When Surviving is Not Enough

Moving Away from the Culture of Poverty Myth
Blog Post
Nov. 7, 2017

This blog is part of Caffeinated Commentary - a monthly series where the Millennial Fellows create interesting and engaging content around a theme. For the inaugural CC, the Millennial Fellows explore how their personal perspectives influence the policies they're interested in. 

Policymakers and academics across the political spectrum have received a wake-up call that they are out of touch with the day-to-day lives of rural, white America. As such, there is growing demand for public intellectuals to ‘translate’ the lifestyles and opinions of poor whites, especially from public intellectuals who grew up in coal country and eventually made it out. It seems many of us are eager to cut a deal with formerly-poor middlemen to give us the stories of family dysfunction, anti-intellectualism, and financial mismanagement that feel true.

J.D. Vance is at the forefront of this work — in his best-selling Hillbilly Elegy he provides a sketch of his white, poor Appalachian community, the exact demographic politicians and commentators alike have spotlighted to explain Donald Trump’s election and continued appeal. The portrait that emerges is one of a “culture in crisis” — enclaves of people desperate to blame anybody but themselves for their own destitution. As Monica Potts writes, “when Vance speaks to folks about the government, it is clear that he, and the people he talks with, think of it as something that creates dependency where it wasn’t previously, and that compounds poverty rather than reduces it.”

The notion that there exists a culture of poverty has lent itself to policies aimed at altering the behaviors of the poor — especially those of Black women — rather than providing direct and easily accessible relief. While Vance provides no concrete policy recommendations, his memoir is a plea to rural white America to stop the self-sabotage and take personal responsibility. In doing this, he’s diverted attention away from the more nuanced, historical explanations of poverty and toward policy solutions proven to make things worse. From personal experience, I know the implications of Vance’s work are a nightmare.

I grew up in the shadow of Clinton-era welfare reform, which was designed to address concerns about out-of-wedlock childbearing, high levels of direct cash assistance enrollment, and work disincentives supposedly baked into the previous welfare program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) encouraged families much like mine to not consider direct cash assistance, but instead enter the workforce regardless of whether this was possible. Additionally, eligibility requirements were adjusted to the EITC Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) to more generously reward work.

My single mother navigated a patchwork of social assistance programs to raise me. As a toddler, I ate fortified hot cereal paid for by Women, Infants, and Children. Each spring, my mother would use her Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) to catch up on bills or replace the tires on our car. We sought medical care at Northern Navajo Medical Center — an Indian Health Services hospital — where we spent hours in waiting rooms for a single vaccine or bottle of cough medicine. Even as she struggled to pay rent after her 60-hour work week, my mother refused to apply for cash assistance or SNAP. Seeking out these benefits would have meant taking multiple days off work each month to prove our eligibility to a caseworker who could interpret any innocuous detail of our lives as fraud, being barred from saving any meaningful amount of money to become self-sufficient, and risking humiliation at check-out lines if we attempted to purchase slightly-too-expensive eggs.

One could argue that watching my mother spend her tax credit wisely each spring rather than receive cash assistance taught me the value of hard work. After all, PRWORA changes to EITC succeeded in reducing cash assistance caseloads and the number of children living below the poverty line. However living above the poverty line isn’t a measurement of economic security. In my case, as is with nearly 6.7 million Americans, EITC kept my mother and I bobbing just above the poverty line. We lived under the stress of knowing a medical emergency, pay cut, or rent hike could send us into “deep poverty” -- less than $2 per day, per person. In fact, the number of families living off less than $2 each day has doubled since PRWORA. It wasn’t so much that I learned the inherent value of hard work, but that the poor weren’t allowed to make mistakes or have bad luck.

It makes little sense to focus on the narrative of a man whose experiences are hardly reflective of American poverty both from a personal and empirical standpoint for clues. The poor have been and continue to be disproportionately made up of Black, Latino, Native American, Alaska Native, and particular Asian communities in the United States. Children, the disabled, elderly and students are also disproportionately poor. These trends do not lend themselves to monocausal cultural explanations, but instead politically complex and historically rooted events. So, where are their panel invitations and book deals?

Seeking out the narratives of ordinary Americans currently living in poverty should not be so novel of an idea. But it is entirely necessary if we are truly invested in the well-being of all people living in the United States and understanding our current political moment.