The popular view of my topic, poverty in modern America, is that this condition is minimal at best, and largely the fault of those who are themselves poor. I believe this point of view dominates for several reasons, and remains in place in spite of how the recent recession hurt the economy. For one thing, poverty directly contradicts the ideology of all American culture, which emphasizes that no one in the country need suffer from poverty if they are willing to work. On another level, this feeling then translates to a form of blame; as will be noted, the experiences surrounding Hurricane Katrina offered powerful evidence that the nation as a whole holds poor people in contempt (Broussard, Joseph 4). Americans are also vastly influenced by the media, which typically either ignores reporting on poverty or assigns further blame, in the form of emphasizing the criminality so often associated with it. Unfortunately, and partially based upon my own investigations into the reality of the situation, poverty in America is not a minor issue affecting only a few, but an increasingly real concern of all.
Perceptions and Realities
In a sense, those unaware of how widespread poverty in America is may be excused by a simple fact: the poor tend to live in a way removed from “mainstream” society. Simply, people with jobs live among other people with jobs, so poverty tends to create its own environments. This is, at least partially, one reason why so many Americans remain unconcerned about the issue. More insidious, however, is another reason, and it may be traced to media coverage. More precisely, as the media is rarely inclined to focus on it, most Americans have no real idea of how widespread this poverty is. With each passing year, the influence of the media grows, and hand-held devices now provide working-class citizens with a constant stream of information and entertainment. This is, ultimately, how most people come by their perceptions of the state of the nation, and consequently the poor remain “hidden.”
Then, as every source of news or entertainment relies heavily on advertising, the image of a well-fed, busy, productive culture is reinforced. As exaggerated as it may sound, the inescapable reality is that mass media creates a distorted view of what actually comprises life in the United States: “The media hides gross inequities from public view” (Mantsios 636). So too do films and television programs “gloss over” poverty. For example, in 2011’s hit film, Bridesmaids, the lead character is without a job and clearly under heavy financial strain. Without explanation, the movie has her paying for an expensive dress and a trip to Las Vegas. Then, while seemingly without resources, she neatly avoids real poverty by moving in with her mother. The film is a comedy, yet the message carried is serious: no one need actually suffer from poverty, if they are willing to make a few compromises and use credit.
The facts tell a different story. Not only is the number of poor people truly astounding – 40 million in the United States – but the number continues to increase (Mantsios 637). States respond to the massive need by mandating drug testing for welfare seekers, yet this ignores how denying needed benefits for living is likely to worsen both drug usage and poverty (Sulzberger). Then, I myself am acquainted with few people who have not been seriously affected by the recent recession. It seems that these few years, only now beginning to turn around, had a truly devastating impact on many who thought that poverty could never claim them. I will never forget a day in 2008 when, in a restaurant lobby waiting to be seated, I witnessed a virtual parade of applicants come through the door in response to an ad for servers. I heard the manager remark upon how many of them had no restaurant experience; they were middle-aged and older, and had been dismissed from careers held for many years.
Less personally, it seems that the entire nation came face to face with the dimensions of poverty in 2005. Hurricane Katrina, in my estimation, briefly broke through the pervasive media bias surrounding poverty, simply because the emergency was too large and immediate to be edited. On one level, there was the immense devastation of the storm, which shocked us all. On another, however, was the awareness that income levels had a great deal to do with how any person or family could survive the catastrophe. For those few days, the nation actually witnessed the real restrictions of poverty because, at such times, access to a car and to cash greatly increases anyone’s chances of escaping to a safe and comfortable location: “The storm taught us that an individual’s chances of living or dying could depend on whether or not they live in poverty” (Broussard, Joseph 2008). Not unexpectedly, the extensive media coverage chose to focus more on the looting and violence in the immediate wake of the disaster, rather than the fact that hundreds died because they did not have the means to get out.
For hundreds of years, America has persistently cherished its own image as a nation where poverty must only be a consequence of laziness. Immigration is often blamed as well, in that it is believed that good jobs are given to non-citizens, but this is a fallacy; immigrants tend to compete only with each other (Cooper 975). Immigrants, in fact, are merely one in a long line of excuses desperately sought after when Americans are confronted with the facts of poverty. It does not seem real to most because it violates every national ideal, and because the omnipresent media largely brushes it aside, glamorizes it, or reports upon it only when violence erupts in poor neighborhoods. The media feeds images and mentalities fueling racist and sexist associations with poverty, when the reality is that most of the poor population is white, and works at least part of the year (Mantsios 638). Beneath both the massive and deliberate distortions of the media, and society’s unwillingness to accept the truth, lies an imposing fact: 40 million people living below the poverty level is a significant portion of the population. If we do not see them on a daily basis, it is clear that the poor are around us all, and undergoing hardships that are not glamorous or created by laziness. If we are ever to evolve as a nation, we must take the responsibility for realizing that, for millions, there is no “American dream.” We must, first and foremost, comprehend that poverty in America is not a minor issue affecting only a few, but an increasingly real concern of all.
Broussard, C. Anne, & Joseph, Alfred L. Family Poverty in Diverse Contexts. New York: Taylor & Francis, 2008. Print.
Cooper, Mary. H. “The Working Poor.” CQ Researcher, 5 (1995, Nov. 3): 969-992. Web. Retrieved from http://library.cqpress.com/cqresearcher/
Mantsios, Gregory. “Media Magic: Making Class Invisible.” Race, Class, and Gender in the United States Ed. Rothenberg, Paula S. New York: Macmillan, 2006. 636-643. Print.
Sulzberger, A. G. “States Adding Drug Testing as Hurdle for Welfare.” The New York Times, 10 Oct., 2011. Web. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/11/us/states-adding-drug-test-as-hurdle-for-welfare.html?_r=1&adxnnl=1&pagewanted=all&adxnnlx=1338044769-cJcgqAD6/ijize0vHiTMmg