The “New Poor” Versus The “Old Poor”: Who Gets Prioritized?
By Kirsten Anderberg
We have all heard the terms “old money,” and “new money” with
regards to familial wealth.
“Old money” is perceived to be more noble, and more dignified in
stature somehow. “New money” is considered superficial,
transitory, or even happenstance.
These same concepts can be applied to the poor. And what is
interesting is the way society will try to separate out the “new
poor” from the “old poor” when determining who to give aid to.
The “new poor” are treated as more deserving of help. And
indeed, the “new poor” are easier to help, as they are not
entrenched in poverty from all angles, 5 feet deep, “YET.”
The “old poor” often have harder attitudes and edges due to the
prolonged crisis of poverty, and often are less graceful with
the hands that feed them. Their “polish” in dealing with charity
and welfare agencies wore off over the years, as they identified
their fate as a side effect of a malfunctioning capitalist
society, not a fate borne of their innate inferiority or
So “new poor” happens *to* someone and it is not their fault, so
we give them lots of help with no stigma. But the “old poor”
*create* their own poverty, thus they should not be helped.
That constructively, is the philosophy involved. We see time and
again, that Americans love to help those who are NOT the most in
need of help. I do not know why that is. But it seems to be the
We see that society is eager to help home owners who lose
estates in Florida from tropical storms, or from fires in Malibu
Canyon in California. But society is not so eager to help those
who never owned a home to begin with.
I remember reading in the New York Times, just after 9/11/01,
about a new widow who had people give her money so she could
keep her pool cleaner coming, as if this was some heroic gesture
on the part of her friends and strangers. Yet no one seems to
care about the widow living on the streets of NYC, who cannot
afford food or shelter, much less a pool or pool cleaner.
Oprah recently gave away new cars to every studio audience
member, to mostly people who already own cars.
If she had given a new car to an entire audience of homeless
people, she would have given them transportation, a place to
sleep, and a place to keep food, clothing and belongings. But
instead she gave a second car to most of her audience that day.
Just what they all needed.
The rush to help everyone *but* the truly poor is an interesting
Perhaps people are doing an unspoken triage. People are thinking
there are poor folks who will survive without our help. Then
there is a group that will not survive without our help, such as
the 9/11 widow who would have had a dirty pool lest she clean it
herself which is preposterous.
And then there are the poor folks who have sunk too far into
poverty to save sans huge, sustained, long-term efforts. In the
last class, we have truly poor people that we abandon
altogether, such as people who have been homeless for 10
The middle group only requires token aid, and thus is the
maximized venture for those wanting immediate glory or brownie
points for helping the poor.
It requires the least input for the maximum accolades. And
appears to be America’s choice group for charity.
In the aftermath of Florida’s recent barrage of tropical storms,
I am sure the “old poor” are slipping under the radar of powers
that be, to utilize programs set up for the “new poor.” Programs
no one would facilitate for the “old poor.”
I saw this in full play after the 7.1 earthquake in 1989 in
Santa Cruz, Ca., that collapsed the Oakland freeway. Santa Cruz
at that time had a large homeless population. Then the quake
hit. And suddenly middle class families were temporarily
homeless, due to structural damage to the homes they owned.
A shelter was set up at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, with
beds, blankets, food and water. We had torrential rains after
the quake, so the homeless population showed up to use these
cots, dry blankets, food, etc., these things that were set up
for middle class quake victims apparently.
There was a public uproar when suburban families complained
about having to sleep next to “bums” in the shelter. A move was
made to separate out the “old poor” from the “new poor,” but it
The “old poor” just lied, saying they had been living somewhere
that was now ruined. I remember the end result being something
like the homeless population took over most of that shelter and
the middle class people went somewhere else, probably motels,
and the shelter was shut down earlier than it would have been if
it had been used by middle class families instead of homeless
This also played out in the Northridge earthquake in 1994. (Yes,
I have a propensity for earthquake epicenters).
My building collapsed and my son and I needed clothing, food,
shelter, etc. immediately. The Red Cross required I prove my
home address and that my building had collapsed. How I was
supposed to hunt that down, without being allowed into my home,
the day after the quake, was beyond me. Finally, a fire chief
came into the Red Cross station I was at, and announced every
building on my block was condemned, so anyone living in that
area was automatically cleared for services.
I was finally able to prove my address from something I was able
to get out of my car. But if I had been homeless and hungry,
like everyone else in that shelter, but had been so before the
quake as well, the Red Cross apparently was not interested in
helping us at all.
