American Poverty - Working for Nothing

Aug 08, 2011

Morning, a cold rainy day. Trying to sleep. 5 May 2007.
Morning, a cold rainy day. Trying to sleep. 5 May 2007. | Source

If you have ever taken a class in college having anything to do with society than there is a good chance you have stumbled upon the book, “Nickel and Dimed” by Barbara Ehrenreich—an undercover expose on being poor, which consisted of working minimum wage jobs for a few months and trying to get by. She has garnered a fair bit of praise for her efforts.

I hated the book, but not for what she was trying to do. My real ire is for the way others act as if reading it just earned them their poverty badge.

Poverty isn’t a crappy job, or high rent, or terrible bosses. It isn’t a collection of things that you wear like a suit of clothes. It is everything. It is the very air that you breathe, inescapable and ever present. You can’t look at it or see it, can’t call out its name or grab hold of it with your hands. All you can do about it is try and hold your breath.

I had a friend in college who grew up in real poverty. One brother was shot dead on the front lawn, for no apparent reason at all, and another sniffed glue and fried his brain. My friend was an architecture student and he used to do a lot of construction, both on his own house and at times to make money. The step-father, however, to support a drug habit was always selling his tools, so my friend just kept buying them over and over. Every so often, a car would be randomly dumped and set on fire in the alley behind their house, burning down their fence and they would build a new one and wait for the next car fire so they could do it all over again.

My last boss got in trouble for money that had ‘disappeared’. I never heard the exact details, but he did have a brother ‘working’ for him who I am not entirely sure was on the books. At any rate the brother wanted to get out of town as soon as possible so offered to sell me his 88 Camaro for 500 bucks. A deal in itself, but with a 2-year old rebuilt engine and brand new wheels, it was a steal. I felt bad, but he assured me I was doing him a favor so took the deal.

He had a rattlesnake rattle hanging from the rearview mirror, leftover from a snake that had bit him. I didn’t think he was old enough but he was actually a Vietnam vet. I hadn’t ever really talked to him much. Turns out, along with the snake, he had also been shot. I asked him which hurt more but don’t really remember what he said. At that level of pain it probably doesn’t really matter. After signing over the car, I dropped him off at the motel where he was staying and he threw his stuff from the car into a pile on the floor, leaving some tools in the trunk for me. “What do I need’em for,” he said.

I have no idea why, but he used to call me “scotch”, which I thought was a pretty cool nickname. It made me feel tough. Perhaps it was meant ironically, since I don’t drink. He seemed like an ironic kind of guy. Or seemed like he could be if his heart was in it. I left the rattle hanging from the mirror. It makes me feel tough.

The whole point of the transaction was so he could get out of town, but for a few days afterwards, I kept hearing rumors that he was still around. Then I actually saw him so stopped to talk. He was just waiting for some one to take him to the train station he said. A couple days later I saw him sitting on a curb, early in the morning, with a beer in his hand. I don’t know what happened to him. I don’t know if he ever got out. But I can guess what happened to my 500 bucks. A handful of days drinking in a motel room – perhaps a couple of nights at the strip club (there were plenty around), but I don't know if he was that type of guy.

His whole life he worked. Part of that time for his country. I don’t know exactly what my boss did, but I am pretty certain the brother had nothing to do with it. He was a good, hard worker, thrown out into the wind through no fault of his own. This isn’t an unusual story, and the important part isn’t necessarily me or him, but rather the place. Four years I worked there and looking back it is amazing how many people came and went. More amazing, though, is how many people were no better off leaving than coming. Nobody walked out of there with useful job skills, or money saved, or even with a useful reference considering how often bosses came and went as well. They just left a little bit more tired and a little bit older.

This place isn’t unusual either. They are all too common and for many of us are becoming the air we breathe. These places have no roads going anywhere, they are just empty spaces for us to stand for awhile and have years peeled off of our bodies. These places are temporary holding cells that take you in from the formless mist and than spit you back out a month or year or decade later. They don’t care. It doesn’t matter.

