The Intransigence of Poverty: The myth of the meritocracy cripples us all

17 Feb

I went to a great talk today by a colleague, one of our history professors. He has a new book–go buy it, called ” To Right These Wrongs.” The book is basically about how the war on poverty was waged in North Carolina in the 1960s, how Governor Sanford led the effort, how North Carolina was able, unlike Mississippi and Alabama, to at least attempt to set aside white supremacy and recognize it as a barrier to economic growth for all people.

He had fascinating statistics including the one that 40% of North Carolinians in 1960 lived below the poverty line, which at the time meant they earned less than $3,000 a year for a family of four. By battling Jim Crow and economic disparities at the same time the state was able to beat back poverty for a large segment of its population, both black and white.

As the professor said, keeping black people uneducated and poor had the residual effect of making wages low, you could get them to work cheap, but that also meant uneducated, poor whites had to work cheap too. White supremacy preached that even though they were poor the white people were at least white and should therefore support the rich white people in helping to oppress the blacks. It is an old tactic, one used by the slave owners to get the poor whites of their era to support slavery. We have something similar today, of course, not the slavery, but folks voting against their own self-interest.

The war on poverty was, according to him making strides and flourishing until the  race  riots of 1967 when the media and those against the War on Poverty  initiatives started by LBJ, were able to put a black face on poverty and oppression and link it to “bad behavior. There were further attempts, particularly in the Reagan years to dehumanize poverty, to make it something sinful or evil that the poor themselves were responsible for.

Of course, they mainly are not responsible. Here is a quote from the book:  ” Poverty is political. It arises from neither accident nor simple misfortune, but is instead the product of an inequitable distribution of power, wealth and opportunity.”


In other words, if as I said in the discussion following the talk, we Americans do not give up our love affair with the Myth  of the Meritocracy, we will never solve problems like poverty. Americans continue to insist that the cream rises to the top. That people who have more deserve more. They are superior in some way. Not everyone, of course, espouses white supremacy, but we all have a bad habit of pointing out the deficiencies in the poor rather than the deficiencies in our society when we begin to discuss poverty. We talk about them making bad decisions, having too many kids, being lazy, etc.

The professor, teaching at an elite school, asked his students when they raised some of the issues about poverty and large families, asked them how many children they thought people who received welfare had typically. They answered 4, 5, 6 or more. When he informed them that the average size of a family that receives welfare is 1.9 people, smaller than the average for most families that do not receive welfare they were amazed. Going further he asked them how many of them had a summer job last year. Virtually all of them raised their hands. He asked them how they had gotten their jobs. Virtually every one of them said a family member of friend of the family had gotten them the job. They were then ready to talk about inequities in power and privilege. As a mea culpa I will admit that I have  gotten my granddaughter a summer job at my college–a gig many of our students would like to have, the past two years.

So, as long as we are sure poor people are poor because they are somehow inferior, not as smart, not as ambitious, not as clever, the wrong color, then poverty will be with us. Sigh.

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Posted by on February 17, 2011 in Uncategorized


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