Friday, July 11, 2014

Poor Shaming

Bashing the poor has become a popular pastime in the last few years. This surprises and saddens me.

For the purpose of full disclosure, Im neither proud nor ashamed of my past. It happened and Ive moved on, but my experiences are relevant to this discussion. Much more relevant than the most of the talking heads on the Fox News network, since they are from at least middle class backgrounds and most were even better off than that. The further complicate matters, the concept of what being poor means seems to be frozen in time and that time seems to be the fifties.

While my parents were married, we lived on a small piece of land in the country in northern Minnesota. While my dad had a good job as an electrician for a natural gas pipeline, he couldnt afford to build even a modest house on the land, so they poured a cement slab and bought a singlewide trailer. Later, we were able to upgrade to a doublewide trailer. When I was eleven, my parents divorced and my sister and I chose to live with my mother. It was only when we acquired a new single wide trailer and had to move to a trailer court that I realized that not only had we been poor before, but we had just slipped even further down the line. For the majority of the next seven years, we hovered below the government-defined poverty line for the years 1978-1984. Just as a reminder, the country was in a serious recession and gas shortage just to spice things ups. Being poor sucks regardless of how the economy is doing, but it sucks worse during a recession.

The Right has elevated Reagan to near deity status, yet Reagan did not call poor people leaches, or lazy. He didnt poor shame. He did start a few programs to help the poor to include giving away cheese and butter on a monthly basis. I can still remember the taste of that cheese that came in 10-pound blocks. We occasionally ran short of food at the end of the month and I do know what it means to be hungry, and I will always be grateful for that cheese.

When my mom realized just how bad it was going to be, it was the summer before my twelfth birthday. She came to my sister and I and asked us if we thought she should sign up for welfare and food stamps. She warned us that if we didnt we would be in for some hard times. I thought about it very seriously and said that as long as I could find some kind of job, I didnt want to go on welfare. She agreed and decided not to go on the dole. I started working part time at age twelve. It was illegal and the money was under the table, but I worked and we got by, but we did sign up for free school lunches.

While Reagan didnt feel the need to poor shame, the schools decided to differentiate the color of the meal tickets. They had devised the meal ticket system to speed up the line by not wanting to take cash. Instead, family bought the tickets and the staff punched it ten times and then you bought a new one. The regular tickets were blue, but the free meal program tickets were pink. I think the school system was afraid that we would try to sell the meal tickets so we could by drugs and alcohol.

There was a recent article published on the Heritage Foundation website, authored by Robert Rector and Rachel Sheffield, both of whom work for The Heritage Foundation and are allegedly experts on poverty, while seemingly never having experienced it. For those of you that dont know, The Heritage Foundation is a right wing think tank that provides position papers and attempt to shape policy. There are both left and right wing think tanks. I am highly suspect of any position put forth from think tanks on either side.

I had a few different jobs while I was in the Army. One of them I had in the Reserve was Psychological Operations. Our job was to develop and deploy propaganda among other things, and these think tanks are propaganda machines.

Also for those that dont know me, I have always been fiscally conservative and socially liberal, but my meter does fall slightly right from center. Im strong on defense but not a saber rattler and think we need to rely on our military less than we have since 9/11. I prefer smaller government and less bureaucracy but I do believe in a social safety net. That may sound like a natural conflict, but I think it can be done. I also believe in programs that assist people in improving their financial situation and most of all, making sure that all children, regardless of what class they are born into, are given the same opportunities and in some case that takes level setting. We need to quit looking at fellow Americans as adversaries and start looking at start focusing on making our entire nation strong.
The main thesis of the article that you can read here, is that poor people have a lot of stuff that most ignorant, better off people think are luxuries, and that poor people today are far better off than poor people from the 1950s and currently the US definition of poor is much different that the rest of the worlds definition. There are a lot of graphs, but the first one lists all of the amenities that are considered luxuries and it starts with a refrigerator. Fox news staff were uniformly shocked that 99.9% of the unwashed masses of poor owned a refrigerator. If youre one of the middle and upper class that visualizes Oliver Twist asking for more porridge or perhaps Charlie Chaplins Tramp character, you are deluded. Poor does not mean homeless.

I will agree that a poor person in the US is better off than a poor person in Somalia. Ill also buy into the idea that the poor in 2014 are better off than the poor of the Great Depression. But while I agree that things have got better over time, poor is still poor and the measuring stick they are using in this article is ignorant.

