Wednesday, January 27, 2010

So I've Been Thinking...

...and if you know me, thinking is never a short-term process.

(halted while I go do the dishes and further ferment these thoughts). On a related note: I don't mind doing dishes - the reason I put them off till Midnight on a work night (given that I called off work this evening because of a sore throat and slept half the day, I'm not quite tired yet anyway!) is because I hate the back aches that come from slouching over our not-quite-tall-enough sink. Sometimes being tall sucks.

Right, but back to the thinking. I've been reading more than I had before Christmas, given that it's midwinter and I've been calling off sick a lot (yet another issue that needs to be addressed, but will probably be put off till I get my taxes done and see if I'm getting anything back to pay the doctor), and that I got as a Christmas present a wonderful, magical gift card to Half-Price Books, which makes good on its name's promise with a great variety of fun stuff.

So in the last few weeks I've consumed a book on school bullying, a bestselling journalist's exploration of the working-class life, and a selection of essays by New York Times journalists about the class divide in modern America. (I link to Amazon, because it has pictures and reviews. These should be available in your local library system if you'd like to find them for yourself). I'm now starting another poverty-related book: The Working Poor: Invisible in America by David K. Shippler.

Aside from the bullying book, which I picked up because I'm one of the survivors of school bullying, these books are variations on a theme which has starred heavily in my experiences, especially since I started my current job. The issues of class and income in our country are ones I have long been aware of in some form or another; they influenced how I was raised and how I currently live. And sometimes, they make me feel really uncomfortable, depressed, or just plain mad.

Poverty is a tricky thing to define but in this country there is little argument that poverty describes a pretty big group. Dictionaries say things like "Lack of the means of providing material needs or comforts" (American Heritage), "Want or scarcity of means of subsistence" (Webster's International, 2nd ed). I like the third definition: "The state of one who lacks a usual or socially acceptable amount of money or material possessions." (Webster's Collegiate). Poverty in this country holds that connotation - of someone who can't afford what the "rest of us" desire. A lot of the "poor" that I know are quite happy where they are, including my father who despite occasional sighs over the availability of funds to pay the gov't their due (in land taxes and the like) seems rather content to chase turkeys around the yard and dig up potatoes with his girlfriend. Is he "poor"? Yes. Is he lacking in love, housing, or food? No!

I have no doubt I'll never be rich in the traditional sense of the word. I'm too far in debt; even if I got a better job tomorrow, worked my way up to a decent middle-manager position with great benefits, won enough on a lotto ticket to pay off my debts and continued to save for the rest of my life, I wouldn't be rich. And so I fall firmly into the lower class at the moment, with vague hopes of becoming lower-middle and a homeowner in some far-distant future. I figure I'll be rich in other ways, with laughter and friends and loving family and a great-looking veggie garden. But even if I make all my homesteading dreams come true, I'll still be "Poor", which strikes me as very odd, and a very undesirable label. And from this vantage point, the books I'm reading ring very, very true, and bring up a lot of food for thought about why I'm so bothered by poverty and class-ism.

The books say things like this:

"Breaking away and moving a comfortable distance from poverty seems to require a perfect lineup of favorable conditions. A set of skills, a good starting wage, and a job with the likelihood of promotion are prerequisites. But so are clarity of purpose, courageous self-esteem, a lack of substantial debt, the freedom from illness or addiction, a functional family, a network of upstanding friends, and the right help from private or governmental agencies. Any gap in that array is an entry point for trouble, because being poor means being unprotected... With no cushion of money, no training in the ways of the wider world, and too little defense against the threats and temptations of decaying communities, a poor man or woman gets sacked again and again - buffeted and bruised and defeated. When an exception breaks this cycle of failure, it is called the fulfillment of the American Dream." (The American Myth, as the author later calls it).
The Working Poor: Invisible in America. Shippler, David K. (New York: Vintage, 2005), p5.