As conditions degraded in the San Fernando Valley in the days
after the Northridge quake, water and food were a hassle to
obtain. Lines of people wound around blocks waiting to buy food
and water from grocery stores.
Since the stores were damaged themselves and aftershocks kept on
coming, customers were not allowed to go inside the stores. You
would finally get to the front of the line, give a list to a
clerk, they would go risk their lives in a building too unstable
to allow the public in, and would bring what you wanted up front
and you paid in cash. Another option was to wait in long lines
at local high schools for the National Guard to give you 5
gallons of water to put in a container you brought to the
I was not enthused about standing in the hot sun for hours to
get water. I wondered if I drove my old Dodge Dart to a part of
town with more money, if I would find water easier. And sure
enough, I did.
Unlike the long lines for food and water in the San Fernando
Valley, the National Guard was literally sitting at I-5 off
ramps giving out free cases of bottled water to families in the
middle class white suburbs of Santa Clarita, which is only a few
miles north of the San Fernando Valley.
Santa Clarita had suffered hard blows from the quake too, it was
not like they were in an area with little to no damage. They had
enough damage to bring in the National Guard with water and to
warrant Red Cross stations be set up there.
But somehow their water was flowing freely, while people were
fighting for water down in San Fernando, which has a large
Latino population and a larger low-income population. In
addition to the cases of water just sitting by the off ramps in
Santa Clarita, the Red Cross stations there also had an
abundance of water and encouraged me to take a case of bottled
Evian water with me when I left.
Unlike the Red Cross shelters in San Fernando which were full,
the Santa Clarita shelters were completely empty. Why the Red
Cross could not transport the extra water and beds from Santa
Clarita to San Fernando is beyond me. Additionally, why the
National Guard was literally sitting by road sides with cases of
water when they could have driven those cases of water into San
Fernando is beyond me as well. But this seems to be the pattern.
Money and aid is given to that middle group in social triage
first and foremost.
We saw this type of thing during the Depression Era in America
as well. As more and more people became unemployed, homeless and
hungry, the lines between the “new poor” and the “old poor”
blurred. Many efforts were made to separate the two for aid.
And just as we see today, somehow business ends up as one of
those in line for aid as well, as masses grow poorer. Just like
Bush’s tax break for the rich in America nowadays, we saw
Hoover’s response to the Depression was to create the
Reconstruction Finance Corporation, which gave federal aid to
“agriculture, commerce and industry.” Apparently, big business
becomes the “new poor” worthy of aid at some point as well!
When a tropical storm creates homelessness, there is help
When an earthquake creates homelessness, there is help
But when capitalism creates homelessness, who do you call to
cover that emergency? And when would that aid be able to
After the 1994 quake, I was stunned to find one of the pieces of
furniture that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)
felt was an essential, that had to be replaced, even at
government expense, was a television! When folks fill out their
loss forms for FEMA now after these Florida storms, they will be
asked if they had a TV. If they say yes, and they qualify for
FEMA aid, FEMA will buy them a new TV.
Priorities such as these are both telling and predictable. When
given the choice, it appears most Americans would prefer to help
the “new poor” over the “old poor.”
People really need to think about this concept of the “new poor”
and the “old poor” to assess their own motives for helping the
Why were we willing to give endless money to upper-middle class
commodities brokers’ families who suffered after the 9/11
tragedy, but not to wives of sugar cane workers in Florida whose
husbands suffer machete injuries at phenomenal rates without any
health insurance, to feed America’s sugar addictions?
Nor are we willing to donate money to the African-American women
whose husbands and sons have been shot in cold blood by trigger
happy police who supposedly did no wrong? How do we choose who
to help? How do we prioritize the needs of *all* poor people?
The Red Cross tried to divert some of the 9/11 contributions to
general Red Cross funds to help places with serious poverty
conditions of famine, etc., and Americans threw fits over
Americans demanded the money stay in the pool for those not
starving to death in America, for 9/11 victims, such as widows
of well-to-do property-owning commodities brokers, among other
more worthy candidates, for aid.
As you can see, this prioritizing new and old poverty expands
beyond the microcosm of America. It extends out to who we help
internationally, in the macrocosm, as well.
Which countries are prioritized for aid from America and why?
Certainly those in the most dire need do not shoot to the top of
the list for help. We need to take some time out to seriously
study our priorities and motivations regarding aid to the poor,
in the microcosm of America, and in the macrocosm of the world,
with relation to these artificial divisions between the classes
of the “new poor” and the “old poor.”