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.
THE VERY AVERAGE AND SUDDENLY ELUSIVE LIFE
For a short time in Manhattan, when I was 30 and working in publishing, I was bringing home a very, very average paycheck, but it was a salary. It was not minimum wage. It was not Freelance. It was pretty okay. What helped a lot was that I was living with a woman who was also making a modest salary. Those days of combining our paychecks were the most comfortable of my life. I actually had money every check that I could do something with. Go out, buy clothes, buy gifts, save…live. Absent, finally, was the constant fear and shame and worry and self-loathing that can potentially accompany a lower income lifestyle in such a nation as the USA.
Again, mind you—in the scheme of things, our income was pretty average. A cousin of mine (our families went quite different directions) was making more all by herself and living on the Upper East Side of Manhattan before she was out of her 20s. Yet, that kind of “pretty average” to a lot of people out there is the Good Life. And the number of those people is growing every day.
That’s an important part of what I’m writing here. That must always be considered: the context of our culture. After all, poverty is a relative standard. Relative to what others have, to what is required to do or acquire certain things; relative to how others see poverty; relative to what means there are to live and survive without having lots of currency. And in a nation like the USA—where (increasingly) the rhetoric and value system is one that demonizes the poor; worships the affluent and the always-in-style; and penalizes with a severity that increases directly inversely proportionate to the wealth one commands—it is very hard to be poor.
For the past few years it’s been hard for a lot of people. I’ve been one of them. It’s been hard not only because, well, it’s hard to live in the emotional and practical reality of poverty, but because the idea that you can lift yourself out of it is in danger of extinction. That notion that if you get a degree, or work hard (or both); that if you are talented and ambitious, then it’s only a matter of time before you are living comfortably—is suffering some heavy blows. When you are a child, you vow to “make it,” and you hold on because you know anything is possible. And then you get into your 20s, or 30s, you rack up some serious student loan debt—if you are lucky enough to go to college—and you work toward that dream.
Time stretches on….and on….and on….and nothing gets better. And what if things get worse?
I’m taking the time to write this post because I think it’s important to keep track of the experience I’ve been having. Not because I think it makes me very special to have been here. It’s just the opposite. It’s an important story because so many of us are living it right now. And the truth is, it’s an uncomfortable piece of writing that’s taken a handful of sittings over the course of a week. It’s a story I’d rather put behind me (but of course!), full of experiences I’d rather forget. (Wouldn’t we all!) It’s a reality you don’t want to sit in a second longer than you are forced to. But we need to be aware of where our fellow human beings are, and what they are feeling. Even if we are lucky enough to be living a different fate. Because our individual moments of good fortune do nothing to affect the fate of millions, or create big enough shifts to change systemic wrongs.
And when you are beset by these wrongs…well, you barely admit to yourself, let alone anyone else. When you’re in the thick of it, you don’t stop too long to marvel at the misery of it. That’s not sensible. You do what you have to do. From moment to moment, and from day to day. That’s what we do, right? That’s all there is to do. You try not to become so weary that you think of giving up as more comfortable than continuing to fight. But mostly, you keep your eyes focused on the next step, and you don’t give yourself time to wallow. You’d become mired.
I feel like I’m at a place where I can take a breath. After a long, thin, period, I’ve found a way to bring income home again. I dare to hope things might change, finally. And yet, I hesitate to tell this tale; to spin out all the moments and feelings and thoughts, and the reality of poverty. Why? Why is that?
THE WORST KEPT SECRET
Because you want to keep poverty a secret. as glaring and obvious is the global wreckage and domestic corrosion of economic inequality and violence, we still want to keep it quiet when it affects us. Which is, of course, very convenient to those who benefit the most from the (global) fallout. When what needs to happen is a great anger arise from the realities of injustice and imbalance so many are living, instead we hush up.
And we hush up for myriad reasons. Men are told that women will write us off if we don’t have cash at the ready. And many will. But that is not limited to women. Sure, there are engrained ideas about what MEN and WOMEN need to bring to the party to be viable mates. And many buy into those. But not all.
