From poor White roots to intersectional anti-poverty solutions for all

Nick Cotter in Brookline on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2024. Cotter is a researcher with Allegheny County and the creator of the Pittsburgh Neighborhood Project. (Photo by Pamela Smith/PublicSource)

I grew up White and poor, and a mix of luck, effort and background led to a life researching poverty, housing and violence. We can’t address the region’s ills without understanding that economic problems cross racial lines, though they play out differently.

First-person essay by Nick Cotter, For PublicSource

A few months prior to my 20th birthday, as I was waiting and hoping that my younger brother would wake up from his cancer-induced coma, I found out I had been accepted at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia.

Since age 16, I had been working at a Giant Eagle to help support my family. Neither of my parents had bachelor’s degrees and there were zero expectations in my house that I’d go to college. I figured that if I didn’t go to college soon, I’d never get the hell out of that stock room and away from the chronic back pain it inflicted. I had applied to the only two colleges I knew anything about, WJU (now Wheeling University) and the later-discredited Art Institute of Pittsburgh, intending to enroll at whichever accepted me first, if either of them did.

I had missed nearly 115 days in high school, some of which were due to an emergency medical condition greatly worsened by doctors’ refusal to listen to my mum or me, resulting in an amputation. Other times I skipped because of how I was treated at school. I’d been tardy nearly 95 times, had countless detentions, and graduated with a 2.07 GPA and a 470 on my SAT.

A school staff member used to tell me that my “kind of people don’t go to college” and most of my peers at my suburban, Catholic high school either ignored me completely, called me and my family “poor White trash,” or mocked my appearance and heavy Pittsburgh accent. All throughout high-school, I was called lazy, stupid and ignorant by other students and even by several teachers. When I showed up for school, I’d sometimes deal with it by sneaking a swig of booze or popping Valiums that my mum gave me.

Fifteen years after that acceptance letter from WJU came through, I’m a data analyst, dedicated to understanding and addressing poverty, segregation, affordable housing and community violence.

On the way, I’ve developed a clear understanding that White poverty tends not to come with the additional, deep racism-based challenges that often come with Black poverty – though White poverty can be similarly grinding in places like rural Appalachia, the deep rural South and parts of the Rust Belt. But that understanding didn’t happen overnight. I’ve learned that while racial disparities are stark on their own, they’re often intertwined with class and other identities. 

Given this, when policymakers work to address challenges like poverty, they must be aware of the ways race, class, gender and other identities intersect so that they can tailor solutions to address the different challenges that tend to be experienced by different groups — including low-income White people.

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