Poor people are not lazy, so stop debating it

Person sleeps on bench in Oklahoma City. (Credit: Kool Cats Photography/flickr)

A major misconception about poverty persists in America. Some people hold onto the idea that the poor suck what they can from the government and do little to improve their own situation. The idea gained traction in the 1960s and 70s as stories about people taking advantage of the U.S. welfare system made the news.

But the stories were always the exception, not the rule. President Obama discussed the problem with the misconception in a conversation at Georgetown University last week. He was asked about comments he made regarding the way politicians will discuss inequality and poverty as national problems, but enact policies that remove social support.

“I think the effort to suggest that the poor are sponges, leeches, don’t want to work, are lazy, are undeserving, got traction,” he said in reply.

He proceeded to call out Fox News for propagating that idea of people living in poverty. The focus, as was done decades ago, is on the few people who exploit the system. And even many of those claims are unsubstantiated. Meanwhile, the working poor in America are ignored.

“Very rarely do you hear an interview of a waitress – which is much more typical – who’s raising a couple of kids and is doing everything right but still can’t pay the bills,” he said.

Pundits on Fox News leapt at the accusation levied by Obama. Then CNN, the Daily Show and others called out the Fox News commentators for lying about how people on the network characterize the poor.

A few days later, the story is essentially over and the most important point made by Obama sits ignored. Fox News was specifically named in the beginning of Obama’s answer, but all of major media are called out in his conclusion.

“And so if we’re going to change how John Boehner and Mitch McConnell think, we’re going to have to change how our body politic thinks, which means we’re going to have to change how the media reports on these issues and how people’s impressions of what it’s like to struggle in this economy looks like and how budgets connect to that,” he finished.

That kind of reporting is not generally in the proverbial wheelhouse over at MSNBC, CNN and the alphabet soup of major media networks. On the other hand, there are examples of outlets trying to do the very thing Obama called for. Take for example Al Jazeera America’s series “Getting By.” It profiles the lives of Americans struggling under the poverty line.

“I’ve been going to jobs training, temp agencies, anything in this economy I can do. I’ve worked at Walmart. I’ve worked [for Oregon’s Department of Human Services]. A lot of people here I know are doing caregiving. There’s day-to-day work. There’s fast food. There’s a hospital,” said 22 year-old Bowe Romero of Oregon in the Al Jazeera report.

And there is Jina Moore’s reporting for Christian Science Monitor on poverty in West Virginia. Readers meet Linda Crisswell, a woman who works at a day care center. She makes so little that she steals extra fruit meant for the kids.

“I can’t afford fresh fruit or low-fat meat. I can’t get cauliflower or green peppers,” she says. When she does buy food, “I buy things that stretch longer.”

The debate is not and should not be over whether poor people are lazy. They are not. The evidence is resounding. Holding on to such a point of view perpetuates the idea that poverty is a problem caused by a lack of effort or priorities. In Kenya, the simple act of giving people money led to significant improvements. And here is the kicker, the money was not wasted on tobacco, drugs and alcohol. It, as well as evidence from programs in Brazil and Mexico, disproves the notion that handouts cannot also be a hand up.

The poverty debate is exactly the same as the climate change debate. The problem is significant and the causes are relatively well know. Solutions to the two problems are paramount. A debate over the existence of climate change or whether poor people are lazy delays taking steps to solve the problems. It allows Americans and their political leaders to ignore the experiences of Crisswell, Romero and millions more in the country.

Major factors that contribute to and keep people in poverty are not in their control. A recent study showed that where people live has a significant baring on upward income mobility. Providing opportunities for families to move and offering cash support are among the tools that can alleviate poverty in the United States and around the world.

It is time to start talking about the poor with the dignity they deserve. And evidence.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.