Your Job: Change Narrative on “Deadbeat Poor”

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September 27, 2012; Source: Classism Exposed

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s contention that almost half of the American population is looking for a handout and expects to be taken care of by a paternal or maternal government—or perhaps by charity—rather than working suggests that nonprofits’ clients and constituents are freeloaders, not interested in working hard to better their circumstances. In a Classism Exposed blog posting from the Boston-based group Class Action, intern Veronica Quiles described an interaction with Latino eighth graders in a public school summer program. The students were asked to stand along a line representing a spectrum of whether they agreed—or how much they agreed—with the statement that “if you work hard, you can get ahead.” Quiles reported that they all pretty much stood at the “agree” point.

But when asked for where they stood on the question, “Do you believe your parents or guardians work hard?” they all positioned themselves at “strongly agree.” The students were actually angry about the question and voiced their concerns. One said, “My mom works two jobs. She goes to work at 4 a.m. and isn’t able to get home until 8 p.m. She works as a cleaning lady in a hotel. That’s a lot of work.” When asked, “Do you think people who make more money than them work harder?” the students repositioned themselves at the don’t-agree point of the line.

This story has relevance to nonprofits. Many (including the NPQ Newswire) have taken on the Republican presidential nominee for the factual errors in his 47 percent comment about non-taxpayers—his failure to recognize the proportion that actually receives support from Earned Income Tax Credits, a policy originating with Republicans, his failure to acknowledge how many of the people ostensibly not paying taxes actually pay wage taxes, his failure to recognize that a proportion of the non-taxpayers happen to be afflicted with a condition known as poverty which puts them below certain tax thresholds, etc.

But the nonprofit sector also has to take on the insinuation that the 47 percent really isn’t interested in working or doesn’t work, favoring handouts instead. That is a mischaracterization of the clientele of nonprofit service providers and others, and it may reflect a telling lack of exposure on the part of Romney to the dynamics of America’s low income citizens. Having made his fortune in private equity, he may not know exactly how difficult it is to try to survive as a family on public assistance or unemployment or even simply low wages. Des he realize how many families, like the young girl’s parents in that eighth grade class, work two or more jobs in order to put food on the table and send their kids to school?

To be fair, we suspect Romney is not alone in his misinformed perspective. It’s truly up to the nonprofit sector to set the story straight about what poor people actually do to survive in this increasingly class-stratified country.—Rick Cohen

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this newswire referred to Class Action intern Veronica Quiles as “teacher Veronica Quiles.” Quiles taught students but is not, by title, a teacher. NPQ regrets the error.

  • MiddleChanger

    Thank you Rick for your article. I agree that the nonprofit sector must do a better job of sharing our constituents lives (struggles); however, it is their struggles that we use to fundraise. In proposals, it’s what we put in The Need section and in annual appeals it’s the center story of why we should care.

    There is a disconnect between those who struggle and the stories we tell to engage donors. Sometimes it’s because our communications team isn’t our programs team and sometimes it’s our own internalized attitudes about marginalized communities. But I think an added player in all of this is what motivate those who give and the underlying motivateion of why. Is it about the many children unable to go to school because of no shoes or about those students who go to school shoeless, regardless.

  • Pat

    I know exactly what you are talking about – I worked for non-profits for close to 50 years and saw how hard people worked or tried to find jobs. How a lot of them did not have a high school diploma but were pursuing that in their 30’s in hopes of getting a better job.

    I also know now that I am retired, how difficult it is to live on social security and a very, very small pension of $100 a month.
    It isn’t easy at all. I doubt if Romney as well as Ryan have experienced that in their grown up years. And seeing as Romney is close to retirement age, he is set for life. Perhaps he should consider retiring overseas so the US can’t tax all of his offshore acoounts. If that team is elected, the poor class will only grow and the rich will get richer. Women’s rights that women worked for for years will be down the tubes with this pair as well as gay rights and slavery perhaps not as some of us remember it, will once again show up in this country. I really think the US will slip into a mudhole unless the legislature can start working together and support the president and his appointees. Perhaps in 2016, we will have an all woman ticket elected to the White House – then we will see a lot more working across party lines for the good of the American people.