Monthly Archives: October 2014

How America Punishes The Poor? –Oh Let Me Count The Ways…

In a recent piece called “How America Punishes People For Being Poor” Rebecca Vallas examines the rise of subprime auto loans against the backdrop of predatory economic policies that systematically burden low-income people. Various ways the poor pay disparate costs including (but not limited to): the rent-to-own industry, pay day loans, and the criminalization of homelessness. The piece also touches on smaller yet equally crucial gaps like the cost of groceries, check cashing/bill paying fees, and even the time it takes to complete daily errands relative to higher-income people.

For what it’s worth, I wanted to expand on the piece, and add a little context that helps to book-end the issue.

As always, there are structural roots and cultural by-products.

Recent studies confirm what we already knew: deregulation of the financial sector provides incentive for Wall Street to make risky investments at the expense of workers and the real economy. It rewards bankers for upping their risk-taking without having the cash to cover their bets under the premise that failed investments will be bailed out at taxpayers expense.

While bankers become richer in high-risk volatility, workers rely (and thrive) on stable market conditions. When Wall Street acts in greedy self-interest, the likelihood of economic recession increases; credit freezes up and widespread unemployment is inevitable.

But for poor people, the relationship between risk and greed have micro effects that cost them substantially more. Deregulation also meant that companies could prey on those with credit issues and low-incomes who were considered “high-risk”. Goods and services previously reserved for the middle class (homeownership, liquid assets, lines of credit) became available to the poor once companies realized they could charge them exorbitant interest rates, late fees, and deposits in exchange.

The trickle down effects coincide with the disparities mentioned in the piece.

For instance, the roughly 10 million households without access to bank accounts (now subject to third-party check cashing fees) can traced be to policy decisions of the 80s and 90s. After Congress removed bank restrictions on interest-bearing accounts (i,e, NOW/Super NOW accounts) banks supplemented the additional interest they paid to depositors by charging in other ways. Higher minimum balances were required and fees for stopped payments and check printing increased exponentially. Poor people who couldn’t afford it were forced to cash paychecks at grocery stores, pawn shops, and convenience stores (with similarly high fees) and eat the cost of money orders and other financial services (which Vallas estimates to be $1000 a year for a person making $1500/mo)

This trickled into the rise of subprime auto loans and the rent-to-own industry that promised “no credit/bad credit” financing which often resulted in repossession months into the contract. The customers would typically have made several payments, only to lose the merchandise which could then be leased to someone else.

And it was directly responsible for the infamous subprime mortgage crisis that crashed the housing market in 2007. So desperate to increase the amount of mortgages, banks began relaxing lending standards for credit and collateral; lending to poor (black) people at rates much higher than they could afford.

Even though public officials like Maxine Waters (D-California) brought awareness to subprime mortgages (long before the housing bubble burst) the government would fail to act until the crisis shifted to (white) middle-class families. The net effect of an estimated 12.5 million foreclosures was two-fold: it left poor people even more vulnerable to homelessness and dried up blue collar construction jobs more likely to leave them unemployed.

I think understanding the link between predatory capitalism and deregulation gives a framework for which to link the causes of these systematic punishments with the effects.

And then I started to think about even more ways people pay more for low socio-economic status. Things informed by my lived experiences with poverty that the article missed:

Other Little Known Ways America Punishes The Poor

1. Student loan debt. — It’s obvious that student debt punishes people for lacking the means to pay college tuition of out pocket and discourages class mobility when graduates are saddled with debt. But it’s also worth noting that the waystudent loan debt is classified on credit reports is a likely contributor. Instead of listing all loan disbursements as one collective account, each disbursement is sometimes listed as three separate ones, which is interpreted as different types of debt and is likely to drop credit scores. Then come subsequnet ripple effects: lower credit means less likelihood of finding a high-paying job (many jobs now require credit checks) which lowers the likelihood of paying down loans. Credit scores drop even further, making income-building opportunities like homeownership and entrepreneurship harder to achieve. Income plateaus or decreases proportionate to debt and the cycle continues.

2. Cell phone deposits. — (I know people who have paid upwards of $700 for a two year contract agreement that higher income people may pay $99, or attain for free)

3. Renting homes in impoverished (and racially segregated neighborhoods). — Real estate companies will charge monthly rent that outweighs the total value of the home while still requiring tenants to perform maintenance duties without the benefits of equity. And private property owners will often be slumlords who make tenants eat the cost of repairs.

4. Money Wiring Fees.– Without access to bank accounts that offer free money transfer, poor people resort to receiving (and sending) money via Western Union or Money Gram. The fees increase in proportion to the money you send which ultimately limits the amount of money one can attain when borrowing from family/friends when in financial tight-spots.

5. Prepaid card fees. — Low income people with access to bank accounts also resort to pre-paid cards to pay bills or shop online. These cards (Walmart prepaid, Green Dot, Visa gift) all have an average fee of $5 every time you need to reload money, as well as random hidden service charges.

