How we got tricked into being "not poor."
I grew up poor, but we knew we were poor. It was okay that we were poor. My mother could not get a job other than cleaning toilets, because she was Black. My father didn’t go to college, which meant many jobs were closed off to him in the SF Bay Area. Even when he had his own business, we were poor and often had tripe soup for dinner. In jr high, I was teased for my out of fashion clothes. Another student said to me, “I didn’t know there were any poor people in Foster City.”
I think in Black families, we know we are poor, and accept that we are poor. One of my cousins has moved his family to 3 different states, cause, “we don’t do broke.” I majored in business Econ and got an mba cause I never wanted to use food stamps. It was so shameful as a kid.I moved by myself across the country with a 4 yr old to go to grad school.
There is a Michael Franti song with the line: it’s a crime to broke in America.
Bravo! This topic needs to trend. People need to openly declare themselves poor or poor-adjacent. I started doing so a few years ago. It took too much mental energy to pretend. Ever find yourself spending money you need for a bill to pay for a new dress so you aren’t ashamed at an event? Yeah, that’s got to stop.
I’m not destitute -- I own a home, have enough food, etc. But my husband and I are very cognizant of how little it would take to destroy us. My lumpectomy this spring cost more than I’ll make this year. It’s unrealistic to assume neither of us will ever need another medical procedure. I’ve been writing about this subject, too, and it does seem to be something people are recognizing as an issue. Let’s start a movement based on people refusing to be ashamed of their poverty or financial precariousness. It’s the oppressors who should be ashamed.
In the middle of a pandemic, families were told to put their kids in school, so the parents could get back to work. For the economy. Covid is mild, and kids don’t get sick or pass it on, they were told. We needed to stop testing for Covid, so things could get back to ‘normal’. Meanwhile, the rich were ensuring they had clean air and protection (Davos) but no one is making sure schools, workplaces, hospitals, etc. have clean air. And now, workers who stayed at home are told to get back into the office, because big empty office towers are bad.
We continue to hope someone is looking out for us.
Bravo. Just Bravo.
I don't see any mention of the disability community in your post. In order to keep SSI or Medicare, many disabled folks have to stay poor. A lot of caretakers have to quit their jobs, going into poverty. Disabled folks have to not get legally married to stay poor enough for assistance. Because being disabled is expensive... just like being poor is expensive too. Add in any intersectionality such as race, gender, or LGBTQ status, it gets even more complicated.
I predict this will become a bigger problem as a lot of companies will refuse to accommodate disabled folks especially in the era of Covid endemicity. And newly disabled folks from Long Covid will struggle to even prove that they are disabled without a positive test in their files.
I'm lodging this one for perpetual future reference. Just subscribed.
Some unconnected thoughts. I know you know this, but the "middle class" (the "poor-adjacent" as Michelle Teheux posted below) also has been falling into poverty, or it has been hanging on by its bleeding fingernails not to, for about the same amount of time (the last four to five decades).
You mentioned cars and refrigerators as things people were encouraged to buy on credit. I've long wondered about houses as well. How and why have mortgages become socially acceptable? For the same reasons you state, I guess, but it's a clear case of the "pathology of normalcy" (Erich Fromm).
"Capitalism produces unemployment" (Dave Harvey).
"Wealth causes poverty" (Michael Parenti)
These related observations are obviously true. The main value of money is having enough of it that other people who have less of it must do the work for those who have more, or those who have more would have to do the work that supports their privileges themselves, which would negate their privileges. And those who have less would not do the work of supporting the privileges of those who have more if they were not economically compelled to do so. The cardinal proof of this fact is slavery, then wage labor (read: wage slavery) to a lesser degree, then all the other subtleties of economic coercion within the paradigm of the labor transaction. I think abolishing the shame of poverty also means talking up this crucial, direct, inverse relationship between wealth and poverty, between the haves and have-nots.
This came to mind in this connection:
"Despite the ideological dogma to the contrary, the wealthy did not come into possession of the majority of the world’s resources by virtue of a more successful cultivation of the land, greater assiduousness, divine selection, etc. Rather, the historical fact is that this acquisition was carried out by means of a conquest that itself constitutes a monumental series of harms. As Balzac remarked in his Pere Goriot, behind every great fortune there lies a great crime. And the great fortunes deriving from the enclosure, privatization, and sale of what was formerly commonly owned land in Britain and Europe, among other places, not to mention the genocidal conquests of the Americas, Africa, and parts of Asia – among other former colonial possessions – are not excepted from Balzac’s observation. Indeed, the persuasiveness of distributive justice theories lies not so much in the recognition that the great majority of the resources of the world are held in a very few hands and that an equitable distribution of these would contribute to a just world. This is only part of the persuasiveness of these theories. The other part rests in the recognition that these very resources were once – and not very long ago, either – more or less held in common by most people in the world, and were only concentrated into extreme wealth by way of a series of murderous expropriations, and assembled into their valuable forms by mass enslavement, coerced labor, and other harms. As such, the redistribution of the world’s wealth is not simply a matter of distributive justice; it is a matter of restorative justice as well."
- Elliot Sperber
This was a brilliant essay.
I might add, another thing big business hates is low unemployment. With a scarcity of workers, they have to pay them more. They panic. Now that we're seeing so many people unable to work because of disability from covid, suddenly we hear chatter about hiring children. Anything to avoid paying hard working people a living wage, it seems.
