How to politely challenge offensive generalizations about poor people?
August 24, 2014 8:41 PM   Subscribe

I regularly come across people who, in the course of conversation, make a comment that reinforces a stereotype about poor people -- for example, that poor people are just out to "game the system," or they're lazy, or they mustn't really be poor because they have a nice cell phone. How can I challenge their stereotypes in a way that is succinct and not unduly confrontational?

My career involves working closely with and on behalf of low-income and no-income people and families. Based on what I have seen and studied, I believe that poverty is largely created and perpetuated by systems and structures, like an unlivable minimum wage, lack of access to health care, lack of affordable housing, etc.

I regularly come across people who, in the course of conversation, make a comment that reinforces a stereotype about poor people -- for example, that they (or most of them) are just out to "game the system," or they're lazy, or they mustn't really be poor because they have a nice cell phone.

To make matters more awkward, these comments are sometimes made by someone with whom (or in a context in which) I'm not interested in getting into an argument. For example, this happened to me yesterday at a party my partner's friend hosted; I was making small talk with her during the party and she made a comment along the lines above.

I don't have a good method for dealing with these situations when they arise. I usually look at the speaker blankly and change the subject, which works in a fashion, I guess. But what I'd like to be able to do in moments like that is to make a brief statement that helps them understand I don't agree with them and that poverty is a bigger problem than a bunch of lazy people. Maybe something like, "Oh, of course some people will always try to take advantage of any system, but in my experience most poor people desperately need the help that's offered." Or is that too wordy? How can I challenge their stereotypes in a way that is succinct and not unduly confrontational?
posted by southern_sky to Human Relations (22 answers total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
"That's not my experience" and then change the subject. Anything more is asking for an argument.
posted by matildatakesovertheworld at 8:45 PM on August 24, 2014 [31 favorites]

"That's not my experience" is probably as neutral as you can get. If you want to invoke a conversation, "That's a big generalization. Have you ever met anyone who contradicted that stereotype? I have, and I've found that more people than not do not fit it at all" would be where I'd start.
posted by Hermione Granger at 8:48 PM on August 24, 2014 [3 favorites]

"You know, a lot of people feel this way. It's a funny thing. I work with a lot of these low-income families in my job and I meet a lot of people who've fallen through the cracks and are working to build a better life for themselves. There's a lot of good people out there."

Which effectively puts your conversation partner in a corner: If she contradicts you, she's a boor. If she repeats her position, she's a bore.
posted by mochapickle at 8:55 PM on August 24, 2014 [64 favorites]

If you're willing to put a little edge into it -- which I usually am, because the other person started the rudeness by being bigoted -- I'll say "Wow," and stop talking. If the other person doubles down or asks what's up, I'd say something like "I work with a lot of poor and lower income people as part of my job, and we hear a lot about attitudes like that -- although not usually so boldly stated, I must say." It's sort of the "it's not that I'm surprised you're an asshole, I'm just surprised you're so open about it" thing.
posted by KathrynT at 9:24 PM on August 24, 2014 [22 favorites]

Gosh, you know I feel the same way about corporations and taxes.
It's been my observation that every system invented will be gamed by some people. Take defense contractors, for example.
for starters.
posted by theora55 at 9:55 PM on August 24, 2014 [16 favorites]

My career involves working closely with and on behalf of low-income and no-income people and families. Based on what I have seen and studied, I believe that poverty is largely created and perpetuated by systems and structures, like an unlivable minimum wage, lack of access to health care, lack of affordable housing, etc.

If I were you, I would say exactly this.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 10:08 PM on August 24, 2014 [12 favorites]

I don't suppose you've been in poverty at some point yourself? Because I find that this is one of those rare situations where making it "about you" is actually a good thing. For instance, a friend says something about poor people being lazy, and I say something like, "Really? Huh. I had a full time job, back when I was homeless for a while..." By putting a face -- your face -- on the abstract, you've maneuvered them into the position of directly insulting you. Backpedaling ensues. (And, hopefully, some reflection later.)

This sounds confrontational, and it is. But it's not likely to start a fight, since few people are obtuse/rude enough to call someone lazy or a liar to their face. These folks are saying something they should be ashamed of, so there's no foul in making that clear.

Barring personal experience, there are other ways to viscerally humanize The Poor for those making such blanket statements. Perhaps you know a respected mutual friend, who both parties know to have suffered through lean times. Or, y'know, there's always the Jesus play!

