A Four-Part Series Exploring the Realities of Marginalized Communities from Within.
What follows is the second installment of a four-part series examining the reasons why poor and minority Americans are often unable to believe in equitable access to homeownership and the benefits that entails. Many scholars have studied the effects of poverty and institutional racism on the poor and minority populations of the U.S. Few from within these communities have been able to speak for themselves. This series is an attempt to let a member of this population speak for himself. The author, Aaron Morales, is a Latino who grew up in poverty in the U.S. Southwest during the height of 1980s gang violence that ushered in our modern era of international gangs, cartels, and organized crime operations stemming from south of the U.S. border. Though his experience is in no way indicative of all poor and minority Americans, it is still a valuable insight into the root cause of the mindset of assumed exclusion.
Part Two: The Fog of Poverty
As a Latino who grew up in poverty—the son of a Mexican immigrant father—I know firsthand that the power of this desperate existence is absolutely soul crushing. When you struggle to literally put food on the table—an often-used phrase that is tragically accurate for so many people in America—the very idea of improving your life beyond finding the next meal seems completely absurd. If I can’t make my child a healthy meal because I’m too poor to afford decent food, then how can I possibly raise my head above water enough to see the help that is out there for me? How can I possibly even begin to conceive of going to college, or buying a home, or any of the other pathways to financial independence available—at least in theory—to all Americans? There is a large underclass of Americans—made even larger recently by the economic devastation unleashed by Covid-19—who don’t even have the clarity to see through the terrifying and paralyzing fog of poverty and realize there might be help.
Much has been researched on this particular issue, with a notably groundbreaking book, published in 2013, that focuses on what has become known as the “scarcity principle.” In their study, authors Mullainathan and Shafir outline precisely the phenomenon mentioned above. When people have less than they need—of food, time, money, or any other necessity for sustaining a semblance of a “normal” basic existence—their vision becomes tunneled, and they are only able to focus on whatever it is that they fundamentally lack. They are unable to see anything but their immediate need. They are unable to maintain an objective view of their existence because they are consumed with fulfilling the desperate need to obtain whatever it is they are lacking.
Given this reality, it would stand to reason that a person in poverty is utterly inundated with thoughts of finding the next dollar, the next scrap of food, a place to lay her head. So when an organization or a person looking to alleviate hunger or poverty wonders why underserved people aren’t lining up to ask for assistance, they need only remember that their service is likely on the radar of only a tiny fraction of the very people they seek to help. As counterintuitive as this may seem, this is the harsh reality of poverty—and scarcity in general.
Furthermore, for those who do happen to know where a food bank is, or any organization that provides aid of some sort to those in the most desperate of circumstances, there is the feeling of abject shame that comes with asking for help. Sure, in our current woke times, the politically correct thing to do is to be inclusive and welcoming, especially to those in need. But, the reality is we are well aware of what some people think of us when we apply for and receive food stamps. When we pull out the distinct powder-blue EBT card and someone in line, or even the cashier, gives us that look, we feel it to our core. We haven’t forgotten the term “welfare queen,” coined not so long ago and still circulating within the national discourse on aid for the less fortunate. We know there are people who think we’re scamming the system, too lazy to work, looking for handouts and freebies. I’ve personally felt the judgment. I’ve personally heard the muttering and seen the shaking of heads in disapproval. We are not proud to be asking for help. It is the last thing we want to do. It is embarrassing. And it is undignified.
I distinctly remember being on “free lunch” in elementary school. At first I didn’t realize this was something different from the other kids. I was given a punch card that was green. The other kids—the ones whose parents paid for a monthly meal plan—were given blue punch cards. When it was discovered that I was the holder of a green card, I was immediately outed as a poor kid, mocked and ridiculed relentlessly from that day forward, and made to feel subhuman. Every morning I dreaded my mom handing me the card. It felt like it weighed five pounds. It looked, to me, as big as one of those Publisher’s Clearing House checks they delivered to the sweepstakes winners on TV. It screamed, “Look at me! I’m poor and getting things for free even though I did nothing to deserve them.”
To this day, decades later, my face still flushes and my heart rate accelerates when I recall this time period in my younger life. It’s as if it happened yesterday. Such is the trauma of poverty.
Poverty never leaves the mind of the impoverished, even if you are lucky enough to miraculously climb out of it. Poverty is much more than not having money. It is an ever-present and inextricable part of our identity. To be poor is to be part of an ignored segment of society. Sure, there are varying levels of poverty—homeless, unemployed, mired in un-payable debt—but all impoverished people know that we are, and it is a badge of shame. It forces us to keep our eyes down. To not look for hope or opportunity because we feel undeserving. We don’t want to be judged. We don’t want to be turned away. This is why we are not asking for the help that so many well-intentioned people and organizations and government programs are offering. It is a dehumanizing identity. A demoralizing existence.
While cloaked in the misery of poverty, we feel hopeless. We would seek out help more often if we could, but even seeking out help one time requires steeling ourselves against unimaginable humiliation. Going to the food bank feels the same as panhandling. The same as Dumpster diving. There is just no way around this truth. So this is why we often don’t reach out and take advantage of programs designed to help. It’s a pride thing. It’s a dignity thing. It’s a generational thing.
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Aaron Morales is the Social Justice Writer for AHP 75, based out of Chicago, IL.