Voices on Class: Shhhhh, don’t say poor!

by Shay Stewart-Bouley

Stewart-Bouley is a native Chicagoan who currently resides in Southern Maine and writes monthly on diversity for the PortlandPhoenix and blogs at Black Girl in Maine. When Shay is not writing, she is hard at work as the executive director of a small but rapidly growing non-profit that serves low income youth and families. Shay has spent the past 15 years working with individuals in need both in Chicago and Maine.

So now that both the Republicans and Democrats have held their conventions and nominated their men, election season is in full swing here in the US. I am happy to say that I stayed up late and caught both conventions, in the end the Democrats spoke to me a lot more than the Republicans, but that doesn’t mean I am jumping for joy.

It seems as the US settles into a new normal, politicians and pundits alike spend a lot of time talking about the folks in the middle, the so-called middle class, but what I want to know is what does it even mean to be middle class in 2012?

Look, I am just a big mouth in Maine who happens to work on the front lines in social services; I have done it in Chicago and now in Maine. In the past 15 years though, I have seen a change, when people used to seek social services, you could almost always go back and look at their history and see possible root causes for why they needed assistance. It used to be that we could nicely put folks in boxes as to why they were financially insecure; it was addiction issues, health issues, or lack of employment generally due to a lack of skills and or education. What that used to mean is that as a service provider, it was “easy” to try and help that client.

Well, that old way of helping no longer works as we see more and more people who don’t have health, addiction, or lack of skills/education with regards to employment issues. In fact we see more and more people who have substantial work histories, actually hold degrees and until recently were solidly middle class. It’s no longer unusual for me to see employed folks asking for assistance.

The world has changed so much in such a short time and I fear that the powers to be are missing the boat, both camps speak to the middle class, problem is how many folks are truly middle class anymore? I suspect that if we looked at actual tax returns in the US, we would find that more and more people have fallen out of the middle class and regardless of their background, the longer they stay out of the middle class, the less likely they are ever to return to the middle. Some are starting to talk about it, as evidenced by the recent reports that this is just a lost decade for the middle class. Problem is we aren’t all talking about it enough because unless we are personally affected, the idea of being poor or even working class strikes fear in the hearts of most Americans. In America, we like our dreams, it’s why someone making a household income of less than $40,000 will say they are middle class when the reality is they are struggling and depending on the number of dependents they have are often eligible to receive assistance.

In America poverty scares us, it’s why guys like Romney gloss over the poor instead choosing to believe there are safety nets for the poor and even today’s Democrats rarely utter the word poor, poor is scary. But why is poor scary? Why do we cling to clearly outdated labels that aren’t serving to advance any of us? Why do we believe in fairy tales that our hard work alone will make us wealthy? In 2008, many of us wanted hope and change so much so that we pinned our hopes on one man, yet no one man can change the world. True hope and change comes when we are willing to acknowledge our humanity and our truth, then as a collective we can create hope and change for all, but if we are unable to speak truth, how can we hope to change anything?

[Originally posted at Black Girl in Maine, cross-posted with author’s permission.]

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2 Responses to “Voices on Class: Shhhhh, don’t say poor!”

  1. Jen

    You make a great point. The only time I could remember a direct reference to a poor person/poor people in any of the speeches at the DNC was when Julian Castro mentioned his working class immigrant grandmother. What bothered me about his speech, although I did think it inspiring in many places, was the notion that the American Dream his grandmother had was fulfilled two generations later by her Ivy League-educated grandchildren. He emphasized class mobility while also making the point that it may not (and probably won’t) occur during most working class people’s lifetimes. Instead of turning that moment into a teachable one on the necessity of safety nets and assistance for the poor, Castro simply thanked his grandmother for her hard work. It would’ve been far better if he’d said, “Look, she deserved more than what she got.”

  2. mrsculpepper

    I am poor. I work and my bosses. Make maybe 6 times as much as I do. Don’t know if it influences them politically at all but I find myself occasionally reminding them that I am the face of the poor. I’m in a medical field so comments about “people on Medicaid ” are sometimes bandied about. Well, my kids are on Medicaid. Most (80%) of our customers are on Medicaid. When you’re talking about “those people ” you’re talking about *most of us*.


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