The War on the Poor

The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.
Franklin D. Roosevelt

Now is a very divided time. Everyone, regardless of class or political affiliation, seems to agree that something must change, that we cannot go on like this anymore. Depending on which political party the person you’re speaking with belongs to, the solutions to the problems are very different. Out of this desperate hope for change and improvement there have sprung up a number of contenders who feel that they are the much-needed solution to our economic and moral crisis. All are offering suggestions for how we can change our economic policies, how we can create more jobs, and see opportunities trickle down to the lower and middle class of the country, those struggling with unemployment, health problems, and poverty ““ the 99%.

One of those contenders is Herman Cain. At first glance, Herman Cain seems like a great candidate to represent the average American. He’s a self-made businessman, not a politician, who doesn’t mince words and seemingly epitomizes the American Dream.

What is Herman Cain’s advice to the 99%, who would like to see change come in the form of jobs, opportunity, and an equal share of rights? It’s your own fault that you’re poor! Stop being envious of rich people who had better luck than you!

Rather than realizing how blessed and lucky he was to be able to have opportunities, to then become an entrepreneur and self-made businessman, and to wish for other Americans to have those same opportunities, Cain sniffs at the unemployed, the poor, and suggests that they must have chosen their own fate, and therefore deserve everything they get. Cain has a history of victim-blaming (just see his comments about racism, and the “brainwashing” of African Americans if you really want a great example of the kind of logic he subscribes to), and seems to be leading the charge in the new wave of conservative backlash against the poor.
Meanwhile, Occupy Wall Street and similar movements are taking off with force, as more and more people from varying political and social backgrounds realize that they, too, are part of the 99% and that they, too, deserve and demand change. As the movement grows, so does the anti-OWS movement. It is led mainly by conservative media, politicians and bankers, and those who have a stake in seeing the movement fail.

Sadly, though, they aren’t the only ones jumping on the bandwagon.

I’ve been very disheartened to see the number of people, some of them my peers, who are definitely, undoubtedly, part of the 99%, who do not support the Occupy Wall Street movement and wholeheartedly support candidates like Cain. Candidates who will do all they can to squelch the opportunities, liberties and rights of the very people who champion them and plan to vote them into office.

I’ve seen all sorts of conservative, anti-poor propaganda floating around on the internet, with friends and acquaintances posting statuses about how welfare and food stamp recipients should have to settle for only generic and expired food, since they aren’t paying for the luxury of the good stuff (I only wish I was joking, but this is something I have actually heard), or how they should have to submit to mandatory drug testing in order to receive aid. I’ve seen the ludicrous pictures, in response to the wildly popular blog “We are the 99%” (in which I am quite proud to be featured myself), of people holding up signs explaining why they AREN’T the 99%, despite being working, lower-and-middle class, average Americans who are not millionaires. Everywhere I turn, there is someone offering up snark, criticism and judgement of the OWS movement and the desire for the poor to have some semblance of hope and opportunity.

It seems to suddenly be the general consensus among many Americans that poor people deserve to be poor. That they’ve somehow caused their own condition, that they must have made some bad decision along the way; whether it’s that they can’t manage their money, that they didn’t choose the right path, or work hard enough, and therefore are reaping the consequences of their bad decisions. It comes as no surprise to me that wealthy, privileged individuals would think this, as they need any excuse possible to justify their own blind luck and privilege, but to see people who are actually poor themselves, who are actually part of the 99%, who are just as disenfranchised and under-represented as the rest of us, turn on us and turn on themselves. It is disheartening and depressing, to say the least.

It makes me wonder how these people are able to justify these sentiments in their head. I have several friends who claim to support Herman Cain or other contenders who have similar views, who are well below the poverty line. Some of them get food stamps, others are on Medicaid. A few of them are unemployed. I want to ask them, “How do you feel when you turn on your television and hear Herman Cain say that it’s the poor’s fault that they are poor?” I want to ask them, “Do you not realize that YOU are poor? Do you not realize that he’s talking about you? Do you think you’re the exception to the rule? Do you think that if you agree with him, it’s easier to pretend you have no rights, no representation, and no opportunity? Do you really think that giving a candidate your vote that has no intention of doing anything for you is a good idea? That it will magically transport you from mingling with the rest of us poor masses and turn you into a success story?”

