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Classism : Misperceptions and Myths about Income, Wealth and Poverty


  • Refers to discriminatory attitudes and actions toward others based on their low socio-economic status
  • The negative messages that our culture has historically produced that assert people living in poverty are deficient or inferior represent cultural classism
  • these negative cultural messages constitute one factor influencing the process by which Americans have learned to devalue poor people

History of People in Poverty: England

  • While there was a well-established tradition of caring for the poor as a religious obligation, the number of poor people increased dramatically in 14th and 15th Century Europe.  
  • In response, England enacted vagrancy laws to discourage beggars and vagrants.
  • In the 1600spoor houses were established that provided food and shelter, but their residents had to work for their keep.  The poor houses were never intended to offer compassionate care; they were meant to frighten people into finding work and to discourage them from applying for aid. 
  • The stigma attached to poorhouses was one of shame and far, and the physical conditions were repugnant.
    • overcrowded; many residents suffered from contagious diseases; no medical care or food
  • These strategies did not address the issue of poverty but rather to rid the country of the poor.  
  • This reaction to poverty became an attitude that colonists brought to America

History of People in Poverty: Colonial America

  • To reduce the burden of poverty in communities, colonists in America made potential settlers “prove” they were able to care for themselves. 
  • They could be voted out of the community if they failed to provide they could care for themselves
  • Poverty was a consequence of sin and slothfulness and viewed the wealthy as being rewarded for thrift and virtue

History of People in Poverty: Institutions

  • Beginning in the early1800s, institutions became a solution to societal ills and housed criminals, the insane, orphans, juvenile delinquents, and the poor. 
  • The Protestant work ethic, the notion that hard work is essential and that reward comes from one’s willingness to work, was an ideology that permeated organizations and society.  
  • Poverty seemed to be proof of moral misconduct
  • these negative attitudes prevailed not only toward the poor but also toward the working poor who teetered on the edge of poverty

History of People in Poverty: The Working Poor

  • Supply and demand created a surplus of labor beginning in the late 19th  century
  • The influx of immigrants into the United States created competition for jobs and led to high unemployment.  Companies paid very low wages because of surplus of labor
  • The Industrial Revolution brought the rapid development and use of machines that replaced manual labor, which compounded the problem of unemployment and low wages

History of People in Poverty: The 1900s 

  • Unsafe working conditions, low wages, and rising number of injuries or deaths in the workplace stimulated the rise of unions.
  • Workers compensation laws were passed in the early 1900s.  
  • The debate over fairness for employees and fairness for employers continued until the Great Depression when widespread unemployment demanded an “aggressive response” from the federal government.
  • During President Roosevelt’s first term, a third of the US labor force was unemployed.  He passed the Federal Emergency Relief Act (FERA) which provided assistance to people suffering from poverty.  
  • It ended a tradition of state and local governments having total responsibility for the Poor. 
  • Started the development of federal programs such as Civilian Conservation Crops and The Works Progress Administration, federal programs that provided jobs. 
  • Because of the federal remedies to economic challenges of the 1930s society developed new perceptions of poverty and the role of government.
  • Despite this, there were still some Americans who cling to old attitudes and persist in accusing poor people of deficiencies as a cause of their poverty.

Individual Classism

  • Defined as discriminatory attitudes and actions stemming from prejudice against poor people.
  • According to a poll in 2000, 77% of Americans believe  that most unemployed people could find a job without much difficulty if they made an effort.  
  • In contrast to Europeans, Americans are more likely to blame poor people for their poverty, assigning factors such as lack of effort, lack of ability, or loose morals. 
  • “Blaming the victim” mentality overlook the fact that children represent the largest percentage of poor people in the United States and the numbers are rising. 


Addressing Disadvantages for Children in Poverty

  • The most disadvantaged children are those that are homeless
  • In 2003, President Bush promoted the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) which required rigorous testing of students and identifying students not achieving designated test scores.
  • Schools whose students do not reach testing benchmarks risk losing federal funding. Other penalties include replacing all or most staff, extending the school year or school day, or contracting with an outside entity to operate the school
  • The NCLB was rejected by most educators and most states


Myths About Welfare

  • Children represent two thirds of welfare recipients.  Despite this, the following myths have fostered Americans’ negative or hostile attitudes and actions toward welfare recipients
  • Welfare rolls are increasing – The number of people on welfare is increasing but so is the population
  • Welfare families are large.  The average size of families receiving welfare is 2.9 children down from 4.0 children thirty years ago.
  • People on welfare have a comfortable life by abusing the welfare system.  Actually, most of the families on welfare receive benefits that raise their income to levels that are still 25-40% below the poverty line
  • The government only helps people on welfare.  Government bailouts of wealthy corporations cost the average taxpayer $1400 every year, as opposed to $400 per year that is spent on welfare and food stamps
  • Welfare recipients are too lazy to get a job.  Two thirds of Americans receiving assistance are children, and many states penalize adults on welfare $1 for every $1 they earn
  • Welfare recipients stay on welfare forever.  Studies have shown that 30% of welfare recipients leave the program within a year 


Institutional Classism

  • While individual classism is problematic in a society, institutional classism has contributed even more to wealth and income disparity
  • They refer to institutional practices and policies that exploit low-income people and benefit middle or upper class individuals. 
  • Tax breaks for wealthy individuals and corporations are examples  of institutional classism


What can be done about poverty

  • Provide services to address critical needs such as nutrition and housing
  • Subsidize child care services for low-income women so they can go to school or work
  • Raise the minimum wage and strive for a living wage
  • Restructure public school funding to foster equitable education
  • Provider targeted, progressive tax relief for low-income families
  • Offer tax incentive for corporations to locate in inner cities in order to provide jobs and halt urban deterioration
  • Strengthen educational opportunities in low-income areas through Head start programs and increases in teacher salaries
  • Increase the opportunity for affordable housing through efforts like the voucher program
  • Maintain reasonable regulations of the private sector concerning job discrimination

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