Shame in My Game: The Economic Sociology of Poverty
Poverty in America is such a politicized topic that it can be difficult for even the most neutral people to discuss. Part of the reason that poverty is so political is that most Americans have a romanticized notion of the free-market system and believe that the American dream is easily achieved if one applies sufficient hard work. However, the reality is that while America may be a free-market economy, it is also an economy where the wealthy have much greater access to politicians than the average individual, and where much of the socio-economic political structure has been developed to preserve wealth for the upper-class. Another reason that poverty is such a political issue is because poverty is so linked to race in America. Many people reject the notion that the fact that so many minorities are trapped in lives of poverty is linked to the history of slavery and other forms of racial oppression in the United States, but if one only looks at the fact that people are likely to die as a member of the same socio-economic class to which they were born, then race is obviously linked to poverty. However, these two issues are very uncomfortable for many Americans. Therefore, a mythology has developed around the impoverished, and this mythology supports the idea that the poor are somehow subhuman, and deserve to live in poverty.
After all, when one looks at image of the impoverished in popular media, one gets the image of people who are morally and emotionally impoverished, as well as financially poor. The poor are frequently portrayed as criminals who commit a wide variety of crimes. For example, the poor are portrayed as more likely than others to engage in drug use, be involved in gangs, be involved in prostitution, deal drugs, and engage in theft. The poor are portrayed as valuing human life less than those who are not impoverished; there is a suggestion that human life is cheap in urban environments. They are portrayed as having a lack of family values, with a willingness for men to readily abandon their families, and for women to do so as well. Many portrayals of impoverished people show extended family raising children, with the whereabouts of the parents unknown. They are shown as being dependent upon government handouts, with housing, clothing, food, utilities, and medical care coming as the result of government subsidies. Frequently, the impoverished are portrayed as being sexually indiscriminate, with children from multiple partners, and without the desire to marry or stay married. However, this portrait of the poor is inaccurate. Of course, there are people among the impoverished who seem to make these stereotypes true, but they do not speak for all of America's lower socioeconomic class.
Katherine Newman's book, No Shame in My Game, which explored the working poor in Harlem, a notoriously poor, historically black community, explodes many of the myths surrounding poverty. It tackles the idea that the poor are lazy or unmotivated, but instead shows many of the poor as hard workers. It challenges the idea that the poor are without pride, and even discusses how pride plays a role in continuing economic oppression. It also shatters the notion that the poor lack family values, by demonstrating the value that family plays in the community. Furthermore, it demonstrates that the impoverished do form communities, and that they can play vital roles in those communities. Many times the poor are seen as impotent victims of circumstance, who are powerless to change those circumstances because of a lack of financial ability. While Newman does not suggest that money is not interrelated with power, she does demonstrate that poverty is not the equivalent of powerlessness.
The author mentions being inspired by a cab ride through Harlem, which challenged the idea of an urban wasteland. Two things have frequently been assumed about lower-class neighborhoods. The first thing is that the people in them do not work. However, Newman recounts seeing people anxiously trying to get to their jobs (Newman, p.x). The other thing is that poor neighborhoods are believed to lack the social institutions that hold other neighborhoods together. However, Harlem, like many poor neighborhoods, has churches, schools, and stores unifying it, just like neighborhoods populated by those of higher socio-economic status. These two observations led her to question the other assumptions that people made about the poor, and to come up with some very different conclusions than what she expected to find about Harlem's inhabitants. Rather than focusing on the jobless poor, which have been the focus of so much research and investigation, Newman decided to look at the working poor and how they contributed to the community.
Newman introduces the reader to Jamal, a young man with a common-law wife, struggling to live as a member of the working poor. Most readers would make assumptions about Jamal if they met him in real life. He does not work a full-time job, and so many people would want to ascribe his poverty to laziness or lack of desire. However, Jamal has worked in a series of jobs in the fast food industry, and indicates that he wants to work full shifts whenever possible. The problem is that, in these entry-level positions, it can be difficult for him to obtain full shifts. Moreover, the impact that these low-wage positions has on the workers is something Newman discusses at length in her book. Jamal is 22 years old, really a man at the beginning of his life. However, he already has begun to view life as a series of low-pay, low-value positions, and seems to express hopelessness about the possibility of ever escaping a life of poverty. This hopelessness is a recurrent them in the book, because Newman really examines the idea of depression that comes with poverty, and how that depression helps perpetuate a cycle of poverty.
It is not by coincidence that Newman's first discussion of a member of the working poor focuses on a black man, because poverty has become racialized. In the era immediately following the Great Depression, when so many people remained in poverty, those who were considered members of the working poor tended to be white people. There was some sympathy for them, with the notion that these people were unfortunate victims of difficult financial circumstances, rather than people who deserved poverty. Today, poverty carries a tremendous stigma. "Even though the majority of the poor are still white and working -- as they were in the 1930s and thereafter- the public impression is quite clearly the reverse: poverty wears a black face and is presumed to follow from unwillingness to enter the labor force" (Newman, p.39). This perception of the poor helps determine how the poor are treated. Racist assumptions help form political solutions to the problem of poverty, so that there has been no solution that would lift entire communities out of poverty. Instead, the fact that some people are able to escape poverty is used as a means of condemning those who find themselves unable to escape it.
Moreover, the misconception that the poor are all subsidized by the government really does damage to the ability to pull people up out of poverty. While the non-working poor may have access to government resources that keep them from suffering some of the worst effects of poverty, such as homelessness and hunger, the working poor may not have access to those same resources. It is very true that the working poor can actually suffer more than the non-working poor. Obviously, this is a scenario that is not designed to encourage people to work and achieve self-sufficiency, if working can actually cause a real decline in actual wealth for a family. The working poor are people living below the poverty line, many of them minimum wage workers, but with incomes that are often high enough to keep them from eligibility for many forms of government aid. However, because these people are employed, and paid at a wage that has been deemed sufficient, if minimum, they are not seen by people as being impoverished. This makes an entire group of people invisible, when, ironically, it is a group of people with whom most others interact on a daily basis. The working poor perform service jobs for middle and upper class people, such as working in fast food or other minimum wage positions. However, the circumstances of their employment, such as the fact that they may wear uniforms, help disguise the income gap between them and the people for whom they perform these services. In addition, many of these low-wage positions are available outside of poverty-stricken areas, making it even easier for consumers to ignore income disparity.
In fact, one of the biggest problems with being a member of the working poor is finding employment. Employment tends to be more plentiful in suburban areas. Not only is employment more plentiful, but, because workers may have their choice of…