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Poverty: The Racist Reality Behind Budget Rhetoric

Racial stereotypes and the ‘politics of respectability’ have politicized and deeply undermined the very concept of society’s collective responsibility to care for the less fortunate.

President Obama’s 2014 proposed budget is a mix of spending cuts and tax increases. His stated goal is the creation of a “rising, thriving middle class.” He considers his budget proposal to be a “fiscally responsible blueprint for middle-class jobs and growth.” The president has proposed a $3 million cap on retirement account balances and changing the Social Security cost-of-living adjustments to what is known as a “chained CPI,” along with “manageable” cuts to Medicare and other social safety net programs.

Senate Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell commented, “It’s not a serious plan, for the most part just another left-wing wish list.” House Speaker John Boehner stated, “I would hope that he (Obama) not hold hostage these modest reforms for his demand for bigger tax hikes. Why don’t we do what we can agree to do? What don’t we find the common ground that we do have and then move on that?”

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Budgets are no more than numerical statements about priorities. What’s conspicuously absent from any of the dialogue or rhetoric from either side is a substantive analysis about, and a commitment to, addressing poverty in America. Conservatives want to cut our way out of debt, primarily on the backs of the poor and working classes. They fail to understand or admit that by investing in educating, housing and feeding the least of us, all of us truly benefit. By turning those who depend upon the system into working taxpayers, a rising tide will truly lift all boats.

Let’s start with the definition of poverty. defines poverty as, “the state or condition of having little or no money, goods, or means of support; condition of being poor.” According to the Census Bureau’s preliminary weighted numbers for 2012, a four-person family with two children with an annual cash income of $23,497 is considered poor. For one- and two-person family units, the poverty thresholds differ by age; an individual under age 65 with income of $11,945 qualifies as poor, whereas an individual age 65 or older is poor at $11,011 annual income.

This is the generally accepted definition of poverty. The problem with it is that poverty is much deeper than that. Poverty was defined in 1996 by Joseph Wresinski, the founder of ATD Fourth World, as “the absence of one or more factors enabling individuals and families to assume basic responsibilities and to enjoy fundamental rights.” It is not just a matter of income; it is also a matter of access to services and programs. It’s the issue of adequate funding and access to services that we find ourselves battling with today in the context of the budget battle and national debt and deficit.

According to CNNMoney, from October of 2012, there is one group that is just a step away from falling into the clutches of poverty. More than 30 million Americans are living just above the poverty line. These near-poor, often defined as having incomes of up to 1.5 times the poverty threshold, were supporting a family of four on no more than $34,500 last year. They are one illness or other setback away from poverty.

Perspectives about the poor and resulting policies are driven by perceptions – and misperceptions. It’s interesting how so many discussions about poverty are put into the context of a race-powered politics that blame the poor for their circumstance.

As former President Reagan and other conservatives have discussed welfare and other support programs in the code language of urban welfare queens and poverty pimps, the stereotype is that the poor are predominantly African-American and unwilling to work. Census data does not support that position. Quoting Dr. Ronald Walters from White Nationalism, Black Interests, “White Nationalists have acted on the presumption that Blacks get a disproportionate share of government resources … This attitude has translated into policies which have politicized the welfare system and the very concept of society’s collective responsibility to care for the less fortunate.”

Even President Obama has contributed to these misperceptions by lecturing African-Americans about changing behavior, habits and personal responsibility – while failing to address the history and conditions that contribute to their circumstances. Dr. Fredrick C. Harris addresses this in The Price of the Ticket, calling it the politics of respectability. While discussing childhood obesity in the African-American community, Obama, “neglected to mention social and economic barriers that may account for … poor decisions – limited food choices in poor and working-class neighborhoods.” It’s one thing to lecture people about eating habits, but another to fail to address the fact that too many poor live in what are often called “food deserts.”

These stereotypes have obscured the real problem contributing to poverty. They are resulting in what Harris calls “draconian policies targeted at poor and working-class blacks,” policies which receive “the public backing of black elites” who provide “cover for the racist practices and policies.”

America’s failure to address the reality behind the rhetoric prevents Americans from making the proper policy choices to solve its problems and move the country forward. The solutions are not cheap, but failing to properly address these issues is costing us more than we can afford.

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