All of these questions go unanswered. Every day I see further proof that our society isn’t thinking. We blindly follow these self-appointed “leaders” and deny our own possibility for equality, opportunity and hope. We get caught up in semantics, arguing over different political parties’ agendas and talking points, comparing apples to oranges, and forgetting that in the end, it’s all just a matter of opinion, and the bigger picture is being missed. Our country is completely and totally engrossed in a violent war against the poor, and the saddest, most terrifying part is that many of the people fighting us are one of us.

To me, this is why movements like Occupy Wall Street are so important. I’ve often told people, when asked, why I’m bothering with this, what I mean to accomplish, that I’m fighting for them as much as me. Even if they don’t consider themselves part of the 99% (they are), even if they think what we’re doing is pointless (it’s not). We’re still fighting for them. We hope they’ll eventually see the good in the movement and decide to join up with us, but even if they don’t, it’s still worth fighting for them, and for the rest of us.

Don’t blame Wall Street, don’t blame the big banks. If you don’t have a job and you are not rich, blame yourself!
– Herman Cain

There is a sweet spirit in this place. I hope you can feel the love and inspiration of those Sly Stone called “everyday people” who take a stand with great courage and compassion, because we oppose the greed of Wall Street oligarchs and corporate plutocrats who squeeze the democratic juices out of this country and other places around the world. I am so blessed to be here. You got me spiritually breakdancing on the way here, because when you bring folk together of all colors and all cultures and all genders and all sexual orientations, the elites will tremble in their boots. Yeah!

– Dr. Cornel West (at Occupy Wall Street)

By Teri Drake-Floyd

An almost 30-something synestheste, foodie, genealogist and all around proud geek.

7 replies on “The War on the Poor”

Oh herman cain. ever since he quoted the theme song from “Pokemon” I knew it was going to be a trip.

There is so much righteousness when it comes to the whole bootstraps / success / competition ideal. I dont think I need to go into it because that thread at BB’s piece illustrates better than I ever could. One thing I do really think is important is this:

” I am saddened to see people still treat indebtedness and the inability to afford basic expenses as a moral failing.”

It comes from a woman I know who has dedicated her life to working in seminaries, working with people who have HIV/AIDS, compounded usually with addiction, experiences of sexual abuse, and living in crappy foster or being in prison systems . These are folks who often come from walks of life that most of the said 53% er’s couldn’t even dream of being possible – especially those who ramble on about bootstraps and poor people being lazy. She worked around 7 days a week, up to 12 hours a day helping folks, and yet made around 13G a year, most of which went back into her work because they would often not have it in their budget for supplies for children or basic amenities like soap or lotion for the women. Yet somehow she was a bad person for being poor, for not being able to always pay bills on time, or even daring to complain about bill collectors.

But Donald Trump is somehow a self made man who deserves it all.


I’m a 53%’er who posted on BB’s (myopic) piece.  I am also a 99%’er in that I’m not in the top 1%, but I’ve BEEN a 20%’er (or less) for parts of my life in that I spent a bunch of years in the bottom tax quintile (i.e. I was poor, but at least not destitute).

I think the big disconnect you are seeing between your side and my side comes down to life experience.  I posted on BB’s piece treasury stats ( that show that 58% of people between 96 and 05 moved from the bottom quintile to a higher quintile.  50% of those in the second quintile moved to a higher quintile.  42% moved from the middle quintile to a higher quintile.  30% moved from the fourth to the highest.  Those numbers aren’t much different than the treasury study for the previous 10 years.  The point is, it’s hard to argue that the system is “unfair” or that the “rich are keeping the little guy down” or that “nobody can get ahead” when almost half of the population rises up a tax quintile each decade.

The mainstream media perpetuates the myth that the poor can’t get ahead.  A certain political party does the same thing arguing that if we elect them they will take the wealth from the “undeserving” or “privileged” rich and spread it around as if wealth were some kind of static pie that you need to share pieces of (when it’s actually more arbitrary like the scores of a video game).  I was in the bottom quintile during the Clinton years (supposedly great economic years) and I honestly believed I would never get ahead.  I believed I’d never own a “McMansion” like those in the neighborhoods I had to pass on my way to work.  I was NOT aware of the statistics above that offered hope.  I had a college degree and tens of thousands in student loan debt and couldn’t find a job making much more than minimum wage.  As I moved up in my chosen career, it appeared I would NEVER make much more than minimum wage.  Because I didn’t know any better in the 90’s, I might have marched with OWS had there been one back then.

