Do you know a poverty pimp?
The winter holidays sometimes seem more like a time of greed for many charity and social programs than a time to redouble efforts to aid the poor. The poverty pimps put their hand out and look like every good and helpful program out there. So how can you tell whom to support? And if you work or volunteer in a program how do you know if it or some the people in it deserve your support?
The term "poverty pimp" is defined as a derogatory label for an individual or group which, to its own benefit, acts as an intermediary on behalf of the poor. Literally, a poverty pimp is an individual or group who solicits for the poor, or it can mean, a welfare system procurer. Poverty pimps gain a higher quality of existence from exploiting the poverty of others.
Under the American system of inter-linked public and private social services the poor get helped but not in any effective way; the big bucks go for overhead. As always, a lot of anti-poverty money is going to people who are not poor. There are whole classes of people who live off the services provided to the poor.
True poverty pimps, however, are worse than just those who live off of helping others. They are the ones who perpetuate poverty in order to keep their job. They add more bureaucracy in order to expand their programs and their power. They are motivated to grant charity to the less fortunate rather than practice solidarity with the poor. They are the firms who purposely overcharge and pad the bills, wasting money supposedly given to help the poor. And poverty pimps spend 90 cents on every donated dollar on administrative costs.
Poverty pimps are the workers and administrators who keep expanding the public and private social services system, thereby expanding their job and salary opportunities. They contribute more money to keep the cycle eternal. They are the ones who make the system so challenging that you practically need a college degree to navigate it, causing loads of frustrated poor people to opt out of the system and often into the street.
Poverty pimps are the originally well-intentioned workers who have lost sight of the poor as individuals and the ones who never really cared in the first place. Essentially, "poverty pimps" callously and purposely profit from the misfortune of others.
Every holiday season I think about the poverty pimps a little more. I receive their solicitations for funding. As an activist on housing and anti-poverty issues, I am given their requests for aid. I'm invited to speak at their fundraisers. But, if I ask them to provide details on where all their funds go, or how their budget is decided and by whom, they take offense at my simple questions. Or if I ask if the majority of their homeless clients were consulted in their decisions, or allowed to participate in the decision-making process, it is as chilling to my relationship with them as the kiss of death.
It really can be hard to evaluate if a group or individual is a poverty pimp. So here are some examples my activist friends and I have seen of poverty pimps (taken from real life in every case).
You know you're a poverty pimp...
1. When you are overheard saying that talking to the people you are supposed to be helping makes you physically ill.
2. When you start a series of for-profit ventures to "fund" your not-for-profit ...and you are much more involved in those.
3. When getting financial donations has become the vast majority of your effort and time.
4. When you become really really good at using race, class and gender discussions to prevent any criticism of what you are doing.
5. When your offices are furnished much better then anything your clients will ever own in their entire lifetime.
6. When you feed people far worse things then you yourself would ever eat or even give to your dog.
7. When that photograph of Billie Holiday is the only heroin addict ever willingly allowed into your presence.
8. When you are happy hearing about squatters getting evicted.
9. When you find yourself thinking or saying that if one more homeless person would freeze to death this winter, your budget for next year would be assured.
10. When you leave your office in fear of the people your supposed to be helping.
11. When you don't dare to answer the phone that rings at 2 am as it might be one of your clients.
12. When you get that rush of fear from coming face to face with your hungry clients out in front of the hotel as you enter your 0 dollar a plate fundraiser.
13. When there is debate at your Conferance of Homeless Service Agencies as to whether you will feed the homeless you brought in to speak at your banquet.
14. When you call the police to have that long-haired bearded guy arrested for trying to teach your clients how fend for themselves for free.
15. When you're told to hide the city's free guide to homeless services so that the clients have to come back over and over since your program gets money each time they sign up... and you do it.
16. When your donation money is used politically to expand your nonprofit operations, which allows you to pay more pimps’ salaries--that would seem astronomical to the poor they are "serving." To organize the expansion of your nonprofit organization which results in more political clout enabling you to to get more public and private donation money.
17. When you've served as a shelter director for 20+ [or 10+ or 5+] years and have no real idea where else the homeless could go or what happens to the homeless that you've had to turn away.
18. You have to go to extraordinary lengths to keep those who are not poor from seeing what your soup kitchen looks like on a "normal" day.
19. When you always, invariably cut services when decisions have to be made between retaining services for the poor or laying off one or two college-educated social workers who own their own home and whose life-partners work.
20. When you spend much more of your time making the poor people you "serve” jump through hoops and "hurdles" then actually filling their needs.
21. When you spend 20 minutes lecturing a homeless person about not selling goods you provide before giving them the single bus token they need to leave your facility.
22. When you admit to having dreams about ways to make being poor as difficult as possible for your clients... and you think some of them are pretty good.
23. When your government funded housing program is designed with as many hurdles as possible so that the vast majority of the poor can't qualify, letting you sell the units at market rate.
24. When most of the money for your "advocacy " group goes for four star hotels and your staff platinum credit card.
25. When you put barbed wire on your shelter fence and use the fear of freezing to lock your clients in at night.
26. When you are asked to schedule your soup kitchen's meal times so the homeless are less visible on the street to businessmen...and you do it.
27. When you don't care that you tell your homeless clients to call several programs for help, then to call you back despite the fact you know that they don't have 50 cents for the pay phone and you are likely to be out of the office anyway.
28. When your advocacy group uses the threat of protests by the people you represent as a way of extorting donation money out of oppressive corporations.... and without getting them to change their policies.
29. When you seek [usually white] middle-class prestige college-graduated applicants who have rarely seen and never experienced poverty to manage programs for the homeless rather then promote qualified [usually people of color] ex-homeless already within your organization.
30. When you lie, claiming you don't have access to the keys, rather then let the homeless go to the bathroom outside of your shelter's normal hours.
31. When you fire any of your employees who criticize the social services industry and your place in it.
32. When someone comments on how the numbers are declining at your shelter and the first comment is: "Well, we wouldn't want to be out of a job or anything."
33. When your job performance appraisal is tied to your willingness to remove children from the homes of poverty stricken parents.
34. When most of your events feature open or cash bars though most of your clients have drug or alcohol problems.
35. When you make over one hundred thousand dollors per year as your clients eat out of garbage cans yet you are always grateful when others point out your selflessness.
36. When the only decent food donations end up in your freezer and you justify this by saying that there wasn't enough to serve everyone so it might as well serve your holiday guests and not go to waste.
37. When you physically attack or permit your employees to attack your clients when they insist on their right to a drink of water.
38. When you could care less that a group of large violent men actually run the details of your shelter as you get paid well anyway and it saves you from having to interact with your clients.
39. When your collect donation money in order to collect more donation money.
40. When your primary concern when entering into anti- poverty coalition activities is who will get the credit.
And finally here is a poem I found on the net that shows some of the Poverty Pimp's attitudes:
THE POVERTY PIMPS' POEM
Let us celebrate the poor,
Let us hawk them door to door.
There's a market for their pain,
Votes and glory and money to gain.
Let us celebrate the poor.
Their ills, their sins, their faulty diction
Flavor our songs and spice our fiction.
Their hopes and struggles and agonies
Get us grants and consulting fees.
Celebrate thugs and clowns,
Give their ignorance all renown.
Celebrate what holds them down,
In our academic gowns.
Let us celebrate the poor
Bork is a homeless and affordable housing activist based in Washington, DC. She is a member of Mayday DC, which conducts direct action and education campaigns on housing and homeless issues. She is also a member of the advisory board to Infoshop.org and AMP.