For most of his journalistic career, Charlie LeDuff explored the lives of drug addicts, criminals and the destitute… His young sister, Nicole, caught up in drugs and prostitution on Detroit’s west side, was killed after jumping out of a speeding car.
LeDuff and his mom eventually visited the dive bar, The Flame, where Nicole had downed drinks with dope dealers, hookers and swindlers.
“We didn’t pay for a drink the rest of the night,” LeDuff recalled. “Whatever you’re going to think about people like my sister – or your own relatives out there, you have them – wherever she went, her crowd had respect for her. There’s something dignified in every human being, and when people ask why I write about the things I write about, that’s why – because I come from that, and there is dignity in everybody.”
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.”
This is a graphic that has been going around Facebook. It shows the results of a Florida program that requires welfare recipients to pass a drug screening in order to qualify for benefits. According to the graphic, 98% of those tested passed. The program cost taxpayers $ 178 million. The big tax savings to the state of throwing the drug users off welfare was $60,000.
The graphic made me wonder: If we were to require drug testing of wealthy people in order to qualify for oil subsidies, or a lower tax rate on capital gains than earned income, what would the graphic look like? What percentage would fail the test and what would the savings look like? Is it possible that a larger percentage of capital gains beneficiaries might be using drugs (cocaine on their yachts) than single mothers with minimum wage jobs do? Is is possible that because of the amount of income involved that the tax savings might actually outweigh the program cost?
I was recently reading the book Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time by Marcus Borg. Borg spoke about the purity code that operated in Jesus’s time (which Jesus violated and protested by eating with tax collectors and the unclean). The purity code went beyond a few rituals. It provided an entire social and political system based on the notion of pure and impure, clean and unclean.
According to one purity map of the time, priests and Levites (both hereditary classes) come first, followed by “Israelites,” followed by “converts” (Jewish persons who were not Jewish by birth). Further down the list are “bastards,” followed by those with damaged testicles and those without a penis. Women who were made unclean monthly were low on the social scale. Behavior also played a role and certain occupations, such as tax collecting, made one an outcast.
So by now you’re probably wondering what all of this ancient history has to do with Florida drug testing. It is this. To quote Borg:
“The purity contrast also was associated with economic class. To be sure, being rich did not automatically put one on the pure side (and first-century Judaism could speak of rich people who were wicked), but being abjectly poor almost certainly made one impure.”
When I read this line it occurred to me that our society still operates on this type of a purity code. Being wealthy does not automatically make a person “pure” but it gives the person the assumption of purity. A rich person is assumed to be clean, well mannered, smart and moral until proven otherwise. A poor person, on the other hand, lives with the assumption of “impurity.” His is assumed to be unintelligent, less capable, unclean and less moral until proven otherwise.
So why doesn’t anyone suggest drug testing in order to qualify for oil subsidies? How far would such an idea go if someone proposed it? What types of government funding and services should you have to prove you are moral and ethical to get?
(Reposted from my non-fiction blog Broke is Beautiful)
Allied to this question is the kindred question on which we so often hear an innocent British boast–the fact that our statesmen are privately on very friendly relations, although in Parliament they sit on opposite sides of the House. Here, again, it is as well to have no illusions. Our statesmen are not monsters of mystical generosity or insane logic, who are really able to hate a man from three to twelve and to love him from twelve to three… If our statesmen agree more in private, it is for the very simple reason that they agree more in public. And the reason they agree so much in both cases is really that they belong to one social class; and therefore the dining life is the real life. Tory and Liberal statesmen like each other, but it is not because they are both expansive; it is because they are both exclusive.
Chesterton was writing about early 20th century England, but his observation is every bit as true today.
The New York Times reports that the median net worth of members of Congress is about $913,000 compared to the $100,000 for the general population.
Nearly half the members of Congress are millionaires. In contrast, only five percent of the general population has a million or more in the bank. (Or stocks and so on.)
Rather than being a straightforward case of politicians being bought and paid for by lobbyists, they are influenced by what they are exposed to and who they associate with– other super rich people.
Under the current system, it takes huge boatloads of money to run a political campaign. That guarantees that most of the public will be represented by people from a different socio-economic status than their own.
I began to wonder what would happen if, rather than choosing our representatives geographically, we required them to represent us by tax bracket. After all, doesn’t a laborer in California have more in common with a laborer in South Dakota than he has with a millionaire in his own state? Doesn’t a Texas oil baron have more in common with a Wall Street billionaire than he has with a waitress in his own state?
What do you suppose our congress would look like if we had an electoral college, not for states, but for socio-economic groupings? What types of laws might we have? How would our national priorities change or would they?