Dear President Trump,
I’m 100% sure that if you actually read these letters you wouldn’t be thrilled to know that this is the first of what I think will be several, if not many, letters about class, power, and race coming out of last week’s Undoing Racism workshop by the People’s Institute.
On the first day we did an analysis of the determinants of poverty by attempting to answer the question “Why are people poor?” We generated a long, long list of structural factors that can keep people, their children, and their children’s children stuck in poverty. Here’s a partial list: prejudiced gate keeping, lack of opportunity, colonized education, capitalism, greed, slavery, attempted genocide, individualism and meritocracy ideologies, tax structures like WA state’s (no income tax, heavy sales tax), low wage work, predatory loans, red-lining, racism, criminalization of subsistence money-making (e.g., selling loose cigarettes), patriarchy, ICE, lack of affordable childcare, and lack of affordable healthcare and mental healthcare.
Next we heard a story about a woman with three rambunctious children and an over-flowing grocery cart full of soda, chips, and frozen dinners and how she paid with food stamps. We generated a list of the things the people behind her in line who were waiting to purchase their wine and cheese and their broccolini and salmon muttered (audibly) to each other. It felt yucky to generate this list, particularly as it became clear how incredibly easy it was for us all to rapid-fire pile on: too many kids, poor choices, lazy, no self-control, probably no father in the picture, bad kids, undocumented, gaming the system, won’t work, woman of color, uneducated, stupid, poor up-bringing.
The facilitator pointed out that he hadn’t told us the person’s race or ethnicity (he hadn’t meant to tell us she was a woman), and noted the assumption that she was a person of color. One of the other facilitators reminded us that, numerically, there are more poor white people than poor people of color in the US, and yet we (the big we) tend to associate poverty with black and brown people rather than with white people.
During this part of the conversation, a young African American man who was clearly homeless and probably mentally ill wandered into and out of and into the room to get some of the breakfast items on the table in the back. I don’t think he was asked by the facilitators to do this, but he might as well have been. No one impeded him and the first time through, no one interacted with him – it was surreal. The facilitators proceeded as though he wasn’t there, which was hard but maybe was the most respectful thing to do. I don’t know. I do know I felt very ill at ease that we were studiously ignoring him as we listed various determinants of poverty. I was so relieved when the woman providing support for the workshop approached him the second time he came through and offered him a large baggie to take some things with him if he wanted (he declined). I felt like I could breathe again when she did that. Someone brought it up later and the facilitators just let it be; they didn’t do any rescuing or rationalizing for how that all went down. I’m not sure what I should or could have done, but it feels like a test I failed.
A bit later we examined how tempting it is to focus on individual deficits (i.e., blaming poor people for being poor) vs. recognizing and changing structural impediments to economic stability. We talked about how many of us buy into to the twin myths that poor people should fix themselves and that people with resources know what poor people should do to get out of poverty. The message was that those of us with resources often assume we know poor people’s stories and what they need, and thus, infantlize them. So maybe all of us going on with the workshop content while the young man got some food was an ok thing to do in that situation. Maybe. I am still glad the kind woman in the back touched base with him and he wasn’t just walking amongst us like a ghost.
May we all be safe from pernicious structural economic traps.
May we be willing to question the easy out of blaming poor people for being poor.
May we recognize the vast swaths of economic quicksand and their health consequences.
May we not make peace with the status quo.