The Historical Threads of Poverty: A Tool for Control

January is National Poverty Month which is a time to raise awareness, inspire action, and foster empathy towards one of society's most pressing issues – poverty.

Poverty, a complex tapestry woven through history, has often been wielded as a tool of control. From feudal systems to modern-day structures, the connection between poverty and power is deeply rooted in the fabric of societies. Examining historical examples reveals a recurring pattern where governments and establishments leverage poverty to assert control over populations. Even today, echoes of these historical tactics persist in Oklahoma.

Feudal Systems: Bondage to the Land

In medieval Europe, which spanned from the 5th century until the end of the 15th century, feudal systems bound serfs and peasants to the land, subjecting them to heavy taxation and keeping them in perpetual poverty. This control mechanism ensured a subservient workforce and consolidated power in the hands of the elite. In present-day Oklahoma, economic disparities persist, and communities with limited resources face challenges in breaking free from cycles of poverty. Oklahoma has more people in deep poverty (less than 50% of the poverty line) than the national average, with some communities such as Anadarko more than doubling the national average.

Colonial Exploitation: The Plunder of Resources

The age of modern colonialism began in about 1500, following the European discoveries of a sea route around Africa's southern coast and of America. During the era of colonialism, European powers exploited colonies economically, leaving indigenous populations impoverished. In Oklahoma, historical exploitation of Native Americans, among other populations, has contributed to long-term poverty, with communities grappling with the aftermath of resource extraction and economic disruption. According to the Oklahoma Policy Institute, the poverty rate for American Indians/Alaska Natives increased from 18.1 percent in 2021 to 20.4 percent in 2022.

Slavery and Forced Labor: Shackled in Chains of Poverty

The use of poverty as a control tool  has never been more evident than in the history of slavery. Enslaved individuals were deliberately kept in impoverished conditions to maintain dependence and control. In Oklahoma, where historical racial disparities persist, communities continue to grapple with the enduring legacy of systemic inequalities rooted in slavery. Humans Rights Watch proves this point with their data. While only looking at Tulsa, which we know has a  lower poverty rate than some of our rural areas, their data shows that “many census tracts in northwest Tulsa are over 80% Black. More than 35% of north Tulsa's population lives in poverty compared with 17% in the rest of the city. Citywide, the Black poverty rate is 34% while the white poverty rate is 13%.”

Caste Systems: Entrenched Inequality

Caste systems are social hierarchies in which people are born into distinct groups that determine a person’s social status, occupations, and interactions. Movement between these castes is often restricted, and individuals inherit their caste from their parents, meaning a person is born to poverty and will then stay within poverty’s bounds. In India, the caste system has historically been associated with social and economic inequalities, shaping various aspects of people's lives based on their caste membership. But new research shows that hard boundaries were set by British colonial rulers who made caste India's defining social feature when they used censuses to simplify the system, primarily to create a single society with a common law that could be easily governed.

In India, rural communities have long been arranged on the basis of castes - the upper and lower castes almost always lived in segregated colonies. Similarly, in contemporary rural areas of Oklahoma, echoes of historical inequalities persist, where certain communities face social and economic challenges, reminiscent of the caste-based divisions observed in India. Rural Oklahomans don’t have access to the resources and jobs that urban Oklahomans do. Rural counties have an average weekly wage 4% lower than metro counties which indicates a lower quality of employment. Meanwhile, according to one researcher, high underemployment of rural areas is a chronic feature of American life.  

Forced Resettlements and Displacement: Breaking Community Bonds

Governments have often employed forced resettlements and displacements to control populations. In Oklahoma, historical events like the Trail of Tears disrupted indigenous communities, leading to poverty and dependency. By historically breaking apart their communities and families, they not only deprived many generations of the ability to maintain their culture, but denied many the ability to establish generational wealth. One study found the average wealth of a Native American to be $5,700 compared to the national average of $65,000. Additionally, the echoes of colonial violence and control created the system that over-incarcerates Native Americans. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 45 percent of people incarcerated in tribal jails were being held pretrial, and pretrial detention rose by at least by 80 percent since 1999. The average length of stay doubled from 2002 to 2018.

Apartheid and Racial Segregation: Systemic Injustice

Apartheid, a system of institutionalized racial segregation in South Africa, for example, intentionally marginalized the Black population, leading to economic disenfranchisement and poverty. In Oklahoma, this historical injustice is reflected in the enduring racial disparities, such as disparities in education and employment opportunities, contributing to the ongoing economic challenges faced by marginalized communities. An example of this can be seen in the data from the National Assessment of Education Progress, 82 percent of black 4th-grade students in Oklahoma were below grade level in math in the 2019-2020 school year. Just 17 percent scored at grade level (“proficient”) and 1 percent were above grade level (“advanced”). In comparison, 58 percent of white students were below grade level.

Furthermore, apartheid, in the South African context, involved legal and systematic segregation, denying basic rights to Black individuals based on their race. The consequences of such discriminatory practices are still evident in contemporary racial inequities observed in various aspects of life in Oklahoma.

Modern Forms of Exploitation: Labor Exploitation and Income Inequality

Contemporary examples of using poverty as a control tool can be seen in various forms of labor exploitation and income inequality. In Oklahoma, issues such as low wages and limited employment opportunities contribute to the perpetuation of poverty, maintaining a vulnerable workforce. For instance, the prevalence of low-wage jobs in sectors like agriculture and service industries creates economic hardships for many Oklahomans, reinforcing a cycle of poverty.

Internationally, in countries like Qatar, the "kafala" system, used to regulate migrant labor, has been criticized for exploiting workers. Migrant workers often face low wages, poor working conditions, and limited mobility under this system, illustrating a global example of poverty being wielded as a tool for control within the labor force. Not only does this appear in Oklahoma through low-wage jobs for citizens, but it appears in the use of prison labor as well across the state. According to the Department of Corrections, incarcerated Oklahomans making products for Oklahoma Correctional Industries (OCI) can make between $0.00 to $0.90 per hour for their work, based on performance. If an incarcerated person doesn’t work at OCI, their maximum monthly allowance is $25 a month.

Understanding the historical roots of using poverty for control is crucial for dismantling entrenched systems of oppression. In Oklahoma, acknowledging these historical patterns is the first step toward fostering awareness, advocacy, and systemic change. As communities unite to break free from the chains of poverty, the ongoing struggle for justice continues, echoing the call for a more equitable future.

Additional Resources on Poverty: