11/27/2018 08:00 am ET

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Unveils The Ugly Truth About Being Poor In America

Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) listens during a news conference with members of the Progressive Caucus on Nov.
AP Photo/Susan Walsh
Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) listens during a news conference with members of the Progressive Caucus on Nov. 12, 2018. 

New York Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has made headlines for her socialist politics and her working-class background ― and for how her politics and background seem to scramble the brains of conservative media outlets and commentators.

Ocasio-Cortez’s modest means — she was a bartender before running for office ― have been the catalyst for story after story analyzing her finances. The low point of this scrutiny occurred in mid-November, when Washington Examiner reporter Eddie Scarry wrote a now-infamous tweet about Ocasio-Cortez’s outfit.

“Hill staffer sent me this pic of Ocasio-Cortez they took just now,” he wrote, including the offending photo of the newly elected representative from behind as she walked down some hall of power in Washington. “I’ll tell you something: that jacket and coat don’t look like a girl who struggles.”

Later, Scarry claimed, improbably, that he was merely complimenting Ocasio-Cortez’s attire. His real intention was clear, though: He was questioning her claims about her background and her struggle to afford rent for a Washington, D.C., apartment.

More, Scarry was demonstrating the prejudice and bigotry typically directed at poor people. Poverty puts people at a disadvantage in obvious ways: When you don’t have money, you can’t pay for housing, food, transportation and other basic necessities. But poverty and people who live in it are also stigmatized. The poor are targets of bigotry and hatred ― and that prejudice against the poor then serves to justify their poverty and the gaping economic inequalities that make it possible.

The poor are targets of bigotry and hatred ― and that prejudice against the poor then serves to justify their poverty.

The stigmatization of poverty in the United States is hardly new. The U.S. is heavily invested in the myth of meritocracy: the idea that if you are virtuous, you will be successful (read: rich). Therefore, if you are successful, it must be because you are virtuous and deserving. The corollary to this dearly held and demonstrably false belief is that those who are not wealthy are not virtuous, and thus deserve their poverty.

Contempt for the poor in America has been compounded by the fact that, thanks to racism, poor people in the U.S. are disproportionately black and other people of color. In the antebellum South, whites stereotyped enslaved people as lazy, even though it was white people who forced others to do their work for them. In the 1970s, Ronald Reagan railed against the welfare queen” ― a black woman who supposedly pretended to be poor in order to obtain government benefits. And recently, Trump has echoed Reagan by claiming, falsely, that undocumented immigrants come to the United States so they can receive welfare benefits and not have to work.

As with Scarry’s tweet about Ocasio-Cortez, Reagan and Trump were questioning whether people who said they lacked money were really poor or were just faking it. If you’re going to ask for help in America, these critiques seem to insist, you’d better be really, truly, abjectly, miserably poor, and you’d better perform that poverty for the benefit of the more fortunate.

If you’re going to ask for help in America, you’d better be really, truly, abjectly, poor, and you’d better perform that poverty.

At the same time they are attacked for not being poor enough, though, the poor are often shamed for not being wealthier. After Ocasio-Cortez revealed she had less than $7,000 in the bank, CNBC ran an article noting that “based on her previous earnings, experts recommend she have between $8,750 and $30,000 put away for a crisis.”

This is reminiscent of Washington Post columnist Megan McArdle’s recommendation that everyone should save 25 percent of their income. It’s easy for relatively affluent people to save money; it’s much more difficult if you’re living paycheck to paycheck. You might as well just tell people, “be richer, and then you won’t be poor!”

It seems like a contradiction to simultaneously shame the poor for being too poor and to shame them for not being poor enough. But as critic and author Julia Serano has explained, this kind of paradox is part of how stigma works. Serano argues that marginalized people, or people who are the victims of prejudice, are marked. Someone who is marked is singled out as being different, wrong or flawed. And once someone is marked, everything they do is subject to enhanced scrutiny and censure.

Affluent people are seen as normal; they aren’t marked. So, when an affluent person wears a nice suit to the office, they’re just dressing appropriately for work. In contrast, a poor person wearing the same suit has provided evidence of hypocrisy and deceit. An affluent person — like, say, Donald Trump — can bankrupt numerous businesses and still be praised for his dealmaking skills. But a person of modest means who admits to having to struggle to pay rent is a failure and an object lesson for others.

Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat from New York, smiles after a group photo with the 116th Congress outside the
Bloomberg via Getty Images
Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat from New York, smiles after a group photo with the 116th Congress outside the U.S. Capitol on Nov. 14, 2018. 

Stigma, in short, creates double standards that in turn serve as a justification for stigma. Double standards directed at the poor are used, first of all, to force poor people out of the public sphere and delegitimize their own testimony about their lives and needs. In talking about her struggle to pay rent or to save for a rainy day, Ocasio-Cortez was using her own experiences as a working-class woman to highlight how removed most politicians are from average people. Scarry’s tweet was meant to undermine her testimony by “proving” that she is not, in fact, average.

Consider a less partisan example of this line of attack. In 2013, fry cook Linda Tirado wrote a much-shared column, based on her personal experience, about why poor people can’t actually pull themselves up by their bootstraps through thrift and virtue. Shortly after the piece went viral, she was accused of being a fake in a poorly sourced New York Times article and generally shamed and vilified for the crime of speaking while poor. She was even targeted for death threats. Tirado, like Ocasio-Cortez, drew attention to the difficulties facing poor people from the perspective of someone who dealt with them day to day. And like Ocasio-Cortez, gatekeepers with large platforms tried to shut her up.

“Honestly, I think people are uncomfortable with the idea that maybe there’s merit below,” Tirado told me by text last weekend. But, she added, “It also was a political thing. If I was actually just an average sort of person, by which I mean someone stuck in retail forever, and I could hold my own in a forum like Harvard [where she lectured after the column went viral], then a lot of our policies might be more punitive than productive.”

The stigma and prejudice attached to poverty create the assumption that poor people can’t be smart, so anyone who is smart can’t be poor. It’s a perfect circle that ensures that no poor person who talks about their experience is seen as credible. Unless, like J.D. Vance in his memoir Hillbilly Elegy, the working class people in question are careful to position themselves as exceptionally meritorious and decry the immorality and poor work ethic of their peers. Poor people who cosign prejudice against poor people are lauded. Everyone else is dismissed.

The stigma and prejudice attached to poverty create the assumption that poor people can't be smart, so anyone who is smart can't be poor.

Ocasio-Cortez has herself explained the political motives behind the attacks on her. “The actual fear driving the attacks on my clothes, my checking account, my rent, isn’t that these folks are scared that I shouldn’t represent people in Congress,” she wrote on Twitter. “It’s fear that they’ve allowed their riches, their privilege, + their bias to put them to a point where they can’t.”  

If working-class people are fully human and fully able to govern themselves, then the political sway of the wealthy and their contempt for those with less is hard to justify. Money is power, but that power is sustained by ideology. The attacks on Ocasio-Cortez are an unusually blatant reminder that inequality is perpetuated by prejudice. If we didn’t hate the poor, the poor wouldn’t exist.

Noah Berlatsky is the author most recently of Nazi Dreams: Films About Fascism.