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Ideas & Stuff: How the poor are depicted, part 2

Robert Yager

InFriday's blog posting, we started to look at representations of the poor. These representations shape the public conversation about who "deserves" help from the State and charities. Today, we'll see how The Menacing Poor, The Suffering Poor, The Workless Poor, and the racialization of poverty.

The Menacing Poor

The poor are dangerous. They are not just a drain on society; they are a threat. Lurking in alleyways and moving in the shadows, this representation implies that those in poverty are violent, uncontrollable and, likely, beyond redemption. It’s best to steer clear of their neighborhoods. Instead of sympathy or charity, they need surveillance and discipline.

This photograph is part of a series produced by Yager on gang life in Los Angeles. Associating poverty with gangs and bandits or guns and thieves underscores the sense that people in poverty follow a different set of rules – or no rules – compared to the rest of society. The violence depicted here is a reminder to the viewer that poor areas are perilous areas. 

The Suffering Poor

Credit Artist: Nicolas Poussin
Winter or Floor or Le Deluge, 1660-1664

The poor are just unlucky. This representation highlights how the poor suffer unfairly, struggling against the horrors of the world. A tsunami has taken everything. A brutal war has ripped apart their society. Fear is a major part of poverty. The implication is that anyone could find themselves in such a tough situation. These images are often employed in advertising campaigns that seek donations. To the viewer the image is unsettling but it is impossible to turn away.

Poussin’s oil painting shows people desperately battling floodwaters. The boulders, lightening, and snake emphasize the feeling of doom. Their fate is out of their control. The nighttime setting and the grey color scheme capture the horror. The people sink to the bottom half of the frame and darkness creeps in from the top. This painting is lauded as the first of its kind. It inspired other artists to capture the poor in their suffering.

The Workless Poor

The poor are unemployed. Young, healthy, and willing to work, they are not to be blamed. This representation is similar to the images of the poor as unlucky, but it faults the economy, not the natural world. Onlookers are inclined to turn to the government or large corporations to solve poverty. The assumption is that a job with an income will eliminate poverty. 

Credit Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.

This picture was taken during the Great Depression. The number of people crammed into the frame shows the scale of the problem and that it requires a large-scale solution. The composition of the picture – with the wooden counter protecting the viewer from all the unemployed men – helps them not feel like ‘the teeming masses.’ Quite to the contrary, they look eagerness to contribute. Plus they are clean shaven, well dressed, and white which in the American psyche makes them a group deserving of sympathy.

Racialized Poverty

The poor are non-white - the Other. Starting in the late 1960, the US media’s depicted those living in poverty as disproportionately African-American or Hispanic. This is part of white America’s so-called ‘othering’ process in which they see the poor as different from themselves. Martin Gilens, who conducted some of the first research on this topic, says “the American public dramatically exaggerates the proportion of African Americans among the poor…such misperceptions are associated with greater opposition to welfare.”

Credit Gordon Parks

This photograph was part of a series taken for Life Magazine in the 1960s by their only African-American staff photographer, Gordon Parks. The series showed a family of 10 living in a cramped and cold New York apartment. Little Richard, shown here, ate plaster to stave off his hunger. Bessie’s desperation and exhaustion is palpable in the picture. This family became the face of urban poverty, despite the fact that they are not representative. Like all of these representations, this picture reduces the family’s full and complicated lives to a single moment.