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Reading Culture: Poverty in the United States

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At Bryn Mawr, all incoming freshmen need to take a seminar now called “Emily Balch Seminars,” to help students build critical and analytical expository writing skills.  Although my “CSem” was not technically part of my Peace, Conflict, and Social Justice Studies coursework, it provided a helpful introduction to some of the topics I would be tackling later on in Political Science, Sociology, Education, Philosophy, and other coursework that became the bulk of my PCSJSC concentration.  One of the most memorable parts of the course, four years later, was an analysis we did in class of a mention of a “field greens” salad in an article we were reading, and trying to break apart the ways in which that particular kind of salad could be coded as being for the wealthy and privileged.  As part of the course we also read Nickel and Dimed, a book that showed its face countless times in subsequent classes.  Below is my take on the book, with a focus on how the increase of surveillance of people living in poverty in the US society creates a kind of de facto jail for the poorest rungs of society.

            In modern political discourse, a large focus of discussion is on how to deal with issues of poverty.  For decades, there has been a call for the country to cease to be a “welfare state,” and instead concentrate on having the poor enter the workforce.  In Discipline and Punish, Philosopher Michael Foucault describes the Panopticon – a physical structure with metaphorical implications – as “Each individual is fixed in his place.  And, if he moves, he does so at the risk of his life, contagion or punishment.  Inspection functions ceaselessly.  The gaze is alert everywhere.” (Foucault, 1)  This model of partitioning and supervision, in an attempt to keep the rest of the community “pure,” can also be observed in modern low-paying jobs in the United States, and in the communities in which these employees live.  Michael Harrington outlines in his influential book, The Other America, how panoptic social structures limit and disable the working poor, which Barbara Ehrenreich experienced first-hand, and relayed in Nickel and Dimed.  Foucault’s examination of the panopticon helps to illustrate why current-day disciplinary models of employment can actually hurt the poor and contribute to a “culture of poverty.”

            Foucault begins the chapter “Panopticism” with a description of the plague, where lepers were quarantined and kept separate from the rest of society.  They were constantly inspected, registered, and watched, with a strict focus on discipline.  He explains, however, that the example of lepers is symbolic, and that many in society are subjected to panopticism, an “enclosed, segmented space, observed at every point, in which the individuals are inserted in a fixed place, in which the slightest movements are supervised, in which all events are which power is exercised without division according to a continuous hierarchal figure” (Foucault, 2).  Harrington opens his book explaining that there is, in fact, another America, that has been quarantined, unseen by the rest of society.  “The other America, the America of poverty, is hidden today in a way it never was before. Its millions are socially invisible to the rest of us” (Harrington, 3).  The poor have been forced into this disciplinary model as a means of delineating power relations, keeping lower classes as the subordinates.  After her three years spent living the life of a low-wage worker, Ehrenreich also recognizes their invisibility.  “The poor have disappeared from the culture at large, from its political rhetoric and intellectual endeavors as well as from its daily entertainment.” (Ehrenreich, 117) Not only are the poor literally living in separate communities – trailer parks, urban projects, and isolated rural towns – but their existence has been taken out of popular consciousness.  Since the 1950's, the poor have become politically invisible.  “It is one of the cruelest ironies of social life in advanced countries that the dispossessed at the bottom of society are unable to speak for themselves...As a group, they are atomized.  They have no face; they have no voice.” (Harrington, 6)

On first impression, it might seem that there is a tension between the claim that panopticism makes the "gaze" on the poor "alert everywhere," and the argument that it keeps them "hidden" and "socially invisible."  In fact, there is irony here but no contradiction:  panoptic structures, whether they are prisons or leper colonies or places where the poor reside, can easily be both highly regulated or inspected and invisible to the larger society.  Indeed, if anything, the isolation and invisibility of such panoptic structures in the greater society is one of the features that contributes both to their disciplinary effectiveness and their moral insidiousness.

