Poverty Series II: What is Being Poor in America?
While many are decrying McCain’s failure to mention the middle class in his debates, other classes have received far less mention this election season. Outside of derogatory references to Joe Six Pack, and the need for health insurance, the poor and working classes of America seem to have been largely excluded as a talking point.
In 2005, author John Scalzi wrote a simple but brilliant essay on what being poor is in reality for millions of Americans. Among his observations:
- Being poor is hoping the toothache goes away.
- Being poor is thinking $8 an hour is a really good deal.
- Being poor is relying on people who don’t give a damn about you.
- Being poor is an overnight shift under fluorescent lights.
- Being poor is six dollars short on the utility bill and no way to close the gap.
- Being poor is people surprised to discover you’re not actually stupid.
- Being poor is knowing you work as hard as anyone, anywhere.
- Being poor is getting tired of people wanting you to be grateful.
- Being poor is people who have never been poor wondering why you choose to be.
- Being poor is knowing how hard it is to stop being poor.
Several hundred people added their own observations to Scalzi’s essay, making it perhaps one of the most definitive oral descriptions of poverty in recent years. Poorness, we learn, isn’t just a number –- it’s not just a salary or a neighborhood –- but something that encompasses every facet of a a person’s life, from health and social opportunities, to where we live, and whom we can attract as a partner.
Poverty carries an emotional and stigmatizing price. It’s losing teeth at a young age because a $600 root canal or 50% co-pay is unaffordable, and then losing out on social and job opportunities because of a marred appearance. It’s not being able to afford to pay a $50 fine for a traffic violation, and ending up in jail.
It’s having to sell everything you own to pay the rent for just one month. Or losing your ID or drivers license and not being able to afford to replace them. It’s having no credit and no cash for a flat tire or any other emergency. It’s having poor credit, and being charged exorbitant interest rates, and paying higher rates for auto insurance than even drunk drivers pay. It’s a life where nearly everyday comes with some anxiety, panic, or dread.
To live in poverty is to be hastily judged, and told you should have taken better care of your teeth to start with, and that if you can’t afford a car you shouldn’t drive one –- never mind how your teeth got damaged, or whether or not you have bus service in your neighborhood. It’s being denied employment opportunities based on your faded clothes or credit score.
It’s being thought of as irresponsible even when you have made your paycheck stretch as far as it could go. It’s buying a .79 cup of coffee at the convenience store in the morning on the way to work and having someone, likely a better-off relative, tell you that this is why you’re poor and can’t afford to pay your rent –- because you waste your money. It’s knowing that no matter what you do, or how hard you try, someone will view you harshly because you have not risen to their class level.
It’s hearing the rags to riches stories, looking desperately for hope, only to learn about the privileged circumstances, inheritances, benefactors, or rare open doors that led to success. It’s hearing how all those things are negated by successful people when they talk about “working hard” and “creating their own luck”. It’s waking up every day to face a society that believes its own American dream cliches, but that puts no stock in the truth of your own story.
This is what poorness in America is, and unfortunately it is largely misunderstood, ignored, or viewed as an incurable plight. It’s a particularly grim and harsh story in a society where the pursuit of happiness is a constitutional right, but where there’s really no such thing as a level playing field. Presently, the circumstances that help create happiness – including those as basic as personal security, health, food, and shelter – are increasing in price while wages and job opportunities stagnate, leaving the poor poorer, and millions more at risk.