Classism in the Stacks: Libraries and Poor People

Sanford Berman delivered the Sixth Annual Jean E. Coleman Library Outreach Lecture in June 2005 at ALA’s Annual Meeting in Chicago. That address, titled “Classism in the Stacks,” has now been reprinted in various forums, including …

Counterpoise 9, no. 3 (Summer 2005)


Street Spirit (February 2006)

A sample:

Poor people don’t have the dollars to make influential campaign contributions. They can’t afford memberships in politically powerful organizations. They have no access to the mainstream media, no way to tell their stories. And given the thesis of the American dream, if they’re not prosperous, it must be their own fault, hardly the consequence of bad luck, racism, sexism, disability, downsizing, outsourcing, corporate greed, union busting, or an inadequate safety net. Worse, from the deeply ingrained Calvinist perspective, it’s God’s will. If they’re poor, that’s the way the deity wants it.

The hostility—or at least lack of sympathy—toward low-income people manifests in various barriers and kinds of discrimination. All together, the prejudice and what flows from it—the belief and the acts—can be called “classism”: favoring one class over another, valuing middle and upper classes more highly than people at or below the poverty level.

If librarians and others can first recognize their own attitudinal hang-ups, understanding what makes them view welfare mothers and homeless people, for example, unfavorably, and ultimately grasping that poverty—not poor people—is the problem, that poverty can be reduced if not ended, and that the most vulnerable and dispossessed among us are citizens and neighbors who deserve compassion, support, and respect—if we can do these things in our heads and hearts, then there’s a real chance to overcome classism.

Income Inequality Grows in the United States

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has just published “Pulling Apart: A State-by-State Analysis of Income Trends.”

Among other facts presented: Over the last twenty years, the poorest fifth of families only gained $125 per year; the richest fifth of families gained $4,410 per year. That translates into an 18.9% increase in income versus 59.5%.

In most states, the gap between the highest-income families and poor and middle-income families grew significantly between the early 1980s and the early 2000s …

The five states with the largest income gap between the top and bottom fifths of families are New York, Texas, Tennessee, Arizona, and Florida. Generally, income gaps are larger in the Southeast and Southwest and smaller in the Midwest, Great Plains, and Mountain states …

Possible steps [for reversing this trend] include raising the state minimum wage, strengthening supports for low-income working families, and reforming the unemployment insurance system. In addition, states can pursue tax policies that partially offset the growing inequality of pre-tax incomes.

A full report (PDF), state fact sheets, and state data tables (Excel) are available for review.

State Policies for Bright Futures

The Center for the Study of Social Policy has just released a fascinating report prepared by its Policy Matters project.

Twenty State Policies to Create Bright Futures for America’s Children, Families and Communities” reviews a variety of successful policies and assembles

research on effective policies in the areas most important to a family’s opportunity and stability: employment, income and asset growth, health, education, and healthy family relationships … The policies included in this report not only rest on a strong body of objective evidence, they also offer the advantage of taking an early investment and preventive approach so that relatively small investments now can reduce more costly interventions later.

The report offers the following components (in PDF):

The authors detail the shift of “decision-making responsibilities” from the federal government to states.

In today’s economy … the opportunities available to America’s families are becoming more and more constrained. For example:

  • the U.S. economy continues to lose high-wage jobs in the blue collar industrial sector, and workers without specialized education and training often can obtain only low-paying employment;
  • an increasing number of employers do not offer health insurance benefits to their workers; and
  • housing markets present great challenges for families struggling to find affordable housing in areas accessible to good jobs.

State policies have been crafted to help families overcome these barriers, effectively addressing everything from predatory lending practices and housing discrimination to minimum wages and children’s health care.

Addressing Poverty with the aha! Process

Marianne Eichelberger, director of the Newton Public Library in Newton, Kansas, recently contacted the HHPTF about poverty-focused training programs created by aha! Process Inc. She writes:

Our community held the “Bridges Out of Poverty: Strategies for Professionals & Communities” seminar in March [2005], which was a definite aha! for most who attended. One board member and two Newton Public Library staff attended the seminar and [afterward] shared the concepts with NPL board and staff. The NPL board has encouraged NPL staff to continue “Bridges” coalition efforts with others in the community.

aha! Process was founded by Ruby K. Payne, best known for her book A Framework for Understanding Poverty. The “Bridges” workshop is one of many products and services the organization offers, which it describes as

giv[ing] both the social service provider and the community member key lessons in dealing with individuals from poverty. Topics include increasing awareness of the differences in economic cultures, how those differences affect opportunities for success, developing an action plan to improve services to clients and improving retention rates for new hires from poverty.

