Capitol Thoughts
Capitol Thoughts Archive

Don’t Speak on What You Don’t Know by Janaye Ingram

Dec 16, 2011

Newt Gingrich, the Republican Presidential candidate, recently made headlines for some really uneducated, uninformed, out-of-touch, and just downright asinine comments about communities which he knows absolutely nothing about. The comments, for anyone who might not have heard are below.

“Really poor children in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working and have nobody around them who works. So they literally have no habit of showing up on Monday. They have no habit of staying all day. They have no habit of ‘I do this and you give me cash,’ unless it’s illegal. You have a very poor neighborhood. You have kids who are required under law to go to school,” he said. “They have no money. They have no habit of work. What if you paid them part-time in the afternoon to sit at the clerical office and greet people when they came in? What if you paid them to work as the assistant librarian? And I’d pay them as early as is reasonable and practical. I am prepared to find something that works, that breaks us out of the cycles we’re involved in right now, and finding a way for poor children to learn how to work and learning how to have money that they’ve earned honestly is an integral part of that.” – Newt Gingrich

In my eyes, these comments show just how daft he is. But unfortunately for us all, the comments aren’t just coming from him. There have been several people who have come out recently with comments that are disparaging toward the low-income population and my intuition tells me that they represent a lot of other voices who aren’t so eager to come out and say it publicly, but do so behind closed doors. The characterization is inaccurate and blames low-income people for their circumstance when many times it’s not their fault. But because Newt and the others who sound like him have never lived in a “really poor” neighborhood, this is their misconception.

If I had my way, I’d create a reality show for Newt et al., where I would take them to live in different low-income communities for a week at a time. It would be something like “Undercover Boss” or the TV show Ice Cube did a few years ago, “Black. White.” It would take some out of touch person who thinks they have it all figured out and put them in a situation that they think they understand and have all the answers to but have no real clue about. Maybe then Newt (or whoever) would meet people like Jeanine*.

Jeanine is a girl I grew up with in Camden, New Jersey. She lived in the projects with her mother, grandmother and 5 siblings. Her mother worked two jobs and struggled to make ends meet and her grandmother was unable to work. When Jeanine was in the 11th grade, her mother died unexpectedly. Because her grandmother was in the home, she and her siblings were able to stay there together, but because her mother was the only person working, Jeanine was forced to go out and get two jobs paying minimum wage. She worked one job during the week after school and the other she worked on the weekends and with these two jobs she was barely able to keep up with the needs of her family. Before her mother died, Jeanine was an average student at best and now she was the sole provider for her family which meant that her grades suffered. That meant that college wasn’t an option for her because who would pay for it? A scholarship was out of the question, and even if she could continue to work and bring in money for her and her family, whatever was left wouldn’t be enough to cover tuition even at community college with financial aid. Faced with this reality, Jeanine dropped out of high school to pursue a GED so that she could work more hours and provide more for her younger siblings. She still lives in Camden and has four children of her own now. She was unable to break the cycle of poverty that kept her mother and grandmother before her. She works three jobs trying to make ends meet for her family. And what that means for her children is that they are latchkey kids, often left to their own devices afterschool. A 2004 paper in the Dynamics of Inequality and Poverty states that in the US almost half of children born to low income parents become low income adults. Without the necessary guidance, it is likely that at least two of her four children will end up repeating the cycle.

This assault on “poor children” is really an assault on black and brown people. According to the US Census, in 2010 38.2% of children under 18 living in poverty were black. Latinos represented 35% of that population. So by and large these two groups combined represented nearly three-quarters of the children living in poverty. A 2010 study by the Urban Institute suggests that black children are seven times more likely to be persistently poor than white children with 69% of them remaining poor. The study goes on to discuss the supports needed to help children rise out of poverty including medical assistance, education, job training, childcare subsidies, and reducing out-of-wedlock births. So when Newt talks about the poor not working or having a real job and that being the source of or solution to poverty, it just shows how uneducated he is. Poverty is not the result of one thing more than another. Poverty is the result of many things that converge and limit a person’s possibilities. It’s not impossible to become free of it, but it takes a lot more work than it does for someone who is born without the chains of poverty strapped to their ankles and weighing them down from birth.

Furthering the misconceptions about poverty was a story that was featured on NBC’s morning news program, The Today Show. Earlier this week, a family was featured on the show as they discussed how they survived on $20,000 a year. The feature was bathetic in showing the way the family found all of their products in the dump and made things including toys for their toddler son from wood they found on the beach. The couple said even though they were poor they were happy and they wouldn’t trade it in for anything. This type of story contributes to why there are some who have a misconception about people living in poverty. This mawkish attempt to glamorize being poor by a white family who admittedly made a decision to live the way they do is a threat to helping the people who truly want to get out of the cycle, but have difficulty finding their way. So as we listen to people like Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain and others talk about the poor, we should remind them that they shouldn’t speak on what they don’t know. If they really want to understand, they should try walking a “poor” city block in someone else’s shoes.

*The name used has been changed to protect the identities of the people mentioned.