Poverty is Not a Crime, So Stop Trying to Punish Poor People

by Altheria Gaston

I am in the early stages of writing a dissertation that focuses on the realities of single, Black mothers experiencing poverty. One of my goals is to reveal the extent to which the women’s everyday lives reflect and/or contradict commonly held beliefs about the opulent lifestyles they supposedly live. I want to learn more about how they came to be the women they are, their aspirations, and how their self-identifications reveal who they really are, as opposed to stereotypical depictions. This interest was spawned by an unanticipated conversation with a stranger at a sports bar.

As I walked in the door, an older couple yelled, "Go frogs!” I made the horned frog sign with my fingers and replied, "Go frogs!"

 They beckoned me to the table, so I walked over to say hi while my party went to our table. The husband, who looked to be in his late-70's or early 80's asked me if I had graduated from TCU (Texas Christian University). I replied, "I'm there now pursuing my doctorate in education." The wife said that she graduated from TCU in 1961.

 The casual TCU small-talk was going well until he made comments along the lines of, "I'm so glad you're taking advantage of your opportunities by getting an education. So many Black women don't want to do anything but have babies and collect welfare checks. And hardworking people like us have to take care of them. They have no excuse for not making something out of their lives like you're doing. Things are different now. I own several businesses and have lots of Black people working for me, and I tell them to make something of their lives. I encourage them to go to school or open their own businesses. I just don't know what to say about all these Black women on welfare. Look at you. You went to school and got an education."

Unfortunately, this is the mainstream narrative about low-income Black single mothers, often referred to as “welfare queens.” His diatribe represents how widely a single story about Black mothers who are poor and use government support has been injected into the consciousness of many Americans, especially politicians who attempt to enact legislation restricting government benefits to recipients. The latest iteration (a few years ago, it was drug testing in Tennessee) involves politicians in Missouri and Kansas.
Now, a Republican state lawmaker in Missouri is pushing for legislation that would… severely limit what food stamp recipients can buy. The bill being proposed would ban the purchase with food stamps of 'cookies, chips, energy drinks, soft drinks, seafood or steak.'
If House Bill 2258 is signed into law by Gov. Sam Brownback (R) this week, Kansas families receiving government assistance will no longer be able to use those funds to visit swimming pools, see movies, go gambling, or get tattoos on the state’s dime.
These proposed restrictions are not just about the prudent use of government funds or a concern about the health and wellbeing of children. Instead, they are part of a historical narrative about the deserving and undeserving poor, and at the center of this narrative is the poor Black woman who sits at the intersection of class, race, and gender oppressions. The image (not necessarily the reality) of the welfare queen is a Black woman, and she is often the preferred poster child of the undeserving poor. Undoubtedly, this racialization and feminization of poverty contribute to the political decisions behind welfare reform and Kansas’ and Missouri’s pending limitations on the use of funds given to welfare and food stamp recipients.

Here are five reasons why the Missouri and Kansas legislation should NOT be enacted:
  1. These “use-only-for” limitations impose barriers that might deter those who need these benefits from utilizing them, which means that many women and children may lack their basic needs. 
  2. These “use-only-for” limitations seem punitive in nature. They punish families for needing government assistance by restricting their purchasing freedom. Provision shouldn’t feel like punishment.
  3. These “use-only-for” limitations add to the shame that many welfare and food stamp recipients already feel. Imagine being in the grocery store feeling anxious about your food selections because you know you’re being monitored. Imagine the embarrassment of having your basic purchases denied because they are not allowed. 
  4. These “use-only-for” limitations make powerful statements about who deserves luxury food items (steak and seafood). In essence, these lawmakers are saying, “You’re not good enough for/to . . .”
  5. These “use-only-for” limitations detract from the overarching issues about race, class, and gender inequities that cause some groups, mainly low-income women of color, who disproportionately receive government benefits. Melissa Harris-Perry wrote in Sister Citizen, “Issues of race, gender, and class inequality that affect black women’s lives in America point to problems embedded in the fabric of the nation.” Attempts to reform discriminatory institutions through restrictions like the ones lawmakers in Missouri and Kansas are proposing are like using spit to put out a forest fire.
Whether we utilize government assistance or not, we need to push back against the policing of women of color. These restrictions are classist, sexist, and racist and preserve a broken social, political, and economic system that leave women of color on the bottom layer of stratification in a society built on the ideals of freedom and equality. I find it ironic that the same groups advocating for freedom from restrictions for wealthy business owners are seeking to regulate the poor. This is an issue of power and privilege, not misuse and abuse.

It is my hope that my research will illuminate the reality of the conditions in which these women find themselves. Perhaps this and similar scholarship can be used to inform future legislation that improves the plight of the poor.

Photo: Shutterstock

Altheria Gaston is a doctoral candidate in the College of Education at Texas Christian University. She’s working on a dissertation studying the experiences of African-American women who are poor. If you would like to participate in her study, please email her at altheria@icloud.com.

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