Getting back to your point and the OP’s point, there’s a difference between the 53’er’s saying you are not rich by CHOICE and accusing you of being lazy.  The lady in your example made a CHOICE to continue working with AIDS patients even though it was low pay.  It was noble, but from an economic standpoint she CHOSE to be poor.  I made a choice in the 90’s to leave my chosen career for something more profitable.  After 2 decades I’m in the next to top quintile and own my McMansion.  I CHOSE to do something that paid more completely unrelated to my degree (that looking back I should never have chosen) and I do my chosen career as a hobby now.  The girl below mentioned medical debt.  While I sympathize with the situation, everyone should get a catastrophic care plan (they are cheap and readily available, especially for young adults) that basically have extremely high deductibles with caps on max out of pocket.  These plans basically protect you from going bankrupt if you’re 20 and find out you have cancer or something.  Point again is, even though catastrophic medical debt is unfortunate, it can usually be avoided by making some simple choices.

Those of us who are part of the 50% statistic moving up a bracket every 10 years or so have no reason to blame Wall Street because honestly what they do have very little effect on our lives (save the market ups and downs).  I saw stats the other day that less than 15% of the people on Wall Street are actually in the 1% anyway so again OWS just really doesn’t make sense.  If anything, I think the Tea Party had it right protesting in front of Capitals because it’s Big Government that has and still is screwing everything up.  That’s why Cain rings with us.  Even as good as the last 2 decades were in terms of income mobility, it’s the Reagan years that are off the charts.  During the Reagan era (79-88), over 85% of those in the lowest quintile moved up.  You actually had a BETTER chance of moving directly from the lowest quintile to the top quintile than staying in the bottom quintile.  Any politician that walks and talks like Reagan inspires people like me who believe that if we abandoned the Progressive left-wing politics of the last 2 decades and returned to policies of people like Art Laffer (Reagan’s economist famous for the “Laffer Curve” and one of the guys who is sympathetic to Cain’s 999 plan) we’d be much better off.  We believe those type policies will make for fewer disenchanted 99%’ers as a greater share of them bounce up the tax quintile scale.  So while Tea Partiers want to fix the system by reinstating conservative economic policies like Reagan (and no…W Bush did NOT follow conservative economics) it seems to us that the OWS movement is all about destroying capitalism or moving us closer to some kind of ism based on socialism and that’s a gulf that OWS is never going to be able to bridge with the majority of the people, especially not when they’re living the stats found in the treasury reports.

 The lady in your example made a CHOICE to continue working with AIDS patients even though it was low pay.  It was noble, but from an economic standpoint she CHOSE to be poor.  I made a choice in the 90′s to leave my chosen career for something more profitable.  After 2 decades I’m in the next to top quintile and own my McMansion.  I CHOSE to do something that paid more completely unrelated to my degree (that looking back I should never have chosen) and I do my chosen career as a hobby now.  The girl below mentioned medical debt.  While I sympathize with the situation, everyone should get a catastrophic care plan (they are cheap and readily available, especially for young adults) that basically have extremely high deductibles with caps on max out of pocket.

You assume everyone has the same access to choices.

You assume that the mainstream media perpetuates the myth that the poor can’t get ahead.

You assume that choosing something more profitable is better through monetary means alone.

You assume everyone has the funds to take out a care plan and if they cant afford too, its a bad choice.

You assume that there are not social circumstances that heavily impact the nature of choice as well as the ability to choose.

You also feel the need to call one of our authors pieces myopic in your first sentence.

Thats great that you feel that way and that things have worked out for you. More power to you and bless. But its really not as simple as just making the right choices. If that were the case, there wouldn’t be folks having to choose between food or healthcare. There wouldn’t be folks having to choose between going to school or going to work. There wouldn’t be folks having to choose between putting gas in a car or paying the bills.


The 53’ers don’t assume everyone has access to the same choices.  I didn’t have access to ivy league (couldn’t afford it).  Your starting point determines what choices you have access to, but you’re not entitled to the choices of those further up the scale.  That being said, the vast majority (as evident by the stats) does have access to some set of choices to further their position in life.

Not necessarily on the more profitable is better.  I could make more money but I choose time with family.  My point is that how much I make in that regard is a choice as is the lady working with AIDS patients.  In her case she apparently put more value in her work than her income.  That was a choice.

Catastrophic plans are about $45/mo for most everyone.  That’s the price of cable.  The vast majority of people could afford a catastrophic plan (which would actually drive the cost down with more people in it) if they knew what one was and where to get it.

Oh…I fully know how social circumstances impact people.  You assume I haven’t been around people who grew up in trailers and never graduated from high school.  My example in BB’s thread of a trailer park girl who went to nursing school was a real person.

