Last Friday I went to a training and had the privilege of listening to Amy Jo Hutchison speak. If you aren’t familiar with that name, Amy is an economic justice advocate from West Virginia who has spoken before Congress about poverty and been a guest on Jon Stewart’s podcast, The Problem. Her keynote speech was about working with these struggling, underprivileged, poor communities.
I thoroughly enjoyed everything she had to say. I could have applauded after nearly every sentence. I was overwhelmed with gratitude to finally here someone stand up and say the things I have been saying to others in my field since I entered it six years ago. It never ceases to amaze me how many social workers disrespect, belittle, and even despise the very populations we are supposed to be serving. More coworkers of mine have voted against the wellbeing of our clients than vote to continue providing them with the social safety nets that they currently have, which are not nearly adequate.
During Amy Jo Hutchison’s keynote speech, she touched on stereotypes about poor people, the atrociously low minimum wage in America, and even the fact that we are not paying for “poor people to do nothing” with our taxes. We are paying for corporations to continue to not pay their employees fair wages. She had excellent real life examples of the impossible burden of trying to “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” in this country. I was deeply touched by her words, and was more than grateful to be in attendance to hear her speak.
However, there was one phrase that Amy said two different times throughout her talk that left a sour taste in my mouth. That phrase was “middle class values.” I couldn’t help but frown as these words left her lips. What are “middle class values”? Your values have nothing to do with your social or economic status. Middle class people do not have better values than people in poverty. Yet this is what she seemed to imply as she explained a scenario with a woman she knew who was complaining, as so many do, about people taking advantage of the system.
When this woman talked about mom’s getting food stamps and SSI that don’t have a job, Amy would speak up and say that she was one of those mom’s. The woman would quickly dismiss this and assure her that she “wasn’t talking about her.” Amy explained this disconnect as having to do with her having “middle class values.” She was able to blend in with people who were more financially well off than herself because she was privileged enough to spend time in their circles. I’m paraphrasing, but this is roughly what she was saying.
Now don’t get me wrong, Amy didn’t seem to be trying to put herself in a category above those who didn’t have “middle class values.” She wasn’t blaming people for the circumstances they were in, but she was making a statement that I felt showed remnants of unconscious, internalized classism. She didn’t even seem to realize how bad this part of her speech sounded. I wish I would have had the opportunity to speak to her privately and explain how I viewed that situation she described differently.
I would have told Amy that, from my perspective, “middle class values” was not what made this woman distinguish Amy from these other “lazy” poor mothers. The one and only difference was that this woman knew Amy. That’s it. That is the only distinction. I guarantee she wouldn’t be able to maintain her stereotypes toward anyone that she actually had the opportunity to know. It’s so much easier to demonize and disregard a person or group of people when they are just a caricature. Once you meet a person, it becomes apparent that they are in fact trying their best. That they have reasons for the decisions they’ve made. That they have struggles and intricate, complex lives which you have no right to judge them for.
I highly doubt Amy Jo Hutchison will ever come across this blog post. But if she ever did, I hope that she would appreciate what I’ve said here. I respect and admire her deeply. She is doing the world a great service by speaking about these important issues on the national stage. However, we all maintain insidious, unconscious biases that manage to slip by us. Despite all the speaking Amy has done to combat negative stereotypes about poor people, she still missed this one bit of classism in her speech. There is no such thing as “middle class values.” Middle class people do not have higher values, better manners, more intelligence, etc. than lower class people. I’m sure Amy would agree with this statement, and I hope she makes just that one little change in her future speaking engagements.