As an example, lets go back to the shock over refrigerator ownership. In 1978, when my family was below the poverty level, which was approximately $7,000 a year, we were able to secure a loan for a single wide trailer and pay trailer park lot monthly rental. In 1978, all trailers came with a fridge, a stove and a washer and dryer. There were times when we didnt have anything to put into the fridge or cook on the stove, but we had them. Most apartments, even in poor neighborhoods have similar appliances. When rich people hear that, they are aghast, likely because they envision their $10,000 plus stainless steel walk in refrigerator with built in water, ice and wine dispensers. What most regular people have is in fact a classic plastic fridge that retails (when not on sale) for about $350. A used fridge can go for $50. Even back in 1978, if for some reason our single wide trailer didnt come with a fridge, we could have picked up a used one back then for $25 dollars, and boy did we feel like we were rolling in cash because we didnt have to salt our pork or cut a block of ice from the lake to keep our free government cheese and butter from spoiling. People in Somalia may see it as a luxury, but they dont have access to thrift shops and yard sales where cast off items from upper classes like fridges are common and dont retain their retail value, but do continue to work for many years.

Anyone that doesnt know that is so disconnected from the average American let alone poor Americans that they have more in common with warlords in Somalia than their fellow citizens.
The current poverty line for a four-person family is $24,000 dollars a year. A lot of other items on the list of luxuries Ive already covered as being included when you buy a trailer or you can pick up for very little cash. The energy usage survey bureau didnt ask if they had all new appliances, they just measured the fact that they were using energy. Number five on this luxury list is air conditioning. Back in 1978, AC was not included as standard equipment in trailers, but it is today, and again, the wealthy visualize central air and the entire dwelling at a cool 68 degrees, while the reality for most is a used window unit that helps but is just not the same. Cellular phones and cable television are in the top twenty and once again we have issues with scale. Fox showed one person that had an iPhone, but the energy usage survey asked if they had a phone. You can get a cheap phone included with a two-year contract for less than $40 a month. Its a phone the wealthy wouldnt be caught dead using in public so they cant envision anything else when they hear cell phone. Also, the energy usage survey doesnt say that all 4 family members have them, though that is what the poor shamers are assuming. An old school land line phone service cost about the same as a cheap cell, and most poor people no longer have them, especially if they need to move around for work, but a home phone is not listed as a luxury item. It would be seen even by the wealthy as a necessity, just like having a roof over their head is not listed as a luxury, but it is being called out that way due to a complete lack of understanding of how the poor live day by day. 

The only item that shocked me on the list, as something that we didnt have and I still dont have, was a Jacuzzi. Allegedly, 0.6% of poverty level families had one. They must live in California and once again, there is no indication that they bought it new. I did a quick Craigslist search and found one in my area for $75 dollars in good condition needing a new circuit board. With the repair, Ive got clean 6 person Jacuzzi for $150. I may finally fulfill this dream, but even if I made only $24,000 a year, I could swing $150 for a Jacuzzi if that was really important to me.

The other conditions that dont show up in this type of survey are how people that make near or below the poverty level survive. People in rural America do a lot of hunting, fishing and even trapping to save money. When I worked for under the table wages as a minor, I worked in a restaurant and got at least one complimentary meal each shift. It wasnt a lot, but even at 20 hours a week, that $3 dollars an hour went a log way toward making ends meet. It meant I went hungry less and didnt have to make shoes out of old tires.

Later in the article they make a lot of hay about people not starving to death. These numbers are being used as an excuse to cut the food stamp and free lunch programs and the people making those arguments are completely missing the fact that these poor people are not starving to death becausewait for itthey have FOOD STAMPS AND FREE LUNCH PROGRAMS!!
How dare the poor not be starving to death! These bastards are trying to pull a fast one over on the rest of us. They arent even sweating their asses off in rat infested hovels. Instead, they are only mildly perspiring in rat infested hovels thanks to that used window AC unit. Sheer luxury! And theyre laughing their way to the food banks, those TV watching, clothes washing, cell phone owning bastards! Its all a scam!!

No, its not a scam. Are there are some people manipulating the system and benefiting unfairly? Yes, and theyre called criminals. Feel free to find and punish them. I was considered poor for the first twenty-three years of my life, including the four I spent in the army. I broke above the poverty level in 1990 and Ive never looked back. Are there people that are generationally still trapped in poverty? Yes there are, but Ive been closer to it than these experts, and I never met anyone that was happy about it or worked at staying poor just to screw over the rest of the hard working tax payers. If you listen to this crap on TV and believe it, then its time you started thinking for yourselves and quit listening to talking head idiots that are exaggerating and misquoting flawed data to further the agenda of their chosen political party, or worse, spreading bullshit just for the sake of ratings. Its time to wake the fuck up and think for your selves, because even if there were a huge conspiracy to live off the teat of hard working taxpayers, cutting those peoples benefits will hurt their children more than it hurts them.