A lot of people complain about social welfare programs. They foam at the mouth about socialism, without being able to define it (or provide an explanation for why it is bad). They will say these people are lazy (as if they would know) and complain about how much they are being given. But most people don’t really understand poverty. Not beyond what they can see through the window. They see it as an issue of people changing their clothes. All they need is a new suit, they will say, and then complain when the new suit doesn’t seem to work.

For whatever nobleness there may be in what Ehrenreich did, she really had no chance of understanding what it is to be poor. She always had a way out and always knew she could get out. Being poor isn’t about working hard for a little, it is about working hard for nothing. Poverty isn’t a social welfare state created by liberals to get votes. It is the Matrix, created by the wealthy to turn people into disposable batteries. Social welfare isn't meant to lift people out of poverty. Its purpose is to allow the conditions of poverty to continue to exist.

More by this Author


Comments 30 comments

TTanglewood profile image

TTanglewood 5 years ago

Well written hub. It seems a lot of well to do people have no understanding of the concept of poverty.

They hear stories of a few people abusing the system and assume that the entire system is dysfunctional.

Kudos on speaking for those who are unable to speak for themselves.


hazelbrown profile image

hazelbrown 5 years ago from Central PA

Thanks for writing this hub. I completely agree with you. When people talk about "the poor" abusing "the system," it makes no sense. Even if I wanted to abuse the system, I have no idea how I would do it, and I'm sure it wouldn't work anyway. Nobody remains in poverty because they prefer that to working hard. People with comfortable lives are able to forget about the poor, as though they are a myth... because they can't imagine living like that.


PETER LUMETTA profile image

PETER LUMETTA 5 years ago from KENAI, ALAKSA

Junkseller, this article is a tribute to the poor. You wrote it well and expressed it with heart, Thank you for it,

Peter


Kristen Haynie profile image

Kristen Haynie 5 years ago from Modesto, CA

I have never read "Nickel and Dimed" but I still understand the point you were making here. You expressed your opinion very well and I enjoyed reading it. I share your views on poverty and I thank you for expressing them in this hub. It was beautifully written.


Paradise7 profile image

Paradise7 5 years ago from Upstate New York

You are a terrific writer. You said what you had to say vividly and with feeling, and you got every reader to go right along with you. That's a very special gift.

I agree with you about poverty. Upper middle class suburbia just has no idea at all, no clue; that's a GOOD thing--for them.

I've been there and done that and don't ever want to do it again. I had no escape hatch but pure luck--I won a scholarship, and though I didn't make the very best use of it I could, it got me over the line and headed towards a better place.


TeaPartyCrasher profile image

TeaPartyCrasher 5 years ago from Camp Hill, PA

Permission to post on FB?


junkseller profile image

junkseller 5 years ago from Michigan Author

@TeaPartyCrasher

Permission happily granted. Keep up the good fight.


TeaPartyCrasher profile image

TeaPartyCrasher 5 years ago from Camp Hill, PA

Will do.


jamesjacques profile image

jamesjacques 5 years ago from Seattle

fantastic hub! well worth reading and sharing.


junkseller profile image

junkseller 5 years ago from Michigan Author

@TTanglewood Thanks for reading and commenting. I always find it amazing how many people supposedly know someone who is gaming the system, but then you ask them for details, and all of a sudden it is just some story they heard from a guy who heard it from a guy, etc.

@hazelbrown it seems like conservatives, if nothing else, are really good at propaganda. Look at, for instance, the way they were able to topple ACORN with what was nothing but a lie, or the same thing Live Action is trying to do with Planned Parenthood. They do it with social welfare when they say that everyone on the system is a lazy cheater, or with immigration – illegals are overflowing hospitals and white taxpayers can’t even get in the door. Strategically I have to give them credit. They understand the power of rumor over fact and use that well. It is unfortunate, though.