No, I think the factors are bigger than that in a capitalist system. Here, poverty feels like a rot. You can see and smell it from down the block. In a capitalist system, we perceive poverty as if infectious. Poverty pulses with a neediness that threatens to absorb your own power. When you are not poor, you will very probably feel confronted by it. Threatened by it. Powerless in the face of it. Without thinking, you back away. And in backing away, further isolate people who are extremely isolated already. All around them is a bustling, shouting, barking, neon cash machine that spins some people in big circles and drives them around like a roller-coaster, while for others, the machine does nothing but pollute the air and water and food supply; keep them up all night; and steal their friends, peace of mind, and children.
So, as much as possible, you keep your troubles to yourself when you are suffering with lack. They are your troubles, after all! You eat bitter, as the Chinese say. No need to advertise your struggle. You tell yourself you are building character. Or…whatever you have to tell yourself to keep going.
Artists, entrepreneurs, and the self-promoting learn in many places that success! breeds! success! and it’s best not to disclose anything but the good news about your product and your company or your practice. Feed that positive buzz. I have spent a lot of time as a freelance artist, and this was one I grappled with. Social media circles make the conflict clear. These are both your friends and clients (and potential clients). I needed to tell the truth of my situation, but at almost every turn, I was pressured to keep quiet about it. Not by people saying hush…but by my own feelings, and the realities of living in this culture, and the realities of being a self-employed artist. Why would people bring their projects to me if I am going broke? They will look at one artist who is not broke and then, they will look at me, and then, they will think what capitalism has taught them to think: He clearly is no good at what he is doing. They will invest poverty (or wealth) with a moral value. As we all do. There will be no time to consider other factors that might be in play. They will simply walk their business over to the happy, bustling joint. And thus, the problem compounds.
In one of the more revealing moments I had with an artist friend who constantly preached authenticity and never editing who you were as an artist and person when you present yourself to the audience, I was told that this was the reason they never spoke about their own looming and constant money worries: It just wasn’t smart as a business consideration. Which makes sense! A practical sense. I can’t blame them for that, in the end. I personally couldn’t keep so quiet about things so pressing in my life, but then again, I’m a different sort of artist. I happen to be better at telling or showing you what I see and how I feel, than I am at running a storefront.
But that’s how strongly we are indoctrinated with this social rule. We are taught that be you woman or man, businessperson or otherwise, you just don’t let it be known too much when you are struggling with money. It doesn’t make you look able, strong, or cool. It makes you look like a failure (nevermind that at least 15% of the nation is “failing” as well!) You will make others uncomfortable. There’s that sense of jinx or magical vibes to the admonition: By concentrating and admitting the desperateness of the situation, you will perpetuate the momentum of your bad luck, and so shhhhh Fake it Til Ya Make It!
And again, in a nation like the USA, the fault lines and division are very clear. And not much room for gray.
The isolation this pushes you into is painful. When you are down and out, the last thing you need is isolation. You need community. You need help. You need a shoulder, an ear, another human to remind you that you are not contagious, or catastrophic. And that your problems don’t make you a bad person, but that they are part of a larger network of faultlines. And that you are not alone.
A GROWING LACK OF POWER
The notion that you don’t have enough, that you cannot do this or that—whether it is wash the clothes, buy the children new shoes, replace a candle, replace clothes, replace the batteries in a TV remote, or come along when friends go out to the bar or the bowling alley—is a disempowering one. And all in all, that is what being poor equals. A lack of power. A lack of power needed to affect your own destiny.
Sure, the lack is not absolute. You are a human being, even in the USA! You can still wield power. You can fight against the imbalance and the obstacles. You can be ingenious, and motivated, and entrepreneurial. You don’t have to let the baby stick paperclips or her fingers into electric outlets, you can whittle plugs from wood, if you can’t afford to buy them. You can wash clothes by hand with dish detergent. You can substitute water for milk in a recipe, or grow as much of your own food as you can manage. And you do do many of these things.