Unless youve grown up poor, its hard to understand the challenges associated. Ive also seen a lot of articles lately about white privilege. While I dont disagree with the reality of white privilege, there are some false assumptions. The biggest is that poor white people can benefit from this privilege. America is not supposed to have a class system and if youre middle class or higher and a decent person, you may not have any negative feelings for people in the lower income brackets, but if youre honest with yourself, you likely have deeply embedded biases and prejudices.

I dont share details of my personal life with everyone I meet. Im not shamed or proud of it, it simply is. When the topic does come up, there is a very common response to finding out I was poor white trailer trash. Few say that out loud, but when you read earlier that I spent the early years of my life living in a trailer, what did the voice inside your head whisper to you? When I talked about getting free cheese and butter and free lunches, what images popped into your head?

Like the Irish at the end of the19th and beginning of the 20th century, once they lost their accent and if they changed their name, they were just one more white European. They could blend in with people that still hated the Irish and were able to hide their ancestry if they so chose. No one that looks at me today either at home or at work could tell what my economic background was, so I can now blend and take full advantage of white privilege. The difficult part for the poor, regardless of race, is escaping. Even in my northern Minnesota town, which was as far from the hood as you can get, I grew up around the roughest and most at risk kids. Drugs and crime were prevalent and there was a lot of peer pressure to conform to those behaviors. That pressure came in slightly rougher forms like bullying, which seems less severe in retrospect but at eleven felt very real and scary.
The trailer court I live in was called Hillcrest Manor. Not sure why they feel the need to name them that way. I called it the place hope goes to die. Being poor in America regardless of where you live has always and will always feel hopeless. That lack of hope for the future expresses itself in many ways, usually though the use of tobacco and alcohol at a minimum, and often in more extreme way, causing a cycle of failure and frustrations that cant help but imprint the children living in that environment. When a poor kid ends up in jail or working a manual labor job, no one is surprised. Its expected, but why? Poor does not equal stupid. Gifted children are born into all economic levels. Opportunity and access do vary a great deal, but even if it was equal, the other factors that the poor deal with including poor nutrition put their gifted children at a disadvantage.

I consider myself extremely fortunate and lucky. I spent years five though eleven in the country and with two wonderful friends. They were brothers and their father was a doctor. We were close in age. The older brother knew when he was six that he would one day be a lawyer. It never occurred to him that he would be unable to achieve his goal. I had no idea what I was going to be and had no idea even then how I would achieve a goal once I had one, but that optimism and that healthy and positive example stuck with me though my formative years. Had I spent those years at Hillcrest Manor, I hate to think where I would be today. The luck of the draw genetically also helped, because despite having a learning disability that effects my ability to learn languages (including higher level math like calculus), I was blessed with a genius IQ. The Army then gave me the missing piece to the puzzle, which was the confidence to believe in myself. The Army also tested me, reinforcing what I would never be good at but allowing me the opportunity to discover areas where I excelled.

I dont think there is any greater gift a person can get in the early years of their life than to come to grips with what limitations they have and gain the confidence not to focus on those gaps but to develop their strengths. But clearly, I am one of the exceptions. I know of a few others, people that have made it and escaped their past, but as I stated earlier, Hillcrest Manor is not the hood. Its gravity was easier to pull away from than other environments where the poor are concentrated and Minnesota is one of the most literate states in the country. My success is not miraculous, just not predictable, and thats the problem. Our country needs to re-evaluate our priorities and start changing the bias we have that allows most of the country to write off children based on the circumstance they were born into. For strictly selfish reasons in order to compete with the rest of the world, we need to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to achieve as much as they can, or we risk being trapped in this cycle of poor shaming and perpetuating a culture that refuses to change the state that so many people spend time complaining about. Instead of whining about people on food stamps having the nerve to actually own a refrigerator, we need to close the gap between the classes by providing equal primary education, ensuring that all children have a healthy diet and access to positive role models and invest in the future of our country. Telling the poor to suck it up and to pull themselves up by their bootstraps is not a strategy or a solution.

Finally, while I can understand the desire to find some scapegoat group of people to blame all of our woes on, our nations poor are not it. Trying to make them villains only succeeds in making those people look like a giant douchebags.