Who Are the Poor?

Greg Rosenthal, a community organizer and human rights educator, is a graduate student in UMBC’s Intercultural Communications program.

Greg Rosenthal

When you hear the phrase “poor person,” what image comes to mind?
What does the person look like: their clothes, their hair, their gender, race, age?
Why did this image appear and what feelings did it bring? Fear? Anxiety? 
Is it connected to a particular experience? Are you universalizing that experience?
What would happen if you challenged that image; challenged that emotion?
The first step in combating poverty is breaking down stereotypes of who poor people are, challenging the negative emotions those stereotypes can generate, and getting in touch with the compassionate self that reminds us that all people deserve respect and dignity.

I had the opportunity to make this digital story in an introductory graduate class in the Intercultural Communications Program. The project allowed me to reflect upon a pivotal experience in my political development: bearing witness to the plight and fight of poor and homeless families living in Philadelphia. This experience, and my subsequent organizing work with the Baltimore-based United Workers, a human rights organization of low-wage workers fighting to end poverty, challenged many of my stereotypes about who the poor are and why I believed them to be poor.

A few of my reflections on the question, “Who are the poor?”

1.) Most homeless people don’t sleep on the streets or bounce from shelter to shelter. Rather, they stay for a while at a family members house, then a friend’s place and on and on. This is called “functional homelessness,” or by the more familiar phrase “couch surfing”.

2.) Contrary to popular media imaging, most poor people are not jobless. Many have jobs, but receive poverty wages. The fastest growing sector in the U.S. is services and tourism. Both of these industries have average wages that place a family of four just below the federal poverty line and even further from the state mandated living wage of $12.75. Moreover, the majority of poor people are children, most of whom are under the legal age of work eligibility.

3.) Many Americans are one paycheck or health incident away from poverty and homelessness.  According to the latest Census data, 1 out of every 2 Americans is “not making it”, meaning they are in the lower income brackets and at high risk of falling into “deep poverty.” Think about yourself and your fellow students who collectively owe over $1 trillion in student debt.

5.) Poverty is not a personal choice or fault, but is instead reproduced because of political will. There is enough housing, healthcare/medicine and food for all. In Baltimore alone, there is a stock of over 40,000 abandoned homes. Compare that to the under-reported 5,000 person homeless population. Huh?

6.) Seek change, not charity. Dr. King once remarked that real compassion for the poor is not giving change to the beggar, but changing the very edifice that creates beggars in the first place. There is no right or wrong answer here, nor is this a commentary against helping people get their needs met. Rather I encourage you to ask the question with deep interest: Is this contributing to supporting or challenging a system that creates and reproduces poverty?

7.) Work with, not for. Poor people have agency. Don’t participate in taking it away from them. If you are a college student, then you are relatively privileged. How can you use that privilege to elevate and amplify the voice of the poor as opposed to speaking on behalf of another? Who knows better how to lift the load of poverty then the poor themselves?

8.) One person can make a difference. Your efforts DO matter, no matter the size, time or scope. I’m reminded of the children’s story about the starfish. A little girl and her grandfather are walking along the beach which is scattered with starfish. The little girl starts picking up starfish and throwing them back in the water. The grandfather quips, “No matter how many you throw back in, you can’t save them all.” The girl hesitates, looks at the starfish in her hand, and with a big smile on her face, says “well it matters to this one!” as she tosses the starfish into the ocean.

9.) Listen with your heart. If you do nothing else, listen with an open heart and mind. More than anything else, we all just want to be heard, acknowledged and seen, not as a poor person, but as a human being.

10.) Start small, then go big. You don’t have to start with ending homelessness tomorrow or feeding all the hungry. Begin where you are at. If all you can offer right now is a genuine smile and a “hi” to folks you see on the street, the people who clean your classroom or serve you lunch, your teacher or fellow students, then do that! You never really know people’s circumstances until you build a relationship, so don’t make assumptions about who is and is not poor. If you have time and energy, then go bigger. Volunteer with an organization. You learn so much about yourself through altruism and giving of yourself.

Contact the author, Greg Rosenthal, at rosgre28@gmail.com.


  1. wow!!! This is so amazing. As a social activist, you give me hope. Kudos to you man

  2. Reblogged this on manyminimusings and commented:
    Changing the perception of the poor, encouraging sustainable change. This is the kind of activism that I endorse and seek to embody

  3. Alina Lightchaser says:

    Beautiful! Thanks for posting this. It’s truly important!

  4. People need to truly stop and listen. Too many people automatically judge the poor as “lazy,” “whining,” etc and they need to just shut up and “get a job.” Very unchristian.

  5. very important point noted in the reflection to me is to see beyond prevailing condition. seeing beyond means acknowledging the humanity of the “poor”. its true people rush to quick judgement about this kind of people so it is time erase that away from your mind if you are one of the kind. start now and you will a change.

  6. This was amazing! Poverty reminds me of the past; a time when as my family drove down the streets of Pakistan, we saw people living in small tents in dirt areas. Kids walked around unclothed, crying, dirty and hungry. I remember as a kid feeling better off than them; always feeling pity for those who were less fortunate. Now after living in America for so long, I would never think anyone is as poor as those who lived on the filthy streets of Pakistan. But to see that even here there is poverty, poor are not on the streets but rather under shelter but they are without food. It is sad none the less. USA is a world power; it should not have anyone suffering. Thanks for this post, it really did open my eyes and helped me see that there is a lot that we can do. We are all equal. We should all care for one another and hope for the best for others. This individualist society should open eyes to see the world a new. To see a world where people can live in harmony. Maybe I am dreaming of a world that may never exist but I wish it did. It would definitely be a better place for everyone.

    • I wonder what gifts, talent and abilities we all have that could be applied to help one another? After reading the lead story, then yours, I see something of a uniqueness of observation from different points. Something jumps out at me from the Bible mentioning “the poor in spirit”, causes me to ponder the many forms of poorness, could this be referring to a downcast person whose spirit or thinking or outlook of self by feeling unaccepted or not loved? As well as not having enough and maybe looked down on for whatever reason and avoided by others? Oh, yes. There is definitely a need there. As far as your outlook “dreaming of a world”, yes to that also, with God’s help that can be here, i believe. In the Our Father prayer, “Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven”, we’re praying and asking that God’s perfect will to be done here as like heaven. How many poor or sick people do you know in heaven? Easy answer=nobody.

  7. I liked this article not really because of the perspective it encourages, but mainly because of the fact that it raises awareness about the use of the term “poor” and the implications that society places on it (stereotypes). Poverty in itself varies but that is almost besides the point of this article so I’d leave it at that.

    Thank you Greg Rosenthal.

  8. Stephen Chrzanowski says:

    Wow, i really enjoyed your post. I must say that i am guilty of the stereotypical thinking of what a homeless person looks like. I also was not aware that there were over 40,000 abandoned homes in Baltimore alone. This is stunning. If we as a community were to flip those homes and make them shelters or some kind of temporary living situation then it is possible that no one would have to sleep on the streets or stay with other family members. And since you stated that most have jobs they could probably afford temporary bills, and even reside there until they find a better job, or a better situation presents itself. You have really changed my perception of the poor. I also really liked the Martin Luther King Jr. reference because it still holds true today we really need to stop the source of homeless and poverty in general, not just treat those affected by it.

  9. EMMANUEL SAMO says:

    I am very humbled by your statements..indeed you have changed my perspective view about the poor CUDOS!

  10. Reblogged this on FoodInformally and commented:
    How can one represent people experiencing poverty ethically and accurately? Here’s one attempt…

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