My basic feeling is that most people who say this sort of stuff aren't as insensitive as they sound; when pressed, they'll usually regain some empathy that's been muted by years of personal success (or too much talk radio). It's easy to loose perspective. Remember that thing about me being desperately poor (above)? Yeah, today I get irritated by people begging me for money on the street, just like any other jackass.
posted by credible hulk at 10:13 PM on August 24, 2014 [11 favorites]

ask them if they feel the same type of derision for rich people who hide billions of dollars from American taxes in off-shore accounts. Ask them which do they feel hurts our country more, then explain to them in great detail (then numbers are staggering) how fucking wrong they are.
posted by any major dude at 10:14 PM on August 24, 2014 [6 favorites]

How did nationalism come into this?
posted by pompomtom at 11:04 PM on August 24, 2014

Nationalism plays into it because the argument the other person is advancing is, basically, poor people are choosing to be a burden to society and stealing the money of honest taxpayer.

I've dealt with this one of three ways--the first is in line with others suggested, and saying that if they'd like to discuss the misappropriation of governmental funds, I'm happy to discuss our defense budget, or agricultural subsidies, or any number of other things. Because I'm an asshole, I usually aim for something I know they like and I don't.

The second is the most polite, and the one least likely to incite arguments or get you fired: "Well, I guess we'll have to agree to disagree on that, because that hasn't been my experience at all." You've just said you're agreeing to disagree; if they continue to argue their point, you just repeat that.

The third, which I've found to be staggeringly effective, is to pause for a second, look them dead in the eye, and say, "You understand, right, that I'm someone who's benefitted extensively from social welfare programs, and without them, I probably wouldn't be standing here?" Obviously this only works if you have, been part of a household utilizing said resources, but unemployment, social security, the reduced price school lunch program, adoption assistance, WIC, LIHEAP, Medicaid, Pell grants, and the earned income tax credit (which is a huge, meaningful chunk of money for many people) are all part of "the system".

Anyhow, if you're comfortable with it and you've gotten a Pell grant, or your kid's gotten free school lunches, or whatever, point-blank telling the person that they're talking about you pretty much shuts them up every time.
posted by MeghanC at 12:14 AM on August 25, 2014 [5 favorites]

"Huh, that's funny. I know that what you're saying is what a lot of people believe. But I work directly, every day, with low-income people, and what you're describing is just completely inconsistent with my experience. I know it's tempting for us to believe that the world is fair and people get what they deserve -- and maybe that's even true sometimes. But for most people, it's more complicated than what you're describing."
posted by Susan PG at 12:31 AM on August 25, 2014 [20 favorites]

I think it depends on what your goal is in the conversation. Do you want to try and win them over to your point of view, and if so, are you willing to talk about it at length? Are you worried a silent third party hearing the conversation is being hurt, and you want to stand up for their sake? Or do you want a polite version of a zinger? How you talk will be shaped on what outcome you want...
posted by feets at 1:03 AM on August 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

I do something similar to credible hulk's tactic above by aligning myself with the poor person by saying something like, "When I was on food stamps, I had a hard time making ends meet," or, "When I was working a minimum wage job, my employer required me to have a cell phone so that I could be at their beck and call and the bill ate up a huge chunk of my paycheck," or, "When I was on welfare/unemployment, I spent all my time looking for work," or "My mother and father used to have to rely on a food bank when I was growing up even though they both worked full time." The beauty of it is: It doesn't have to be remotely true. You just have to put a face--your own face preferably--on poverty. Most people will back down from their stupidity if you do that.

It's an old feminist tactic, by the way, and works for things other than poverty.

When confronted by racists: "My step-father/mother/boyfriend is black/latin@/Asian/etc."
When people mock the handicapped: "My sister/brother/mother/father is handicapped."
When people judge women who exercise their reproductive rights: "I had an abortion."

...and so on.

You can also turn it into a joke and/or laughingly agree, like when someone calls poor people lazy, say, "Well, aren't we all lazy about something? Speaking of which, how's that son-in-law of yours?" Or when people criticize the poor for supposedly gaming the system, "Wow, I'd love to be smart enough to figure out how to do that!"
posted by GoLikeHellMachine at 2:15 AM on August 25, 2014 [3 favorites]

"I can guarantee you that any one of the people that you are referring to would gladly trade lives with you."

I've used this one several times. It usually takes their breath away. Most of the time, people are repeating stupid statements that they have always heard but have never thought about. You are right to encourage them to think about what they are saying.
posted by myselfasme at 4:40 AM on August 25, 2014 [20 favorites]

Sometimes i talk about what gaming the system actually looks like - survival. Because it happens but or isn't this amazing thing where someone gets rich and lives this wonderful life. I've run into women selling their food stamps yo buy tampons for their teenage girl. They can get a little food at the pantry but it will be unhealthy. No one gives away tampons for free.
And if you rearly piss me off I'll ramble about asset limits for services like SSI or Medicaid. It's not pretty. Lol

That's not my experience is the sorry and sweet answer.
posted by AlexiaSky at 6:58 AM on August 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

I would combine some of the great answers others have given into "Funny I work with poor people everyday and that's not my experience."

