BU Today


POV: Stop Blaming the Poor for Their Poverty

All mothers need to be treated with dignity and respect


Earlier this year, Ben Carson, retired neurosurgeon and current head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, went on record with his beliefs about the causes of poverty. Carson rejected the possibility that individuals may find themselves poor because of large-scale structural forces—like a labor market that no longer contains middle-skill, middle-wage jobs, the fact that women are paid less than men for the same work, or the nation’s choice to pursue mass incarceration as the means for addressing its social problems. Instead, he embraced the idea that poverty is the consequence of a bad “state of mind,” stating, “You take somebody that has the right mind-set, you can take everything from them and put them on the street, and I guarantee in a little while they’ll be right back up there….You take somebody with the wrong mind-set, you can give them everything in the world—they’ll work their way right back down to the bottom.”

Carson’s remarks demonstrate that the moral construction of poverty is alive and well. The moral construction of poverty is the idea that people are poor because they are lazy, irresponsible, averse to work, sexually promiscuous, criminally inclined, or simply stupid. This explanation of poverty—which locates the causes of poverty in the indigent individual and completely ignores the social structures within which that individual exists—is the simple idea that people are poor because there is something morally wrong with them. (Implicit, of course, in this explanation of poverty is the proposition that people are not poor because there is something morally right with them.)

The moral construction of poverty has influenced how we treat the poor in this country. We have made the programs designed to help the poor meet their basic needs extremely punitive and intensely invasive. Poor mothers might be one of the most regulated groups in society, and this is, in part, a result of the moral construction of poverty. It makes sense, though: if poverty is the result of individual moral or behavioral shortcomings, then poor mothers ought to be supervised closely, as their personal failures necessarily affect children.

And that is precisely what public assistance programs do to poor mothers: they supervise them closely. The pregnant woman who turns to her state’s Medicaid program for help in accessing prenatal health care will find that in exchange for government assistance, she will have to open up all areas of her life to scrutiny. The state will gather a vast quantity of information about her—including information about her eating habits, her employment history, the status of her relationship with the father of her child, her history with sexual or intimate violence, any history that she has with drug use or abuse, and the identities of the people with whom she lives and her relationship to them. Once her child is born, the woman will oftentimes find herself regulated (or living under the threat of regulation) by her state’s Child Protective Services department, the government agency that investigates incidents of child maltreatment. Moreover, the state will use its benefits programs to influence her procreative choices—coercing her into or out of bearing children, according to the needs or desires of the state.

Now, some will say that there is nothing wrong with the state supervising poor mothers closely. They will say that the state is simply interested in protecting children from abuse and neglect. But we have to ask: why is the state so convinced that the children born (or to be born) to poor women are so in need of protection that it has erected elaborate, intrusive bureaucracies to accomplish that task? In other words, why does the state presume that poor mothers are at risk of abusing or neglecting their children?

It is worth noting, early and often, that wealthier women engage in the same behaviors in which poor women engage. Wealthier women have inadequate diets. Wealthier women have spotty employment histories. Wealthier women have been the victims of sexual or intimate violence. They have used and abused illegal drugs. They cohabit with men to whom they are not married. Yet, no state has constructed an extravagant bureaucracy that interrogates every nonpoor pregnant woman and supervises her after the birth of her child.

This is telling. It suggests that the state is not really interested in protecting children generally from abuse and neglect. Instead, it is only interested in protecting some children from abuse and neglect. That is, the state assumes that only some children need to be protected from their mothers. And those children are the ones that are born to poor women. Why does the state make this assumption about poor women? It cannot be because poor women engage in problematic behaviors and have problematic histories; wealthier women do, too. It has to be because of something else. This “something else” is the moral construction of poverty.

It is only when we as a society accept that poverty and being poor do not invariably have their origins in individual character flaws that we will treat poor mothers with the dignity and respect they deserve. That will be a great day, as we will be closer to establishing a nation that lives up to the promises of equality contained in its founding documents.

Khiara M. Bridges, a School of Law professor of law and a College of Arts & Sciences professor of anthropology, is the author of Reproducing Race: An Ethnography of Pregnancy as a Site of Radicalization (University of California Press, 2011). Her latest book, The Poverty of Privacy Rights (Stanford University Press, 2017), explores the moral construction of poverty and the effects it has on poor mothers’ privacy rights.  She can be reached at kmb73@bu.edu.  

The School of Law will host a symposium, free and open to the public, to discuss Bridges’ new book on Monday, November 20, from 12:45 to 2 p.m. in LAW’s Barristers Hall, 765 Commonwealth Ave.

“POV” is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact Rich Barlow at barlowr@bu.edu. BU Today reserves the right to reject or edit submissions. The views expressed are solely those of the author and are not intended to represent the views of Boston University.