After some personal observations this week that brought reality sharply home on the heels of having read all this scholarly discourse, I wondered what we can do (and more specifically what I can do) to alleviate the problems we're seeing. If there are so many widely-read books out there about poverty and class issues, why are there so few widely-promoted organizations devoted to fixing them? If so many people struggle in poverty every day, why aren't more of them working -together- to ease the struggle? And a question for the politicians: if the struggle with money is such a serious problem that the President is now admitting that the so-called middle class in America has been struggling since before the recession, why is consideration of this growing class of between-the-cracks Americans not higher on the list of things to look at when passing legislation?

Readers of this blog know me as a huge proponent of education - something that would alleviate the skill deficits of many working poor, would improve self-esteem and (hopefully) add purpose to lives, and might even improve friend networks as students (both kids and adults) meet teachers and workers who would support them instead of dragging them down. However, teaching a person won't guarantee them a job (that's the economy's problem). It won't provide the help they need from the gov't or private charities (volunteering is a good option, but not the only one!), and it won't set a better starting wage or give the option of advancement. And for the middle class, it's hard to say that education would have helped them avoid low-interest variable rate mortgages, overspending on brand-name "necessities" and chasing that terrible cultural belief that You are defined by Your Stuff. Education may teach you how to pursue a better life, but it won't guarantee you'll get there or even that you'll be immune to people who prey on insecurity to sell goods. A lot of highly-educated families are now paying the price of keeping up with the Joneses.

Then there's the question of whether it's even possible to eradicate poverty and class, and if so, whether it's a desirable option. Poverty provides our economy with cheap unskilled labor, which in return provides the consumer with cheap goods and services, which creates an upward cycle of saving and spending for both company and individual. The only ones who fail to benefit in this upward cycle are the working poor who eventually disappear into the shadows of their employers' skyscrapers. If they did benefit, eventually someone else would have to replace them at the bottom. We can't pay everyone in our society $14/hr (what a study in Nickel and Dimed quotes as a "living wage"). If we did (and if companies actually dealt with it and didn't immediately make the problem worse by outsourcing their factories to China and thus removing the jobs entirely from our market), the prices of goods and services would rise immensely to make up for the new "wealth" pouring into the hands of the poor, as well as the increased cost burden on business... and we'd be back to square 1, only with inflation to boot. In economic terms, in order to keep capitalism afloat, someone somewhere has to lose.

Some people go willingly into this sacrifice. They don't mind the long hours, the tedious and often body-breaking labor, the low pay. They have other loves - stargazing, their kids, their tiny gardens. Others hate it but have no escape and still others willingly try their best to break free only to be beaten back down. But the ones who choose to live a quiet, frugal lifestyle are never thanked; the ones who attempt and fail to rise are rarely comforted. I've always wondered why the mantra that "hard work will get you somewhere" is so rarely confronted and so often upheld as the absolute Truth in this place where hard work is as likely to turn around and bite you as it is to lift you into the executive's Comfy Chair. David Shippler provided some food for thought on this one, as well:

"...the American Myth also provides a means of laying blame. In the Puritan legacy, hard work is not merely practical but also moral; its absence suggests an ethical lapse. A harsh logic dictates a hard judgment: If a person's diligent work leads to prosperity, if work is a moral virtue, and if anyone in the society can attain prosperity through work, then the failure to do so is a fall from righteousness."

I've seen that attitude at work; it prevails in comments online when I or someone else offers the information that they can't afford this or that, it shows itself when a co-worker sheepishly admits they shop at a thrift store and then hastens to add that it's only for play clothes for the kids - as if wanting to save money is the same as not having any to spend.