@ Peter Lumetta Thanks Peter, I appreciate the nice comments. I just noticed you are a fellow Michigander. I’m living next to Lake St. Clair at the moment.

@ Kristen Haynie I really was too hard on “Nickel and Dimed”. It is a pretty easy read – not long and well written – and there are lots of used inexpensive copies floating around. I think what she did was valuable and does provide insight on an aspect of poverty. My only real contention is that it is ONLY an aspect. It is the beginning and not the end of wisdom (ooh! That’s almost a Spock quote). And It seemed to me when I was in class, people too often acted like, they read the book, and are now ready to go save the world. It isn’t quite that simple (in my opinion).

@Paradise7 It is interesting the comment you make about not having a clue. In putting together this hub I went to USA.gov to look for an image. In their image search I punched in poverty. Know what I found? Pages upon pages of two things – images of graphs, pie charts, diagrams, maps, etc. and images of politicians talking, meeting, and shaking hands - few if any actual faces of poverty. Too often I think that is the way we treat the problem – as some math equation that we throw graphs at and then over a fancy dinner draw more graphs trying to explain why our original graph throwing didn’t work.

@ jamesjacques Thanks for reading and commenting.


JesadaB profile image

JesadaB 5 years ago from Home!

Extremely awesome hub, I enjoyed hearing someone who may actually understand what it is and be able to write about it so eloquently. thank you!


Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 5 years ago from England

Hi, everything you said is true! I often think that when the Royals over here decide, in their wisdom!, to go out and live on the streets! for two weeks William did it, and everybody was saying how marvelous he was! what a load of tosh! nobody knows apart from those who have to live through it, great hub, and rated up!

p.s. thanks for the email, make it into a hub! lol I am keeping it and going over it properly, thanks so much!


S Leretseh profile image

S Leretseh 4 years ago

"Being poor isn’t about working hard for a little, it is about working hard for nothing. Poverty isn’t a social welfare state created by liberals to get votes. It is the Matrix, created by the wealthy to turn people into disposable batteries. Social welfare isn't meant to lift people out of poverty. Its purpose is to allow the conditions of poverty to continue to exist."

Non-sequitur.

Also, if you're going to criticize or condemn, suggest solutions. Some social groups within society , may I suggest, are better off ignored.

As for the hub , the way you wrote it does have a certain flare. I read it twice. I rarely ever do that.


junkseller profile image

junkseller 4 years ago from Michigan Author

@S Leretseh This is basically a long rant followed by an essentially baseless accusation, so I suppose the charge of "non-sequitor" is entirely appropriate.

There is however in my opinion at least a hint of a solution, which is that having a deep understanding of a group you intend to help will tend to lead to better results. And vice versa.

You may be right that some groups should be ignored, but I don't really think I have the hubris for it, and I imagine our lists would be very different.


mythbuster profile image

mythbuster 4 years ago from Utopia, Oz, You Decide

Interesting hub, junkseller.


Sooner28 4 years ago

Hey junkseller,

"For whatever nobleness there may be in what Ehrenreich did, she really had no chance of understanding what it is to be poor. She always had a way out and always knew she could get out. Being poor isn’t about working hard for a little, it is about working hard for nothing. Poverty isn’t a social welfare state created by liberals to get votes. It is the Matrix, created by the wealthy to turn people into disposable batteries. Social welfare isn't meant to lift people out of poverty. Its purpose is to allow the conditions of poverty to continue to exist."

She actually admits this much in the book. She acknowledged her experiment was limited by the fact that she had start up money, and also that it was not a final way of life. It was simply a temporary situation.

But I do agree with you. Our society is about making the rich richer. Who actually does all the work at places like McDonalds or Wal-Mart? It ain't the suites! They just profit off of the labor of others. Great hub.