10 Comments on POV: Stop Blaming the Poor for Their Poverty

  • Ray Joyce on 11.16.2017 at 9:11 am

    Thank you! I spent 5 years working at Lazarus House Ministries, a family homeless shelter with a focus on the whole person and all the elements necessary to break the cycle of poverty including food security, housing, clothing, education, healthcare, childcare, and job training. The mothers I met were dealing with a host of issues, many if not all, NOT of their own making. They were some of the bravest and hardest working people I’d ever met. These women simply needed a brief helping hand up to restart their lives. The vast majority went on to succeed in the form of independent living, employment and active community members with some even coming back to volunteer at the shelter. Sargent Shriver knew this back in 1964 when he used a humanistic approach to design the War on Poverty resulting in Head Start, Job Corps, VISTA and more. At Lazarus House our successful Campaign for Dignity used the tagline – “Dignity is priceless and yet it has a cost.” This still rings true today.

  • James Iffland on 11.16.2017 at 9:15 am

    Many thanks to Prof. Bridges for her incisive critique of this country’s attitudes and policies toward the poor. The latter have deep historical roots in Western societies in general. Alas, in the Trump/Carson moment, our country is moving backwards in its approach to poverty. The quicker the moment is over, the better.

  • Andrew Wolfe on 11.16.2017 at 12:33 pm

    I don’t understand why having sex and bearing children out of marriage is not a behavioral and moral problem. This disappointing and sanctimonious bit of political correctness completely ignores what honest studies of the cycle of the poverty confirm: absence of a husband/father at the home is the strongest predictor of poverty for children and their mothers. One might think that empowered women could abstain from sex outside marriage as a means of protecting themselves and their children. Their grandmothers did, even in terrible circumstances like the Great Depression. Why are today’s women less empowered to say no to unmarried sex than women of the 1950’s?

    • Dan on 11.16.2017 at 7:27 pm

      Abstinence-only sex education does not work, unless enforced by a brutally repressive theocracy. Rational, scientific sex education plus access to contraceptives is proven to be the most effective method at controlling unwanted pregnancies, in Europe and in places in the US where the political climate allows it. I have a feeling people casting this as a moral issue secretly would prefer a barbaric theocratic state to a free society that educates people on how to have sex responsibly.

    • Rocky Martin on 11.17.2017 at 5:52 pm

      Prof. Wolfe,

      from your comment, it’s seems you don’t believe that recent generations of women are capable of making rational decisions about what they do with their own bodies and lives. My sincere advice would be to never comment on this topic again, as I promise no woman is interested in your moral critiques of their sex life.

      Rocky, Questrom ’17

    • Kelle Keyles on 11.19.2017 at 2:50 pm

      typical heterosexual male blaming women for something they are equally, if not more, responsible for. Your response boils down to “why can’t women just keep their legs closed?”

      hmm, why can’t men take care of their children and not abandon them? why can’t men restrain themselves from having sex outside of marriage? One might think that empowered men could abstain from sex outside marriage as a means of protecting themselves, their children, and their children’s mothers. Their grandfathers did, even in terrible circumstances like the Great Depression. Why are today’s men less empowered to say no to unmarried sex than men of the 1950″s?

      • Andrew Wolfe on 11.28.2017 at 10:32 am

        I neither abandoned my wife nor our eight children in 34 years of marriage, and I restrained myself completely from sex outside marriage and we taught our children, especially our sons, not to exploit others sexually. This article focuses on women; however, I hold males equally responsible for their choices.

  • Danielle Sauvé on 11.16.2017 at 8:44 pm

    Prof. Bridge, I so appreciate your pertinent and well informed commentary. That is the kind of perspective we need to hear loud on many outlets in those times of regressive politic and repressive discourse.

  • Wrong Comparisons on 11.17.2017 at 2:41 pm

    It sounds like Prof. Bridge does not like “wealthier women.” She questioned why state bureaucracy did not put in the same privacy-invading constraints to these wealthier women as versus to the poor. The answer is simple: because wealthier women do not spend taxpayers money even though they have the same behavioral problems like the poor, therefore state has no right to bothering them. The supervision of the poor mothers is not about that they are poor, but about where the spent money and its statistics should be accounted for. Secondly, moral construction of poverty should not be looked at from the viewpoint of rich vs. poor, or that of Republican vs. Democrat. It should be looked at from the viewpoint of citizens as members of a society. States need to help the poor in a beneficial and disciplined way. The attitude from the Left condoning anyone who is “lazy, irresponsible, averse to work, sexually promiscuous, criminally inclined” would only make poor people’s unpropitious cycle continue.

  • Tim on 11.18.2017 at 11:25 am

    As the son of a single parent, I can understand the basis of this article. However, I agree with Carson’s comments about mindset. I was raised to believe that I can do anything I set my mind to. It is why I ended up here at BU. I was raised to use my experience as a driving force, to not being a statistic. so while your heart is in the right place, you don’t speak for everyone because there are people out there who do think the system is against them, people that live in a “cycle of negativity”. whereas, there are people who use it as motivation to be the best that they can be even though they didn’t have it all growing up.

    And before anyone ridicules me, I suggest you imagine finding your homeless parent on the streets, asking for money and knowing you cant do anything about it. Or go stand in line for hours waiting to apply for food stamps. Now that you have that in mind, imagine getting the acceptance letter from BU, and a good job after graduation. Because that is my life. Stop making excuses.

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