What’s harder to do is stop the triggered thoughts that rise in your mind every where you look in your home. Each unpainted patch, each glued cup, every taped up wire or dark lamp whispers to your unconscious mind: broken…no good…expired. And the thoughts accumulate, and become a clamor.
wish i had a…. i can’t fix it…. useless…. this doesn’t work…. used up… insufficient… dying… corroded… waste
CAUGHT IN A GROWING WEB OF ENTROPY
The thorny patch of emotions grows thicker. The feelings and thoughts that are a result of this life situation grow entangled with each other, and in time, you can no longer tell where they end and you begin. You actually forget that they are attached to circumstance; that misery is not, necessarily, life. You forget that these thoughts are not you. Because they do not stay contained, these seedlings of hardship. Insecurity caused by finances bleeds over to the rest of your self-image and emotional experience of life. You are insecure about your cash, and so you are insecure about your ability to keep up your house, or keep the refrigerator full; insecure about your ability to parent your children properly, or about your appearance, or about your ability to respond to any given event that might not be foreseen. This insecurity becomes part of your wardrobe, your eye contact, your body posture, your walk.
An insecurity that persists long enough becomes dread. And dread, anxiety, depression, shame, hopelessness, and anger are lively spirits in the land of Hand To Mouth.
These feelings are often touched on when people write about poverty, or unemployment. Rarely is the aura of entropy discussed. And to be poor means to be run through with the energy of entropy. All around you, everything is fading, failing, breaking, and turning to dust. Entropy is a fact of life, and this is the case always…but when you have disposable cash, you buy off that reality. You replace batteries. You buy a new toothbrush when the old one becomes smushed and worn out. When you break a tooth, you get a crown. You buy new lightbulbs when you need them, instead of juggling lights from room to room. You don’t wrap food in Rite-Aid bags to store them in the fridge, you use plastic wrap so you can see the food. You don’t keep using the same nasty old sponge in the sink; you buy a new one! Your shoes are clean and sharp and stylish, not worn out and floppy and faded. Your clothes, too. When you have regular income, and enough to pay more than rent, every day you put forth energy in the form of physical effort as well as currency and you rejuvenate your environment and you refresh your ability to operate and be mobile and effective in the material world.
But without that money, you see things breaking down right and left. You squeeze remote controls that don’t work. Pull doorknobs that don’t properly turn. Reappearing: a singing toy that sings too low, slow and draggy before stopping altogether. The ever present hand of entropy colors your overall perception of life and self.
Many of these things—utilities shut off, toys that can’t be used anymore, non-working lights—will lead to a discussion with your children that may be painful to you. A conversation that costs yet more energy because of how much effort it takes to repeat it over and over. A conversation that exacts an energetic toll because of how it breaks your heart each time. Maybe you lie to them about what the situation is at one time or another during the day because you don’t want them to also obsess about money or attribute everything painful in life to poverty. On one hand, you are glad that they will not take things for granted and understand that there is a cost to the comforts of life, but you don’t want them to be one like you: A child of lack who grew up with that all-pervading reality. Cheap brands. Knock-offs. Humiliation in school. Bag lunches. Inability to stay quiet on what something cost. Tendency to brag about how much your shoes cost. We can recognize each other, children of poverty. We know the signs. The desperation, the overvaluation of luxury, the ambition to never Be There Again. The ease with which we discuss money, crassly. The anxiety, the inability to save. Mostly, you don’t want your children to grow into adults who are invested with a powerless self-image.
Because no matter what you do, or how you decide to think of it, every way you turn, poverty is not just a lack of power, but a growing lack of power. And it is hard to fight because the power needed to counter poverty is basically an energy exchange in which the rate keeps you at a loss. That is, the time and energy you invest in whittling those socket plugs is going to cost you more than the investment you would have made simply by dropping 1.99 into a cashier’s hand. The wear on your body and peace of mind are not negligible as you scramble to bridge another gap, or pop a finger in a dam, or hold two ends together, or in some other way interject your body into an equation that is constantly crumbling.
A CHAIN REACTION OF LOSS
Poverty is alive, as if a virus. It grows exponentially. Poverty is a chain reaction of loss. There are so many ways to illustrate this. Here’s an obvious one: You don’t have money for a dental checkup, or cleaning. Your dental problems get worse. One day, when chewing, a filling falls out. The last thing you can afford is a trip to the dentist’s, so you do your best to brush that tooth a little more carefully. But of course, decay begins. And spreads. What would have been an easy filling when caught in time, soon turns into a black hole in your tooth that eats away more tooth the longer you don’t get it filled. You avoid it until a pain festers there, and grows more every day until it wracks your brain constantly, and soon you can’t sleep. Now, you either do a root canal with crown ($2000, roughly), or you have the tooth pulled (about $120). The tooth gets pulled, of course. You probably borrowed or hocked something to get even that $120, so there’s a little more debt and stress. And there goes the Kool Aid Smile you’ve been famous for since you were a child. There goes your self image. You smile less, embarrassed of the gaps in your smile. This affects how you interact with others. Which affects all those dealings and their outcome in some way. This little hole that crept into your tooth, too, creeps into your life. And grows.
