I am from New Jersey. Southern New Jersey, in fact—and I was born into a middle class family who didn’t have to worry, day to day, whether we were going to have enough money for food. In fact, that was a given. However, when you grow up in South Jersey, no matter where you are, you know about Camden. One of the nation’s poorest cities, it sits across the river from Philadelphia (“The City of Brotherly Love”), a city which, in 2011, had the highest per capita murder rate amongst US cities above 250,000 people. Camden, by its own right, hosts an ineffectual police force, set to be scrapped in 2012 by Gov. Chris Christie and replaced by County force members. Regardless of that particular controversy, which demands detailed research in and of itself1, Camden was once profiled as a poster-child for the cycle of poverty inherent in inner cities. 20/20 presented a detailed report, focusing on the children of Camden, in which they profiled the inability for even the most ambitious of individual to escape the circumstances which they are born into.
Before I go any further, it would be outright wrong to say there are no Camden success stories. There are laudable tales of citizens clawing their way from poverty into security. This is the exception, though, not the rule. And emphasis on the clawing and a hefty dose of good fortune.
The 20/20 report highlights the difficulties and the challenges of being born into such an environment. In no way would you be able to logically argue that the majority of Camden families can procure and provide the same amount of opportunities for their children as a suburban, middle-class family2. This really gets to the heart of the matter—living in poverty is much harder3 than living in monetary and nutritional security. And it doesn’t always relate to irresponsibility or laziness—though this is a main tenant of any thesis on race relations and master narratives of the relationships of, as a wildly randomly selected example, wealthy whites to poor blacks5. There is an inability for the America consciousness to understand that people can’t possibly work their way out of any situation—which makes sense, since we hear about how every politician’s inherent worth stems originally out of how they came from humble beginnings—but this is a fallacy. That these individuals should be lauded for their achievements there is no doubt, but unchecked, this practice sharpens a saber on which both wealthier individuals6 from birth and those poor who proved “unable” to climb the social ladder are gouged. This paradigm is a paragon of the master narrative niceties—the prejudices inflicted through ritualistic invocation of an inadequately spacious “American identity” end up translating to politics and the world in a very real way7.
If you’re not sufficiently English major-y enough to care about those past few sentences, take a look at this post by the folks over at Campaign Stops. It’s a nice menagerie of intellectual arguments against the poor being poor because they don’t try hard enough—and, in fact, their lives are made harder because of the pervasiveness of this idea amongst the higher economic classes. For example, they cite a study concerned with the “business” of renting housing to the poor, which so eloquently exposes a very obvious exploitation scheme. The poor didn’t just receive a bad hand—they got a two of clubs, a three of spades, two fives (hearts and spades) and a seven of diamonds, of which then three cards were stolen. It’s far beyond stacking the deck and well into the territory of injustice.
What does this mean for “American identity”? You are probably already connecting the dots, but for personal closure, I’ll draw my own line. It means that even though the poor are trapped, literally trapped, in a cycle of poverty and bad circumstances that only gets worse through exploitation, they are consistently looked down upon for taking advantage of government and social entrepreneurship programs to upset the cycle. Worse yet, the government, because it is piloted largely if not entirely by individuals who are currently experiencing monetary and nutritional security, often puts these programs on the chopping block.
This is not to say that criticism of a current system and endeavoring to improve it is a bad thing. In some situations, total overhaul is indeed required. In fact, if you read the following quote out of context as to whom said it:
“We shouldn’t be looking at people as if they’re stuck in some station or stuck in some class or some victim of something like that,” he said Tuesday. “We should look at every single human being in this country as people who are on their way toward opportunity. If they’re not doing well right now, what is it we need to do to help them get back on their feet so they can go make the most of their lives.”
…you’ll find that Paul Ryan’s opinion on how to treat the poor resonates quite well with Obama’s:
“Too many Americans live without hope for a better future or access to good, family-supporting jobs. President Obama is committed to creating the opportunity for all Americans to grab the first rung on the ladder to the middle class. That includes investing in strategies to make work pay, expanding access to affordable housing, and helping low-income Americans build the job skills to succeed in the workforce.” (Taken from WhiteHouse.gov)
Where these approaches differ, as noted before, is in implementation. However, that analysis assumes that all things are equal. One of “those things” is that the person behind the plan has a firm grasp on the challenges facing the poor are more than just a thinly veiled prejudice that by “working hard,” a person can simply float to the top of a tax bracket. That version of the American Dream—the one that discounts any chronic and subsequent money-sucking diseases, any environmental factors of, say, drug culture or gang activity, or educational inequality—is not only insultingly out-of-touch, but also a highly stylized, condescending caricature of American civilization.
Former Gov. Sununu, a Romney advisor, remarked that “Obama opened up the class warfare issue.” “Class warfare” is pitting the wealthy against the poor8. The definition may have changed in the past few months9. Therefore, if insinuating the narrative of the “poor choosing to be poor” is false and crippling constitutes class warfare, then we need to start drawing up battle plans.
Currently Listening to: No Doubt – Push and Shove.
1Pensions and the cost of the Camden-owned force versus effectiveness of county police coverage are, respectively, the two biggest “for”s and “against”s in this particular maneuver.
2An illustratively narrow comparison.
3Notice that this difficulty encompasses physical, emotional and cognitive hardship4.
4Something that most of us “higher class” individuals [yours truly included] have never experienced.
5I’ll grab some sources. Just you wait.
6Mitt Romney included. There is a reason why the Obama Campaign’s initial strongest strategy to paint Romney as, more than anything else, rich from birth and eager to be richer, resonated so well with the electorate.
7This is called, you guessed it, modernism (with a healthy dash of post-modernist philosophy as well).
8Or any permutation of class versus class—i.e. not Republican versus Democrat. They are political parties, not classes.
9The traditional English language, with its structure and definitions dating back to ancient lingual roots and whatnot, has been known to take a leave of absence during presidential campaigns for a version of the tongue that can only be described as “these words means whatever I want”.