Stereotyping the Poor, Sunday in St. Augustine

On Sunday, May 13, I drove a total of 400 miles to join the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of St. Augustine to give my talk, “Stereotyping the Poor: How ‘Commonsense’ thinking furthers the oppression of the poor.” The talk stimulated a number of wonderful discussions about the experiences of the poor and questions about what to do to improve the situation: lots of wonderful people; lots of brainstorming and discussion. I’ve given earlier versions of this talk in St. Pete and Orlando. It’s my small contribution to promoting a broader social dialogue about poverty. We need to listen to people discuss their experiences being poor, and we need to contrast this with what people of great means tell us about the poor.

One of the main points of my talk is that we need to deconstruct mistaken stereotypes about the poor that are as prominent as they are preposterous: the poor are necessarily lazy; they’re satisfied and living it up on poverty; most welfare recipients abuse the system and so on. We also have to understand how cultural imperialism—when a small number of powerful people speak for rather than listen to the “other”—works to divide poor people against one another: how many in control of the media seek to pit poor whites and poor people of color against one another, to prevent unification. Finally, we also need to address the mistaken notion that education is the answer to the prominence of poverty. Society needs lots of different people doing lots of different things. So long as we need yards mowed, restaurants staffed, libraries and hotels cleaned, etc., we will need people working these jobs. Too often even well meaning people excuse the denial of these economically low-end laborers’ basic dignity on account that they need to go to school and get a respectable job. This is absurd. Most respectable moral philosophies recognize that people don’t have to earn moral concern; they deserve it on account of being sentient or conscious persons. The belief that people need an education before they’re due the basic respect of being paid a living wage for the important, necessary work they do is responsible for perpetuating the oppression of the poor.

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