Race and social class combine in a number of ways to define the lives of people who live in poverty in the United States by making upward social and economic mobility difficult, if not impossible, for a large percentage of American society. Racism often leads to discrimination in the criminal justice system with disproportionate incarceration for minorities, which limits the ability of many minority citizens to obtain meaningful employment and progress economically. In addition, increasingly conservative economic policies have gutted the social safety net that was designed to help with upward economic mobility, and the consolidation of wealth into the hands of the richest Americans has had a disastrous impact on the job market for the majority of Americans. Furthermore, America’s widely unequal educational system perpetuates poverty by failing to give socioeconomically disadvantaged students the education required to succeed in the job market. These and other factors have combined to make poverty an essentially inescapable situation for many in the United States.
One of the most important aspects of the effect of race on the lives of those who live in poverty is the impact of the criminal justice system. As Michelle Alexander states, “The racial component of mass incarceration is its most striking feature. No other country in the world imprisons so many of its racial or ethnic minorities. The United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did under apartheid” (6). The fact that so many minorities find themselves disproportionately punished by the criminal justice system undoubtedly makes it more difficult for many people to improve their economic situation, as they lose valuable years of their lives that could go towards education or the attainment of work experience to incarceration. Additionally, once they are free, many of those who have spent time in the criminal justice system find that their convictions bar them from many of the opportunities required for economic advancement.
Not only do minorities who find themselves in the criminal justice system lose valuable time that could be used towards bettering their economic prospects, more importantly, but the effects also continue well after they are released. As Alexander states, “…laws operate collectively to ensure that the vast majority of offenders will never integrate into mainstream, white society. They will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives—denied employment, housing, education, and public benefits” (181). Once labeled as a criminal, most of those ensconced in the criminal justice system find their employment and educational prospects permanently limited, essentially resulting in a life sentence to poverty. This means that the highly discriminatory racial component of the prison system is one of the most important ways in which race impacts socio-economic upward mobility. While the disproportionate punishment of minorities by the court system is an undeniable factor in the impact of race and social class on limited economic mobility, it is far from the only issue.
Increasingly conservative economic policies in the United States have made economic progress impossible for many people. As Barbara and John Ehrenreich state,“We have little in the way of a welfare state to stop a family or an individual in free-fall...Welfare was all but abolished 15 years ago, and health insurance has traditionally been linked to employment…Where other once-wealthy nations have a safety net, America offers a greased chute, leading down to destitution with alarming speed.”
This means that those who find themselves in poverty often are not given any means to help improve their situations or climb out, and instead are doomed to increasingly dire employment prospects. The government does not help the vast majority of Americans, and particularly the poorest, by providing the tools necessary to improve their economic situation. This is exacerbated by the current educational opportunities available to the poor in America.
One of the most important reasons for low rates of economic upward mobility amongst the socioeconomically disenfranchised is the poor quality of the educational system available to the poverty-stricken. As Jonathan Kozol states, for example, “The present per-pupil spending level in the New York City schools is $11,700, which may be compared with a per-pupil spending level in excess of $22,000 in the well-to-do suburban district of Manhasset, Long Island.” The fact that predominantly minority and working-class school districts receive only a fraction of the funding of their wealthier counterparts leads to decrepit facilities, poor graduation rates, and diminished college prospects for the students who attend these schools. This keeps these students trapped in the cycle of poverty where, because of their lower socioeconomic status, they are denied the necessary educational opportunities to escape such an environment. This unequal application of educational resources is one of the many ways in which race and class converge to limit the ability of the working class to extricate themselves from poverty.
Race and class converge in a number of ways to ensure that socioeconomic upward mobility is essentially impossible in modern America. The discriminatory tactics of the American justice system ensure that minorities are incarcerated at a much higher rate than their white counterparts, which in turn denies them employment and economic opportunities, often resulting in permanent marginalization. Furthermore, the conservative economic policies of the United States ensure that government aid to the working class is essentially nonexistent, which makes escape from poverty exponentially more difficult. Finally, the extremely unequal application of educational resources to poor and minority school districts ensures that minority students often do not receive the educational training necessary to begin a career that will lead out of poverty. These racial and class-based factors combine to make upward economic mobility in the United States an impossibility for the vast majority of those living in poverty.
Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Rev. ed. New York: New Press, 2012. Print.
Ehrenreich, Barbara, and John Ehrenreich. "The Making of the American 99%." The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 15 Dec. 2011. Web. 14 Feb. 2014. .http://www.huffingtonpost.com/barbara-ehrenreich/the-making-of-the-99-percent_b_1151312.html..
Kozol, Jonathan. "Still Separate, Still Unequal: America's Educational Apartheid." University of Michigan. Version 311 n.1864. Harper's Magazine, 9 Jan. 2005. Web. 14 Feb. 2014.http://sitemaker.umich.edu/carss_education/files/kozol-harper_magazine.htm.