“Poor” is a Four-letter Word

Remember the war on poverty?  Probably not.  For most Americans, the concept is more remote than the war on the Spanish in 1898.  After all, it is probably easier to remember the attitude behind the Spanish-American War (“Cuba ought to be part of the United States”) than the attitude behind the War on Poverty (“the richest country in the world should not have citizens without indoor plumbing.”) 

Demographically speaking, the number of people who can remember an era when there were no beggars on our streets is shrinking daily.  So is the number of people who ever believed that some of our adult citizens should not be expected or required to hold paying jobs, and that the people who did hold paying jobs should be able to make enough money from them to support, not merely the individual worker, but an entire family.

These days, we expect to see homeless people anywhere we go that does not charge admission.  We expect “stay-at-home moms” to be a tiny minority of all mothers, and to have attained their status only by virtue of being married to rich guys.  We expect most of the people who wait on us in checkout lines and lunch counters to have no health insurance.  We expect our children and our elderly and disabled relatives to be cared for by people who get their own food from church pantries and occasional soup kitchens. We carefully don’t ask other people’s incomes and don’t tell our own.  We don’t ask, don’t tell, and don’t care.  But in the depths of our uncaring hearts, we know.

We do not even identify these people as “poor”, much less find their numbers and ubiquity disturbing.  We certainly cannot imagine starting even the most metaphorical of wars to end this state of affairs.

Part of the problem is that Americans are not willing to acknowledge the wide spectrum of sub-economies and subcultures that exist in the lower half of this country’s income scale.  We skew the sample by defining poverty to exclude what, in earlier generations, would have been called the “deserving poor”–the people who, in President Clinton’s words, “work hard and play by the rules” and still cannot achieve the American Dream of home ownership, secure retirement, health insurance, and college education for their children.  The people John Kerry characterizes as “struggling to get into the middle class.” 

In any other industrialized country, that would constitute poverty. In ours, it is a problem that dares not speak its name.  We may call the population in question “blue-collar” or “working-class,” but both those terms still carry the now-antiquated flavor of the era when a man [sic] who had not gone to college and who worked with his hands could support an entire family single-handed and provide them with a home and a car, college for his children, 2 weeks a year on a vacation away from home, health care, and a comfortable retirement. 

Today, let’s face it, a person with the same education and skills and the same work ethic is poor.  Indeed, people with considerably better education, skills and work ethic are poor.  It takes the incomes of at least two of them to support a family at a level of minimal survival: at best, a home and 2 cars, all in poor condition, but no health insurance, no retirement savings except Social Security, and no way to put their children through college.  These are today’s deserving poor–except that we have decided they deserve nothing more than they already have, not even the dignity of visibility.

Many of us think of poverty as merely constant, routine deprivation, a life without new cars, new clothes, nice furniture, gourmet food, private schooling, and foreign travel.  It certainly is that.  But far more significant to actual poor people (rather than those who observe them, or claim to) is the non-routine aspect of life, the lurching from one emergency to another, with no margin for error.  A psychologist (Stephen Bezruchka, in “Health and Poverty in the US,” Znet, December 9, 2003) says that poor people are less healthy than the rest of us because of stress caused by shame and anger, because they feel diminished by not having “made it.”  I think he’s on the wrong track.  Yes, poverty causes stress, which causes bad health.  But the stress comes much more from fear and anxiety than from anger and shame.  Poor people are always “catching up” on one bill by putting off another, which then has to be caught up with the same way later, and so on.  Sooner or later, the fragile structure falls apart, with consequences that can range from embarrassing to fatal.  Poverty means waiting for the next emergency in constant fear of not getting through it.

Some of us can remember the old days of “welfare”, when poor people, who were mostly not working, could at least make up in time for what they lacked in money.  Today, poverty, except for those physically unable to work, means having no money and no time.  Poor people’s jobs provide no paid time off, even for such necessities as illness, childcare failures, medical appointments, repair appointments, funerals, jury duty, school conferences, and voting.  And a lot of poor people have to have two or more of these jobs.  Unavoidably, taking time off always means losing money, and usually means losing a job.  Not taking time off can mean guaranteeing that the next generation will be poorly educated, in poor health, and—well—poor.

Additionally, poor people have less control over their time than is presumed by employers, schools, and government agencies they deal with.  If, as Woody Allen says, 80% of life is just showing up, the underclass is disproportionately likely to miss out on life.  Sometimes this is purely a matter of flakiness–people don’t allow enough time to get places by the means of transportation available to them, or oversleep, or forget an appointment altogether.

But more often, they don’t show up because of unavoidable problems that are disproportionately likely to affect poor people.  The two biggies are illness (the subject’s own or that of a family member) and vehicular breakdown (if a poor person can afford a car at all, it is likely to be in precarious condition.)  Poor people and their families are more likely than the rest of us to get sick (either because poor health contributes to poverty by diminishing earning and increasing required expenditures, or because poor people can’t afford the health care–especially preventive care–necessary to stay healthy–or, most likely, both.) And illness in a poor family is likely to be more time-consuming (for the patient and his/her family) than among more affluent people.  Most of us feel abused if we have to wait an hour for a scheduled doctor appointment.  But poor people get much of their health care at emergency rooms and public clinics where the wait may take all morning, all afternoon, or even all day or all night.   Most of us pick up our prescriptions by popping into the pharmacy and popping out again; poor people often have to wait in another long line after seeing the doctor, to get the prescription filled.  And most such medical crises, for poor people, involve not merely the patient, but someone to wait with him/her and someone else to take care of the kids.  The presumption on the part of the poor people’s health care system that “these people don’t have anything else to do with their time” turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy as these problems cause poor people to lose their jobs.

