America : Poverty, position and pride

ON SUNDAY, I caught most of a feature by “Dateline” on suburban poverty. The “Dateline” website  points us to a recent study on “The Suburbanization of Poverty ” by Elizabeth Kneebone and Emily Garr of the Brookings Institution, which contains this telling graphic:

As you can see, the size of the suburban population living beneath the official poverty line has increased significantly since 2000. The NBC segment, which followed three struggling families living in relatively posh suburbs on the outskirts of Boulder, Colorado, turned out to be a fascinating examination of class consciousness and the role of pride in both preventing and reinforcing poverty.

One woman, Diane Windemuller (slide 7 ), “a former HR executive, lost her job in April 2011 and was very reluctant to look for anything less than a comparable position and salary…”.

Meanwhile, “the Windemuller family is accessing public safety net services: the family has received rent assistance and goes to food pantries twice a week to shift money they otherwise would spend on food to other important bills.”

It was, I believe, Ms Windemuller, who experienced her first visit to the local food bank as such a humiliation that she felt it necessary to park where no one she knew would see her car, and to try to sneak in unobserved, disguised by sunglasses and a hat.

Yet, for a time, her family’s straitened financial circumstances were in part a direct consequence of her refusal to seek jobs she considered in some way beneath her prior executive post, and she took a temporary administrative position only after her unemployment benefits had run out, and her husband (whom she had criticised for not working harder to find a job more in line with his last one) started threatening to leave her.

I have nothing but sympathy for this family, and all the families depicted in the piece, and I don’t wish to criticise. Involuntary unemployment can be among life’s most painful experiences, and one can only wish the best for those coping as best they know how.

I just want to reflect honestly on what I saw. What I saw was a strong sense of independence, class identity and pride delaying the willingness of these families to accept charity and public assistance. But sooner or later necessity got the best of them, and they reconciled themselves to taking help and to the feeling of shame that evidently comes with it. As this clip shows, this process of adjustment is by no means easy:

Yet, despite the serious emotional toll exacted by this sort of blow, the heads of these households seemed to me extremely hesitant to take other measures that might have helped them get by, without suffering the shame of public assistance.

That the same urgent need that led her to finally visit the food bank was not enough to get Ms Windemuller to take a lower-wage and lower-status job suggests to me that for many of us the indignity of taking a step or two down the career ladder is worse than the indignity of becoming a welfare recipient.

That’s interesting.

  • On the one hand, it’s tempting to think that there’s something quite right about people feeling ashamed about going on food stamps or visiting a food pantry. We want people to expect to provide for themselves, if they can.
  • On the other hand, if this shame flows from the same sense of pride that prevents us seeking downmarket employment, giving up our tony suburbs, or trading in our late-model cars for lesser vehicles, maybe it would be better if we were less proud all around. 

Jun 26th 2012, 21:51 by W.W. | IOWA CITY
Link :The Economist  : Poverty, position and pride


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