6. Late fees and reconnection charges for bills. — (I once had to pay my cable bill two months in advance to get it re-connected which totaled approximately $250) Many companies also charge fees for people who can’t afford/don’t want auto-pay, sometimes as high as $10/mo)

7. Shopping at higher priced stores. — The article mentions low-income people paying more for groceries because they don’t have proximity to stores that sell bulk or room to store it. I would also add the yearly cost of the membership at bulk stores (Sam’s Club, Cosco) as well as the higher prices of convenience stores typical in low-income areas.

8. Subsidized housing– Poor people who benefit from subsidized housing pay rent in proportion to their income (typically 30%) but this also means that the more they make, the higher the rent will be. If they chose to work more to earn more money, they end up with less disposable income because most of it will go to rent. If they can’t (or chose not to) work more, the rent remains low but so does their total income. Either way, they can never manage to make enough money to end the cyclical rut of income in/expenses out)

9. State benefits are reduced for poor people who live together– If subsidized housing is not an option, poor people with state benefits might live together to reduce the cost of living expenses by splitting it among roommates. However, individual state benefits among people who live together are considered “household income” and may be reduced in many states.

10. Social security disability income– the application process for social security disability is a long and tedious one that requires applicants to prove a medical or mental ailment that prevents employment. But because the process takes an average of one year (and some longer if applicant is denied and appeals) the applicant has to somehow survive without a pay check while waiting for a decision. To pay for living expenses, the applicant may be forced to take a job despite his/her disability. But if they do, it will be assumed that they can hold a job and their application may be denied.

In my cultural contextualization of it all, I’m reminded of how right James Baldwin was when he said, “anyone who has else ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.” A paradoxical truth that speaks to the way class oppression self maintains; by forcing one to work within the constraints of capitalism to combat its negative effects.

That is, we need money to buy things that grant access to middle-class lifestyles and yet we need middle-class lifestyles to buy these things.

Coincidentally, these things are most likely to become the source of predatory loans and cyclical debt. The gatekeeping of class status markers that seems to say: we’ll let you into this world, but you’ll have to pay for it.

And for someone who has spent their life in states of economic enslavement, even the mirage of class mobility—no matter how temporary–is terribly seductive.

You eventually get tired of peering into the store front window from the outside, fantasizing about all the shiny pretty things you wish you had. You will, at some point, decide to go inside; wander around a little bit, try on something luxurious just to see how it feels against your skin, even though you know you could never afford to take it home.


Snoop vs. Iggy Azalea: Beefs, Black Women, and Interracial Relationships

On a personal level, I was mostly disinterested in the recent beef between hip-hop artists Snoop Dogg/Lion and Iggy Azalea.

On a symbolic level, however, I found it to be emblematic of the political dynamics of black men and white women in hip-hop and beyond.

More importantly, I found it to be crucially demonstrative of the ways in which black women inevitably lose in the context of these dynamics. A critique that seemed to be lost amidst bad memes and misguided analysis.

White feminists fell over themselves writing lazy think pieces about the misogyny in hip-hop that ignored the racial and cultural context of the music. Black men derailed conversations about Snoop’s sexism; turning legitimate callouts into rants which seemed to imply that if we couldn’t handle the dog-eat-dog nature of the rap game, we shouldn’t grab the mic. Black women were effectively erased in tug-of-war of gender or racial loyalties.

So business as usual.

If Snoop Lion and Iggy Azalea will represent the figurative marriage between black men and white women in America, this beef might as well be the divorce.

Even in the marital aftermath, black women had to be ones to ask the more pertinent question: where had black men in hip-hop been when we needed them? Or, as @SorahyaM said on Twitter, “show me one time anyone (other than black women) stood up for a black female rapper when she was being dragged.”

As if the epistemological history of hip-hop was lost on them, black men seemed to have forgotten that it was never been a safe space for black women. Rather, than challenge black male misogyny, it was more often an opportunity for it to become more formidable.

Virtually no one came to Nicki Minaj’s defense when rapper Gucci Mane spread sexually denigrating rumors about her on Twitter. Or Azealia Banks when T.I took to Instagram, calling her a “monstrosity of a maggot ass bitch”. Certainly not Karrine Steffans (aka “Superhead”) who was ruthlessly slut-shamed after authoring the Video Vixen series, which divulged the details of her sexual (and abusive) relationships with black men in hip-hop.

Relatively speaking, hip-hop has been a safer space for white women to enter. Even those like Miley Cyrus whose appropriation of blackness (to the point of caricature) was seemingly less offensive because it took gendered form. It was black female bodies she used as minstrel props in her 2013 VMA performance and her video for “We Can’t Stop”. It was twerking–a catchall for black female depravity–she found “risque” enough to live out her white girl sexual empowerment fantasies.

