In his Viewpoint (“Hand Up, hands on,” 4/3/13), LSA freshman Drake Baglietto makes a futile attempt to “explore the cycle of poverty” in his promotion of the student initiative Hands Up. This initiative provides two weeks of vocational training to individuals in hopes of linking unemployed Michiganders with jobs. Drake’s oversimplification of Michigan’s unemployed as “those that weren’t able to receive the education necessary to become an active member of the working community” or “those that aren’t willing to put in the effort necessary to find and maintain gainful employment” is not only wrong, but also foolish.
Drake’s have and have-not simplification is a form of victim blaming. He ignores the institutional factors that have prevented Michigan residents from accessing education and training. Drake also fails to account for the poor economic decisions that have cut jobs across the state, the housing slump that has left thousands of people homeless and the government bailout that further hurt Michigan’s crumbling economy. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say his argument blames people of lower income for Michigan’s low unemployment rate.
Taking this “blame the poor” perspective feeds into class stereotypes, which only further perpetuates poverty and discrimination while simultaneously reinforcing systems of power and privilege. It’s obvious that a lack of motivation or unwillingness to work is evident in all socioeconomic classes, not just the poor. Similarly, here at the University, we see very privileged students with high-social capital who don’t need to work hard to find employment or economic gains. Yet laziness in the poor manifests differently in the eyes of society than laziness in the rich.
Moreover, attempting to depoliticize something that’s inherently political fails to hold institutions accountable and shifts the blame to individuals. Misdiagnosing the problem as the “unmotivated poor” ultimately fails to both fix the problem and address the underlying causes of unemployment.
At a panel on poverty and inequality last Friday, Eve Garrow, assistant professor of social work, discussed how it’s crucial to challenge the framework of our understanding of social issues since they’re a product of the collective bias of our time. Garrow explained how “we tend to fall into a cycle of feeling like we’re good people who are enlightened, but we cannot trust our own perceptions because they come from the knowledge production of our era.” It’s crucial to constantly challenge what we think is the truth and the role we play in it.
As an institution that’s supposed to generate the “Leaders and Best,” we need to challenge ourselves as well as the dominant narratives that further reinforce systems of power and privilege. With an increasing diversity problem on this campus and a growing decline in minority enrollment, promoting these ideas doesn’t help to create a safe space for students who come from less-privileged backgrounds, nor does it reflect a comprehensive understanding of social justice.
As students who hope to leave this institution enlightened and equipped to challenge inequality and change the world, it’s crucial we develop a greater degree of understanding of the opportunities we’re afforded and the responsibility we have to put forth.
We highly encourage students to make the most of their education here at the University and explore diversity in an effort to build a comprehensive understanding of the world. Take advantage of opportunities such as the Program on InterGroup Relations, which engages students in meaningful dialogue on the complexities of social identities while exploring privilege, power and social justice.
Hands up for working with communities and understanding the complexities of unemployment and poverty. Hands down for creating a false dichotomy of poverty and reinforcing stereotypes that further marginalize the poor.
Xhensila (Janie) Velencia and Munmun Khan are LSA seniors.