Thursday, May 06, 2004

Commentary: Poverty Is Not A State of Mind

I just lost someone I thought was a friend because he decided I was pretending to be poor for the sake of...effect, I guess. It's a strange twist on the usual turn of events when you lose friends because they know you're poor and they're afraid you'll hit them up for money, but it's indicative of the misconceptions a lot of people have about us low-income workers.

This man--I'll call him "Joe"--decided that I was putting him on (though why anybody would pretend to be poor is a question that baffles me) because I'm too smart, too articulate to be in the position I told him I was in, and told him quite honestly, which is rare; I usually hide it. Many of us hide it to the degree that we can because we're ashamed of it. For months after I started Omnium, I played down my--hell, I ignored my--full-time job in a factory and admitted only to the part-time job as a teacher, a job I didn't even have any more because it had been eliminated when the worsening economy had forced the schools to cut their "extra" programs. I was afraid that no one would take me or anything I had to say seriously if they knew I didn't have a college education, wasn't a professional of some kind, and didn't work in media or politics or any of the areas I was writing about.

Then one day I happened onto Phaedrus' blog, No Fear of Freedom, and read in the sidebar his ruthlessly honest description of himself as a working-class "ghost" (his word) and "A Genuine Member of the Lumpen Proletariat." His refusal to be ashamed of what he was shamed me. I decided to take a gingerly step out of the closet and admit to my status, though I kept my anonymity in case it didn't work out. That tentative, tenuous act of bravery led directly to Trenches.

Because there are a lot of people like Joe, people who think poverty is the result of stupidity or laziness, people who simply can't believe that in America talent and intelligence could go unrewarded. Well, Joe, they do. Every day.

One of the smartest people I know is a cook at a nursing home. He had two years at a technical college where he learned how to be a tool-and-die maker because he liked to work with his hands. That craft has been taken over by computers, so now he cooks. He's good at it, proud of what he can do and how people feel when they eat what he makes. He can do wonders with a budget slim as a Chihuahua hair. He makes $9/hr. His family wants to know why he doesn't do more with his life. In a weak moment (when we'd been drinking), he told me that, and then he told me what he didn't dare tell them--that he kept the job because he was happy doing it, and that money really wasn't very important to him as long as his family had a roof over their heads and enough to eat.

He was lying, like a lot of us do, by telling himself that what he could get was all he wanted. I challenged him, and he admitted he'd really like to learn gourmet cooking and work in a legitimate restaurant where he didn't have to make superior food out of inferior product. I asked him if he'd considered going back to school, get a degree in Culinary Arts. Sheepishly, he told me he'd applied but his income ($9/hr!) was over the guidelines and there was no financial aid available since the Feds had cut their grant programs to the bone.

The most brilliant guy I know is a Hungarian émigré. He was trained as a surgeon in Eastern Europe, has a raft of degrees on the wall of his tiny apartment, and speaks 4 languages, 3 of them reasonably well (English, he tells me, is tough). But the degrees aren't recognized in America, he's over 50, and his accent is so thick, his English so rudimentary, that a lot of prospective employers thought he was retarded. He works as a janitor. He makes $7/hr after three years; he started at $5. It was all he could get. His shame is so great that he won't tell his family where he is or what he's doing now.

If intelligence and talent were what counted in America, that janitor would be running a huge hospital and Bill Gates--who stole everything MicroSoft is from smarter people--would be sweeping the floors of the wards. But they aren't. No, Joe, it isn't fair, but it is reality.

The hard, cold, brutal fact is that in America most of the poor are the people who lack one or another ingredient that the society has decided to recognize, and you can only get away with that if you have connections. The even more brutal fact is that much of the upper class, including the govt, works very hard at throwing everything it can think of at you to keep you where you are.

I don't know if it's still true--I hope it isn't but it probably is--but in the 80's, liberals managed to get a bill passed encouraging mothers on welfare to go back to school by paying their tuition so they could get their GED or, if they had a high school diploma, go to college. When the women signed up, they discovered there was a catch: conservatives, terribly concerned about "welfare cheats", had insisted on a provision that cut their monthly benefits dollar-for-dollar by the amount the state paid in tuition that month. In other words, if she took a class for three months that the state paid $300 for, $100 a month would be taken out of her $400 welfare check, effectively forcing her to choose between bettering herself and starving her children or going without heat in the winter. Not surprisingly, most of the women dropped out of the program and the conservatives who had insisted on that condition then trumpeted their lack of participation as proof that those lazy bums on welfare didn't really want to improve their lives.

They getcha comin' and goin'.

The point, Joe, is that whether or not you're poor has little or nothing to do with how smart or articulate you are and everything to do with how educated you are according to recognized authorities, where you come from, who you know, how thick your accent is, what color your skin is, and how well you can manage to fit into the myriad expectations and prejudices people have that define "acceptable" in their class. And you need all those things, Joe, not just one or two of them. I've got everything but connections and a diploma. I work in a factory.

That's the real America, Joe, like it or not.