What Do the Poor Deserve?

Sam Fulwood III examines how outrage over a recent photo in The Times-Picayune reflects the contempt that some people silently harbor toward the poor.

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Since former President Ronald Reagan first used the term welfare queen, the perception that most people in public housing are living the lush life has persisted, causing public outrage at a recent image of a boy in a poor New Orleans neighborhood using an iPad. (AP/Scott Stewart)
Since former President Ronald Reagan first used the term welfare queen, the perception that most people in public housing are living the lush life has persisted, causing public outrage at a recent image of a boy in a poor New Orleans neighborhood using an iPad. (AP/Scott Stewart)

To some people, there’s something very wrong about this picture. Do you see what it is?

This frozen frame captures 8-year-old Michael Smith Jr. sitting on the steps of a public housing complex playing with an iPad. Ayanna Gabriel, 12, looks over his shoulder, as two other men stand nearby, apparently talking amicably with each other. But there’s a lot more going on here than meets the eye.

Let me help by setting the context for the photograph. Rusty Costanza, a staffer at The Times-Picayune, snapped this street scene to accompany a story that appeared Wednesday on the front page of the New Orleans newspaper. The article detailed the health concerns that some residents of a public housing development held toward the impending implosion of a nearby hotel. Seems Louisiana officials made special accommodations to evacuate folks who lived within a 600-foot radius of the demolition but declined to do anything to protect the residents in the 400-apartment Iberville housing complex some 725 feet away. The photo shows some of the people likely in the area when the hotel was blown down early Sunday morning.

So, again, what’s wrong with this picture? It has little to do directly with the substance of the news article, which I find alarming enough. Maybe you don’t see what’s wrong in the photo because the offense is too subtle. To tell the truth, I didn’t figure it out either until some Facebook friends, who are having quite a discussion about this photo, explained it to me.

It’s the iPad!

The photograph seemingly shows a poor black child with an expensive piece of faddish technology. Such incongruity was too much for a great number of people in New Orleans to accept, said Jarvis DeBerry, who noted as much Sunday in his Times-Picayune column.

“Readers called and emailed … to express their anger,” DeBerry wrote, arguing their outrage was misguided. He continued:

The idea that most people in public housing are living the lush life has persisted for at least as long as presidential candidate Ronald Reagan started using the offensive “welfare queen.” But you ought to take a walk through Iberville if you think its residents are living like royalty. Walk through and see if you’d exchange their thrones for yours.

For reasons that I strongly suspect are related to many Americans’ attitudes regarding race, class, and culture, this photo unleashed the often-unstated contempt that some people silently harbor toward the poor. In the relative anonymity of cyberspace, many felt comfortable letting their true feelings be known. “What is a poor kid doing with an iPad?” asked one. “How can he afford such a luxury?” questioned another. “That’s what’s wrong with those people!” complained yet another commenter.

DeBerry heard those comments and worse ones. He told me during a phone conversation that this column prompted more than 344 online comments, more than any other in his seven years as columnist. Most of them expressed varying degrees of outrage that Michael held an iPad in the photo. “People seem to have judgments about the poor and why they are poor,” he told me. “It’s just a visceral response when they see something that somebody has when they don’t think they should have it.”

To be sure, such public attitude isn’t new. Indeed, it’s often spurred on by conservative activists to undermine efforts to garner public support for increased assistance to needy Americans. My Center for American Progress colleagues Melissa Boteach and Donna Cooper made this clear in a recent smackdown of conservative arguments that distort the national tragedy of poverty. “To help justify this assault, the Heritage Foundation released its latest distorted picture of poverty in America,” Boteach and Cooper wrote in 2011. “The purpose: To suggest poor families have it too good for the government to worry about them anymore.”

It’s likely such arguments will resurface soon, as U.S. Census figures are expected to disclose a rise in the nation’s poverty rate to its highest level in nearly 50 years. According to the Associated Press, a broad array of economists, scholars, and observers seem in agreement that the official poverty rate is likely to rise from 15.1 percent in 2010 to as high as 15.7 percent later this year, when the figures are released in the fall. The AP report noted, “Poverty is spreading at record levels across many groups, from underemployed workers and suburban families to the poorest poor.”

In a Washington Post report on the rise in poverty, Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation dismissed the rising poverty rate as a reason to do more to assist struggling Americans. In fact, the Post noted his fears that progressive activists “may use a rising poverty rate to justify additional spending on the poor, when in fact, he says, many live in decent-size homes, drive cars and own wide-screen TVs.”

Courtney Baker, who studies coded racial messages and images in society as an English professor at Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut, suspects the antagonism toward the newspaper photograph reveals the conservative reluctance to engage public policies to combat poverty. She writes in the academic blog, NewBlackMan(inExile):

At the heart of the photograph of Smith with an (his?) iPad is the loaded question of what the poor deserve …. The rhetoric of deserving employs the toxic language of capitalist individualism that disavows the idea of collective reserves and resources. It is that same language—and that same logic—that spawned the image of the welfare queen and that continues to underwrite the dismissal of a national health care system. It is a language and logic system that treats the poor in general and the black poor especially as effective tenant farmers, as guests in a land who are not pulling their weight and have overstayed their welcome.

For some people, that high-tech gizmo jumped out from the newspaper photograph to assault their sensibilities. An iPad doesn’t fit into their mental matrix of objects that a poor child should own. But that’s such a narrow vision of how the poor should live. If nothing else, in the photo’s context, an iPad symbolizes a future filled with education, opportunity, and hope for a life that extends far out from Iberville’s public housing.

Anyone alarmed by the sight of that photo surely must believe the poor aren’t deserving of anything save the barest of survival necessities—if that much. What else could explain their anger at the sight of an 8-year-old black boy learning about a world beyond his immediate community with an iPad in his hands?

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.

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Sam Fulwood III

Senior Fellow

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