Women United
Justice, Community and Family

The Poor People in Boulder are 'invisible'

By Rickie Solinger

On a weekend just before Christmas, Women United For Justice, Community and Family, the local action group dedicated to the human rights of poor women, set up a table at the Boulder Armory and asked people lined up outside the building to fill out a brief questionnaire regarding the experience of being poor in Boulder County.

The amazing streams of people who filed into the Armory morning and afternoon all weekend had come to collect Christmas food baskets, toys and warm coats for their families. This crowd knows a lot about being poor, and about how our welfare system works, and about what it feels like to need charity in the midst of plenty.

I spent Saturday morning talking to people on the line and came away with two powerful impressions: first, that hundreds and hundreds of people in Boulder - many who are not white - are not doing well, economically; and second, that Boulder is one of those cities in which poor people have been rendered more or less "invisible" to the larger population.

I was struck that most residents of our city would be shocked to see the long, shivering lines of people at the Armory in part because, according to the 1995 Boulder Citizen Survey, white, middle-class Boulderites largely think of the city as increasingly welcoming to diverse populations and highly tolerant of their presence in the city. In fact, the survey found that Boulderites want more diversity: "Residents rated Boulder as too homogeneous, desiring a larger number of people of varied incomes and racial/ethnic backgrounds."

In addition, schools all over the city are busy implementing multicultural curricula because parents, teachers, and Boulderites in general have determined that even (especially!) in a city that is 88 percent white and mostly middle class, our children must learn tolerance and respect for diverse peoples.

Presumably the people who want more diversity do not have it in mind to welcome Latinos and Latinas and Asians and low income families into the city simply to shunt them out of sight onto the Christmas charity lines. But the profound irony is there: Despite what most Boulder residents believe about their impulses toward others and despite their desires for the hearts and minds of the city's youth, so many of the people who are not white in Boulder are in economic distress and feeling decidedly unwelcome, and so many of the poor are "invisible."

Our group, Women united, collected 72 completed questionnaires at the armory. the women who responded told us a great deal about their experiences with poverty and the welfare system, and about their personal aspirations. And what they told us points to some additional and deeply troubling ironies about how what we want to believe can be undetermined by poisonous stereotypes.

To begin with, I've heard quite a few people in town lately suggest that women on welfare are irresponsible; that's why they're poor and taking public money. But the women we talked to are profoundly responsible: they dedicate their lives to taking care of their children under extremely difficult conditions, including, in many cases, making up for the absence of truly irresponsible fathers, men who compound the damage of their absence by refusing to contribute any child support at all.

I have also heard poor women called lazy and described as content to live off the dole. Again, our respondents defined themselves sharply against that stereotype. What these women in Boulder want are good jobs, so they can afford to raise their children. They also want decent housing, not easy to find in the state ranking 41st in the nation in low-income housing stock.

Many of our respondents - some of whom were among the more than 200,000 women in Colorado with less than a high school education - said they were very concerned about furthering their own schooling, as part of an effort to find that good job. And almost all of the women indicated that more and better programs aimed at "self-sufficiency" are what they need. One woman wrote, "$280 for a mother and child with bills to pay is just not enough. We need more help with daycare especially so women can become self-sufficient."

When I talk about these issues to middle-class mothers, like myself, I sometimes get the message that welfare mothers must have no self-respect, otherwise they wouldn't be poor and dependent. The welfare mothers we spoke to reported feeling the impact of this stereotype directly. A young mother told us, "I get the feeling of always being not believed and that people think I am lying on applications for help."

These ideas - that welfare mothers are irresponsible and lazy and have no self-respect, that the bad behavior of individual women is the issue - are the core of the current program to slash public assistance to this group. The most disturbing thing to me about how alive these ideas are in our city is that while many people here judge and condemn poor women, they also believe strongly in taking a stand against racism and sexism and in teaching our children to respect diversity.

But the truth is, racism and sexism - and class prejudice - are not simply theoretical constructs. They have an impact on the real lives of real people who live in this city, most especially on the lives of poor women.

It is sometimes hard to remember, in a city where many middle-class, white women are finding a rich range of professional opportunities, that women, particularly poor ones, are still a category of humans deeply discriminated against. Consider, for example, the fact that in Colorado, women are still paid less than 70 cents for every dollar that similarly employed men are paid, a rate that has risen only six cents since 1955.

Consider, also, the related fact that while 7.5 percent of all families in Boulder live below the poverty level, 22.7 percent of families headed by single mothers do so. Again, the median income of all families here is $51,300, while the median income of single-parent (usually woman-headed) families is $18,100. Perhaps most telling of all, incomes for most of our residents have risen a healthy $19,000 since 1989, but for single moms, annual income has dropped $5,000 in that period. Incidentally, minorities have been hit almost as hard; their yearly incomes have fallen $4,000 since 1989.

So, white Boulderites perceive themselves as welcoming and tolerant, opposed to racism and sexism, desiring a more diverse population in town, including people of varied incomes and racial/ethnic backgrounds. But the record of job and wage discrimination and the pervasiveness of stereotyping stand in line before us.

In our lovely city, where so many residents are committed to creeds of justice, fairness, innovation and problem-solving, why should Boulder be content to stagnate within systems of injustice and unfairness that continue to infect the larger society? What would it take in Boulder to realize our shared dreams of diversity with dignity and equal visibility and opportunity for all - including poor women and their children?

We might begin, individually and collectively, by telling our county, state and national representatives that we want them to help us realize these dreams. We want them to oppose the current efforts to punish, stigmatize and more deeply impoverish the very people in the community who have the potential to actualize the dreams of a just society.
(Rickie Solinger is a historian and author, holds a Ph.D in history and is a visiting scholar in Women's Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder.)

SOURCE: Boulder Daily Camera, Guest Opinion Column, January 14, 1996

Women United
Boulder, Colorado