Coffee Rhetoric: Melissa Harris-Perry: "What is Riskier than Being Poor in America?"

September 01, 2012

Melissa Harris-Perry: "What is Riskier than Being Poor in America?"

The wealth gap becomes ever vaster, as the working class and poor continue to slog through a still-struggling economy. While some of those amongst the uber-wealthy seem far more vested in acquiring and hoarding more, they also seem to relish patronizing those who continue to struggle to stay afloat, even while toiling away at work every day for a paltry paycheck. Affluent and wealthy folks love to trot out the same "just work harder" boot strap speech to condescend to poor people, many of whom would be hard pressed to find a part-time job, let alone a second or third one to supplement their living expenses. Australian mining heiress Gina Rinehart [pegged as the world's wealthiest woman, with a net worth of about 30 billion dollars], made sure to drive the stake in and twist it, in a recent magazine article in which she accused poor and working class people of being jealous of the wealthy, yet not working hard enough to acquire the type of privilege she has enjoyed for most of her life- "Do something to make more money yourself -- spend less time drinking or smoking and socializing, and more time working." She lectured.

The fact that Gina Rinehart came-of-age swaddled in wealth and got a leg up on the workforce via nepotism and a hefty inheritance, isn’t lost on her poor, jealous countryman. And while her misguided comments addressed the wealth gap Australia, her “I’m rich, bitch!” sentiments about the poor are shared by the affluent, here in the U.S.

The obvious disdain for the poor is palpable… and unbearable during those times when short-sighted anecdotes are offered about the “risks” involved in acquiring wealth and privilege. Most troubling is the demonization of welfare-- mostly by conservatives-- as being nothing more than “hand-outs” to people in need, and the habit of those who speak ill of welfare, of creating pervasive pathologies about “undeserving” Black people.

Today on MSNBC's Melissa Harris-Perry Show, BusinessWeek writer and guest, Monica Mehta offered a critique of President Obama’s “You didn’t build that on your own” comment, during a July speech he gave, which took wealthy entrepreneurs to task for not acknowledging the folks who helped them build their businesses and wealth,
During a segment that discussed Martin Gilens's book, Why Americans Hate Welfare: Race, Media, and the Politics of Antipoverty Policy, and the racialization of welfare by wealthy conservatives, Mehta opined that the POTUS failed to emphasize risk-taking in his speech, and seemed to suggest that poorer people didn’t take the risks that wealthy investors and entrepreneurs do.
The usually calm Melissa Harris-Perry [understandably] grew visibly agitated with Mehta's "risk-taking" comment and spoke passionately about what true risk really is. “What is riskier than living poor in America? Seriously!” Melissa demanded to know, as she slammed her hand down on the table in frustration. 

“I live in a neighborhood where people have to figure out how to get their kid into school because maybe it will be a good school and maybe it won’t. I am sick of the idea that being wealthy is risky. No. There is a huge safety net that whenever you fail will catch you and catch you and catch you. Being poor is what is risky. We have to create a safety net for poor people. And when we won’t, because they happen to look different from us, it is the pervasive ugliness.”

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Mehta, who seemed a bit taken aback, continued trying to expound on her comment. A composed Harris-Perry later apologized for getting upset, and while that was the professional approach to take, I don’t think it should be held against her. I believe the conviction with which she spoke is much needed during this tenuous time where people are simply sick and tired of listening to patronizing, blanket rhetoric by wealthy out-of-touch conservatives, about why they’re poor, at the lower-end of the class scale, or why they have the nerve to be Black or brown in addition to not having wealth or upward mobility.
 Melissa Harris-Perry's outburst echoed the frustrated sentiments of many who're barely scraping by and who implore those members of the affluent and wealthy class for some semblance of understanding [which they seem to lack] about the underclass.