The Deserving Poor


This picture in the of a resident of publicly subsidized housing in New Orleans playing with an ipad sparked a hailstorm of responses. Among the most generous of them was this one,

“Not to rush to comment. I hope this is nothing more than someone gave him the iPad as a gift and he is using it for educational means or just playing games … I hope I am not over thinking this. I am not prejudice (sic) — this just did not look right.”

Putting aside the speaker’s imaginings of what the child could be doing with the ipad besides educating himself or playing games, I publish the picture and comment here because the reaction says a lot about how we perceive poverty, and what makes one “deserving” of help when one is poor in the U.S. Saying that this child holding an ipad outside a housing project doesn’t “look right,” suggests that maybe, just maybe, he and his family are playing us in order to avoid work while living high, suggesting a lot about what what we think of the poor and what they need to suffer in order to deserve our assistance.

This same mindset is revealed in a rant on poverty that appeared in the National Review.

The suggestion here is that there is something wrong with poor people having the amenities listed above in their homes. In another article on the same subject, runs this chart alongside one showing what non-poor households have, suggesting there’s very little difference in the “conveniences” that poor families have as compared to middle class families.

Note here that the “conveniences” include a refrigerator, a stove and oven, an air conditioner, and a microwave oven. Apparently a refrigerator is considered a luxury for poor people who ought to be packing their perishable foods in bags of ice or, alternatively, living on pre-cooked foods, much of which can’t be purchased with food stamps, and fast food, pretty much all of which are out of bounds.

Imagine living in a poorly ventilated apartment as an elderly person or a parent with an infant in New York City in August without an air conditioner. That could be life threatening. And microwave ovens are often in the homes of poor people instead of ranges. Or they are used because a microwave is cheaper to run.

Apparently, in order to be among the deserving poor in the U.S., one must also live in misery. No refrigerator or stove, no air conditioning or fans, TV, or clothes washers. Or perhaps the suggestion is that one should sell all of these items to put off going on public assistance.

In case that’s what you had in mind, here is an ad for a refrigerator, washer and dryer on Craig’s List. The items are being sold for $75 each. How long would it take for a family to spend $75 on prepared foods or on going to a laundromat to do their laundry where the average cost per visit (yes, such things are actually calculated)  for a family of four is $6? But this is the kind of financial management groups like the Heritage Foundation and the National Review, not to mention a significant percentage of Americans, expect of the poor.

But maybe the idea that the poor should sell their “conveniences” before taking public assistance isn’t really what’s on people’s minds. After all, they can’t really believe that you could get very far on the sale of a used microwave oven, or that one would be more effective in pulling oneself out of poverty without a refrigerator, stove, or clothes washer, right? Imagine searching for a job today without a cell phone and access to a computer.

But maybe this ignorance is all explained by the possibility that they actually think poor people are a different breed than the rest of us.

It couldn’t be that a while ago you lost your job, and then, in spite of trying everything you failed to find a new one before running out of unemployment benefits. Your old life afforded you such luxuries as a home computer, an xbox, and an ipad. But now, you’re broke. You’re hopeful you’ll get back on your feet, and you want to maintain a sense of normalcy for your kids by avoiding selling all their favorite possessions. After all, next month you might get a job and the ship will be righted.

No,  that can’t be. In the worldviews of the folks in question, the poor are broken, unemployable, lazy entitlement junkies.

And the reason this rant about non-poor people’s attitudes about poor people appears in a blog called Race Files is because until Black people convinced the world that they were actually people, and that, therefore, their families had needs as important as other people’s families, they were largely excluded from public assistance to the poor. That would have interfered with their availability as workers. And as long as they were excluded, public assistance wasn’t very controversial.

But when Blacks overcame the racist exclusions to welfare, poverty went from being a source of national concern to an annoyance, and the poor became not just a burden, but a dangerous and permanent drain on our economy. And that has been to the detriment of all poor people, none of whom deserve to live in misery.

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By Scot Nakagawa

Scot Nakagawa is a political strategist and writer who has spent more than four decades exploring questions of structural racism, white supremacy, and social justice. Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against authoritarianism, white nationalism, and Christian nationalism. Currently, Scot is co-lead of the 22nd Century Initiative, a project to build the field of resistance to authoritarianism in the U.S.

Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow, an Open Society Foundations Fellow, and a recipient of the Association of Asian American Studies Community Leader Award. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition,  and Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.

Scot's political essays, briefings, and other educational media can be found at his newsletter, We Fight the Right at He is a sought after public speaker and educator who provides consultation on campaign and communications strategy, and fundraising.

10 replies on “The Deserving Poor”

That “research” from the Heritage Foundation deserves all the scorn and ridicule possible. Seriously, these fools actually consider a stove and refrigerator “amenities?” So how in the heck are poor people supposed to eat at all? I’m sure neoconservatives wouldn’t want the poor spending those ill-gotten “taxpayer dollars” at restaurants, god forbid! Let’s not even get into the sheer stupidity that computers and cell phones are luxuries, the tools most essential for developing basic job skills.

The fact that policy makers aren’t laughing the Heritage Foundation and their ilk out of the proverbial building speaks volumes about how power works. Neoconservatives get to present their racist fears and fantasies as logical science, while the experiential knowledge of poor people of color is framed as degenerate pathology. Privilege never catches its own irony, does it?

Apple donated 9,000 Gen1 iPads to impoverished schools in the New Orleans area when they announced the release of the iPad2.

Thanks for this. Sometimes the simplest explanations serve best. Of course, the problem is that we need to provide an explanation to begin with.

Pro-tip: If you feel the need to start with the caveat “I’m not (racist/bigoted/prejudiced/etc.), but?”

Then yes. You are.

Well, the top 8 items on that list don’t need to be brand new or the latest model to still work. Maybe asking if the fridge/TV/stove/oven/microwave/DVD was brand new within the last five years may provide a more complete picture of household wealth. You can also pick up a lot of these items used as well, and there certainly is a range of quality/prices for these items, so just stating that households have one of these appliances (or more than one, in the case of TVs) doesn’t say much about a household’s relative wealth as compared to other households.

As pointed out in a comment, above, though; yes, common material amenities here can say something about relative wealth compared to the poor in other countries. “Poor people here have TVs; lots of people don’t have access to clean drinking water!” (which is true; although having a TV in this country doesn’t necessarily mean you have access to clean drinking water either….). I understand that this argument is about providing some perspective, and that can certainly be valuable. But sometimes that wider lens can distort as much as a more narrow focus. I looked at the NYT link – and yes, making $6700/year might be a good salary in many parts of the world, but it is hard to live on that in the U.S. The post already pointed out that assuming the listed items are “luxuries” here is a bit disingenuous. So relative wealth is relative. Also, while someone in another country may not have the money to purchase a stove range or microwave, that doesn’t necessarily make them worse off than Americans – they have other ways to cook.

And by that chart, the richest people in America are the richest people in the world – far as I can tell, they still feel like they need more money.

This perspective exercise, while occasionally useful, can be done with many issues. From things I have read over the years: the U.S. is not in the top 10 countries where terrorism takes place; compared to other countries, housing here is more affordable; elections here are less fraudulent, and the World Bank thinks the U.S. govt is relatively high in effectiveness compared to other countries. Does that mean terrorism, affordable housing, election fraud and govt effectiveness are not issues here? No. Same goes for poverty.

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