This is still the honeymoon phase of interracial matrimony, when no one is concerned about having not invited black women to the wedding.

Certainly not Iggy Azalea, whose entire capital appeal lies in her ability to commodify black female bravado, without suffering the social consequences of actually being a black woman. She earns her coins making us palatable to the white audience; a way they might encounter our style, beauty, and culture without having to accredit it. Black women then, must act as the subpar backdrop by which her whiteness can be centered and reaffirmed in black femcee spaces. And we become the wallpaper in the house in which we built.

Perhaps life as newlyweds is so blissful in the beginning because both partners have such high expectations of the relationship.

Black men seek white women for all the obvious reasons: internalized anti-blackness, fondness of Eurocentric beauty, or markers of class status. But also as a consequence of male privilege. White women provide the incentive for fulfilling white supremacist patriarchal ideals. Part of the eagerness in which black men seek non-black women is predicated on the belief of their inherent submissiveness relative to black women. Its the grand hope that they will finally crack the color code of femininity that guarantees complete control. Women who can be tamed and groomed properly, who know how to treat a man, who stay in their place, who stay in the back.

The black male role in interracial relationships is often cast (particularly in pop culture) as unbridled racial worship. But black men only really praise white womanhood to the extent that they provide patriarchal leverage.

Snoop came for Azalea because she somehow challenged black male authority in a way that made her whiteness (as it pertained to him in that moment) obsolete. When she failed to perform his idealization of white femininity she became just another bitch.

White women seek black men for other, more obvious reasons. That is–lust, awe, and respect for which their proximity to white men makes them feel entitled. It was easy to see why white feminists could be indignant about Snoop’s sexism and discern Azalea as the only one of its victims who needed to be rescued. They’d witnessed a type of voracious misogyny they never thought they’d be subjected to.

The pedestal of white womanhood is contingent on its physical and moral superiority (relative to black women) which requires patriarchal endorsement. Their attraction to black men derives from the tantalization of danger and sexual exoticism (via racialized myths) but also by their need to solidify female superiority.

Iggy Azalea was offended not only because the source of the misogyny was black and male, but also because it potentially leveled her with black women. When Snoop failed to do his part to uphold the feminine racial hierarchy he became just another nigger.

To be clear, i’m not suggesting the social and structural power of black men and white women to be equal (obviously white women access more) or that those power differences disappear in the context of interpersonal conflict. But I am suggesting a commonality in the ways by which they seek to climb these structural and social echelons on the backs of black women. Moreover, how the mutual subjugation of black women (and each other) become the litmus test for achieving it.

And its precisely the potential to finally wield white male power–more than the proverbial “forbidden fruit”–that makes the black man/white woman dynamic so inciting. The push-pull of abusive tactics and manipulation that fuels any sick love story.

Inevitably though, there comes the divorce. And like any good divorce, it is messy and public: property is divided, daggers are thrown, sides are taken.

During the beef, Snoop recognized Nicki Minaj as a successful hip-hop artist who is “sitting with other female rappers” a diss which implicated Azalea as a less reputable femcee. He did this while caricaturizing her blondeness in a meme which compared her to the film White Chicks (where black actors Shawn and Marlan Wayans disguise themselves as white bimbos).

Ironically, her Barbie image (the very thing black men fetishized) was now a justifiable reason to criticize her lack of realness and talent in the game. It was only when he needed to instigate female competition (using Nicki as the crux of offensiveness) did black women become visible at all.

Azalea’s response to Snoop was pointedly feminist. She tweeted: “women are supposed to sit back and let men shit on them,” then “If we question it, we are ’emotional’, ‘butt hurt’, or just a BITCH. nothing new tho.” A response made absurd by her history of racist/homophobic/transphobic comments in regards to women. It was only when she needed a (black) scapegoat to frame her victimhood in a misogynistic attack did she illicit Sisterhood.

Upon the demise of their political courtship, it’s as if all the things they once loved about each other become the spawn of bitterness and broken hearts. And black women, of course, must be there to pick up the pieces.

The black man will need us to be the Patient Ex-Wife who held it down when he left her for bigger and better things, so grateful to have him back she’s willing to forgive it all. They will need us–as always–to forge racial allegiance at the expense of ourselves. To help curate black male misogyny because for once we aren’t its primary target.

The white woman will expect us to be the Supportive Girlfriend who listens while she bitches over cocktails about all the ways he fucked her over; hoping to be seen, hoping to finally be let into her super secret feminist club.

Inevitably, the Snoop Lions and Iggy Aszleas of hip-hop will find themselves squaring off for a battle of dominance that neither can ever really win. Like the black men and white women who find new partners to walk down the aisle in search of bigger power, only to end up bitter and empty-handed.

Black women will continue to pose a threat to these unions, for which we must remain silent and invisible for the sake of the relationship. Until they need our help to fix it after it’s gone.

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