Vehicular breakdown is inevitable, given the kinds of cars poor people can afford.  Like health problems, it not only happens more often to poor people, but is more time-consuming and requires more help from friends and family when it happens.  Most of us just call the auto club and go on about our business. But, even when poor people can afford to join an auto club, they are likely to frequent places auto club tow truck drivers cannot or will not go.  So friends and family must take up the slack, thereby increasing both the amount of time the driver has to spend waiting for help and the number of poor people involved in the enterprise for that length of time, all of them risking their own jobs for the good of the family as a whole.

Housing problems may have similar impact. A person’s residence may become instantly uninhabitable from fire, flood, or loss of utilities, or the person may be evicted for any number of just and unjust reasons.  Some of these problems may result from the person’s utterly avoidable failure to pay rent or maintain the premises, or similar culpable behavior by people s/he lives with; but many of them result from the neglect and misfeasance of the landlord, other tenants, or other people over whose behavior the subject has absolutely no control.

Similarly, poor people are disproportionately likely to be crime victims–another unavoidably time-consuming situation.  Their children are more likely to have problems in school requiring parental presence and response.  All of these issues result in the frequent failure of poor people to show up as required, at work, in school, at doctors’ appointments, in court, and at required appointments at government agencies.  Being poor, in short, is at least a part-time job, and sometimes a full-time job, in itself, on top of any other responsibilities the poor person may have.

This perception of unreliability is one of the major sources of discrimination against poor people.  Reasonably enough, anybody who has to depend on others to show up–for work, for appointments with doctors or lawyers or teachers, for court, or whatever–really doesn’t like people who can’t be relied on to show up. 

Another reason we don’t like poor people is personal appearance.  Poor people are more likely than the rest of us to be fat, and to have ugly teeth.  They tend to age faster, and lose the graceful mobility of youth earlier.  They are more likely to suffer disfiguring injuries, and less likely to be able to get them repaired. 

As a result of all of these issues, many employers–even those that pay poverty-level wages–don’t like to hire poor people.  There was a brief period during the late ’60s and early ’70s when they could get away with hiring young people and married women from middle-class families, and not having to pay middle-class wages to support their middle-class lifestyles.  Essentially, the employers were being subsidized by the parents and husbands of their workers.  That still works, up to a point, for those who hire young people, but not so well for the employers of married women.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a married woman in the paid work force is actually more likely than a married man to be the sole support of other non-working family members.  If she is paid poverty-level wages, she will be a poor person, with all the disadvantages that entails.

And, like the rest of us Americans, employers have spent a long time imagining that nobody in this country is poor except those who want or deserve to be. We attribute poverty to laziness, or to wrong choices (usually those made early in life, but not generally including a bad choice of parents), generally having to do with education and parenthood.

So we are certainly not prepared to consider the possibility that poverty can sometimes improve the character.  When we think about poor people at all, we think of them primarily as lazy and stupid, or at best with a certain native shrewdness that enables them to take advantage of other poor people even lazier and more stupid than themselves.  We believe they do not marry, they do not love their sexual partners or their children, and often they do not even love their mothers.  Liberals may excuse such behavior as a natural consequence of poverty.  Conservatives deplore it openly, and pat themselves on the back for not holding the poor to a lower standard than the rest of us.  But we all see poverty and bad character as closely correlated, whichever direction the causation may run.  Any suggestion that poverty might improve the moral character is  derided as “romanticizing.”

So let’s look at the virtues of poor people.  First, of course, they work really hard, the cardinal virtue of today’s culture.  They may or may not be married or stay married (a behavior pattern they share with most of the middle class these days), but typically they love their children, their parents, and their siblings, and go to a considerable amount of trouble to help them when needed.  They are likely to be religious and active in their congregations.  They often donate to charity in far larger proportion to their incomes than the affluent. They are used to making hard choices, so they pay attention to the costs and consequences of what they do.  Every choice is a hard one, so every choice is a mindful one.

As noted earlier, poverty in this country is not just a state of constant deprivation, but a state of lurching from one crisis to another, always sure there will be a next one, but never sure of getting through it.  Which means that poverty in this country requires, above all, courage.  Not the flashy, well-rewarded courage of the NASCAR driver or the fake courage of the “action” movie star, but the routinely renewed courage of getting up every morning to face the current crisis and prepare as well as possible for the next one. 

A few people give up–mostly men who leave their families rather than go on with the struggle to support them, and a much smaller number of women who escape into drugs or madness.  But the rest hang in there until they are physically unable to go on.  This is the courage of Leningrad or Sarajevo under siege, the courage of the Middle Passage, the courage of the Warsaw Ghetto. 

In short, if we no longer have the resolve and the wisdom to try to end poverty, can’t we at least have the decency to honor it? If we can’t allow poor people a way out of poverty, can’t we at least allow them a reasonable measure of self-esteem?  Can’t we give Purple Hearts for the walking wounded among us, and Bronze Stars for the extraordinarily brave? And even an occasional Medal of Honor for persistence and bravery above and beyond the call of duty?  Money, food, and housing may be finite resources, but there is always enough honor to go around.

 Red Emma

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