Poverty: The Difference Between A Reason and An Excuse

Jose Vilson Jose

Fresh Produce

The vegetables in the local grocery stores still rot, years after studies have shown that poor neighborhoods always get the stale and less desirable groceries. As if the residents here deserve any less than equitably fresh tomatoes, yellow ready-ripe bananas, and lettuce that doesn’t need multiple rinsing. People in this citadel get exposed to Whole Foods, Dean and DeLuca’s, and the occasional supermarket, but everyone knows those unsullied, luminous vegetables weren’t exactly meant for them, even when it’s right in their neighborhoods. These places cater to a certain economic class, a class the cashiers can rarely claim they’re members of. But it’s no excuse, but it’s a reason for them not to eat vegetables.

That’s how I’ve always learned to view the racial, socio-economic disparities that we as a society perpetuate. As adults, we’re barraged with messages seeking to maintain the status quo, where certain people deserve to stay in their positions. The American dream has become synonymous with social Darwinism, and people on the extreme sides of this spectrum are more in tune with these ideas than those of us in the middle of it all. The ultra-rich subscribe to the idea that poor people should be poor because in this system, there are winners and losers. The ultra-rich’s existence is dependent on creating as many ultra-poor people as possible (and simultaneously eat bits away from the classes lower than theirs). The ultra-poor understand this more than others will let on, but because of the mechanisms working against them, including social prejudice, the ultra-poor continue to be so.

Recent studies have shown that the idea of socio-economic mobility (i.e. moving from one class to the next) had largely dissipated or stabilized. So few of us do it in fact, it makes me think about the message we send when we exhibit disdain for poor people, as if the mainstream media and entertainment represents the majority of them. I’m less concerned with race in this discussion, though I can speak more personally about my experiences within the Black and Latino (and partly, Asian) communities here.

I’m ambivalent about the phrase, “Poor people have no excuse.” What does that mean? Well, for me, it implies that the poor have no claim or case for saying that their situation continually stratifies them (or us, depending on how you look at it). That’s simply unfounded. However, I also try to be mindful of the strides so many of us have made to empowering ourselves economically, and the sheer determination it takes on any person’s end to make that happen.

That’s also where I prescribe to the ideas of positive thinking, community building, and love for self. There’s so much potential and human capital within our communities that we have every right to believe that we can achieve better living standards than what we have now. I don’t think most people want us to pity them or just hand too much out to them. Maybe this encapsulates the conversation better than I can:

“What if, rather than saying poverty is no excuse, we said there’s no excuse for allowing people to live in poverty?” – Bill Ivey

True. Maybe instead of spending billions of dollars a year on war, prison construction, and keeping corrupt financial institutions standing, we’ll work on infrastructure that allows education to stay equitable and unequivocally affordable for all, and make living conditions such that the strain on the average family is significantly decreased.

Oh right. And nicer vegetables. Definitely nicer vegetables.

Jose, who’s learned that a good salad for lunch can go a long way …