            In Harrington's account, the quarantining of the poor – in those places that are both unseen and highly controlled – paves a path to an even more individual type of isolation, in which the poor are separated in a way that begins to eat away at their personal identity.    Harrington gives the example of the “slum communities” that used to populate the Lower East Side in New York City, where the housing of the poor created almost complete isolation.  They become “huge, impersonal, bureaucratic environments” (Harrington, 149) due to the physical construction of housing projects, as well as the administrative control.  Harrington explains that “the administration is distant, and it represents powerful disciplinary authority.  There are many rules, constant checking on violations, and all of the formalities of the bureaucratic world…the result of this is a considerable amount of confusion and fear on the part of the project dweller.  How is he to cope with this distant, powerful authority?  How is he to find an identity in the huge concrete building?” (150).  The mechanisms that isolate the poor represent the way that society views them – as people who need to be controlled and held captive.  Housing is only one example of the physical and psychological isolation that completes the type of panopticism Foucault outlines.  These tactics all work towards a structure that makes poverty indefinite.

            Many people living in poverty go to work every day, just as wealthier sectors of society do, but they work in conditions that further entrench them in a panoptic structure.  The housing environments that Harrington describes illustrates that while the poor can remain invisible from society at large, they can be penetratingly inspected in other areas of their lives.  Foucault described Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon as a prison where constant visibility insured permanent and working power. 

“Bentham laid down the principle that power should be visible and unverifiable.  Visible: the inmate will constantly have before his eyes the tall outline of the central tower from which he is spied upon.  Unverifiable: the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so.” (Foucault, 5)

This precise architecture is only an example of a basic principle, however, “the diagram of a mechanism of power reduced to its ideal form” (Foucault, 7), which can be observed in many low-wage occupations.

            In most of her jobs, Ehrenreich experiences management that closely resembles the guards in the prison’s watchtower.  They are there to discipline.  “I still flinch to think that I spent all those weeks under the surveillance of men (and later women) whose job it was to monitor my behavior for signs of sloth, theft, drug abuse, or worse.” (Ehrenreich, 22)  Ehrenreich finds that many of her employers exploit the threat of surveillance, without their words necessarily being prognostic.  In describing her job as a maid, Ehrenreich explains, “Owners have been known to leave tape recorders going while we work.  Video cameras are another part of the lure…Whether any of this is true or not, Ted encourages us to imagine that we are under surveillance at all times in each house” (93). 

In his research and observation, Harrington also notices evidence of panoptic places of employment, such as at 80 Warren Street in New York City, the “slave market.”  “They have no contract rights, and the foreman is the absolute monarch. Permission is required if a worker wants to go the bathroom.  A few are fired every day for insubordination.” (Harrington, 22) When he visited an artificial Christmas tree factory, Harrington found that workers can be exploited and treated poorly because they can be “kept in their place,” yet the workers recognized their victimization and described the conditions as slave-like. (Harrington, 26)       

            One woman in the Christmas tree factory – essentially sweatshop – became so upset over the horrible working conditions that she tried to organize her coworkers, but found that collective action among workers is deliberately unattainable in the panopticon.  “She tried to organize the shop.  A majority of the workers had signed cards asking for a union election, but the National Labor Relations Board had postponed the date.  The elections will never take place.  The Christmas-tree season is over.” (26)  Harrington explains that workers who have the cushion of a union are better off than those who don’t, but that the people who most need union protection are often the least likely to have it.  Panopticism makes unionization difficult, if not impossible.  Ehrenreich found that “Rules about ‘gossip,’ or even ‘talking,’ make it hard to air your grievances to peers or – should you be so daring – to enlist other workers in a group effort to bring about change, through a union organizing drive, for example” (209).  Ehrenreich states that the AFL-CIO estimates that ten thousand workers a year are fired for participating in union organizing.  Although this is technically illegal, companies have no problem finding loopholes – Walmart employees who have tried to unionize have been fired for breaking rules against profanity or other minor infractions. (Ehrenreich, 210)  Foucault explains that when people work in a panoptic environment, “there are no disorders, no theft, no coalitions, none of those distractions that slow down the rate of work, make it less perfect or cause accidents. The crowd, a compact mass, a locus of multiple exchanges…a collective effect, is abolished and replaced by a collection of separated individualities” (4).  If employees had the ability to improve the work environment, they would have a better chance of becoming more successful at their jobs, eventually having the ability to get an even higher-skilled occupation.  But the disciplinary model of employment does not only make workers good at their jobs, it keeps them in their jobs.

