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Priorities: The New Poor Versus The Old Poor

Who will get prioritized? The old poor or the new poor? This is a serious dilemma. And my experience says that when middle class people lose things, everyone rushes to buy them replacement houses, cars, etc. But if you are poor, they are only gonna replace your poverty.
The "New Poor" Versus The "Old Poor": Who Gets Prioritized?
By Kirsten Anderberg (www.kirstenanderberg.com)

(I wrote this article in 2004, but it is as relevant to the Katrina situation as any article I could write now, so I am republishing it.)

We have all heard the terms "old money," and "new money" with regards to familial wealth. "Old money" is perceived to be more noble, and more dignified in stature somehow. "New money" is considered superficial, transitory, or even happenstance. These same concepts can be applied to the poor. And what is interesting is the way society will try to separate out the "new poor" from the "old poor" when determining who to give aid to. The "new poor" are treated as more deserving of help. And indeed, the "new poor" are easier to help, as they are not entrenched in poverty from all angles, 5 feet deep, yet. The "old poor" often have harder attitudes and edges due to the prolonged crisis of poverty, and often are less graceful with the hands that feed them. Their "polish" in dealing with charity and welfare agencies wore off over the years, as they identified their fate as a side effect of a malfunctioning capitalist society, not a fate borne of their innate inferiority or laziness. So "new poor" happens *to* someone and it is not their fault, so we give them lots of help with no stigma. But the "old poor" *create* their own poverty, thus they should not be helped. That constructively, is the philosophy involved. We see time and again, that Americans love to help those who are not the most in need of help. I do not know why that is. But it seems to be the American way.

We see that society is eager to help home owners who lose estates in Florida from tropical storms, or from fires in Malibu Canyon in California. But society is not so eager to help those who never owned a home to begin with. I remember reading in the New York Times, just after 9/11/01, about a new widow who had people give her money so she could keep her pool cleaner coming, as if this was some heroic gesture on the part of her friends and strangers. Yet no one seems to care about the widow living on the streets of NYC, who cannot afford food or shelter, much less a pool or pool cleaner. Oprah recently gave away new cars to every studio audience member, to mostly people who already own cars. If she had given a new car to an entire audience of homeless people, she would have given them transportation, a place to sleep, and a place to keep food, clothing and belongings. But instead she gave a second car to most of her audience that day. Just what they all needed.

The rush to help everyone *but* the truly poor is an interesting phenomenon. Perhaps people are doing an unspoken triage. People are thinking there are poor folks who will survive without our help. Then there is a group that will not survive without our help, such as the 9/11 widow who would have had a dirty pool lest she clean it herself which is preposterous. And then there are the poor folks who have sunk too far into poverty to save sans huge, sustained, long-term efforts. In the last class, we have truly poor people that we abandon altogether, such as people who have been homeless for 10 years. The middle group only requires token aid, and thus is the maximized venture for those wanting immediate glory or brownie points for helping the poor. It requires the least input for the maximum accolades. And appears to be America's choice group for charity.

In the aftermath of Florida's recent barrage of tropical storms, I am sure the "old poor" are slipping under the radar of powers that be, to utilize programs set up for the "new poor." Programs no one would facilitate for the "old poor." I saw this in full play after the 7.1 earthquake in 1989 in Santa Cruz, Ca., that collapsed the Oakland freeway. Santa Cruz at that time had a large homeless population. Then the quake hit. And suddenly middle class families were temporarily homeless, due to structural damage to the homes they owned. A shelter was set up at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, with beds, blankets, food and water. We had torrential rains after the quake, so the homeless population showed up to use these cots, dry blankets, food, etc., these things that were set up for middle class quake victims apparently. There was a public uproar when suburban families complained about having to sleep next to "bums" in the shelter. A move was made to separate out the "old poor" from the "new poor," but it failed. The "old poor" just lied, saying they had been living somewhere that was now ruined. I remember the end result being something like the homeless population took over most of that shelter and the middle class people went somewhere else, probably motels, and the shelter was shut down earlier than it would have been if it had been used by middle class families instead of homeless poor folks.

This also played out in the Northridge earthquake in 1994. (Yes, I have a propensity for earthquake epicenters). My building collapsed and my son and I needed clothing, food, shelter, etc. immediately. The Red Cross required I prove my home address and that my building had collapsed. How I was supposed to hunt that down, without being allowed into my home, the day after the quake, was beyond me. Finally, a fire chief came into the Red Cross station I was at, and announced every building on my block was condemned, so anyone living in that area was automatically cleared for services. I was finally able to prove my address from something I was able to get out of my car. But if I had been homeless and hungry, like everyone else in that shelter, but had been so before the quake as well, the Red Cross apparently was not interested in helping us at all.

