The Poverty Pimps’ Poem

Sometime during my social work doctoral education at Indiana University, a disenchanted PhD student introduced me to the term “poverty pimp.” The general meaning seemed to be that we future social work professors were training to make a good living from the poor. I have lately been moved to investigate that term, and have come up with a few items that may flesh out its meaning.

A key source may be Thomas Sowell (1998), whose Poverty Pimps’ Poem reads as follows:

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.

In remarks preceding that presentation, Sowell referred to his “fellow-economist Walter Williams,” whom Sowell said had calculated the amounts spent annually on poverty alleviation. Sowell concluded that those amounts far exceeded what it would have cost to simply give America’s poor people enough cash to lift them above the poverty line. “At the top of the food chain,” said Sowell, “are Ivy League professors who rake in big-time research grants to support themselves and their cronies while they are studying, romanticizing or otherwise exploiting the poor.” Contrast that against research finding that “among full-time employees of a public university, those who were higher in social class (as determined by level of education) were less able to accurately identify emotions in photographs of human faces than were co-workers who were lower in social class” (Inzlicht & Obhi, 2014, citing Kraus et al., 2010).

A recent piece suggests that Walter Williams (2013) — a black professor, if that matters — is still ringing that bell. He says,

Detroit is the nation’s most dangerous city. Rounding out Forbes magazine’s 2012 list of the 10 most dangerous cities are St Louis; Oakland, Calif.; Memphis, Tenn.; Birmingham, Ala.; Atlanta; Baltimore; Stockton, Calif.; Cleveland; and Buffalo, N.Y. The most common characteristic of these predominantly black cities is that for decades, all of them have been run by Democratic and presumably liberal administrations. Some cities – such as Detroit, Buffalo, Newark, N.J., and Philadelphia – haven’t elected a Republican mayor for more than a half-century. What’s more is that in most of these cities, blacks have been mayors, chiefs of police, school superintendents and principals and have dominated city councils. . . .

What I am saying is that if one is strategizing on how to improve the lives of the poorest black people, he wants to leave off his to-do list election of Democrats and black politicians. Also to be left off the to-do list is a civil rights agenda. Racial discrimination has little to do with major problems confronting black people. . . .

Law-abiding poor black people suffer the nation’s highest rates of criminal victimization from assaults and homicide. More than 50 percent of homicide victims are black. Would anyone claim that this victimization is caused by racist groups preying on the black community? . . .

Black education is a disaster, but who runs the violent, disruptive big-city schools, where education is all but impossible? For the most part, it’s not white people. . . .

[S]peaking standard English in an English-speaking country is critical for self-improvement. But that’s not the lesson from the nation’s multiculturalists, who call for the celebration of native languages and dialects. Sloppy-minded academics and assorted hustlers have taught that poor English, gangsta rap, men wearing pigtails and thug behavior should not be criticized but become a part of the celebration of diversity. . . .

The long-term solution for the problems that many black Americans face begins with an absolute rejection of the self-serving agenda of hustlers and poverty pimps.

An entry in Urban Dictionary suggests that poverty pimps themselves tend to be blacks or otherwise have minority status:

poverty pimp

Any self appointed minority leader, who extols the perpetual poorness of their ethnicity, yet is quite well off stemming from their efforts. Usually a Reverend of some unknown church. Marches at the drop of a hat to mug for the cameras.

Uses White guilt to gain credibility, money, and influence.

Are usually racists themselves.

Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are flaming Poverty Pimps.

But that doesn’t seem to be the message from Williams. He says the point is not to vote Republican; it is simply to drop the idea that voting Democrat is the solution. Likewise, he contends that the point is not to vote white; it is just to recognize that knee-jerk election of the black candidate (which may sometimes be crucial in bringing suppressed perspectives to prominence) is no panacea. Hence Willliams criticizes academics, without regard to skin color, to the extent that their doctrines (e.g., multiculturalism) contribute to the hardships experienced by the black community.

Generally, I don’t believe the contention is that there should not be people making a living off of the effort to serve the poor. It is, rather, that people who make a living from such service should show appropriate results, commensurate with their cost, or else be shown the door. Those who perpetually skim a sinecure from others’ travails, contributing little to their advancement and possibly exacerbating their plight, are pimps indeed. These are the sorts of people who inspire belief in Thoreau’s adage — essentially, If you see someone coming to help you, run for your life.

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