America's Anti-Poor Bias And Its Influence on Poverty Policy
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The way in which Americans think about the poor has changed over the last 40 years. At one time, being poor was an economic condition. Poverty was a problem of individuals, by that I mean that becoming impoverished was something that happened to individuals. People could enter into or escape poverty as individuals. Throughout the last half of the 20th century being poor ceased to be an economic condition and became a group classification. A social group is "a collective of persons differentiated from at least one other group by cultural forms, practices or a way of life" (Young 1990, 43). In order for people to be classified into groups, generalizations about group members must be made. The poor in the United States have become a group. During the development of the concept of the poor as a group, the poor were attributed behavioral characteristics by non-poor Americans. Thinking about the poor as a group with social characteristics has alienated the poor from participating in mainstream America's culture. Much of the development of the concept of the poor as a group took place through the development of the concept of an underclass. As the poor became increasingly identified as members of the underclass, they became increasingly oppressed. "Oppression ..... .is something that happens to people when they are classified in groups. Because others identify them as a group, they are excluded and despised" (Young 1990, 47). Due to the development of the underclass as a group separate from mainstream America, anti-poor biases have increased. Throughout the last 40 years increasing stigmatization of the poor through the development of the concept of the underclass as a group has led to decreased support for government use of fiscal policy to address issues of poverty. Analysis of the history of attitudes about the poor and governmental poverty policies demonstrates this point. The first section of this paper addresses attitudes towards the poor and subsequent policy decisions. The following sections outline the development of attitudes and policies throughout the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. The final section contains conclusions about the nature of those developments as well as a critique of the legitimacy of the development of the concept of the underclass as a group and its subsequent effect on federal government poverty policies.