Saturday, October 1, 2011

Affluence, Prejudice, and Poverty

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Prejudice, affluence, and poverty in America are linked issues. Works by four authors discussed in this essay, Takaki, Fallows, Olds, and Gioia, help us to understand how the social issues of class and race are intertwined, making an analysis of both necessary for an adequate understanding of any one individually. While the authors discussed here approach the issues from different angles, their works taken side by side clearly show us how prejudice helps the affluent shrug off responsibility toward the poor, offering ‘explanations’ as to why some groups (or persons) remain in poverty and others do not. Additionally, it is argued that those living in affluence � and thus those with the means to significantly address the poverty issue � may, in fact, have a reduced awareness of the existence and reality of poverty. As a result, not only is poverty per se not addressed (we don’t address what we don’t see), but the existing myths and prejudices that help to maintain class divisions, both in society at large and embedded in our legal and social structures, remain unchallenged. However, it is only by examining both the objective nature of the current era together with prejudice and the self-justification of the affluent that one can understand how prejudice, affluence, and poverty are intertwined.


The nature of money, according to Gioia’s poem titled simply “Money”, shapes the reality of life for both the rich and the poor, according to how much they have or don’t have. Gioia’s poem reminds us of the many meanings we accord to money, how we need it and spend it, and how it functions in our economy. One of the clear messages in Gioia’s poem is that money, itself, does not discriminate. It is what it is regardless of who has it, but for those who have it, it grows and multiplies. For those who don’t have it, or don’t have enough of it, it does not.


If money itself does not discriminate, how do we account for the gap between those who are affluent and those who are poor? What prevents some from getting it, while others have enough for it to grow? How we answer this question, and the logic behind our answer, is very connected to policy decisions we make concerning poverty, and how effective we are in addressing it. One of our traditional explanations for the why the poor are poor and the rich are rich, according to the American ideology, is that the poor are those who have not worked sufficiently to gain money. Likewise, those who have money, according to the same ideology, are those who have been frugal, worked hard, saved, wisely invested, and who have otherwise ‘lived right’. Takaki, in his article “Race at the End of History”, provides a summary of how this is embedded in our ideology “ The American dream still holds promise to all us as Americans. Everyone, regardless of race, can make it into the mainstream through hard work and private effort.” (p. 87).


This kind of definition, and the ideology behind it, makes it possible to approach policy issues in such a way that places overwhelming responsibility on those who are poor for their own plight. As Takaki points out, our emphasis is on the fact that success is to be achieved through ‘private’ means, rather than government assistance (p.87). Addressing poverty then becomes a question of getting those who are not working hard enough, not ‘living right’, to do so. This definition of poverty allows us to say, those who have a lion’s share of wealth deserve that wealth, and those who are in poverty, deserve that poverty. Viewed this way, there is no reason, then, to seriously listen to claims of ‘glass ceilings’ or discrimination, or to look in any other way at prejudices built into our social and legal structures that unfairly increase the odds for some, and reduce them for others.


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How is it that, in the face of evident continued poverty among certain ethnic or racial groups, we continue to believe in this ideology? Surely, by now enough evidence of systematic discrimination, glass ceilings, and other obstacles for specific racial and ethnic (and gender) groups has shown us that the American dream as summed up by Takaki is based at least partially on a myth. Yet many people still agree with, for example, what Takaki suggests (p. 85) Francis Fukuyama’s explanation is that poverty is a matter of cultural difference. Parillo, in “Causes of Prejudice”, and Fallows in “The Invisible Poor” each help us to understand forces at work that help to perpetuate the myth even in the face of a contradictory reality. Parillo points to prejudice and the continuation of prejudice through the socialization process. Defining prejudice as “an attitudinal ‘system of negative beliefs, feelings, and action-orientations regarding a certain group or groups of people’” (p. 548), Parillo argues that, through the socialization process, prejudicial views consciously or unconsciously adopted during childhood can then continue into adulthood, and translate into prejudicial choices and behavior in work, social life, and life choices. Additionally, widespread and generally shared prejudicial beliefs and attitudes toward specific groups can be implicitly (or explicitly) reinforced by society at large through, for example, the legal system and cultural norms (p. 557). New generations may not be alert to these subtle reinforcers of prejudicial attitudes and practices, and therefore may not question them. The prevailing stereotypes and prejudices are thus maintained and continued as they are adopted by new generations, and as they continue to be sanctified by the surrounding legal and societal framework. If children acquire their beliefs from their parents through socialization, what prevents them from questioning those values? Surely, we are not all sheep, that unthinkingly accept everything we hear. One explanation that Parillo offers (pp. 550-551) is ‘Self-Justification’, that we need “reassurance that the things we do and the lives we live are proper, that good reasons for our actions exist.” One way in which this surfaces, he argues, is through a dominant group convincing itself that it is superior to other groups, causing them to associate less frequently or not at all with those groups it deems inferior.


Fallows article “The Invisible Poor” clearly shows how this phenomenon is a reality of our current era of ‘tech wealth’, describing the invisible social barrier between rich and poor people � a barrier so great as to make the poor ‘invisible’ to the rich. Within the tech wealth era, according to Fallows, the production of wealth involves fewer ‘blue collar workers’, so that those directly benefiting from it are not confronted with the realities, struggles, and needs of those less like them. In terms of economic background, there is more similarity between the ‘workers’ producing and benefiting from the new wealth. Second, the nature of work within the tech industry isolates those within it into an insulated world. Long working hours, a minimal amount of leisure time, and social lives primarily focused around those within the same world further contributes to the lack of awareness and connectedness to the rest of the world around them. Third, he points to the ‘racial meritocracy’ of the tech industry, with workers and contributors coming from all corners of the globe. He argues that this racial mix among the tech wealthy leaves them out of touch with the more basic and traditional racial tensions among the less wealthy, and the ways in which those in minority groups not associated with the tech wealthy are still disadvantaged.


While Fallows offers a great deal of support for these specific phenomena of the tech wealth era as objective phenomena, which may indeed be at work, combining an analysis of these phenomena with Parrillo’s analysis of prejudice and self-justification offers a fuller understanding of our current era. Sharon Olds, in her poem “From Seven Floors Up” shows, for example, how even if there are objective forces at work such as those discussed by Fallows, there is still an attitudinal factor at work when those more affluent are confronted with the reality of poverty, they are looking from seven floors up, through prejudice and self-justification, will more likely (however unwittingly)do not believe it could be a reality of their lives.


In sum, given that money itself does not discriminate, and given the overwhelming evidence that there are obstacles to wealth other than the personal failure to achieve the ‘American Dream’, we must look for a fuller explanation of the gap between the rich and the poor. The relationship between affluence and poverty consists not only of objective forces such as new forms of wealth production or characteristics of new economic eras, but more concretely of prejudice. The very real obstacles to wealth encountered by specific societal groups, and embedded in our social and legal structures ,are not only due to the transference of values from one generation to the next, but due to the continued need for self-justification among the affluent. The product of self-justification, prejudice, is the link between affluence and poverty that needs to be analyzed and addressed if social policies concerning poverty are to be effective.





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