Your glasses are broken. You don’t replace them. You can’t! You tape them together. You avoid wearing them. You can’t see. You stop talking to people who pass by on the street because you cannot see them without your glasses. Or your wear your contacts for far too long and cause irritation and infection to your eyes. You run out of saline too fast, so you store two contact lenses on one side of the holder, decreasing the effectiveness of the sterilizing solution. Sometimes you can’t afford saline/sterilizer at all, and you won’t wear the geeked out glasses with the tape on one side so you stroll down the street, nearly blind, keeping your eyes to the ground. Not smiling too wide, either! Remember.
Like bubbles of mercury on the ground—like that clamor of thoughts that your home life sends to you every day—these conditions begin to cluster and add to one another.
You wear things as many times as you can before they smell to cut down on costs of washing the clothes. You no longer buy the brands that are the most environmentally sound, or non-toxic. You do your best, but inevitably, your shampoos and soaps and deodorants simply become what you can afford. So your conscious will and personality and desires are less and less motivating your actions and you are becoming One Who Survives. Gone are the days of the shampoo in the cool bottle that smells so heavenly you feel better just putting in your hair. Gone is that little good feeling that you walked around with for hours simply for using something that made you feel good. Gone are the sharp razors; hello store brand. Gone is the full fridge, gone are the desserts.
And, unbidden—even if not in your own home—the day becomes, yet, a thread of thoughts and instances in which you Don’t Have Enough. Those thoughts drag behind them bags weighted with shame; with fear; with worry and insecurity; with anger. Being full of those feelings all the time erodes your health. (Which costs more money.) And being full of those thoughts and feelings take up your time, too. Those take energy. This week, two tall cups of coffee are needed each morning, instead of the one!
And what about something as simple and reliable as coffee in the morning? Even coffee is a luxury, despite your addiction. It’s actually very expensive. Of course you buy the cheap stuff. And in a rare pinch, maybe you use grounds twice. Maybe you cover up your cup when it grows cold and put it in the fridge for tomorrow. Maybe you run out of sugar and just drink it black, no sugar. Maybe you do all those things. The days when you could saunter over to the bakery and buy an Americano with two extra shots for a $3.00 coffee seems very distant. And extravagant as hell!
All these subtractions and detours build on themselves. You feel out of breath with the hustle, because when you are poor, the hustle never ends. The need to be creative and enterprising never ends. The need to Make Do never ends. The feelings that you are a loser are ever-present. You know it’s a losing game, and you know it’s a crooked one. But who wants to lose, even at a crooked game?
PERVERSE PENALTIES…AND ANGER
It’s no wonder you end up feeling so exhausted. Perversely, a life of poverty is a life in which you need to run even faster. Because being low on cash marks you. It marks you like a tiny rodent scrambling under the hot desert sun, and the birds of prey sure do come. Late fees, disconnection fees, early cancellation fees, overdraft fees, bounced checks, low balance fees, higher interest rates, poorer terms for the poor…there is a network of vampiric thorns in place designed to trip up, puncture, and suck the life from those who cannot afford to stay sufficiently solvent. You know it. You are very aware of it. You grew resentful. You grow afraid of what the next penalty will be. It’s only a matter of time. You grow afraid, even, of the mail. You avoid it. You don’t empty the mailbox for a week straight. What do you care? There will only be more news about how much you owe. A recipe of penalty. Another mouthful of dread.
There is always this pushing upon you. This force pushing down upon you. It is entropy. Resisting it is painful, and gets harder the less money you have. Somehow, you believe in yourself. It’s a rough patch. the whole nation is suffering. And then you think Well…most of us. There are those who are not.
Some may handle poverty better than I describe it here. Poverty will not feel the same in different cultures, perhaps. And there is a difference between living on a meager income, and being both broke and unemployed. So there is a continuum, no doubt. I am not pretending to know the minds of millions of people, and ultimately, I speak only from my own experience.
