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« Financial Crisis? Socialism to the Rescue! | Main | A Story for Our Time »


Distancing by Labeling

By Gerald Britt
September 20, 2008

'Young and irresponsible', 'illegal aliens', 'crack heads', 'alcoholics', 'unteachable', 'uneducated', 'disruptive', 'lazy', 'welfare queens', 'drop outs'.

These are the pejorative labels we put on the poor in order to distance ourselves from them and evade any thought of what we might do to help those whose quality of life might fall below our own. They are families on the margins whose dream is not to get to level of the super rich, but somewhere close to ours. I don't know about you, but the Urban Institute's profile of Low Income Wage Families sounds a lot like my family during times when we really struggled.

As I wrote yesterday, the genius of the dominant culture in recent years has been to get people making $35,000 a year to champion the interests of those who make $350,000,000. Exaggeration?

A little.

But by identifying with the wealthy allows us to distance ourselves from those whose challenges are so similar to our own.

It makes it easier to believe that those of us who have 'made it' (or think we are making it, or can make it) can ignore the fact that when the struggling fall through the cracks, it hurts all of us.

Unless you are worth about $350,000,000!

What do our struggling neighbors really look like? While the heads of low-income working families are likely to be younger and less educated than those of middle-income families, the large majority is over age 30 and has at least a high school education.

Of the heads of high-work, low-income families, 72 percent have at least a high school education and 76 percent are over age 30.

Compared to middle-income working families, low-income working families are disproportionately nonwhite and immigrant, although most are headed by native-born, white, and non-Hispanic adults.

High-work, low-income families are less likely than their middle-income counterparts to be headed by a U.S.-born citizen (69 versus 85 percent). And high-work, low-income families are almost three times more likely than middle-income families to have non citizen heads (27 versus 8 percent).

Health problems are more prevalent among low-income working families.

Sixteen percent of full-time workers heading low-income families report fair or poor health, compared with 7 percent of workers in middle-income families. Low-income adults working a moderate amount are even more likely to have health problems, with 25 percent reporting fair or poor health. Health problems may be contributing to their limited hours of work. Low-income families are also more likely than middle-income families to have a child in poor health.

On average, children in low-income households fare worse than children in higher-income households on a host of indicators.

Low-income children are more likely than higher-income children to live in stressful home environments and with parents reporting symptoms of poor mental health. Among school-age children and adolescents, those living in low-income families are less likely to be highly engaged in school activities and more likely to exhibit high levels of emotional and behavioral problems.

With the job-market downturn, families are working less and have lower incomes, as Labor markets have slacked considerably since early 2001.

Between 2000 and 2003, the number of people in low-income families with children increased from 30 to 32 percent of the population, and the proportion of all households with a full-time, full-year worker fell from 88 to 85 percent. Single-parent households were hit especially hard; they bore 37 percent of the loss in full-time, full-year employment while receiving only 8 percent of the increase in unemployment insurance benefits.

Few low-income working families receive welfare benefits; half receive help with a parent's or child's health insurance.

Only 5 percent of all low-income families with a full-time, full-year worker receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits. Fifty-two percent of these families have public health insurance coverage, reflecting a decline in employer-sponsored coverage, the creation of the State Children's Health Insurance Program, and many states' decisions to expand Medicaid eligibility.

Know anyone like this?

Or is it just easier to label?


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