In times of financial turmoil and massive corporate bailouts, we shouldn’t forget one simple fact: The working poor in this country have historically been marginalized and blamed for their impoverished status. This has been especially true for racial minorities and immigrants in the nation’s ghettoes and barrios since as long as the 19th century.
Immigrants and the working poor are no strangers to housing instability, high job loss and unemployment, tight credit markets, lack of health coverage and other social and economic ills currently plaguing millions of Americans. Why is it that only when economic downturns hit the middle and upper classes that America finds itself in desperate need of trillion-dollar federal interventions?
Throughout its history, America has blamed the working poor and its most recent wave of immigrants for their low socio-economic status. If only they learned the virtues of the so-called Protestant work ethic, the logic goes, “those people” would succeed in America, the famed land of opportunity. If only “those immigrants” learned to speak proper English and adopt America’s cultural norms of individualism, hard work and self-motivation, goes the xenophobic argument, they would become productive members of society.
This is not to say that government intervention hasn’t addressed the needs of the working poor. FDR’s New Deal and Johnson’s Great Society programs provided the working poor with vital monetary aid and services in employment, healthcare and education.
Despite the good intentions behind many liberal government programs and services, however, mainstream and conservative voices have stigmatized anti-poverty programs and services as handouts for “lazy, undeserving individuals” who represent, in economists’ terms, free riders.
As someone who grew up in East L.A. housing projects on welfare, food stamps, free school meals and medical services, I’m all too familiar with the social stigma associated with these government benefits.
Although most of my childhood friends in the Ramona Gardens housing project also received food stamps, using them at the local store typically made us feel like drug addicts buying heroine in a dark alley.
The stigma of being poor was another source of exasperation for many of us when we participated in a mandatory busing program to a majority-white school, Mt. Gleason Jr. High, in Sunland Tujunga in the late 1970s. Despite the obvious fact that we “dressed poor” and received free school meals compared to the mostly affluent white students, I never heard anyone from our barrio admit to being poor or on welfare. For us, this would have been tantamount to admitting to a heinous crime such as, say, water boarding.
This stigma continued through my undergraduate years at UCLA in the mid-1980s. When filling out my financial aid application, for example, my household income consisted of a meager $8,000. This for a family of eight, not to mention the fact that welfare doesn’t technically count as income — it’s government aid after all. But I kept this simple fact a secret from my UCLA peers, who came mostly from stable, middle-class backgrounds.
In fact, it wasn’t until I studied U.S. history that I learned I had nothing to be ashamed of and that the working-poor have contributed greatly to making America the most wealthy and powerful country in the world. Yet, in contrast to anti-poverty policies, government programs and services aimed at boosting the middle and upper classes, such as the G.I. Bill, mortgage-interest tax deductions for homeowners and the recent Bush administration tax cuts for the rich, have hardly received the same stigma and public scorn.
And while it’s true that many government intervention programs and subsidies, together with access to higher education, home ownership and tax breaks, have helped create a significant middle class, whites have been the main beneficiaries of these policies as they fled from inner cities to the suburbs.
In short, there seems to be a double standard in government interventions aimed at helping Americans. Whereas government aid to the working poor is pregnant with social stigmas and attacks by conservatives, aid that addresses the needs of the higher classes, including victims of financial fallouts, is perceived as perfectly normal.
While recessions impact all people, not all people suffer equally. For the majority of the working poor, a bad economy is one more crisis to deal with on a daily basis, while the upper classes get a taste of what if feels like to live at the bottom: insecurity, anxiety and a pervasive sense of gloom.
But if every crisis has a sliver lining, my hope is that this time around, privileged Americans and government officials alike will have more compassion for the less fortunate instead of scapegoating them for the nation’s ills.
Alvaro Huerta is a visiting scholar at UCLA’s Chicano Studies Research Center. He is also a doctoral student in city and urban planning at UC Berkeley. He grew up in East Los Angeles.