Lies You Believe About Poverty: Being Poor Erases White Privilege

When you grow up poor, it can be hard to believe that you have it better than anyone else. When your stomach is growling, you’re cold because the house has no power, and your shoes have holes in them, it can be super hard to believe you were born with any privilege at all.

In fact, many white people who spend time in poverty are the first to claim that they don’t benefit from white privilege.

This is a LIE.

But it’s an easy one to believe when you are poor and everything seems to be going wrong. It’s why politicians are able to convince voters that Black Americans (and brown and anyone who’s different) are the enemy. When you life is hell, it’s hard to believe there is anyone whose life is harder.

When my husband and I were dating and poor, and when we were first married and poor, life was hell. It was hard to imagine that it could have been harder if we were not white, but looking back now, I can see several distinct times when we benefited from white privilege.

Please don’t misunderstand. Being white and poor is treacherous. You spend all your time stressed thinking of ways that you can make more money or worrying about how you are going to pay bills or eat when you have no money.

Being Black and poor is deadly, literally. Black people who are poor are likely to have less access to health care and get worse care when they do access it. They are more likely to have negative encounters with the police and generally more negative outcomes.

So how do I KNOW that being poor and white isn’t as bad as being poor and Black?

These three examples of white privilege make it clear that we had benefits that we were born with…the color of our skin.

Driving While Black

There have been numerous accounts of wealthy and middle to upper class Black people who have been pulled over for nothing more than driving while Black. It happens so often its the punchline for many Black comedians. It’s a statistical fact that racial profiling leads to more traffic stops and consequently more pointless traffic tickets.

So my husband, then my boyfriend, left my house after midnight while he was still a teenager. He was technically violating curfew (law violation one). While was driving through a pre-dominantly Black part of town, he head his headphones on because the radio in his beater car was broken (law violation two).

And he was speeding (law violation three). He was driving a piece of crap car and got pulled over. The officer who pulled him over told him turn the music down and slow down. Just a verbal warning, nothing else. People like Philandro Castile was shot for reaching for his wallet, otherwise known as driving while Black.

Section 8 Housing

When my husband and I were first married, we were dirt poor and qualified for housing assistance through our local housing authority. When we applied for that assistance, the secretary at the housing authority told me they could get us into an apartment immediately but it would be in a housing project.

“You don’t want to live there,” she said. She didn’t give me a wink and a nod, but she might as well have. When I asked why, she claimed it was because it was loud, often had roaches and “there were a lot of people on drugs.”

That was code for it was mostly non-white people.

So instead of getting us an apartment right then, she put us on the waiting list for Section 8 housing. The waiting list was supposed to be months long, but we had a housing voucher six weeks later.

Looking back, based on her comments and how quickly we got the voucher for Section 8 housing, I am certain that I benefited from white privilege. A Black couple would likely have been given the apartment with no mention of the downsides or the option for Section 8 housing.

Carrying a Weapon

At one point while we were poor, we were driving a Ford Escort hatchback with a busted headlight because I had been in an accident with no insurance and couldn’t afford to fix the car. We were also moving to a new house and had the car packed with a bunch of stuff. Enough that we weren’t really paying attention to what was where.

I was driving and got pulled over. The officer asked me to step out of the car which was really weird. My husband was told to remain in the car.

When I stepped to the back of the car, he asked me if everything was “okay” and if I knew there was a handgun in the car.

I didn’t and clearly my face let him know that. So then he pointed to the pellet gun visible through the hatchback window.

When he did, I said, “Oh, that’s my husband’s old pellet gun.”

Police officer tells me it should be secured, even if it was just a bb-gun and then tells me to get the headlight fixed as soon as I can. I walked away without so much as a written warning.

At the time, I didn’t feel privileged.

I felt poor and harassed by the police.

And we may have been targeted in the first and last instances because we were driving crappy cars. But we were never targeted because we were white.

Being poor definitely complicates your life, but some of the things that were happening to us were our own fault — like driving with a broken headlight is going to get you pulled over. But it wasn’t made worse by our skin color and that is white privilege.

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Lucinda Gunnin

Lucinda Gunnin

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Lucinda Gunnin is a commercial property manager and author in the suburbs of Philadelphia. She’s a news junky, sushi addict, and geek extraordinaire.