"Really? Who?" I ask my FIL looking all innocent & confused when he brings the subject up, "You should report them." Funny thing is he knows noone who has in RL doing any of the many things he thinks are happening to game the system. I keep hoping this will make him realise that RL and certain news stations have no connection.

With my extend US family of people who's political leanings couldn't be further right without falling over. I tend to just look them in the eye,sigh wistfully and sarcastically go something like "Yeah it must be great to be poor/gay/minority." This is not a polite response though.
posted by wwax at 7:15 AM on August 25, 2014 [5 favorites]

I usually go with some variant of "When I/my family/my friends/my clients have been in that position, it didn't look that way from the inside. We're all just doing the best we can for our families, aren't we?" It emphasizes a shared humanity but with a slight edge of them feeling lumped together with "those people".
posted by tchemgrrl at 7:41 AM on August 25, 2014 [5 favorites]

I'm a little more fed up with this sort of thing (and encounter it more rarely) and my response is usually more like "You are welcome to feel how you feel, but the statistics don't really support that." and then I have a few studies in my pocket--you know SCIENCE--that talk about things like

- the weird Utah law requiring folks receiving assistance (welfare) to get drug tests where they found that these people use drugs at a rate significantly lower than the general population. (read the rest of the article, super offensive)
- the entire bucket of lies that was Reagan's welfare queen (there was a real person, but the way her life was reported to the media was totally designed to perpetuate racial stereotyping.
- many people living in poverty have a personal history of neglect, abuse, maltreatment, or undiagnosed mental illness that we as a society are not doing enough to combat in any serious way.
- here are some facts on poor people and government subsidized cell phones, there are tons more

Like you, I don't want to fight with people. But I do want to let people know that this is actually an area of cultural study that people actually know a fair amount about and what they know tends to support a viewpoint like yours, that there are intractable institutional problems at the core of a lot of domestic poverty. Having a few simple stats in your pocket can sometimes be a useful way to indicate that you know what you are talking about generally. I also do the "My experience has been...." thing but then I think it turns into a your word versus their word thing and they still walk away thinking that they are right and you have just met some outlier folks.
posted by jessamyn at 8:30 AM on August 25, 2014 [17 favorites]

Remember Romney's 47% comment?

The best response was Ezra Klein's in Bloomberg:

"The thing about not having much money is you have to take much more responsibility for your life. You can’t pay people to watch your kids or clean your house or fix your meals. You can’t necessarily afford a car or a washing machine or a home in a good school district. That’s what money buys you: goods and services that make your life easier."

The less money you have, the more responsibility you take on because the more things you have to do on your own without the paid assistance of others. Poor people are more responsible than the public thinks.
posted by nightrecordings at 3:36 PM on August 25, 2014 [3 favorites]

My go-to response for this type of situation is to say, quite blithely and innocently, "Oh, really? Do you think so?" and sometimes follow it with "What makes you think that?" and in this case, ending with, "So you work with the poor a lot?" "Oh... no?" "Well, I do. And that's not my experience." Which was already stated above.

I favor this innocent/curious objection approach because I like to think I'm giving the person a chance to provide evidence, back out, or reflect and revise. Then if they don't do any of the above, I bring my evidence in and dismantle their stereotype-glasses for them so they don't have to keep viewing the world through them forever. That would be sad.
posted by Temeraria at 5:47 PM on August 25, 2014

I posted this elsewhere once, but I found this interesting in my studies:

On Friday and Saturday, I visited many more [of the poor] as I could. I found some in their cells underground; others in their garrets, half-starved both with cold and hunger, added to weakness and pain. But I found not one of them unemployed who was able to crawl about the room. So wickedly and devilishly false is that common objection, “They are poor, only because they are idle.”

-The Journal of John Wesley, February 9-10, 1753

In other words, people have thought this about the poor for a long, long time, and it helps to actually get to know poor people to see what things are really like.

Beyond that, maltidatakesovertheworld's answer is the one I would go with.
posted by 4ster at 7:46 PM on August 25, 2014 [3 favorites]

My partner recently got a great opportunity for something like this at work:

Customer: You see all these bike cops ticketing people for biking on the sidewalk? Now if only they'd do something about the people peeing on the sidewalk!
My partner: Yeah... they need more public restrooms.
Customer: Yes! That would be great.

It was quick, non-confrontational, and shifted the conversation from "those people are a problem" to "that system is a problem". It doesn't work with all situations, but when the topic is appropriate and the person seems moderately open-minded it's pretty great.

Could also be applied to housing, food, transportation, other hygiene issues...
posted by sibilatorix at 11:15 PM on August 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

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