In my experience, it is inevitable that living in these conditions long enough, an anger will grow in you. An anger that in this whole dumb lottery of power and chance, you drew the bad card. Not because you deserve it, but because that’s the luck of the damn draw. The well-coiffed sons of privilege laughing as they duck to get into their Porsches or slide into their Senatorial seats are not inherently more worthy souls, or righteous beings. No matter what the movies and advertisements try to tell us. At best, they got lucky by birth or other circumstance. At worst, they were blessed by an institutional corruption that favors them. In any case, why should they get top notch dental care, a car at 16, and a full, nutritious menu every day of the week? Why should they never know a night in jail? Why should they get bailed out of every scrape and set back on the path of good fortune, while you end up running yourself ragged and broke over ten bucks? Why should there be such different worlds, and some born to hardship from the start? What makes them so special as to be given such carefree lives? Why shouldn’t your worries also be theirs?
The anger pervades, pollutes, poisons you. Poisons your heart. You push it away and try to talk yourself back to the generous soul that you know yourself to be. You are careful not to cultivate self-pity. You read your books that help breathe spirituality back into your life. You meditate. You focus on the good. But…you still live in the U.S.A. And you’re not 22 anymore, where it’s easy to frame things romantically. You “should” have it all figured out by now. You “should” be comfortable. You “should” have an IRA and savings, and a new-ish car, and be spending money. You should have some security for tomorrow.
And despite your best efforts, the bitterness grows. The Mr. Hyde within grows. He is, in fact, fed by hunger. And before long, you have a hard time feeling good for other peoples’ good fortune. You live in a vicious competitive environment, and you are losing out. Each tip or wobble of the personal coffers signifies your own moral worth and competence as a human being. It’s no wonder your emotions run high; it’s no wonder you feel worn out. And you feel disappointed in yourself, as well. Even for having such thoughts and feelings. You know you are kinder than your emotions are revealing. But maybe you are not. And you wonder. It’s very easy to call yourself kind when you have a full belly. Let the resources run dry for too long and you may find yourself to be quite another sort of person. Either way, you can’t help it. You feel cornered by circumstance and you snarl like an animal with its leg in a trap. You need out, that’s all. You can’t think and you just need a goddamn break, already.
Sometimes the only break you will get comes in the form of escape. Liquor is a handy one. After all, liquor can be the poor man’s friend, deity, and medicine all in one. A reliable tonic for when you can’t afford to treat physical ailments, or when your mind grows weary from racing, fretting, or fearing. Just wash the worry away at the end of a day. Get back to a simple, relaxed state where you don’t care about money, and where you feel no pain. Of course, you are lucky if you can afford the bottom shelf stuff. It’s about $10. It bites a little harder and is a bit rougher on the body than the good stuff. But you get used to it pretty fast.
I AM VITAL, STRONG, AND REEK OF POTENTIAL. I AM THE CAPTAIN OF TIME.
The flip side to that feeling of entropy that surrounds you when you don’t have money to throw around at even the essentials, is a feeling of power and vitality and possibility when you have reliable and disposable income. Yup, when you have a pocketful of plastic or cash, and a good amount more in the bank, the horizon lays out before you like she’s your starry-eyed bride. You can be part of society at any juncture you desire. You might glide over here and buy a new shirt. (They’ll let you handle them because you look well-dressed already.) You might stop at the corner and scoop up some Shwarma. You might have a laugh with the flower vendor as you choose an arrangement with which to surprise a friend—all on the spur of the moment. You might see a movie. You might buy a slice. Who knows what you’ll decide to do! At any node in this culture you can plug in. You have that power. You can collect. You can browse. You can nibble. You can gift. You can fund. You can donate. You can bargain. You can walk away. You don’t need to rush. Time moves slower for you when you are solvent.
It’s true! When you are always lacking cash, you end up stressed out. About deadlines, schedules, closing times, bank holidays, end of the month, first of the month, bus schedules. You are very aware of time. And it is not your friend. Penalties await. Last chances await. Bounced checks await. Overdrafted accounts await. Shutoff notices await. And you better stay sharp on all of it.
