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Ideas & Stuff: How the poor are depicted, part 1

Artist: Sir John Everett Millais

Everything from Lady Poverty to Welfare Queens

Close your eyes and conjure up an image of the ‘poor.’ Do the faces you imagine inspire sympathy or repulsion? Do their eyes reveal years of backbreaking work or an insipid laziness?

There are lots of different ways to depict poverty. As Owen Jones, a British writer and columnist, points out, people living in poverty are seen as everything from “salt of the earth” to “scum of the earth.” All of these portrayals reply on assumptions. But they also foster new assumptions that nudge the audience toward a certain response. 

Pictures of poverty are particularly powerful. Research shows they can influence public opinion, shape public policy, and determine how people give away money. In one study, all the subjects were given the same news clip about poverty but they were given different pictures to accompany the story. The subjects ended up basing their opinions more on the pictures than on the words.

Stuart Connor, a professor at the University of Birmingham, studies how poverty is represented. His work prompted me to look more closely at this topic and it forms the basis of much of the information here [full paper].

Today and Monday, we're going to look at different representations of poverty. They vary a lot. The poor are holy. No, they are slovenly. They are innocent. No, they are threatening.

These are not different types of poverty. They are simply representations or stereotypes. All the images simplify poverty’s causes, the individuals, and society’s response. But they influence our judgments and, thus, it is worth decoding them.

Today we'll look at representations of The Innocent Poor, The Poor Masses, The Working Poor, The Slovenly Poor, and heavenly poverty. Each has a different audience and impact. 

The Innocent Poor

The poor are innocent and deserve pity. This depiction of poverty makes the poor look vulnerable. They are not to be blamed for their circumstances. But at the same time, they are not given any agency and they are not seen as resilient. These images almost demand that onlookers help protect the poor.

Millais’ oil painting is of two vagrants who wander between towns playing the accordion and begging. One girl is just a child and the other is blind, demonstrating how innocent they are. The blind girls’ misfortune is emphasized by the fact that she can’t see the beauty of the arcing double rainbow. Just in case the audience fails to see the girls’ tragic situation and their duty to help, Millais has written on the blind girl’s collar ‘Pity the Blind.’

The Poor Masses

Credit Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.

The poor are the teeming masses. The multitude. The surplus. In this representation of the poor there is no effort to depict individuals or draw one face out of the crowd. This makes it particularly hard to identify with them. They have lost their humanity.  Images often capture the chaos and squalor associated with poverty. They fill and overfill public housing, migrant camps, and slums. The audience feels like there is a need for order and discipline. 

Riis personally experienced poverty in the 1870s. By the 1880s he was campaigning – as a writer, lecturer, and photographer – against the poor’s housing conditions. He was an activist but he also sensationalized poverty. In his bestselling book, How The Other Half Lives, Riis captured the darkness and the density of poverty stricken areas. The windowless room emphasizes the overcrowding. And the picture lacks a single, clear subject. Each glance seems to reveal another pair of legs and another person under a blanket. 

The Working Poor

The poor are workers. Sometimes the work offers them dignity. Other times it diminishes them. This representation captures the physical toll exacted by the work. Because it is born of the continual need to survive and not the promise of comfort or wealth, it is endless. Ultimately, it contorts and distorts the person. Even if this representation is dignifying it can still be romanticized. 

Credit Artist: Vincent van Gogh

Van Gogh produced numerous paintings of peasants working in the field. These faceless figures stoically perform backbreaking work. The snow captures the harshness of their lives – or as van Gogh called it ‘their roughness.’ The women endeavor to till the land and shape their environment but it appears the environment has won – shaping these poor, stooped women.

The Slovenly Poor

The poor are lazy. In this representation, poverty is the result of a person’s own idleness and their slovenly behavior. They are seen as ‘takers’ who are willing to sit back, collect handouts, and live the high life. Since the poor are a drain on society, the non-poor have no obligation to help them. Indiscriminate charity may actually be unhelpful, encouraging further laziness.

The notion of ‘welfare queens’ fits within this representation. Popularized by Ronald Reagan in the 1976 presidential campaign, this depiction suggests that indolence is coupled with promiscuity. Reagan’s example of a Chicago-based ‘welfare queen’ was later found to be exaggerated and sensationalized but the representation continues to be used in the popular discourse. Often images of females convey innocence and vulnerability but here they are associated with a lack of self-discipline.

Overweight and continuing to eat fast food, the women in this picture do not inspire sympathy. The crown donned by this ‘welfare queen’ is actually a trashy give away. And she shows no self-control with regard to her diet. In reality the onlooker knows nothing about these two women – not even whether they are on welfare - but they still judge them. This is one of the few images in which welfare queens are white; usually, it is a racialized term.

Holy Poverty

Credit Artist: Giotto di Bondone

The poor are divine and godly. This representation of poverty is common in some sects of Christianity. St Francis, for example, left his wealthy merchant family to live in poverty. For these Christians and those in many other religions, giving up earthly concerns is a path to spiritual purity and, ultimately, heaven. But there is a caveat: only voluntary poverty is idealized. Involuntary poverty is not redemptive.

This is a mural of St Francis’ ‘marriage’ to Lady Poverty. She’s wearing a tattered dress but looks serene. She ignores the little boys who pester her and those who worry about material possessions.

Come back tomorrow and see how poverty is racialized. Who wins? Who loses from these pictures of poverty?