Why Poor is the new Black

Image Credit: Franco Folini (Flickr)

100 years ago, this magnificent country of ours was quite a different place.  Many, many things were light years away from where they are now – Technology, infrastructure, and last but not least: Social progress.

Around 1913, we found ourselves at the very cusp of the women’s suffrage movement.  As the ultimate success of the civil rights movement was still decades away, the one thing black folks had in common with women in America is that neither group could vote, yet.

As the inexorable march of time went on and our society changed, so did the makeup of those citizens that were allowed access to the lever of American power – the voting booth.  With the passage of the civil rights act in 1964, and the voting rights act in 1965, legal equality and protection finally became a reality for all Americans, as this access was now guaranteed under the law.

Fast forward to today, after all those years of overt discrimination and disenfranchisement, we’ve finally gotten to a place where Americans of all stripes are on the same playing field, right? Sort of.

Image Credit: Public Domain

Imagine seeing this in the newspaper today

This summer, Section 5 of the aforementioned Voting Rights Act was struck down by the Supreme Court, effectively gutting the landmark legislation that so many worked and sacrificed to achieve.  Prior to this decision, the law was invoked over 1000 times to block proposed changes to voting laws that were seen as discriminatory.

A generation ago, in the wake of the 15th amendment, the mechanism to block certain groups from the ballot box shifted to literacy tests and poll taxes.  Now, numerous states have pressed ahead with so-called “voter ID” laws.

These laws purport to eliminate individual voter fraud: a crime that happens so rarely that it has never swayed an election.  It happens only 0.0009% of the time – or once out of every 111,000 legitimate votes.  Statistically speaking, that’s as good as never.  What these laws really do, by design, is make it harder for certain people to vote.

Who are these people?  We find the target by studying the effects.  Big surprise – these laws have a disproportionate impact on the poor, not just minorities.  It isn’t just black people anymore.

Enough about voting, let’s talk economics:

Research shows that children in minority demographics are 4 times more likely to be born into poverty and remain there when compared to their white counterparts.

Image Credit: Kelly Short6 (flickr)

A child on the verge of starvation in Oklahoma, circa 1934 (colorized)

The consequences of poverty are dire, though not surprising.  Decreased financial security is just the start.  Children born into these situations are more likely to exhibit decreased academic performance.  When you combine the lack of financial resources with a poor academic foundation, it becomes more difficult for them to obtain a higher education, which in turns leaves more obstacles on the path for these kids to grow up and claim their version of the American Dream.

These kids don’t have a harder time because of their race alone.  Poverty is a major factor.  It isn’t just black people anymore.

Let’s talk representation in Government.  One doesn’t have to do much research to know that minority communities have not always been represented in our national government.

Lately, that trend has been reversed.  Consider the Congressional Black and Hispanic Caucuses, and the nearly 300 women that have served in Congress.  Then there are the likes of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton who represent diversity at the highest levels of our political system.

So minority representation is growing in government, but you know who is not represented in those ranks? The poor.

While the net worth of the average American family was $77,300 in 2010, the net worth of the average U.S. Representative was $5.9 Million that same year.  U.S. Senators were even better off, with an average net worth of $13.4 Million in 2010.

As average American families continue to scratch and claw to get by, they have less and less in common with the people that represent them in their own Government.  The interests no longer align, as evidenced by the sweeping cuts to programs that poor folks need the most.  It isn’t just black people anymore.

Am I saying that the problems of African-Americans, Hispanics, and other minorities are gone? Of course not.

I do argue, however, that the disadvantages, discrimination, and systemic inequities once visited largely upon black Americans are now most squarely aimed at one group: The underprivileged.

In other words, poor is the new black.  What are we going to do about that?

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