When money is not a worry, it’s as if the whole world slows down. It literally feels that way—that the world is turning slower. You don’t need to try and drink the milk before it goes bad…or to make it last longer than natural. Because buying a new container is not an issue. You don’t need to run like mad for the bus stop. You can call a cab. You don’t need to beg a friend for a ride to the electric company before five p.m. because you’ve already paid your bill! In fact, you paid it as soon as it arrived instead of racing against a shut-off notice. You don’t need to rush for much of anything. You can wander and muse. Because your life is not a constant battle to stay alive. Because having money means having leisure time.
And just as with cash you feel empowered, belonging, and able to tap into the society machine at will; when you are broke you feel like an outcast. You don’t belong. You are a criminal. A potential drain. At no point in the chain of societal nodes can you take command. At no point can you enter. At no point can you negotiate anything, unless it is by the good graces of another. You best not loiter. You will be okay if your clothes are new, and the lighter skinned you are, generally. But if you are walking in a circle at the mall, but not holding a Subway sandwich bag or a Pizza Hut cup, and are wearing ragged clothes, and especially if you are brown—then you are an arrest or police harassment waiting to happen.
TWISTED OUT OF SHAPE
Do you note the narrow focus of this writing? How it all becomes about your own self, your own mind, your own body, your own future? Even reading through it feels like being stuffed into a hole all alone with your rancid mind. And that’s what these situations do to a person. That’s part of that isolation. And the survival instinct, which is running on overdrive. There’s nothing more selfish than the instinct to survive, after all. And living in that place for too long can make you grabby, and make you mean. And it can make you ugly. These fears and feelings distort a person. I’ve seen it up close in the faces of people in my life; people stressed out about gas every day, or about their kids’ clothes. People who are living with all the feelings and stressors that I’ve written about here. People who are kind and beautiful souls, but after years of living this way, those qualities become harder to see…because poverty can twist you out of shape like that.
It needn’t be that way, of course. There are many shapes a culture can take. And a wiser society would be built more compassionately. A wiser nation would not view poverty or unemployment as a personal failure, but as a societal one. A kinder nation would have, as a reflex, a more communal spirit in which we looked out for each other. In the USA it is very hard to be poor and/or unemployed. How do you get your food if you do not buy it from the store? In some cases, people have tried gardening as a solution, and the city turns around and outlaws yard gardens. A city often will outlaw panhandling, or giving food away, or paying other peoples’ parking tickets. Our culture is not arranged in a way that people can easily help each other, or provide for themselves outside of the rigid, narrow, selfish, and tyrannical capitalist path. There is a sick and ugly network of mechanisms in place in this country to both shame you for being poor, as well as to keep you from escaping your situation. This is why going broke in a place like the USA can lead an otherwise rational and balanced soul to such desperation.
A HUNGRY MAN IS AN ANGRY MAN
Poverty engenders a feeling of powerlessness in you beyond what some might imagine. It’s like that insecurity I wrote about earlier. That feeling of powerlessness doesn’t stay contained to one area. It grows in you when you are not earning enough money, or can’t find employment and can easily metastasize into you feeling and acting generally powerless, and thinking of yourself as powerless. You don’t even see it happening. And one day you look at your thinking or actions and say “How did this happen? I am not this person. I don’t think of myself as ineffectual and unable to change things!” But it sneaks up on you, living in that mental and physical aura and environment every day.
And all the emotions that poverty breeds do this; carry over into areas where they are destructive and possibly consuming. And you forget what it is like to view things differently. And you feel there is no salvation for you. You can easily begin to burn inside with the injustice that is all around you, the injustice that is reaching into your home and snatching teeth from your head; the injustice that is mocking your manhood, and degrading your personhood, and is causing your children pain. And it doesn’t take too much of this, or too long of this, to bring you to the point where you feel you are ready to blow. Because being poor doesn’t mean you are stupid. And it doesn’t mean you can’t see what’s going on. And what’s going on is that everything is failing, divided unfairly, and for you and yours is pain—while for others, its pure pleasure.
