Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Unveils The Ugly Truth About Being Poor In America
New York Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has made headlines for her socialist politics and her working-class background ― and for how her politics and background seem to scramble the brains of conservative media outlets and commentators.
Ocasio-Cortez’s modest means — she was a bartender before running for office ― have been the catalyst for story after story analyzing her finances. The low point of this scrutiny occurred in mid-November, when Washington Examiner reporter Eddie Scarry wrote a now-infamous tweet about Ocasio-Cortez’s outfit.
“Hill staffer sent me this pic of Ocasio-Cortez they took just now,” he wrote, including the offending photo of the newly elected representative from behind as she walked down some hall of power in Washington. “I’ll tell you something: that jacket and coat don’t look like a girl who struggles.”
Later, Scarry claimed, improbably, that he was merely complimenting Ocasio-Cortez’s attire. His real intention was clear, though: He was questioning her claims about her background and her struggle to afford rent for a Washington, D.C., apartment.
More, Scarry was demonstrating the prejudice and bigotry typically directed at poor people. Poverty puts people at a disadvantage in obvious ways: When you don’t have money, you can’t pay for housing, food, transportation and other basic necessities. But poverty and people who live in it are also stigmatized. The poor are targets of bigotry and hatred ― and that prejudice against the poor then serves to justify their poverty and the gaping economic inequalities that make it possible.
The poor are targets of bigotry and hatred ― and that prejudice against the poor then serves to justify their poverty.
The stigmatization of poverty in the United States is hardly new. The U.S. is heavily invested in the myth of meritocracy: the idea that if you are virtuous, you will be successful (read: rich). Therefore, if you are successful, it must be because you are virtuous and deserving. The corollary to this dearly held and demonstrably false belief is that those who are not wealthy are not virtuous, and thus deserve their poverty.
Contempt for the poor in America has been compounded by the fact that, thanks to racism, poor people in the U.S. are disproportionately black and other people of color. In the antebellum South, whites stereotyped enslaved people as lazy, even though it was white people who forced others to do their work for them. In the 1970s, Ronald Reagan railed against the “welfare queen” ― a black woman who supposedly pretended to be poor in order to obtain government benefits. And recently, Trump has echoed Reagan by claiming, falsely, that undocumented immigrants come to the United States so they can receive welfare benefits and not have to work.
As with Scarry’s tweet about Ocasio-Cortez, Reagan and Trump were questioning whether people who said they lacked money were really poor or were just faking it. If you’re going to ask for help in America, these critiques seem to insist, you’d better be really, truly, abjectly, miserably poor, and you’d better perform that poverty for the benefit of the more fortunate.
If you’re going to ask for help in America, you’d better be really, truly, abjectly, poor, and you’d better perform that poverty.
At the same time they are attacked for not being poor enough, though, the poor are often shamed for not being wealthier. After Ocasio-Cortez revealed she had less than $7,000 in the bank, CNBC ran an article noting that “based on her previous earnings, experts recommend she have between $8,750 and $30,000 put away for a crisis.”
This is reminiscent of Washington Post columnist Megan McArdle’s recommendation that everyone should save 25 percent of their income. It’s easy for relatively affluent people to save money; it’s much more difficult if you’re living paycheck to paycheck. You might as well just tell people, “be richer, and then you won’t be poor!”
It seems like a contradiction to simultaneously shame the poor for being too poor and to shame them for not being poor enough. But as critic and author Julia Serano has explained, this kind of paradox is part of how stigma works. Serano argues that marginalized people, or people who are the victims of prejudice, are marked. Someone who is marked is singled out as being different, wrong or flawed. And once someone is marked, everything they do is subject to enhanced scrutiny and censure. ...
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