Part 3

Poverty in America

The subject in the e-mail reads “Real Life Story from Texas State Line.” The e-mail is supposedly written by someone whose father worked for the Texas Department of Transportation (DOT). The father was called in to volunteer at a rest stop area in Waskom, Texas. The e-mail claims that Hurricane Katrina evacuees trashed the rest stop and were verbally abusive towards the volunteers. The language in the e-mail is derogatory, calling the evacuees a number of insulting terms including “lazy,” “idiots,” and “human debris.” According to Snopes.com, a website devoted to uncovering urban legends on the web, there have been quite a few “denigrate the victim” e-mails such as the one above surfacing in their inbox. In fact, the number was so large they devoted an entire page to Hurricane Katrina legends.

Taking an estimated 1,836 lives, Hurricane Katrina was one of the deadliest natural disasters to hit the United States. Yet, stories such as the one above illustrate the controversy surrounding helping a population of poor African Americans in the central city of New Orleans. Prior to Katrina, the poverty rate in New Orleans was an estimated 23.2 percent. Out of 290 large cities in the United States, New Orleans had the seventh highest poverty rate. In the low lying, flood-prone neighborhoods, the poverty rate was estimated to be at least 40 percent. Images in the news made Americans more aware of the problems of poverty that normally get tucked away in neighborhoods and parts of the city that most of us never see.

There are an estimated 37 million people in poverty in the United States. In 2005, the poverty rate was 12.6 percent. Stereotypes of people in poverty often portray the image of a young minority female raising children in a poor urban neighborhood. However, this is not the typical image of a person in poverty. In fact, although African Americans and Hispanics are disproportionately affected with higher rates, non-Hispanic whites make up the largest number of people in poverty. There are many other myths which portray those in poverty as lazy, unmotivated people who drain the Federal Budget and place a burden on society. In reality, most people who are in poverty are either too young or too old to work, receive benefits for less than four years (one-third for less than two years), and a small percentage of the Federal Budget goes to Entitlement programs (including Food Stamps, TANF, and WIC programs) and Medicaid (see the chart below).

Source: “A Citizen’s Guide to the Federal Budget” 

To many people in the United States, poverty is considered a sin. Certain beliefs in our culture encourage the idea that if people are poor, they are somehow deficient in character. However, poverty exists in every society. Why should we expect the United States to be different? In fact, the United States has one of the highest poverty rates among the industrialized nations. We also are less generous when it comes to treating poverty as a social condition. In fact, we tend to blame the victims who suffer from poverty rather than trying to treat the social factors which contribute to it. The truth is, poverty is the result of social conditions which many of us are fortunate enough not to have experienced. The charts below show how poverty affects certain groups and regions more than others. Factors such as racism, sexism, and lack of economic opportunities are likely to affect a person’s chances of falling into poverty more than anything.

Every system of stratification has certain ideological or cultural beliefs that justify inequality. In the United States, the Protestant Work Ethic is an ideology which justifies wealth and poverty. According to early Protestants, hard work and self denial were signs that you were destined for salvation. These beliefs evolved out of a Calvinist doctrine which claimed that all souls were either predestined for heaven (salvation) or hell (damnation). Although Calvin pointed out that God’s grace was a gift, and no good deed on earth could change it, many of the early Calvinists believed that a life devoted to glorifying God would be a sign of election. Thus, many Protestants began working hard everyday and invested their money in the community rather than spending it lavishly on themselves. If someone lived a life of poverty, they were likely one of the damned and considered lacking in morality and character. Today, the Protestant Ethic has evolved into a strong work ethic which has lost its religious significance. However, the early beliefs still remain embedded in our culture. If someone is wealthy, they are usually regarded with high esteem. They are one of the chosen ones. However, if someone lives a life of poverty, it is because they are somehow deficient of intellect, morality, or motivation.

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