            The panopticism that has spread into the lives and workplaces of the poor sets them up to become the victims they perceive themselves as, and to fall into a culture of poverty.  Foucault rhetorically asks, “How will power, by increasing its forces, be able to increase those of society instead of confiscating them or impeding them?” (Foucault, 9), in this case referring to the poor. What Ehrenreich and Harrington have found is, it can’t.  Ehrenreich noticed that from the commencement of interaction with employers – the job interview – people looking for low wage jobs are dehumanized.  She depicts her first experience taking a Walmart “personality test” as reminiscent of panoptic examination. 

“The real function of these tests, I decide, is to convey information not to the employer but to the potential employee, and the information being conveyed is always: you will have no secrets from us.  We don’t just want your muscles and that portion of your brain that is directly connected to them, we want your innermost self.” (Ehrenreich, 59)

What Ehrenreich is describing is panopticism at its core.  Harrington deduces that the effect of this constant degradation induces the self-worth and aspirations of the poor. “Tens of millions of Americans are, at this very moment, maimed in body and spirit, existing at levels beneath those necessary for human decency.” (Harrington, 2) He gives the example of hospital orderlies, janitors, and stockmen, who are often psychologically abused in the workplace, when saying, “The most humiliating part of this experience maims the spirit.” (Harrington, 26) Ehrenreich concurs, summing up her entire experience with the ways in which the psyches of herself and her coworkers were bruised. “What surprised and offended me most about the low-wage workplace was the extent to which one is required to surrender one’s basic civil rights and – what boils down to the same thing – self respect.” (Ehrenreich, 208)

            The panopticism that Foucault describes might strengthen the economy by adding jobs to the market, but by eating away at the self-respect of the “prisoners,” it lacks in basic liberty.  Harrington blames this societal structure for much of the feeling of rejection and lack of aspiration among the poor U.S. “And the terrible thing that is happening to these people is that suddenly they feel themselves to be rejects, outcasts. At that moment the affluent society ceases to be a reality or even a hope; it becomes a taunt.” Ehrenreich has experiences that fit into this analysis; she feels that indignities such as purse-checks, drug tests, and strict, arbitrary rules, make her into a different person.

“Any dictatorship takes a psychological toll on its subjects.  If you are treated as an untrustworthy person – a potential slacker, drug addict, or thief – you may begin to feel less trustworthy yourself.  If you are constantly reminded of your lowly position in the social hierarchy, whether by individual managers or by a plethora of impersonal rules, you begin to accept that unfortunate status.”  (Ehrenreich, 210)

            Harrington hypothesizes that this constant rejection – from individuals and from society – is what begins the domino-effect causing the culture of poverty. “There are two important ways of saying this: The poor are caught in a vicious cycle; or, The poor live in a culture of poverty.” (15) Harrington believes the forced supervision and isolation is internalized in such a way that the poor begin to segregate themselves – hoping only to survive, not to push their way out of poverty.  “There is, in short, a language of the poor, a psychology of the poor, a world view of the poor. To be impoverished is to be an internal alien, to grow up in a culture that is radically different from the one that dominates society”   (Harrington, 17) Borrowing from her science background, Ehrenreich relates this phenomenon to what happens when monkeys are forced into subordinate status, explaining how biologically they “adapt their brain chemistry accordingly, becoming ‘depressed,’ in humanlike ways.  Their behavior is anxious and withdrawn...And – what is especially relevant here – they avoid fighting even in self defense.” (Ehrenreich, 211)  Foucault makes the point that when people have been in panoptic institutions long enough, force is no longer needed to constrain “the worker to work.”  Eventually, people begin to discipline themselves, the worker “assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection” (Foucault, 5).

