Nothing to Lose: Race and Poverty in America

You can’t give people nothing to lose and expect stability.

People protest with signs after the killing of George Floyd.  African-Americans feature prominently, but there is a white person and another person of color in the image as well.  Signs read "black lives matter," "he could not breathe," and "stop (sign image) blue on black crime."
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The grace, tolerance, and restraint shown by black and brown people in the protests gripping the nation continually amazes me. Almost all of the demonstrators are committed to furthering a non-violent movement for change. Given the realities, that demonstrates a dedication to principles of peaceful civil disobedience that is absolutely remarkable.

I have spent most of the last nine years working in low-income apartment communities. The trust that people have given me in letting me a little way into their lives and telling me their stories has been a great honor. And time and again I have seen people boxed into a corner by society. Being poor in America is an unending series of catch-22s with no wins and no way out.

The communities where I worked were economically segregated, and included both people of color and white people. What I learned about poverty applies to them all, but everything one can say about poverty in America disproportionately impacts people of color because poverty itself disproportionately impacts people of color.

I have seen the impact of structural police racism on black lives. It’s not just about the terrifying threat to life and limb that African-Americans experience, it’s about a million petty charges filed, and how those petty charges dog a person’s life. That misdemeanor charge for smoking pot in public or talking back to an officer makes it hard to find housing and employment. A charge that would be scoffed off as someone just being young and dumb (if it was even filed) in white job or apartment applicants is seen as indicative of character for black and brown applicants.

Beyond those obvious effects is the fact that the criminal justice system in America has become a resource extraction industry, fracking impoverished communities to pull out every last nickel and dime for the benefit of the taxpayer, who doesn’t have to invest in the infrastructure of law and order. Any brush with the law incurs a seemingly endless string of expenses. I wouldn’t be surprised if they start making people pay room and board for their jail or prison stays. They already charge for everything else.

It sounds tough but fair to say that if someone committed a crime they should pay the expenses of their punishment. But when you consider that an ankle monitor can cost around $330 a month, and what that means to someone who may have $700 or less in monthly income, it becomes a double jeopardy issue.

Modern apartment building in brick red, mustard yellow, and grey blue.  Sign in foreground reads "Ruby Hill Residences Leasing Center" followed by an arrow.
One of the buildings where I worked — it was brand new when I started there. The city desperately needs dozens more buildings like it. ©clmcdermid

Employment opportunities for the under-educated poor are almost a bitter joke. Most of what is available is exploitation, pure and simple. It’s virtually always shift work, so there is no stability from paycheck to paycheck, from week to week. Without any stability, there can be no planning for the future. Not the far future, like going back to school, getting a degree, and getting a better job. There can be no planning for the near future, like what childcare will be necessary next week, and will I be able to pay for it with the shifts I am getting this week? And the wages often barely cover the cost of getting back and forth to the job.

If a worker makes it into a managerial position, things get, if anything, even worse. Most of these positions are salaried, and have no overtime payment. If you factor in the amount of hours it takes to fulfill all the job expectations, some managers wind up getting less than minimum wage.

With increasing automation, most of even these exploitative jobs are disappearing.

Getting an education that will potentially qualify you for a better job isn’t necessarily so easy either. Property taxes in low-income communities just don’t stretch as far as they do in affluent ones. The public schools suffer for it. Many of the people I worked with in their twenties who had graduated from high school did not know how to send an email, capitalize, or punctuate. It’s hard to go to school every day prepared to learn when your family is enduring the grueling stress of poverty. It’s hard to learn essential skills in an overcrowded classroom with limited technology.

Even for folks who have the skills for college, scholarships are limited and usually don’t include expenses like transportation and parking. In Denver, there is a low-income child care program that will subsidize daycare for those enrolled in school, but spots in child care programs that accept the subsidy are rare, and often far distant. I knew one woman who was traveling two hours by bus every day to drop her child off at daycare, and two hours to pick her up. Many potential college students are sidelined by being caregivers to children, to a parent, or to a grandparent. Immediate family obligations needs must trump opportunities for long term improvements.

Demonstrators at a Black Lives Matter protest in East Lansing, Michigan.  Protesters in the foreground carry an African flag and a Black Lives Matter flag in front of them.  Other protesters carry signs.  Only one sign is legible, and it reads "we wont let you silence George."  The four protesters in the foreground are African American women wearing black.  The protesters behind them are a mix of races.
Black Lives Matter protest in East Lansing, MI. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

I can speak, to an extent, to the injustices of poverty, because I have witnessed them. Obviously, not all black and brown people are poor, and racism, both structural and overt, plays a large and somewhat different role in the lives of middle and upper class people of color.

But for the communities of color that are trapped in the seemingly endless snares of poverty, there is vanishingly little to recommend the status quo. And now people of color are dying at hugely disproportionate rates of COVID 19 while the threat from racist policing looms constantly.

Even without an outright police murder caught on camera, is it any wonder that people have taken to the streets? The only wonders are that it took this long and that the Black Lives Matter movement is so committed to non-violence.

When the most basic human right, the right that predicates all the others, the simple right to live and exist, is under threat, people simultaneously have nothing and everything to lose. The fight for change is existential. They myriad frustrations, indignities, and impossible situations of poverty need to be fought against. But gains there must be built on a foundation of the right to be alive and secure in one’s person.

People in the streets today are fighting for the right to better education, better jobs at better pay, better housing, better policing, better health care, and all the rest of the elements that make a good life in modern times. But first and foremost, people are fighting for the right to drink cool water on a hot day, to get a tight hug from a child, to savor a good meal, to walk down the street, to feel the snow in winter and rain in summer on warm skin, to simply breathe and be alive. One cannot enjoy any other rights, any quality of life, without life itself.

When income inequality was last this bad, the workers organized into unions and fought hard, bloody struggles to win us things like a living wage, an eight hour day, and bathroom breaks. Those hard-won rights created a stable middle class, at least for white America. Since those struggles, we have let all those rights erode. We have allowed that middle class, never available to everyone, to evaporate. And we have continued to deny black and brown Americans the basic dignities white people take for granted.

I hesitated to write this up. This isn’t my experience to write about. It isn’t my voice we should be listening to now. Listen to Dawn Turner and many other amazing voices of color, instead.

But sometimes people need to hear something from someone who looks like them, speaks like them, or lives near them. If you can’t take it from the people on the streets, take it from me. Racism isn’t just something that happens in nine brutal minutes, or to birdwatchers. It pervades America, and it pervades class in America. This is about all of that. I haven’t lived the experience, but I am a witness and would take it as a privilege to be considered an ally.

America cannot continue to give her people nothing to lose while threatening the most basic right of all, the right to simply live.

I will be out of town this weekend, so will not respond to comments until Monday or Tuesday. Thanks.

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