The English language contains a host of words and phrases meant to brand, stereotype and dehumanize. Chief among these are the various labels set to describe those who “lack sufficient money” — but, instead of aptly describing this group of people, we decide to use words that effectively dehumanize them. We call them poor, homeless, destitute, impoverished, in need, in want, lower-income, lower class, broke, bankrupt and needy. In reality, “the poor” are just people, albeit with less money.
Our language, our culture and our institutions have led to a characterization of indigent people as not just an underclass, but as distinctly different human beings inferior to other members of society. There’s a tendency to describe “the poor” as lazy, morally bankrupt and a detriment to society. They’re characterized as criminals, junkies and moochers, looking to make money only by panhandling or taking government handouts.
These stereotypes are patently false and insulting to millions of hard-working people who simply live under a different set of circumstances than some of us. Maybe most Americans don’t overtly think of indigent people this way, but the somewhat subconscious, reflexive way that society stigmatizes “the poor” — such as the lower property values that automatically come when a neighborhood has several low-income people living in it — is extremely harmful.
Negative perceptions of the poor lead to very similar consequences as those experienced by black Americans in pre-civil-rights America. The perception of blacks as lesser people made whites demand separatism in schools, public places, private businesses and housing. This separation limited opportunities for blacks in education and work while feeding the stereotype that black people were inherently inferior to whites — a perception prevalent in both black and white communities during the period.
The exact same thing is happening with low-income people now. The poor, for the most part, live in separate neighborhoods, go to separate schools, work separate jobs and live completely separate lives. They’re rarely the focus of television or movies, and the media predominantly caters to middle- and upper-income people while characterizing the poor mostly in a negative light. The concept of the American promise itself is harmful to the poor: It’s the land of opportunity, where anyone who works hard can get ahead. This breeds an ideology that says because indigent people aren’t ahead, they must not be working hard enough. This ignores the barriers to success that society has put up all around them.
Just last week, we were hit with yet another example of the horrible harm done by popular dehumanization of the poor. The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan conducted a yearlong investigation in which they discovered a common occurrence that Detroit police call “the ride.” Officers force homeless people in the Greektown area of Detroit to hand over their spare change and get into a police van. The police proceed to drive them miles away to the city’s outskirts, drop them off and leave them with no way back to get back. “The ride” is just another example of indigent people being treated as lesser human beings by society, forced out of a popular entertainment district because they make middle- and upper-income people uncomfortable.
Now I’m sure that no one likes to be panhandled or bothered, but being poor is not a crime. Standing around on the streets because your shelter is closed and you don’t have a job in one of the worst recessions in history doesn’t justify police rounding you up and moving you out of sight. This type of law enforcement crackdown may be effective in making parts of Detroit more appealing to young professionals and others who could bring in much needed income for the city, but it’s a huge violation of the civil rights and civil liberties of some of the most vulnerable individuals — not to mention a group of people who have, for the most part, lived in the city for their entire lives.
There’s a tendency in society to ignore indigent people, to write them off as useless, lazy, criminal individuals who bring down the rest of society. That’s why it’s always so easy for politicians to advocate for cutting welfare, raising sales taxes and improving things for “the middle class” rather than the poor. You and I are no better than indigent people, regardless of what the news, popular culture or politicians tell us. Volunteer at a soup kitchen, shelter or warming center in Detroit, keep your mind open, and I’d be willing to bet you’ll feel the same way.
James Brennan can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.