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Sherry Linkon, co-director of the Center for Working Class Studies at Youngstown State University, explains,"In a culture that believes in the possibility of upward mobility, for anyone not to make it, there must be something wrong with them. Not the economic system, not the educational system, not the lack of social support, but you. It's why no one wants to admit they're working class. It means you failed. You didn't make it up the class ladder."
Our national Holy Grail of ever-increasing prosperity can be an inspiration for many, but for the working poor it's often a painful reminder of others' perceptions of their "failure." Americans don't like to think of poverty as a national problem anymore, but a look at the numbers tells the stark story -- a story that's only getting worse during the current wave of job losses. According to the US Census Bureau, there were 32.9 million people in this country living in poverty last year; of those, 22.7 million were white and 8.1 million were black. (There are approximately 229.7 million whites and 35.9 blacks living in the US.)
"The poor are often used to make us feel better and privileged -- at least we have a job, a decent home and values," says Linkon. "It also allows us to feel like "we're' different from "them'; that "we' are all the same and "they' are a problem that we need to solve. This stereotype helps create a group of people so far outside from everybody else that it erases the class differences that exist among the so-called middle class.
"Lots of the public discussion about welfare reform was built on the idea that the poverty class was almost disabled, and by their own choices," Linkon continued. "And if we force them to stop that behavior, they will change and become more like "us.' But if you really look at this stereotype, it just doesn't stand up. The minute we start to flesh out those kinds of characters and look at them as human beings, they almost always become more sympathetic."
Escaping the stigma
Ken Bryant knows all about prejudice against poor whites, poor Southern whites in particular. He's seen it all his life. Bryant, now an editor at a newspaper in South Carolina, agreed to talk to us for publication only if we didn't use his real name, reveal what Carolina town he's from or where he is employed. He says the stigma of a "white trash" youth isn't something he wants to deal with anymore.
"I grew up in a part of town called "The Panhandle,' which was pretty rundown -- holes in roofs, holes in porches, things like that. I mean, this was a part of town the mill folks looked down on; I had some school friends who weren't allowed to come to my house to play after school because of where I lived. My father left my mother after my little sister was born when I was four. I have an older brother who went into the Air Force. Momma worked in the spinning room at one of the cotton mills but she never could really make ends meet. I don't think she knew much about managing money and her parents and her sisters were 50 miles away so they couldn't help much. A lot of times I'd go to school without breakfast. Grammar school was a very rough time for me."
Ken was what is now called dyslexic. In the 1950s, he was considered a "dummy" because he couldn't read.
"That was the most frustrating, awful thing. I wanted to read, I had a huge curiosity about things, I had a good mind, but I just couldn't make out what the words I was looking at were saying. Looking back, it was really humiliating. Kids called me stupid and, being a kid, you know, I started to believe they were right.
Suddenly, midway through third grade, "it just cleared up," says Bryant. The words and sentences began to make sense and the kid who had been passed on to grade three even though he received mostly D's and F's, caught up with his classmates by the end of the year. By then, though, the family had moved to another rental home in another part of town and he was in a school attended primarily by kids from middle and upper middle class homes. The moron jokes disappeared, but the jibes about his family's poverty became brutal.
"Linthead, Patches, White Nigger, I heard it all from some of the meaner kids. I almost got used to that," Bryant explains. "What I never got used to was not being able to do some of the things the middle class kids did: going to the swimming pool in the summer -- my brother and I always swam in the river; county fairs; I didn't see a lot of movies growing up; anything, really, where you had to pay to get in, we were pretty much left out."