Category Archives: Poverty

Prejudice Kills a Homeless Woman

Originally published on Care2; Open Salon Editor’s Pick

The national tendency to blame the homeless for their plight collided with the war on drugs to kill an innocent woman near St. Louis last September. 29-year-old Anna Brown, a homeless mother of two, went to the hospital seeking treatment for a sprained ankle and leg pain. After doctors dismissed her complaints and she refused to leave without treatment, Richmond Heights, Missouri police arrested and jailed her for trespassing at the hospital. Fifteen minutes later, she was dead of a blood clot that originated in her painful leg and traveled to her lungs.

Assuming that she was trying to scam drugs from the hospital, the police treated Ms. Brown like a criminal. They hoisted her from their car into the police station because the pain in her legs prevented her from walking. When they put her in the jail cell where she would die, they laid her on the concrete floor — right between two empty beds. Her ordeal from the hospital to the police car to the jail cell was captured on surveillance videos.

Ms. Brown was not a drug addict: according to the International Business Times, the autopsy revealed that she had no drugs in her system when she sought medical help.

Ms. Brown was also not lazy or a freeloader. She and her two children lost their home to a tornado, according to The Washington Post. Then Ms. Brown lost her job. Poverty eroded her family’s standard of living to the point that the government placed her children with Ms. Brown’s mother, and Ms. Brown herself became homeless.

Anna Brown represents a significant portion of our country’s homeless population: families that include adults willing to work but unable to find jobs that pay enough to support them and their children. Families with children are 41% of the homeless population. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, “declining wages have put housing out of reach for many families.” Even families with working parents can’t always afford housing.

Under fire for Ms. Brown’s death, the local police protest that they deferred to medical professionals’ determination that Ms. Brown was healthy enough to be arrested and jailed. The medical professionals who made that determination protest that in some cases blood clots cannot be detected and that Ms. Brown did not appear to have any, according to The St. Louis Post-Dispatch. No one seems to have explained why they did not treat the visible swelling in Ms. Brown’s ankle, which corroborated her complaints of pain.

But this was not a case of a poor person being denied any medical care. The Washington Post reported that medical professionals examined Ms. Brown and performed ultrasounds on both of her legs.

It is the hospital’s refusal to take her complaints of pain seriously and the police officers’ willingness to arrest her for trespassing at the hospital, both based on the assumption that she was an addict seeking drugs, that reflect common assumptions about poor people and that led directly to her death. As Ms. Brown’s sister Krystle said, “My sister is not here today because people passed judgment.”


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The Gender Pay Gap Got Smaller – and That’s A Bad Thing

The pay gap between women and men shrank by 1% in 2011 – that’s the good news. The bad news: it’s not because women’s pay increased – it dropped. But men’s pay dropped more. Lowering everyone’s earning power to close the gender gap echoes the story of Midas, who wished for wealth and wound up turning everything he touched (like, say, food, or his daughter) into gold. The price for his wish was too high. Women’s wish is pay equality, but not at the price of lower incomes for everyone.

Actually, everyone should wish for pay equality. TIME Magazine’s latest cover story, “The Richer Sex,” announces that “by the next generation, more families will be supported by women than by men.” Put that together with the pay gap and you find more families getting by on less income than before. It behooves men and children, as well as women, for employers to pay women what they pay men.

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The Black Woman In My Closet

I just read The Help by Kathryn Stockett, a book about relationships between white women and their black domestic “help” in 1950’s Mississippi.  The book is an excellent read, thought-provoking and compelling.  I was appalled anew by the casual injustices, the ignorance, the segregation, and the day-to-day racism prevalent in that culture.   And then I discovered that the black woman who cleans my apartment eats her lunch in my coat closet.

In The Help, the black employees don’t sit down to eat with their employers in order to preserve the social hierarchy and avoid creating even the illusion of equality or friendship.  They don’t use the same bathrooms, ostensibly because of white fear of contamination from black cooties, but also as one more means of reinforcing the message that blacks are inferior servants in whites’ homes.  At first the book reads like a missive from a long-ago though still poignant time, a shameful history that thousands and thousands of people have worked hard to put behind us.   But it’s closer than we like to think.

Nearly every person who has ever been paid to clean my home, starting from my childhood, was a black woman (the others were immigrant women).  Right now I use a service that sends Amanda (not her real name) to my apartment every other week to spend a day cleaning my bathtub, emptying my garbage, changing the sheets on my bed.  My white guilt has kept me uncomfortable with the relationship and its reminder of Jim Crow and “domestics” who tended to white women’s houses all day.  But I treat her with dignity and pay her well, and since I was always away at work when she was at my apartment, I wasn’t often confronted with the unpleasantly familiar dynamic.

Now I work from home, which is how I found Amanda eating her lunch in the coat closet.  Feeling a little sick to my stomach, I asked her if she wouldn’t prefer to eat at the dining room table.  She said she wouldn’t because she just cleaned it and she didn’t want to dirty it up again.  I told her she could eat at the desk, on the couch, anywhere she was comfortable, but I have a bad feeling that she is most comfortable in that closet with the door closed, where she doesn’t have to confront us and vice versa. 

My employment relationship with Amanda is a common one in my neighborhood.  On a weekday there are gobs of strollers on the sidewalks carrying white children pushed by dark-skinned women.  Many of them likely have their own children whom they have left alone or in the care of a family member or friend so they could get paid to watch white people’s children.  The sheer number of these mismatched stroller duos is unsettling.

It’s no big news that although we have a black president, racism and economic inequalities persist.  It’s another thing to realize that each of us contributes to them.  I don’t know what to do about it on an individual level: it won’t help anybody for me not to employ Amanda or for my neighbors to fire their black or Hispanic nannies.  But as long as these economic relationships continue, the ghosts of Jim Crow walk among us.  They bring new meaning to the phrase “service economy”: the less privileged serve the more privileged and the colors of each remind us that poverty disproportionately afflicts minorities, while whites monopolize the best-paying jobs. 

The persistence of these patterns is disturbing, but it helps to remember that they are patterns and not universal rules – many blacks are successful professionals.  Nevertheless, blacks are still clustered on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder.

When Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated, he was turning his focus from civil rights to economic rights, particularly the Poor People’s Campaign.  He was in Memphis to boost the sanitation workers’ strike and to raise awareness of the link between racial oppression and economic oppression, about the impossibility of eradicating one while the other remained.  Our failure to recognize or act on that truth is the reason blacks remain disproportionately poor. 

The next step is to pick up where Dr. King left off and fight for economic justice.  Get it on the national radar, remember it in the voting booths.  The minimum wage is nowhere near a living wage, not even half of it, so many people are struggling to hold down two minimum-wage jobs in a doomed effort to support their families.  The jobs in which minorities are concentrated, like childcare, tend to pay less than living wages and thus perpetuate black poverty and the old racial relationships without the need for anything as overt as Jim Crow laws and separate bathrooms.  It is time for Americans to ease up on the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mythology and accept the reality that it takes a whole society to eradicate poverty.  And if that is what we really want, we can do it.