendered the poor almost politically invisible through de-unionization, police brutality, and mass incarceration. We have further denied the guarantee of basic human rights to migrant workers and individuals who cannot afford a government issued identification, and consistently fail to stand for the rights of the poor in the face of gentrification and in housing court. While the causes of poverty are far more complex than those described, we can begin to make a difference by at least starting to make the invisible, visible. Fighting poverty’s most intrinsic character might give the poor a platform to advocate for the rights that everyone else had barely noticed were being neglected.