We live in a world of instant everything. Every human situation, it seems, comes attached with cliches, platitudes, bromides, stereotypes and parodies. There is, conceivably, a box to place every person in, and a label to slap them with. There are also socially created barriers that inform perception, determine response, and decide opportunity. As society evolves, so do these barriers.
In the 1970′s, for instance, it was not unusual for job applicants to lack college degrees. Today, four year degrees are required for almost every corporate position, including those that are considered entry-level.
Throughout history, but even more apparent in today’s political climate, the have-nots have born the brunt of social stereotypes, bootstrap philosophies, and feel-good bromides. They’ve been romanticized in songs and novels, damned by social critics, and sacrificed at the altars of law and politics.
The pride and strength of the working poor is legendary — their clothes are old, but never dirty*, their love for each other overcomes all, and they’re only poor if they choose to be* — because it’s love, and not money after all, that makes a person truly rich. They bear drudgery and ridicule with hearty stamina, and sing and dance their way through meager lives filled with hardship, always hoping, always praying, and never losing sight of what’s really important.
At the same time, there’s something wrong with those people — something inherently flawed about them, like their character, their ambition, or their intelligence. It can’t be about any of the “isms” because, as we’ve all come to learn through the example of the rare exception, the -ism’s don’t really exist. After all, if Loretta Lynn can work her way out of a coal mining town in Kentucky, and Oprah Winfrey can become a billionaire, then anyone can. It’s just a matter of really wanting to achieve, and working hard enough to find success. And since there’s no such thing as luck, unless you’re talking about the kind people make for themselves, there are no logical reasons for failure, only excuses.
Last night, engaged in a conversation with a new friend, I had cause to revisit some of my darkest days as a young single parent. My husband had managed to get a divorce from another state, with the Navy’s help no less, stating that he had no children. He left while I was pregnant and had a one year old daughter. His legal maneuver left him off the hook for child support but still gave him the legal rights of a father. There was no legal recourse for me since at the time my state, Nevada, did not cross jurisdictions. It took twelve years to find even the minor relief of terminating his rights. He never paid child support, and never saw or expressed interest in seeing the children.
I worked two jobs, while struggling to pay daycare and rent. One job wouldn’t cover both, much less buy groceries, and I was evicted twice, and had my power shut off several times. One of the lowest points I remember was a cold day in October, when I washed my cocktail waitress uniform out in a dark bathroom, with cold water, because I had no electricity. No heat, either, so the babies were bundled in snowsuits and covered with blankets. We had no food in the house to speak of, and when I woke up to go to work, my uniform was still wet. I had to hop a bus to daycare, then to a casino where a poker player fried my leg and my last pair of nylons with the tip of his cigar. I broke down crying, and was promptly fired.
In those dark days, hope was tinged with desperation and need, and I drove myself past exhaustion, while at the same time trying to be the kind of mother I always wanted. One who was essentially happy, loving, and present. It took years, an incredible amount of energy, and living through multiple traumas to make a life that wasn’t desperate, or teetering on the brink of disaster. It wasn’t even a middle class life — there was no home in the suburbs, 401K, or college fund — but it was a life that covered the essentials.
I know poverty because I’ve lived through its varied realities, from the grumbling hunger to the bone-chilling coldness; from the pain of infections I couldn’t afford antibiotics for, to being robbed because I lived in a bad neighborhood and was an easy target. I’ve suffered from the policies and punitive measures that steal hope, time, and money from those who can least afford to lose anything.
I know bootstraps and bromides. The romanticizing of poverty, and the damnation of the poor. In this series, we’ll discuss economic realities and policies, as well as the emotional cost of being poor in America, the richest country in the world.
Excerpted from songs:
*Stevie Wonder, Livin’ for the City
*Dolly Parton, Coat of Many Colors