“Get a job”

It seems absurd to have to argue the point that the poor aren’t poor because they’re lazy and stupid, but I’m not convinced we have ever really moved past this point in political discourse, at least in the United States. I have recently become engrossed by the Tumblr blog We Are the 99 Percent, and I think there are some lessons to be learned from it.

The blog, if you’re not already familiar with it, consists entirely of photographs of people holding up handwritten notes describing why they feel let down by the system and denied the “American dream.” In putting compulsively readable human stories at the forefront, the website personalizes the grievances that have been brought against the U.S. economic and social system in a way that I’m not sure has ever been done before. To be sure, the vast majority of the people depicted are white and educated. But in a certain perverse way, that may work to the site’s advantage. These are white, educated, hard-working people – people whose stories are accessible to societal elites – who nevertheless are struggling to make ends meet. Their stories are a living testimony to the fact that people are not poor because they are stupid or lazy – most of these people seem to be quite the opposite, yet they face debt and severe financial uncertainty anyway. They are also a powerful response to the condescension so often thrown at those who protest against the status quo: “Get a job!”

What would be amazing is a kind of “We Are the Global 99 Percent,” in which a larger and more diverse cross-section of economically and socially disadvantaged people around the world shared their individual stories. This would do two things: first, humanize poverty and inequality around the world; and second, offer a living rejoinder to ideologies that ignore or deny the existence of structural poverty, systemic discrimination, or pervasive power imbalances. This sort of project isn’t really feasible, but if We Are the 99 Percent ends up having any kind of impact, perhaps the takeaway is that the systematic sharing of large numbers of concise personal stories might be a powerful tool for structural change.

That’s certainly not a new idea, but the idea of using something like Tumblr as the platform? That’s pretty thought-provoking, and opens the mind to any number of other possibilities.

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