You are absolutely right that there will be people who just absolutely have little to no way out due to unusual circumstances, but they represent a fraction of a fraction and not enough justification for the overturn of capitalism or OWS.  Those aren’t the people that the 53’ers are targeting nor the pictures like the girl in BB’s post.  We look at those participating in OWS and know full well the vast majority of them are NOT individuals so unfortunate that they meet that fraction of a fraction.

I might agree with you that the 53% felt that way if I wasn’t constantly seeing signs like this:

OWS of what

or this

Dont Occupy wall street, occupy a job

Financial shortcomings

Life isnt easy

No jobs

Besides, I cant afford a catastrophic plan and its not because I’m lazy and want government hand outs. So when I express this, I’m met with get a job! Yes, I concur. I have two. And yet I still find it hard to make ends meet. Well then get another job! Okay, sure, I have been trying to, but the job market is bleak. I’m not the only one looking for a job. Go back to school! I cant afford to take out loans.and so on. My situation isn’t hopeless,certainly not as limited as say, someone living on  20G a year trying to support a family. But its also not as easy as suggested by those who think they can write a few tepid lines on a sheet about how folks like myself are demanding handouts and not working hard enough. Like I have expressed before, I don’t understand what makes a person an authority on whose working hard enough.

At some point,choices are limited and that’s my issue with many of these signs and the rhetoric around them. The whole “bootstraps” ideology is very narrow minded and limited, but really deeply embedded within this country’s makeup. Not to mention its often defensive of folks that have made their money out of cheating 53% and 99% or whatever you identify as.  That’s why folks are mad. That’s why I’m mad. I don’t demand handouts. I demand fairness. I demand for people to not look with contempt on those whose struggles are vastly different. There has to be some sort of mutual understanding here without it turning into political rhetoric of who is right and who is not.

What you are describing though is the problem with stereotypes.  Most 53’ers see OWS as a stereotype of a young person who feels entitled, doesn’t want to put in the hard work or patience, and someone who shirks personal responsibility by blaming others instead of themselves or their parents for their lot in life.  Those posters are aimed at those people.  They may not really apply to you.

Also it’s hard to be pithy and talk about hard work and choices.  Just working hard doesn’t necessarily get you ahead (like when I had to change careers).  You can work 2 or 3 low paying jobs and almost feel like you’re spinning your wheels.  That’s where the choices come in.  Maybe you work a job so well that you get promoted.  Maybe those jobs just pay the bills until you find something else.  Maybe one of those jobs opens an opportunity somewhere else.  While the posters may seem snarky to you, they are basically conveying that a lot of us have been exactly where you were, we paid our dues so-to-say and kept looking for that next step…that next out….to move us along.  All of us got where we are by going different paths using different opportunities, but in no instance did we blame the “rich” for making it hard.  I don’t think any of us want to imply that it’s easy, because it’s not.  It requires a lot of butt busting, a lot of perseverance, sometimes good choices, sometimes help from others, and sometimes a little luck.

Your side has the stereotype of Wall Street as a bunch of rich white people who lied and cheated their way to riches on the backs of the poor and then took money in the form of bailouts from their government friends.  That really doesn’t make up the average Wall Street person.  I’d say it makes up the vast minority.  Even Tea Partiers would like to see cronyism ended and the (few) evil-doers punished.  We just don’t see this as a “hey let’s end capitalism” moment and I think the sign you linked “financial shortcomings” really rings true because most of us don’t exactly see a dotted-line between Wall Street, capitalism, or free markets and your lot in life.  Ask your average tea-partier where to draw the dotted line (other than yourself or your parents) and we’d draw it straight to Washington DC.

I cannot agree more. I have been lucky enough to always be able to ‘scrape by’ growing up but never pictured myself being able to become the “1%”- even with a lifetime.

2 years ago in a matter of days my husband had incurred over $700,000.00 of medical bills. For one year his life was literally a dollar amount determined by the insurance company. The next year I learned how hard it is to be truly poor in this country; we literally cannot pay our bills without having to beg or ask for charity. MediCare does not cover true medical costs or needs and for those who are disabled or given terminal sentences in their early 20’s just do not have a chance at ever getting out of the “99%”.

Due to nothing more than bad luck and high odds – not a single active choice- I will be ‘poor’ my entire living and working life.

It can be soul crushing to realize your only contribution to society is paying back a debt that is too large to ever be repaid.

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