Eichelberger has started discussions with other librarians in Kansas, and a flurry of activity followed the March workshop:

  • Two local residents were sponsored to attend an aha! Process “Train the Trainer” event.
  • NPL staff and a board rep attend monthly coalition meetings held to share ways of implementing “Bridges Out of Poverty” concepts and discussing what to do next.
  • A task force including alternative ed, United Way, SRS, mental health centers, and NPL reps worked with one of the local trainers to develop a pilot project based on “Getting Ahead in a Just-Gettin’-By World: Building Your Resources for a Better Life” workbook with the class session’s help at NPL during fall 2005.
  • Newton Unified School District held a two day “Bridges” in-service with every USD employee required to attend the first day. NPL staff and two board members also attended.
  • At least one more local resident is scheduled to attend another aha! “Train the Trainer” workshop this spring and plans are underway for another “Getting Ahead” class at NPL.

For more details about these programs, including contact info, visit and

Videoblog: Homeless in Texas

The HHPTF recently received a friendly note from Jack Lee, creator of the videoblog Homeless in Texas. The site features video clips and profiles of homeless individuals in the Austin area.

One of Lee’s earliest posts, with accompanying photo, reads as follows:

This is Jeff. He’s the first homeless person I’ve approached in Austin, and I asked him what his story was. On March 22 2003, Jeff was involved in a terrible motorcycle wreck. His wife was killed in the crash, and Jeff lost his leg. He told me that “the government is pissing him about with his money.” He told me he has two children to support, that are staying with relatives … He says he figures it’s better to beg than to go out stealing or robbing from people. “At least I’m asking for it,” he tells me. “It’s a shame that there’s all the heartless people in the world. If more people would reach out and help, there’d be a lot less killing, a lot less theft, a lot less starvation.” Jeff is a veteran, and is 49 years old.

In explaining his interest in reaching out to homeless people, Lee says,

Having suffered from post traumatic stress myself, I understand something of the awful fears that can beset a person just in everyday functioning and simple decision making. In the United States, many of these men we see on the streets have been traumatised by war, overwhelming personal, physical or emotional difficulties, or have simply been victims of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. So many are mentally ill: not in some dramatic, bizarre way, but in a spirit wrecking, sad and depressed way …

I really do believe we should personalise the homeless. I want to document the stories behind the faces that we so often choose to not look into. I hope that’ll be one of the main functions of this blog: to help people see that there were once regular lives going on for the homeless, and that it’s really a case of “there but for the grace of God go I,” when we think more deeply about them.

More information about Jack Lee, including contact information, is available here.

Legal Needs of Low-Income People Not Being Met

Created by Congress in 1974, the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) “seeks to ensure equal access to justice under the law for all Americans by providing civil legal assistance to those who otherwise would be unable to afford it.”

The LSC site features a directory of programs for people seeking legal aid and other useful resources.

In October 2005, the LSC published a report titled “Documenting the Justice Gap in America: The Current Unmet Civil Legal Needs of Low-Income Americans.”

It is clear from this research that at least 80 percent of the civil legal needs of low-income Americans are not being met. Moreover, 50 percent of the eligible people seeking assistance from LSC-funded programs in areas in which the programs provide service are being turned away for lack of program resources.

Although state and private support for legal assistance to the poor has increased in the last two decades, level (or declining after factoring in inflation) federal funding and an increased poverty population have served to increase the unmet demand … [I]t will take at least a five-fold funding increase to meet the documented need for legal assistance, and a doubling of LSC’s current funding of the basic field grant just to serve those currently requesting help.

The research analysis was completed shortly before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf region, which greatly increased the number of U.S. citizens eligible for (and in desperate need of) legal assistance.

An overview and complete report are available in PDF.

Defining Poverty and Why It Matters for Children

The Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) provides a variety of fact sheets and stats on child poverty through its Family Income & Jobs initiative.

In order to provide our children with a fair start in life, CDF’s Family Income & Jobs Division creates and sustains American communities that work to strengthen every family’s capacity to provide for its children. The division supports parents in securing employment that pays livable wages and receiving education and training so they may compete for better jobs.

