Tuesday, November 26, 2013

On Poverty, From the Inside

Yesterday, one of my Facebook friends posted a link to a Huffington Post essay.  I followed that link, and what I read blew me away.  The piece was written by a young woman—Linda Tirado— who knows what it’s like to be poor.  It’s written in a voice that I knew existed, but had never heard quite so clearly.  In fact, I wasn’t aware that there was a poor person out there who could put together a piece of writing like this essay.  A piece of writing that slices open and pours out the guts of the “working poor,” in desolate language, dealing with the daily challenges of getting up every morning to face the same bleak reality.

"There's no way to structure this coherently. They are random observations that might help explain the mental processes. But often, I think that we look at the academic problems of poverty and have no idea of the why. We know the what and the how, and we can see systemic problems, but it's rare to have a poor person actually explain it on their own behalf. So this is me doing that, sort of."

This is the woman I want every troll who posts holier-than-thou comments on stories about the poor and the immigrants and the “entitlements” to hear and to know.  This is the woman who can get in your face and make you feel her poverty—not just her lack of means poverty, but the poverty of the spirit that is borne of it.

"The closest Planned Parenthood to me is three hours. That's a lot of money in gas. Lots of women can't afford that, and even if you live near one you probably don't want to be seen coming in and out in a lot of areas. We're aware that we are not "having kids," we're "breeding." We have kids for much the same reasons that I imagine rich people do. Urge to propagate and all. Nobody likes poor people procreating, but they judge abortion even harder."

What is wrong with us that we can’t allow people to have a hard life?  Why can’t we tolerate the idea of someone being unable to rise out of poverty?  Why in the world do we cling so desperately to that “American Dream”—the one where all you have to do is work hard, get an education, save your money and stay away from the temptations of the devil, and you will achieve success beyond your wildest dreams? 

We know damn well that’s a crock of crap.  We see it in our own lives—we work hard, we go (went) to college, we’ve stuck money in the stock market or a 401k, and we’re not getting rich.  In fact, we’re going backward.  Retirement is a pipe dream.  So why can’t we cut the poor some slack? If WE can’t get ahead, how much harder must it be for them?  Are we afraid that if we admit that the guy a few rungs lower on the food chain is never going to claw his way up, even to where we are, that we’re sealing our own fate?

"Especially since the Patriot Act passed, it's hard to get a bank account. But without one, you spend a lot of time figuring out where to cash a check and get money orders to pay bills. Most motels now have a no-credit-card-no-room policy. I wandered around SF for five hours in the rain once with nearly a thousand dollars on me and could not rent a room even if I gave them a $500 cash deposit and surrendered my cell phone to the desk to hold as surety."  

How meaningless, too, is all the hubbub surrounding “Obamacare” to the poor?  Every single one of us doing the arguing has at least some idea of what it is/was to have health insurance.   While we’re whining about the cost of our coverage going up or our shitty policies being canceled or having to wait an hour or two to get on a website, the poor are simply going without.  Or hauling themselves off to an emergency room when they’re so sick they cannot even stand.  For which we do nothing but give them a raft of shit.

"There's a clinic? Great! There's still a copay. We're not going. Besides, all they'll tell you at the clinic is that you need to see a specialist, which seriously? Might as well be located on Mars for how accessible it is. "Low-cost" and "sliding scale" sounds like "money you have to spend" to me, and they can't actually help you anyway." 

Why do we have to make judgments about poor people, about how they should or should not be “allowed” to spend the two pennies they have to rub together at any given time?  I’ll admit, even I have had trouble with the concept of poor people smoking.  I cannot believe how much a pack of cigarettes costs these days.  The smoke shop in town sells single cigarettes for $1 each.  Why would anyone need a nicotine fix so badly that they would spend their last buck on one cigarette?

"I smoke. It's expensive. It's also the best option. You see, I am always, always exhausted. It's a stimulant. When I am too tired to walk one more step, I can smoke and go for another hour. When I am enraged and beaten down and incapable of accomplishing one more thing, I can smoke and I feel a little better, just for a minute. It is the only relaxation I am allowed. It is not a good decision, but it is the only one that I have access to. It is the only thing I have found that keeps me from collapsing or exploding."

I have prized my liberal views.   Taken them out and polished them lovingly, displayed them proudly for all to see.  And yet, in dinner table conversations, I have been guilty of labeling as “trailer trash” those women who have a passel of kids, each with a different father, trailing around behind them; kids who grow up in that world of never having enough and never knowing quite where to go next to get more.  Why would anyone want to perpetuate that?  Why bring more souls into the world to eke out a life dominated by the inescapable want that you experience every day?

Poverty is bleak and cuts off your long-term brain. It's why you see people with four different babydaddies instead of one. You grab a bit of connection wherever you can to survive. You have no idea how strong the pull to feel worthwhile is. It's more basic than food. You go to these people who make you feel lovely for an hour that one time, and that's all you get. You're probably not compatible with them for anything long-term, but right this minute they can make you feel powerful and valuable.   

One thing I have noticed in the time I have spent hanging around these kinds of posts on the internet and reading the snarky comments posted afterward, is that the folks who seem to be the hardest on the poor are those who regard themselves as having been poor themselves.  They have these stories of overcoming adversity, of pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps, of working hard and making sacrifices until they “made it” out of their definition of poverty.  There is this pervasive attitude of  “I did it and I am nobody special.  If I can do it, anybody can.  And if they don’t, they’re lazy, stupid or criminal.”  They made it, all by themselves; and by god, they’re not going to lift a finger or part with a dime to help out some slacker.

What is it about having been down that makes you an expert on everybody else’s degree of “down?”  Or makes you think you have any idea of where “down” is, for someone who is not you, somewhere that is not where you are?  Maybe you were “down” in rural Montana.  Is that the same as being “down” in the inner city of Chicago?  Will the tools you used, the opportunities you grasped to pull yourself “up,” even be available to that other person you are calling lazy or stupid?  Would you make it for one minute, walking in their shoes? 

I am not asking for sympathy. I am just trying to explain, on a human level, how it is that people make what look from the outside like awful decisions. This is what our lives are like, and here are our defense mechanisms, and here is why we think differently. It's certainly self-defeating, but it's safer. That's all. I hope it helps make sense of it.

We live in a wacky, twisted 21st century world, where “reality” is rich housewives in Orange County having catfights over designer dresses and party invitations; but we accuse people of inventing or embellishing the suffering and hopelessness of living in poverty.  We want to be the Orange County housewives.  We don’t want anything to do with those exhausted, empty-eyed folks who live in the “bad neighborhoods” of our own towns.  In fact, we would like very much if the poor didn’t exist, because they serve as a sobering reminder of where we might ourselves be under less favorable circumstances, and we don’t want to know that.

Linda Tirado has kicked open the door of separation we’ve erected between ourselves and the people we don’t want to know, and shined a light on the stark reality of their lives.

What are we going to do about it?            

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