Your poverty-shaming is not going to get me off government assistance


I had a panic attack last night. It was a mild one triggered by working too long too late on my Udacity precalculus course, but the thoughts that came to me were only tenuously related to my progress in math. They took the form they’ve been taking for three years now: I am a thief. I am stealing from the taxpayers. I am a parasite. I am worthless. Everyone hates me. Everyone except my immediate family members would be happier if I were dead. Maybe I should kill myself.

It is worth noting that I am not suicidal. It is only during these intense spasms of shame that I chance to think such things, and the only reason I risked frightening my readers in this manner is that I need to convey how negative the effects of poverty-shaming can be. My spasms of shame are a direct result of how people in my life and the media have spoken to me about the poor, and they do not result in any inspirational displays of bootstrap-pulling. Rather, they distract me from my studies, kill my motivation, worsen my social skills, and ultimately keep me out of the workforce longer.

The story of how my mother and I ended up on government assistance is byzantine and tedious, involving a divorce, a foreclosure, an autoimmune disease (hers), an anxiety disorder (mine), and – as if to add a cinematic element – a tornado. There are literally millions of “OH SHIT I’M POOR WHEN DID THAT HAPPEN?!” stories out there; ours is not the point of this post. We weren’t on government assistance before, we are now, and we cannot remedy this at present. Taking into account my level of education and the East Tennessee economy, I would have to work three full-time jobs in order to support both my mother and myself without taking any federal or state monies whatsoever. How does one work a 120-hour week? Somehow, I have no motivation to start taking meth so I can work inhuman hours and get my sick mother bumped off medicare. It’s so un-American of me to be afraid of that, right?

I’ve thought of showing up at one of those weird organic farms that don’t use immigrant labor and saying “Hey, I’ve got a strong back and I am willing to sleep in the barn.” I’ve also thought of the coal mines in the Cumberland Mountains and the fishing boats of Alaska. But my family seems to think that I would do well in a STEM career, working in a lab or as a programmer, and in fact these are my dream jobs. My family believes in me. That’s why I have a computer.

My computer is my only nice thing – I don’t have a car, a nice phone, a nice television, nice clothes, or cable. I have to tell you this because I am begging your forgiveness for owning it.

I am already in your bad graces on account of the refrigerator.

You’re already mad about the fridge.

Even though I need the computer for my classes, it’s still a constant source of guilt. To quote someone I thought was my friend: “I wish I could afford a [technology thing] like the girl in front of me on food stamps.” A poor person may never have a technology thing, ever, not even if it was a gift or something they got back when they were middle class. I am stuck in a Shame Dilemma. I need my One Nice Thing if I wish to get off government assistance by becoming a skilled (or even white-collar) worker, but my ownership of this One Nice Thing is considered a profound transgression.

People who poverty-shame, like people who fat-shame, often say that they’re just trying to help. Shame is a form of motivation! The problem, as I’ve pointed out, is that it doesn’t work. The fact that my attempt to get an education is cast in a bad light by the poverty-shaming schema is very telling. It’s about hate, not help. It’s about needing someone to look down on in an anxious economic time.



It’s also about racism. Internet rants about those awful people on welfare often invoke stereotypes of the dark-phenotype urban poor, but rarely those of the pale-phenotype rural poor (the majority of people on welfare are pale-phenotype.) The “welfare mama” of the internet always has a hair weave and a manicure, not a salon tan and rhinestone cowboy boots. She always has a tricked-out Impala, not a jacked-up Ford. She’s on crack, not meth. This is strange to me, as I have a pale-phenotype neighbor who conforms to many negative welfare stereotypes…and a dark-phenotype neighbor who’s a hardworking, responsible nursing student!

I don’t want to kill myself. I want to work, travel to Germany and Costa Rica, and have the resources to be a generous giver. Yet poverty-shaming tells me that my only ambition should be to avoid the taunts of my social superiors, perhaps by going back in time to the 1950s and getting a job in a factory, or perhaps with a bullet to the head. Poverty-shaming strives to make me as ambitious as a cringing dog.


2 thoughts on “Your poverty-shaming is not going to get me off government assistance

  1. You’re absolutely right. Poor-shaming isn’t about helping, it’s about enjoying a smug sense of superiority. It’s also about coldly scrutinizing the cart of the EBT-user in front of you to see if they’re eating something pricier than Ramen noodles, carefully noting their clothes and nails to see if they look shabby enough, and then stalking them as they leave so that you can see if their car is too nice for a poor person. Then, you write a judgmental status about “welfare leeches” on Facebook. Ugh.

    Thank you for this excellent post.

  2. Young,

    I hope this request finds you well. HuffPost Live ( is hosting a panel discussion on Monday, September 30 at 5:30 pm ET/ 2:30 pm PT re: The shame that comes with accepting charity. While researching food insecurity, our guest Lorraine Berry learned a lesson in humility and charity that she wants to share with us on our show. You can read the Salon article with her story here.

    I came across this article and want to invite you on our broadcast to discuss it with the panel. Would you be interested? We’d love if you could join.

    We bring our guests on the show via webcam (preferably Google Hangout) and like to chat with them before they go on-air. We’ll also run a quick video quality test on Google Hangout to ensure all tech aspects run smoothly for the show. The discussion will be moderated by our host Nancy Redd and will last approximately 25 minutes.

    Let us know if this is of interest and I will give you the details. Thanks and take care.

    Athina Morris
    Associate Producer, HuffPost Live

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