By Samantha Barreras –
The Asheville Poverty Initiative (API) is designed to teach area residents what it means to experience poverty and/or homelessness.
The knowledge gained from and shared by Poverty Scholars—so named because of their empirical knowledge and personal experience—can teach the privileged students at the private liberal arts Warren Wilson College the “Realities of Poverty.”
That was the title of a recent event sponsored by the college, which educated the students in part by blurring the lines that divide people who live in poverty from people who don’t. The program aims to uplift voices that often go unheard, and to destroy stigmas and stereotypes about the homeless and impoverished communities in the Asheville area.
Listening to the unheard
The student group, in conjunction with the scholars, focused on nine realities that impoverished people must deal with every day: childcare, education, healthcare, food security, law enforcement, housing, employment, transportation, and social support systems. The Realities of Poverty event demonstrated how intertwined these factors can be, and how hard it can be to rely on a sometimes unreliable system.
The long arc of history points up how the United States has operated as a country when it comes to social welfare and policy. Structural inequalities—cultural, legal, and de facto biases—have long contributed to discrimination against those living in poverty; many continue to impact the lives of the poor today.
Most job applications require applicants to provide their address. Applicants who don’t have a home may lose out, either because the hiring entity requires a permanent address, or simply due to the stigma of being homeless. The Yale Law Journal highlights a movement called “Ban the Address,” which calls for eradication of the address requirement on job applications, and pushes employers to not ask about residency until the job has already been offered. (Golabek-Goldman, “Ban the Address: Combating Employment Discrimination against the Homeless,” The Yale Law Journal, 2017)
It’s hard to discuss employment without bringing up the issue of education. Higher education is viewed as a privilege, and those who aren’t able to receive that privilege lose out when it comes to upward mobility. Average earnings for those with a high school diploma come to about $680 a week, or $35,000 a year. Those with a bachelor’s degree earn an average of $1,137 per week, or $59,124 a year. That is a whopping $24,000-dollar wage gap—a 69% difference—between those with a college education and those without.
Discrimination against anyone, white or black, who lives in poverty is wide-ranging, but racial discrimination also contributes to poverty. In 2013 the website Social Watch cited a United Nations human rights expert who pointed out that minorities are disproportionally affected by poverty. The link between poverty and racism reflects the fact that lack of quality education, housing, and healthcare all combine to perpetuate racial and ethnic discrimination and pave the way for poverty to move through generations.
Another poverty-related issue, which is equally tainted by racial discrimination, is the frequency of run-ins with law enforcement. In our current social climate, it’s impossible to ignore the rift between law enforcement and people of color.
While 52% of people killed by police in the United States are white and 31% are black, the disparity becomes blatantly visible in light of the actual population sizes: white people make up 63% of our population, and black people make up only 13%. Thus the rate of deaths of blacks at the hands of police is 2.5 times greater than their numbers would suggest, while that of whites is 20% lower than their population.
Seeing large numbers of blacks arrested or killed embeds stereotypes that reflect bias rather than actual rates of crime; such widely held and broadcast stereotypes make it easier for the system to oppress the already oppressed.
Knowledge is power: learning first-hand the realities of poverty from those who endure it, coupled with research-based studies, allows participants in the Asheville Poverty Initiative to gain deep insight by crossing paths with those whose circumstances are otherwise completely unfamiliar to them. A clear line divides the communities of poverty and wealth, a line tied firmly to structural and systemic disparities designed to maintain the distance between the two groups.
For this participant, a clear lesson that emerged from the Realities of Poverty event was that policy—official and casual—is interwoven with the personal experiences of those with little or no wealth; our society must work on everything in between in order to ensure social welfare and equality for all. And, of course, one must re-fuel the fire in the belly to advocate and make noise about the various inequalities faced by those living in poverty.
Warren Wilson College student Samantha Barreras participated in the Realities of Poverty event and wrote about her experience. This article is adapted from her scholastic report.