Whether it is the harangues of Bill Cosby or the findings of a recent Pew Research Center study, I find the discourse about the purported values gap between poor and middle-class African Americans extremely troubling. It's disturbing because I don't think values are necessarily defined by education, income or social status. Middle- and upper-class blacks don't have a monopoly on values.
Yet, a recent Pew report found that, by a ratio of 2 to 1, blacks say the values of poor and middle-class African Americans have grown less similar over the last decade. Only 23 percent believe that both groups share "a lot" of values in common, and 9 percent claim that poor and middle-class blacks share almost no values in common.
By now, nearly everyone is familiar with Cosby's crusade against elements in the black community that he argues are pulling down the race and, indeed, society itself. He has criticized on many fronts: from the improper use of English to parents' decision to buy expensive sneakers for their children instead of educational toys.
Having grown up in a family that never earned more than $5,000 a year, I know firsthand what it's like to be poor. And as a journalist earning six figures for quite some time, I also know what it's like to be in the middle- and upper-income brackets.
In my poor neighborhoods in Tuscaloosa, Ala., first in a shotgun house on 15th Street and later in a public-housing development, I saw no lack of values. My stepfather worked most of the time without taking a vacation, and I can't think of a period that my mother didn't work at least two jobs, mostly as a domestic worker. They instilled important values in me and my three sisters: a strong belief in God, the value of hard work, the need to be educated, honesty, integrity, and an obligation to help others, among other things.
In McKenzie Court, my housing project, units were kept clean, everyone's grass was always cut, and neighbors looked after one another's kids as though they were their own.
That was in the 1950s and 1960s, and many argue that conditions have changed drastically since my childhood, and I don't disagree. Like every other urban community, my hometown has been besieged with drugs and gun violence. Still, the values, hopes and aspirations of the people left behind have not changed. They want the same things for their kids that my parents and those of their generation wanted for their children.
The difference is not in the values held by the poor. The difference is in attitudes
Society is more eager today to blame the poor for their condition than to help them. For several decades, the major staple in our political debates has been what can be done to assist the middle class, not what can be done to help the poorest of the poor.
I attended college on scholarships and need-based grants. Few voices are raised today to protest the federal government's shift from grants to loans as a way of allowing poor students to fund their college education. And families earning six-figure incomes are not pleading the cause of poor students. Instead, they are arguing that they are entitled to just as much financial aid as the poor.
There is no doubt that, economically, middle-class families are being squeezed. But let's be clear: They are in much better shape than the poor. During this political season, for example, they have more presidential candidates pandering to their interests than to those of the needy.
This whole debate about the supposed lack of values among the poor is, in truth, a referendum on the values of the non-poor. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 35.5 million Americans, or about 1 in 8, live in poverty. Of those, 15.4 million live in extreme poverty, defined as a family of four earning less than $10,000 a year.
The problem is not limited to the United States. According to the United Nations, approximately 250,000 people, most of them children, die every day of hunger or hunger-related causes. That's one person every 3.5 seconds.
That should be unacceptable to us, as Americans and as citizens of the world. Blaming everything on the poor should also be unacceptable.
There is no shortage of values among African Americans, or poor whites, for that matter. However, there is a shortage of values among married members of Congress who campaign on family values and end up in compromising positions with summer interns or congressional pages, or attempting to engage in homosexual activity in airport toilets. There is a shortage of values among corporate executives who collect millions in compensation while eliminating jobs, depressing stock value, and depleting workers' hard-earned retirement funds. There is a shortage of values in a government that puts the interests of the greedy above the interests of the needy.
The next time Cosby or anyone else pounces on the poor, tell them they are picking on the wrong targets.