As conditions degraded in the San Fernando Valley in the days after the Northridge quake, water and food were a hassle to obtain. Lines of people wound around blocks waiting to buy food and water from grocery stores. Since the stores were damaged themselves and aftershocks kept on coming, customers were not allowed to go inside the stores. You would finally get to the front of the line, give a list to a clerk, they would go risk their lives in a building too unstable to allow the public in, and would bring what you wanted up front and you paid in cash. Another option was to wait in long lines at local high schools for the National Guard to give you 5 gallons of water to put in a container you brought to the site. I was not enthused about standing in the hot sun for hours to get water. I wondered if I drove my old Dodge Dart to a part of town with more money, if I would find water easier. And sure enough, I did.

Unlike the long lines for food and water in the San Fernando Valley, the National Guard was literally sitting at I-5 off ramps giving out free cases of bottled water to families in the middle class white suburbs of Santa Clarita, which is only a few miles north of the San Fernando Valley. Santa Clarita had suffered hard blows from the quake too, it was not like they were in an area with little to no damage. They had enough damage to bring in the National Guard with water and to warrant Red Cross stations be set up there. But somehow their water was flowing freely, while people were fighting for water down in San Fernando, which has a large Latino population and a larger low-income population. In addition to the cases of water just sitting by the off ramps in Santa Clarita, the Red Cross stations there also had an abundance of water and encouraged me to take a case of bottled Evian water with me when I left. Unlike the Red Cross shelters in San Fernando which were full, the Santa Clarita shelters were completely empty. Why the Red Cross could not transport the extra water and beds from Santa Clarita to San Fernando is beyond me. Additionally, why the National Guard was literally sitting by road sides with cases of water when they could have driven those cases of water into San Fernando is beyond me as well. But this seems to be the pattern. Money and aid is given to that middle group in social triage first and foremost.

We saw this type of thing during the Depression Era in America as well. As more and more people became unemployed, homeless and hungry, the lines between the "new poor" and the "old poor" blurred. Many efforts were made to separate the two for aid. And just as we see today, somehow business ends up as one of those in line for aid as well, as masses grow poorer. Just like Bush's tax break for the rich in America nowadays, we saw Hoover's response to the Depression was to create the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, which gave federal aid to "agriculture, commerce and industry." Apparently, big business becomes the "new poor" worthy of aid at some point as well!

When a tropical storm creates homelessness, there is help available. When an earthquake creates homelessness, there is help available. But when capitalism creates homelessness, who do you call to cover that emergency? And when would that aid be able to cease? After the 1994 quake, I was stunned to find one of the pieces of furniture that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) felt was an essential, that had to be replaced, even at government expense, was a television! When folks fill out their loss forms for FEMA now after these Florida storms, they will be asked if they had a TV. If they say yes, and they qualify for FEMA aid, FEMA will buy them a new TV. Priorities such as these are both telling and predictable. When given the choice, it appears most Americans would prefer to help the "new poor" over the "old poor." People really need to think about this concept of the "new poor" and the "old poor" to assess their own motives for helping the poor.

Why were we willing to give endless money to upper-middle class commodities brokers' families who suffered after the 9/11 tragedy, but not to wives of sugar cane workers in Florida whose husbands suffer machete injuries at phenomenal rates without any health insurance, to feed America's sugar addictions? Nor are we willing to donate money to the African-American women whose husbands and sons have been shot in cold blood by trigger happy police who supposedly did no wrong? How do we choose who to help? How do we prioritize the needs of *all* poor people? The Red Cross tried to divert some of the 9/11 contributions to general Red Cross funds to help places with serious poverty conditions of famine, etc., and Americans threw fits over that. Americans demanded the money stay in the pool for those not starving to death in America, for 9/11 victims, such as widows of well-to-do property-owning commodities brokers, among other more worthy candidates, for aid. As you can see, this prioritizing new and old poverty expands beyond the microcosm of America. It extends out to who we help internationally, in the macrocosm, as well. Which countries are prioritized for aid from America and why? Certainly those in the most dire need do not shoot to the top of the list for help. We need to take some time out to seriously study our priorities and motivations regarding aid to the poor, in the microcosm of America, and in the macrocosm of the world, with relation to these artificial divisions between the classes of the "new poor" and the "old poor."

homepage: homepage: http://www.kirstenanderberg.com

This is really good writing soldier... 03.Sep.2005 12:22

ROD PITMAN rodpitman9@hotmail.com

Does anyone out there know of a way to hyperdrive this article into the search engines so that it appears right away? This is good stuff. This made my day.

yeah - more kudos here 06.Sep.2005 09:24


I saw this post because I linked from Alas a Blog. I plan to print it and hang it in my cubicle at work. Be great though if it got a much wider audience.