It’s important to remember that when we are talking about a “divide,” we are not talking about how one person has a BMW with leather interior and the next person has a beat up 1990 Chevy. The divide is much more meaningful and dangerous than that. We are talking about a divide in overall peace of mind. A divide in the feelings of self-worth that some have and some lack. A divide between ideas like “I belong here and there is hope and good times ahead for me” versus “I am tolled and harrassed at every turn and I can’t rest and there is no way out for me.” A divide between “I want this society and system to work out and I’ll do what I can to perpetuate its success” and “It will be best for everyone if this thing topples and all those who benefit from its standing scream on the way down.” We should not underestimate the volatile nature of a public—or even one person—who feels s/he has nothing left to lose; that the deck is stacked beyond righting; that nobody is listening, and nothing will change. In fact, the roots of enmity against the United States from abroad, I would venture, is in large part caused by this dynamic. Many who suffer outside our borders and live in squalor and in pain see so many Americans living obliviously in great comfort and know it to be unfair, and further, know the situation to be exploitive. I do not see the terrorism this breeds as so very different than other violent domestic reactions to economic violence. I’ve lived for a while now at what felt like the edge of everything. It’s a maddening place.
I think it was about two years ago when I heard of a man in a city nearby (Portland?) who went on a violent rampage that was explained by his losing his job, and by the pressures of the economy. At the time, I responded in a way that I see now as disappointingly smug, and not just a little nâïve: I wrote that he obviously had other issues if losing his job caused him to become violent in such a jarring way. Now, that may be true. But on the other hand, as I hope this writing has helped illustrate, in my opinion and experience, prolonged poverty and unemployment are big enough factors in and of themselves to destabilize a person. You don’t really need much more than that to send you off the edge. And the fact that despite my upbringing, I could have been oblivious to that simply because I had regular income at the time is just as worrisome as the idea that the conditions that pushed that man toward destruction are common today, and only growing more ubiquitous.
Take a society; blend ignorance of the comfortable with desperation of the poor, and you have a dangerous mix. And in times like this, ignorance thrives. I’ve not even touched on other important factors related to this recession/depression. For example, the fact that if you’re not white, you are being hit even harder by this economic downturn. Or what it feels like to have a name that you know will decrease your chances of getting an interview just by the nature of your ethnicity, all while hearing increasingly more scapegoating by other destitute people who are blaming their troubles on people with names or skin like you. In a time when those of us struggling ought be united in our plight, wizened demons of racism and division rear their ugly heads and keep us squabbling and at each others’ throats.
NO MORE WAR ON THE POOR
It is very much in the interest of society that we not let economic inequality continue as it has. The momentum of today’s class war on the poor has accelerated to a dangerous fervor. This war, and all the forms it takes, is, of course, an accepted part of the American Dream; it’s values seeded deeply in all of our ideas of what wealth means and what poverty means. It is a long-running war. But any student of history knows that the pitch of a war can pivot on the smallest happening. Winter might strike early. The crops might rot. The supply lines might be interrupted. The troops might get dysentery. The villagers might have more to fight for than a worn out cadre of mercenary soldiers. An unforeseen geographical or meteorological aberration can upset everything. And then, the tide shifts with barely a moment’s notice, and woe to those caught unprepared.
Warren Buffet has a sense of this, and that is why he is one of the rich people in this nation who has spoken up about the inequality. That is why he has recently advocated for people in his income bracket to pay a fair share in taxes. I doubt very much that this statement is purely motivated by altruism. Not to be ungenerous to him; I still very much appreciate and credit him for saying what is true and obvious, and what is easier to forget when you are very comfortable. I do think he comes from a good place, too.
But I have no doubt that he sees the writing on the wall. It’s there for anyone who cares to look around today. The proles will put up with a whole lot. A whole hell of a lot. But they have limits, make no mistake. If you leave people with no way out of Hell, they will tunnel. Even if all they have are their own fingers. Put everything beautiful on one side of a wall, and they will tunnel. Lock up all the resources in one building and reinforce the walls with steel that reached fifty feet underground—but don’t forget that you have to pay someone to make the key to lock it, pay someone to empty the garbages, and pay someone to come read your meter. Those people will not be in your income bracket. And the tricks of division will not work forever, or on all people. Warren Buffet has made a simple calculation and would rather pay some more taxes than fear his janitor, his maid, his mailman, his lawnboy, his locksmith, his pizza delivery person, and every other blue collar or unemployed person in his path.
