Misplacing Blame for the Impoverished

In the Spotlight

Work intended to eliminate poverty must occur on a variety of levels by employing a number of community-driven and informed tactics. Passing legislation and rallying support to fight institutionalized challenges through research and social services are just some of the ways American poverty can be combated.

While the aforementioned methods address issues blockading the alleviation of poverty, a more fundamental challenge continues to inhibit the fight. The challenge lies in the attitudes individuals and groups have towards the poor.  Congressman Paul Ryan’s recent comments at a town hall meeting serve as a prime example of when the use of language, and the presence of a potentially problematic view of the poor, perpetuates the idea that culture contributes to the existence of poverty.

During the event, Congressman Ryan stated “We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work, and so there is a real culture problem…” Following the congressmen’s statements

Representative Barbara Lee of California fired back stating that Ryan’s use of the words inner city and culture are a disguise for singling out black people.

Regardless of Ryan’s intentions or true ideologies, his out-of-touch use of language at best, or limited understanding of the structure of poverty at worst, highlight the tendency many have to insinuate that poverty exists because of cultural or racial shortcomings.  New York Times opinion and editorial contributor, Charles M. Blow, highlights that the perception that poverty is the outgrowth of stunted culture, exemplified by Ryan, enables us to avoid looking at the structural features of poverty that contribute to maintaining oppression.

Public figures using language that suggests that poor people  are impoverished because of their own shortcomings stunts the very real progress that is being made to eliminate poverty and reduce inequality. To place blame upon the poor corrects no aspect of poverty, it only removes blame from the larger society for contributing to the creation and maintenance of it.

Direct Service Implications

Cyclical institutionalized poverty will continue to be an outgrowth of American society if the general public as well as politicians fail to acknowledge the systems in place that create poverty and maintain it. In order to combat perceptions that the poor are to blame for their poverty, social service providers, researchers, and educators must continue to transmit the notion that poverty is a device largely created and exasperated by various systems.

Various institutes of academic research that bring attention to the complex issues that create poverty, can be utilized to obtain empirical evidence that may be used to dispute the idea that individual’s are fully responsible for being poor. Additionally such institutes can also transmit ways to actively fight poverty. Some places to start include, the  Institute for Research on Poverty,  UC Davis Center for Poverty Research, and the  McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research.

Also, you don’t have to be a Congressman to bring a value set or worldview to the workplace that unintentionally condemns or admonishes people living in poverty. Service providers should promote opportunities for staff to better understand poverty and the systems that perpetuate it. We strongly recommend the People’s Instituteas a resource for how to break down, not reinforce, stereotypes. 

Courtesy of McSilver Institute of Poverty Policy and Research who has kindly given SJS permission to syndicate this piece.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the Policy News Briefs are not necessarily the views of the McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research or NYU’s Silver School of Social Work. If you have comments or suggestions about this service, contact us at mcsilver@nyu.edu. 

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