A lot of people in the USA these days are going broke. It hardly matters if you have a G.E.D. or a Master’s degree. Unemployment is creeping through the populace like a billion-fingered thief. The number of people on food stamps in the USA today is unprecedented, and what’s left of our national safety net after Clinton and Bush took their turns hacking it apart is a threadbare mess with holes in it the size an entire city block can fit through without sucking in its belly.
More people were living in poverty in 2010, according to the census, than in all the time the census has been collecting data. People are dying from untreated dental problems, laws are appearing left and right that penalize the homeless and the poor, prisons are profiting, a dull rage is building, and the bottom line is a lot of people—far too many—are poor and getting poorer.
The kicker is that it won’t be getting better any time soon. The unemployment rate is predicted to continue to grow, well into 2014.
All of this is very bad news, indeed.
THE LAND OF HAND TO MOUTH
It’s an unhappy scene, poverty. And we’re not talking about the presence or absence of one or two niceties. The low, low place that living hand to mouth can bring you is much more complex and all-encompassing than not being able to afford one or two top shelf amenities that might make life a bit more enjoyable when you’re out there grinding away.
For most of my life I’ve been like most of the world, I guess—getting by without a whole lot of money. Sometimes it’s been real bad. Sometimes it’s been average. And sometimes, for a minute, life’s been pretty comfortable. The truth is, though, that those comfortable times have been pretty short lived. And even then, my standard of comparison is one you’d find in a person who grew up in a poor family.
What do I mean by “poor”? I mean at our worst we were homeless and cooking food in a campfire, or living in a house with buckets for toilets. And at our best, we were trying hard to fit into the suburban middle class, but still accepting bags of hand me downs from other families. By poor, I mean the regular presence of bargain brands; I mean the type of life where you grow up always thinking about how much things cost, and how you don’t have enough to do A, B, or C; and mostly, I mean the type of deeply-seeded awareness where poverty is a way of your thinking and acting. I’m not proud of this, and I don’t think it necessarily makes a person deep or interesting. It’s just how I grew up.
Even through all of that, there was the sense that you could escape it. Maybe. One day. Going to bed hungry means you and your little brother would meet up and sneak food from the fridge after everyone else was asleep. But even on nights you couldn’t quell the hunger that was so much deeper than stomach pangs, you imagined that if you were talented enough and motivated enough, you would be plucked out of such fates and arrive in the Land of Where You Have Always Belonged; that there was a golden cot with your name on it, just waiting for you to show your mettle. After all, woven deeply into the American consciousness are a few narratives. One of them is the Rags to Riches myth; essentially the Conservative notion of Bootstrap. The myth that we live in a land of abundant opportunity, and in which no matter what your meager beginnings, if you stick it out, there is gold enough to go around.
I guess we all buy into that in this place. But recent times have put a harsh dent into those kinds of ideas.
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