The real people who are scared are the power elite. Of course, they’re trying to make you scared and us scared. But I can tell you, having been a reporter for the New York Times, that on the inside they’re very, very frightened. They do not want movements like this to grow, and they understand on some level — whether it’s subconscious or, in other cases, even overt — that the criminal class in this country has seized power.”
But he should fear them. And all those who would run an endless array of tricks to keep the poor from escaping their lot should fear us. And all those who would enact laws to further game this crooked system should fear us. And the politicians who collude with their wealthy benefactors should fear us. And all those who would make the mistake of thinking the poor are their own private milk sack to be forever squashed and kneaded should fear us. And all those who would stay quiet and inactive in the face of this class war, believing they can drop enough coin into security systems and gates and guard dogs to keep us at bay will come to regret such errors of judgment.
They keep us as far away as they can, don’t they? They do it with high rents, and loitering laws, and unwritten dress codes, and police, and expensive price tags on meals that cost a week’s pay for most of us. It’s easy for them to keep squeezing the yoke around the necks of people who never can answer back; people who are too busy trying to make rent to be effective activists or in some other way address the injustice that is crushing them. It presents no moral quandary to kill people slowly and by degrees when they are an abstract concept to you. And the poor remain abstract to rich because the media refuses to tell the truth of things, as the media exists as fairy-tales for the rich. And they don’t want to bother their beautiful minds with such icky details. The news blackout of the recent protests at Wall Street insure they won’t have to.
But what if the poor and exploited were to begin showing up everywhere? What if there were no place an Uppercrustian could go without seeing signs of our anger? What if we began leaving our mark…and with it, a strong phrase adopted as our calling card? Something like No More War on the Poor? What if the 1-Percenters began seeing this phrase everywhere they turned? What if it were spraypainted on every Mercedes? What if this phrase were spray-painted on the pretty black asphalt driveways of every congress member’s driveway? What if cards with No More War on the Poor scrawled on them turned up in the dry-cleaning of every Senator? What if that dry-cleaning had poison ivy in it, too? Or bleach? What if their Mercedes began coming back with scratches down the side instead of a wax job? What if their landscaper watered their prize rose bushes with weedkiller instead of water? What if they could never pinpoint where the ongoing action was coming from…because it was coming from everywhere?
Nobody in the world, nobody in history has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who were oppressing them.”
It would be a voice they could not escape. There would not need to be any organization or central group. It would be a project that millions could undertake. People wouldn’t need to devote ten hours a week in a week already jam packed with duties and exhaustion. A note here, an action there. Wait for opportunity to show itself and then speak in that voice that speaks for us all. And what if a million people were spreading this message? What if ten million were? What if the newspapers had no choice, eventually, but to begin covering the strange flurry of messaging that was showing up on napkins in restaurants, and car doors, and driveways, and in flower deliveries and grocery bags? What if the right people began seeing the many, many disaffected and suffering humans they previously never had to stare at? What if they began feeling cornered and surrounded? What if we remembered that we do surround them?
Perhaps bit by bit, changes would happen. Think of it as a haunting. Or think of it as advertising! Advertising works, you know. If there is no way to turn away from the Coca Cola ad, you will eventually come to memorize it. And whether you like it or not, it will work on you. What if the rich and the crooked were to be haunted by the anger of millions? There would be no formal advocacy group or official that politicians or billionaires could bury under or buy off with good PR, or kickback. There would be no weaseling away from action. Action is all that would alleviate the million-pronged assault. Better conditions for people. Change angry, hungry people who need a way to vent against the injustice into people happy with life because justice is alive and well and affecting them for the better.
It would be one thing if the poorest of us could leave it all up to those who benefit from ignoring their plight. But that would make no sense. Collective anger needs to give voice to the conscience that too many powerful people lack today. Perhaps this particular imagining of a nationwide project—a faceless but inescapable voice—is not the answer. I don’t claim to have an answer. But I know one needs to be found. I know today’s so-called solutions are getting us nowhere. After all, this is not really about an acute crisis, but a long-term pattern and a systemic imbalance. And this systemic imbalance will remain, even after the last of the protestors on Wall Street have gone home.
There is a power differential in play in our nation that is killing most of us. And we need to take some of that power back. It is not only possible for us to do that, it is the only way out.