An interesting thing happened a couple of years ago when my book Broke is Beautiful came out. The book, about living a good life even if you don’t have money, generated a number of angry comments from people who said I was making light of being broke, that I didn’t know what it was like to really be broke.
At the time I was rolling pennies to buy ramen noodles, or hoping I could come up with enough change for a box of generic pop tarts at the dollar store. I was turning down social invitations because I didn’t have enough gasoline to get there and back. I had one pair of jeans with a hole in the knee and I wore them every day because I didn’t have money for another pair. I skipped meals because I had nothing to eat. I was broke. In fact, I was officially poor. If you were to take all of the people whose incomes fell below the poverty line that year, I was toward the low end of that!
I guess I didn’t sound like it to the people who left angry comments. I had a book out, so I must be doing OK. Poor people do not produce things, they don’t publish books, they are not articulate, educated, capable. They don’t drop references to Shakespeare. (Any writers out there will back me up on this: given the rather complex system of advances, royalties and so on, it is absolutely possible to have out a book that is getting some attention and to still not have enough to eat.)
Anyway, I couldn’t be a real poor person. I am from the suburbs. I have a college education. I am white. (According to a 2000 CBS News poll, only 18% of Americans know that most poor people are white.)
At least, I assume these were some of the things that convinced people I couldn’t know their pain.
As a “starving artist” I have lived below the poverty line many years. The artist’s income goes up and down and I have better years and worse years. Over all, there have been more of the not-so-much-money years than the flush ones.
This is one of the important things to bear in mind when thinking about “the poor.” The poor are not those other guys. They are not a social class. They are not the same people from one year to another. The poor, that is people who fall below the poverty line, are a diverse group of people who are in a particular situation. There is a long post on the blog Your Life is a Gospel that shows all of the statistics. Even though there may be a similar number of people in the category of “poor” each year, they are not the same individuals from year to year. People lose jobs, have down turns in their small businesses, suffer medical problems and they fall below the line. The next year their situation improves but someone else’s worsens. For most people being poor is not who they are. It is what is happening to them.
Still most people when they are in this situation do not claim the mantle of “poor.” The poor are other people. The poor are the ones who were born that way and stay that way. The poor have to be other people, of course, because they are not like us. They are lazy, less capable, they are the ones we help with our charity. This mentality often keeps people from seeking the help they need lest they have to admit being “poor” and a “charity case.”
“I am a middle class person, I just happen to be having a rough time now.”
One of the things that I discovered while working on Broke is Beautiful is that people who have college educations are more likely than others to build up debts they can’t get on top of and to be hounded by creditors. They don’t talk about it, and they feel great shame in their isolation. Being hounded by creditors is supposed to happen to those other people– the poor ones. It becomes a cycle, they try to avoid anything that might harm their stellar credit. They get loans to keep up appearances until they are so far under everything falls apart.
The idea that we are all part of the great “middle class” fudges a lot of real differences. It means there is supposedly no difference between the guy on the factory floor and the guy in the management office. Both are “middle class” people. So what type of policies benefit the “middle class?” The one that gives a better wage to the laborer or the one that keeps more of a profit for management?
The sense that the poor are other people– a class of people who are different from us– affects how we think of the social safety net. Various studies have found that the more ethnically homogenous a nation is, the more amenable people tend to be to social programs that benefit everyone. They are more likely to think of the people who would benefit as being “like them.” Whereas in countries with sizable ethnic minorities, people are more likely to think of social programs as helping “others”– those poor people. (The stereotypical African-American welfare mother.)
I came across an article recently on the site Everyday Feminism that made the same argument that I did in Broke is Beautiful: It is time for the broke to come out of the closet.
Being honest about our needs is the only way we can stand up for ourselves. It is important to let the world know that, indeed, the face of “poverty” includes educated, competent, creative people. It includes hard working people. It includes the risk takers who try to launch businesses, but fail. It is not only the rich who are “risk takers,” and it is not only the wealthy who can claim to have among them the “best and brightest.”
“It’s particularly important that poor people who have some aspect of privilege – be it racial, gender, sexual, educational or otherwise – realize that their silence is a form of complicity that reinforces the lies about the poor used to justify the denial of their dignity,” wrote Jeff Nall in Everyday Feminism. “The time has come for poor people to stop letting other people speak for, and about, them; to stop letting others define who they are.”
I recommend all the articles that you can find via the links in this article, but I will leave you with a quote of a more theological bent from Henri Nouwen:
“When we are not afraid to confess our own poverty, we will be able to be with other people in theirs… Just as we are inclined to ignore our own poverty, we are inclined to ignore others’. We prefer not to see people who are destitute, we do not like to look at people who are deformed or disabled, we avoid talking about people’s pains and sorrows, we stay away from brokenness, helplessness, and neediness. By this avoidance we might lose touch with the people through whom God is manifested to us. But when we have discovered God in our own poverty, we will lose our fear of the poor and go to them to meet God.”