Then again there's the other side, the anarcho-socialist railing against The Man that riles up the traditionalists and at first glance makes sense to a lot of disillusioned youth - that poverty is not anyone's fault but that the poor are victims: of corporations, the government, the rich and all their bad influences. I don't like that reasoning, either. It excuses the poor for their bad decisions because most (but not all) decisions can be traced to a lack of options or a lack of education - and therefore it is the system's fault that people end up poor, drug-addicted and in gangs and it's the system's responsibility to get them out. A lot of people, especially a lot of borderline-poor people, use this as an excuse for why they do the things they do.

And I feel like if these attitudes don't change - if people continue to think that hard work is all that's separating a single mom on welfare from the suburbanite couple the next neighborhood over, or conversely that the suburbanites are somehow repressing the poor by supporting sweatshop labor to make their angora sweaters, we'll get nowhere in the discussion of how to alleviate poverty. And I do want to alleviate it. I think a lot of the reason I'm bothered by poverty is that I've seen the higher levels of it - places where my parents lived for a long time, where the term "paycheck to paycheck" doesn't just describe your work schedule but your life schedule - waiting for the money that barely covers the bills, worrying about missing a day or the car breaking down or the school taxes, scared of your dependence on things going just right, unable to gain security on your own and yet too far above the poverty line (by $10 or by $1000) to get help. That kind of balancing act, the fact that someone who is making enough to "get by" isn't really secure or happy at all, is what bothers me - that, and the fact that if you're in this group, you don't talk about it. It's a silent struggle, and admitting it is an exercise in shame, because of the poverty stigma and the worry that you really aren't good enough, after all.

Then there's abject poverty, which is in a class all its own. While the moderately poor and lower-middle classes have to worry every week about whether the next paycheck will be enough to keep a roof over their heads, the abject poor are worried about whether they can stay with their mothers or sisters much longer. They have the longest climb to food security, their own space to live, and for many of them, a regular job. They are the least educated and the most desperate, and they are the ones I most want to help, even though I'm still trying to help myself get steady. I feel like I'm part of a shipwreck, clinging to a board while the lifeboats sail away, and still trying to dive back into the water to pull more people up, even though it may cost me the board and make rescue that much more difficult. Having lifeboats help would be better still, but lifeboats are organizations of people, and they're not all thrilled about the risk of tipping the boat - they may not save someone unless the water is shallow or rescue is already imminent.

In reality, poverty is not an extreme of laziness or repression. It's a sliding scale between personal choices and poor support systems, and it will take a combination of societal help and personal responsibility (there's that big bad R word again!) to dig most people out of abject poverty. I want to be part of that societal safety net. I try to help myself first (personal responsibility!), because saying "no" can be the difference between sinking under the combined weight of hangers-on, and keeping a few afloat. I make sure the rent is paid before I give to charities; I make sure we have enough to eat before I offer food to the neighbors. But I'm also trying to lead by example. I want people to see that even though I am barely keeping my head above water, I can still hold out my hand. I want others to think about doing the same. I think that selfishness is a terrible sin when so many people in the worst circumstances can find it in themselves to be selfless. I think that community safety nets in the form of shared gardens, resource centers, and mentoring can really improve quality of life, even if they don't improve income levels, and I think that connecting someone to the health of their community in such a vital way as growing food together, cleaning up the neighborhood, or running programs for the kids is a measure of security, a hedge against dropping out and letting go.

After a lot of thought on this issue, I think that I'd really love to spend more of my time working on the problems of poverty - getting people away from their friends' tiny apartments and into a place where they can afford to take a day off work, fix a car, buy furniture, take night classes... even if we can't "solve" the poverty problem, I think it's our duty as human beings to help each other find security: food security, housing security, safety in their own homes and the knowledge that their kids aren't going to turn to drugs as the "only way" to reach their dreams of wealth. Poverty may always need to exist to provide room for wealth, but it shouldn't have to mean starvation in one of the most prosperous countries in the world. Poverty should be stability. It should be the knowledge that you are still important in the system and the gratitude of those who rely on your labor. It should be a chance to improve yourself, but the security of knowing that even if you spend the rest of your life where you are, you'll never go hungry.

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