Thank you, again. I am 61, and have been trying to share this sort of information since I was 16. Mostly to be rebuffed by individualism. I am so grateful to hear your voice develop and catch the imagination of modern readers.
quote: Essentially, CEOs and yuppies started getting more and more greedy. They found a champion in Ronald Reagan, a president who spent eight years undoing labor unions and deregulating industries. His predecessor, George Bush, took it further. Although it makes Democrats angry to admit this, Bill Clinton carried forward the neoliberal agenda.
I think you meant "successor" not predecessory - but otherwise spot on- and yes neoliberal Bill C helped screw the working class with his triangulation
This is a brilliant essay that I wish every American everywhere could read, even in Florida, the so-called "Free State", where poor immigrants are shunned and given no path to citizenship, but never deported because that would be the end of Florida agriculture.
A bit of American history, something you don't learn in school, came into my head about 4 or 5 paragraphs into your essay. The poor in Britain, Europe and everywhere else looked to America as a haven where, through hard work, they could create healthy, happy families, with plenty of food on the table and a firm roof over their heads.
A major source of immigration in colonial times was desperately poor individuals, mostly from England, Wales and Scotland, who signed up for passage to America through the indenture system under which they would have to work for a plantation for 10 years, or even more, supposedly to pay back the cost of their passage across the Atlantic.
They were generally not treated well by plantation owners, to put it mildly. They weren't African slaves, but their working and living conditions were only slightly better than slaves and they resented the physical brutality of the system under which they lived and worked.
At the end of their indenture most left and went west into the mountains and hill country of Appalachia, even into the wilds of Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia. Anything to get away from their horrible lives as indentured workers.
When the American revolution began, word spread among the dispossessed who had hewn farms out of the wilderness. Many of them, not forgetting the abuse they had suffered at the hands of the wealthy plantation owners, grabbed their guns and knives and swept down into the lowlands of Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia, leaving a trail of deadly vengeance.
This people's revolt had to be put down and redirected toward the British whom we were fighting for our independence as a country. Who put them down? Wealthy plantation owners like General George Washington, and half the other signers - wealthy southerners all - of the Declaration of Independence.
This is how I recall what I read many years ago, and I have no doubt about its general veracity, although I'm short on details. I assume that poverty is what drove poor people who found themselves in the North to set out to what was then known as "The Old Northwest", that is, Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Indiana, in search of a better life.
Nowadays, if you're poor in one part of America, you'll probably be poor anywhere else. We don't have a classless society, and if you're not born into what we call the upper class and the upper middle class, you've got your work cut out for you.
Excellent! This was one of the best written pieces on the vilification of poverty, to date. We have been brainwashed to despise poverty; while at the same time, perpetuating it. We treat “greed-flation” as inflation; associate wealth with intellect; and, allow the 1% to manipulate us into hating ourselves and others, to increase their profit streams.
The two worst evils, greed and white supremacy, will never support or allow a multicultural society to thrive. America is the epitome of “cutting off one’s nose, to spite one’s face”.
I was "middle class" for a brief period in my 30's, from 2000 to 2008. Lots of debt, but my grocery job was enough to serve it. I had to work hard. In 2007, my son was diagnosed with T1 diabetes. Then the financial crash of 2008 happened. Then the union organized grocery industry came under intense attack. It's been nothing but downhill since.
I grew up poor, but we called ourselves "lower middle class." Mom worked magic to make us look "not poor." She did a good job. No one wants to be poor, but they definitely abhor looking poor.
I refuse to carry debt now. I have no credit score. And, of course, I'm penalized in numerous ways for doing so.
Not too long ago, someone spent the time to explain in detail how neoliberalism conquered the world and it is a great resource for people to understand how fucked things are and while they will only continue to degrade unless we abandon the lies it feeds us. The first installment gives an overview, and the following installments get into fine details. I highly recommend everyone watch it.
It's apolitical, because neoliberalism has captured all ruling politics.
20th-century American history is even more horrifying than I thought.
I grew up in a lower middle class (at best) family. I decided to go to college, I was told my parents made enough money to pay my way (they most definitely did not). But back in 1979 I could come up with a plan. I went for 2 years to a state university to save on tuition and living costs. I then transfered to a private university (I pretty much had to to get my engineering degree). I had to choose a college with a co-op program or I never could have afforded it. Through working at higher than minimum wage jobs and taking out student loans, I struggled, but got by.
At the time tuition, fees, room and board were $6,950 per year. Today that same university is $72,530 per year. Minimum wage in New York state when I went to college was $3.35 per hour (I generally made between $6.50 and $12.00 per hour). Today the minimum wage is $13.20 per hour. In addition I could take a student loan up to $2,500 per year with interest deferred. Today the limit is something like $12,000 per year and interest is not deferred unless the college determines that you need the financing.
So, taking the cost of college in 1981 and dividing it by minimum wage means I would have to work full time for one year to pay for one year of college (in my case I worked half the year full-time and half the year part time). Today you would have to work full time for 2.6 years at minimum wage to pay for one year of college.
The American dream is gone. How can we ever get it back?
I just became a paid subscriber because of this article. I want to support this kind of research and analysis. Bravo and thank you!
Yes! Truth is the middle and upper “classes” are predicated by a robust poor populace. When poor, every cent made gets spent and trickles up. They love and despise us with an abundance of derision. Not at all surprising as ‘Murica was built on the backs of enslaved labor. It is a part of our ethos.