One brief but enlightening report, “Defining Poverty and Why It Matters for Children” (PDF), notes the following:

In 2003 social insurance and means-tested public benefits lifted 27 million people out of poverty, including 5 million children. Despite the noteworthy success of public benefit programs … unacceptable numbers of families and children remain in poverty and poverty rates in the United States exceed those of other wealthy industrialized nations …

A report by the Urban Institute found that if families with children had full access to government programs … poverty would decline by more than 20 percent, and extreme poverty would be reduced by 70 percent. Instead, millions of families with children eligible for these programs do not receive the benefits and continue to live in poverty.

The CDF site features a wealth of advocacy information and links, including a timeline of victories since it was founded in 1973.

Most Low-Income Parents Are Employed

A November 2005 report issued by the National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP) notes that “the number of children in low-income families with working parents is increasing, but low wages and lack of benefits continue to limit progress toward economic self-sufficiency.”

Among other findings,

Most children in low-income families have parents who are employed full-time and year-round.

  • 55% of children in low-income families—14.9 million—have at least one parent who works full-time and year-round.

and …

Most low-income parents who did not work at all last year were either disabled or taking care of their families.

  • Almost half (46%) of low-income parents with no employment reported they were not working because they were taking care of their families.
  • An additional 30% of low-income parents with no employment reported they were not working because they had an illness or disability that kept them from working.

and …

Low-income parents who work are more likely to be employed in service occupations.

  • Workers in service occupations are not only likely to have lower earnings and fewer opportunities for full-time employment, but they are also less likely to receive benefits such as health insurance, paid vacation, or holidays.

Another recent NCCP report, “Pathways to Early School Success: Helping the Most Vulnerable Infants, Toddlers, and Their Families,” highlights ten important strategies that communities can use to create positive outcomes for low-income families.

An executive summary and full report are available as PDFs.

The Isolation of Urban African Americans

Sociologist Rogelio Saenz has written a brief but eye-opening snapshot of life in the United States: “Beyond New Orleans: The Social and Economic Isolation of Urban African Americans.”

In large cities across the nation, African Americans are much more likely than whites to be living in communities that are geographically and economically isolated from the economic opportunities, services, and institutions that families need to succeed. These disparities have left African Americans disproportionately vulnerable to the next urban calamity, be it from terrorism or another natural disaster [like Hurricane Katrina].

The author prescribes specific strategies for fixing this disparity:

  • Skills-development, employment, and health-maintenance programs need to be targeted to and strengthened for African Americans.
  • Funding and access to education—including Head Start—should be increased for African Americans in order to bolster their social and economic well-being and competitiveness in the labor market.
  • Additional policies, resources, and investment are needed to promote the development and relocation of businesses (and thus jobs) to African American urban neighborhoods.
  • Government agencies responsible for responding to natural disasters need to factor into their planning the economic and geographic isolation of African Americans—especially the African American urban poor.

Where do libraries fit into this picture?

The Population Reference Bureau offers a variety of other poverty-focused reports.

Solving Poverty with Asset Policies

The Institute on Assets and Social Policy “is dedicated to the economic and social mobility of individuals and families, particularly those traditionally left out of the economic mainstream, and to the expansion of the middle class.”

While the United States is an affluent country, millions of individuals and working families are asset poor, a condition that limits their economic security and our prosperity as a nation. Assets are the financial and human capacities that enable individuals to enter into and stay in the economic mainstream.

The Institute works with a variety of partners and has recently published two important reports:

Innovative State Policies to Reduce Poverty and Expand the Middle Class” (PDF)

Across the nation, states with both abundant and lean fiscal resources, with urban and rural populations, and reflecting both liberal and conservative ideologies, are focusing their policies more and more on enabling residents to build educational and technical skills, an income base, and the financial wealth necessary for mobility and security.

and …

Minimum Wage: Creating an Asset Foundation

This report examines the significance of federal and state minimum wage laws, explores the impact of the minimum wage since its inception and the arguments for and against increases over time. This is the first of a series that will focus on the building blocks for an integrated asset policy framework emerging through state policies and practices that are advancing asset development at the state level and may drive change in federal policy.

The Institute’s Web site explains the asset policies framework and features state rankings, regular updates on recent initiatives, and more.