            Foucault traces the historical basis for panopticism, outlining how its roots stem from models of order and discipline in the seventeenth century. “The practice of placing individuals under 'observation' is a natural extension of a justice imbued with disciplinary methods and examination procedures.” (Foucault, 19) What is notable is that these societies placed little emphasis, if any, on the rights of prisoners or their counterparts.  It is not surprising that the current-day poor forced into a parallel system would feel just as powerless to change their situation as lepers or vagabonds from centuries ago.  The workers cannot unionize or improve their situations, nor can they leave their jobs.  Many people living in poverty are too dependent on their pensions to switch to a different place of employment – they are stuck in “‘industrial feudalism,’ a system that binds the worker to his plant” (Harrington, 33). In trying to explain why the poor seem often to get stuck in poverty, Harrington formulates the idea that much of the blame falls on the jobs purported to be the vehicle out of it. “This sector of American society has proved itself immune to progress.  And one of the main reasons is that it is almost possible to organize the workers of the economic underworld in their self-defense.  They are at the mercy of unscrupulous employers.” (21)

            After her experience working low-wage jobs, Ehrenreich is able to self-analyze and comes to a similar conclusion: continuing in these panoptic jobs would have changed her.  After only spending a short time at Jerry’s, Ehrenreich finds that “In a month or two, I might have turned into a different person altogether.” (Ehrenreich, 41) Foucault expounds on this, saying that “the Panopticon was a laboratory; it could be used as a machine to…alter behavior, to train or correct individuals” (6). This continued for Ehrenreich at each subsequent place of employment, which the Reader’s Guide to the book, summarized as “Ehrenreich concluded that had her working life been spent in a Wal-Mart-like environment, she would have emerged a different person – meaner, pettier, ‘Barb’ instead of ‘Barbara.’” (Ehrenreich, 243) Had these jobs not been a journalistic experiment, but rather her real life, it is possible that Ehrenreich would not have been able to extricate herself from the cycle of low-paying jobs and poverty.  She would have been transformed into the type of person that filled the role her jobs needed her to play.

            Panopticism exists not only to control and discipline its subjects, but also to try to “normalize” them.  When society places the poor into a workforce enmeshed in these structures, the question becomes, what is the intention -- to exercise power over the poor, in a mind-game of constant surveillance?  Or, is it meant to be a way to disentangle them from poverty and lead them on the road to economic success, as welfare reformed purported to do?  If the latter is true, then the problem might not be the U.S.’s aim, but rather its means of “helping” the poor.  Harrington quickly explains that even those facing impoverishment do not want government aid. “They have a pride, a spirit, and the last thing they want is to go on welfare...they would accept public humiliation rather than go on the public dole.” (Harrington, 35) But, the poor also don’t want to work within the destructive panoptic model.  “The fact that anyone is working this job at all can be taken as prima facie evidence of kind of desperation or at least a history of mistakes and disappointments.” (Ehrenreich, 78)

            If people living in impoverished communities were given the tools – money, education, childcare, etc. – necessary to procure jobs that do not bully with panopticism, they might have a chance at actually achieving their own prosperity, and exist as a “normal” member of society.  Right now, the poor are stuck.  “The other America feels differently than the rest of the nation. They tend to be hopeless and passive, yet prone to bursts of violence; they are lonely and isolated, often rigid and hostile.” (Harrington, 122) When Harrington wrote The Other America in 1962, he warned that if nothing was done about the state of poverty, “someone can write a book about the other America a generation from now and it will be the same, or worse.” (Harrington, 159)  In 2001, Ehrenreich did just that.  Harrington called for, “The political, economic, and social integration of the poor with the rest of the society.  The second nation in our midst, the other America, must be brought into the union.” (Harrington, 168), which Ehrenreich later echoed.  If the United States recognizes Foucault’s criticism of the Panopticon, and heeds Harrington’s and Ehrenreich’s advice on how to improve the situation, a book written forty years from now might have a very different flavor.

Works Cited


Ehrenreich, Barbara. Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. New York: Holt Paperbacks, 2008.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline & Punish: The Birth Of the Prison. New York: Pantheon Books, 1977.

Harrington, Michael. The Other America: Poverty in the United States. New York: Macmillan Company, 1962.


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