Pamela Kinnaird W profile image

Pamela Kinnaird W 4 years ago from Maui and Arizona

You've expressed some of my sentiments but in a much harsher way -- and that is good. I especially enjoyed your imagery in quite a few lines.


twoseven profile image

twoseven 4 years ago from Madison, Wisconsin

Great hub! I have always felt that congresspeople should have to spend a year living on minimum wage (or less) before they are allowed to make any decisions regarding social welfare programs. I agree they are often a tool of oppression. Well written - very thought provoking.


Dubuquedogtrainer profile image

Dubuquedogtrainer 4 years ago from Dubuque, Iowa

Good writing!


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM

Well said and well-written! I didn't understand poverty and the vicious cycle it is until I worked in an inner-city school system. I learned what real poverty is and all that goes with it up close and personal. I am grateful for the opportunity to see how the other half lives. Most Americans have no idea what real poverty is like. They live in their own little cocoon and don't come up against it. The poor in this country are our "untouchables" just like they are in India. Education is the way out of poverty and thank God I was working with kids, so there was hope, but for some adults it is too late and the cycle just continues. You are very insightful for such a young age and wise way beyond your years. You see what others do not and you have the courage to speak up about it. I admire you very much. Terrific article!


John Sarkis profile image

John Sarkis 4 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

Great hub! Yes, unless you've been there---walked in someone else's shoes it's really difficult to fully associate. It's like people talk about socialism and communism, but unless you've lived in a communist country it's difficult for an individual to understand. My Mom has always said "people who praise communism have not lived under its rule..."

Great hub - voted up

John


junkseller profile image

junkseller 4 years ago from Michigan Author

Thanks for the comments Sooner28, Pamela, twoseven, and Dubuquedogtrainer. Sorry for the delay. I'm terrible about responding to people in a timely manner.

@Sooner28 I was entirely too harsh on Ehrenreich. I was angry when thinking and writing on this topic and directed more at her than deserved. I have read other work by her and I think she is a true advocate of the poor.

@twoseven. That isn't a bad idea. Wouldn't even need to be a year. A week or month could do wonders. It really is amazing what someone can learn when they are put into an environment that is completely different from what they are used to.


junkseller profile image

junkseller 4 years ago from Michigan Author

@suzettenaples

I think it is the vicious cycle aspect of poverty that people don't really understand. Like being trapped in a spiderweb. sometimes the more you fight the more you are stuck.

I'm not so sure about the wise part. That's a pretty old photo of me. Actually, it's getting really old. I suppose I should put up a more current one.

Thanks for stopping by.


junkseller profile image

junkseller 4 years ago from Michigan Author

@John Sarkis

Thanks for reading. Couldn't agree more about the walking in other's shoes. I'm glad for the experiences I've had.


Michelle Taylor profile image

Michelle Taylor 4 years ago from New Jersey

You certainly have a way with words. This is beautifully written with great emotion. I don't think anyone that isn't in it can really understand what it is like to live in poverty. Voted up and shared.


RunAbstract profile image

RunAbstract 4 years ago from USA

I love the point blankness of this Hub! You nailed it!


Nathan Orf profile image

Nathan Orf 4 years ago from Virginia

Good hub. Many of my relatives live in poverty, or something very close to it, and I doubt most Conservatives even have a clue about how they live their lives or how much they work.

But I think you contradicted yourself on the last paragraph. You said "Poverty isn’t a social welfare state created by liberals to get votes." And then, after that, you say, "Social welfare isn't meant to lift people out of poverty. Its purpose is to allow the conditions of poverty to continue to exist." I thought that implied the opposite of what you actually meant.

Good hub, voted up.


Rebecca2904 profile image

Rebecca2904 4 years ago

Great Hub! I agree that, good as her intentions were, Ehrenreich was simply never in a position to understand what being poor meant. I'm not sure I agree with your statement about social welfare being the means to keep people poor though, but that might be because of differences between the UK and the US. Growing up we were very poor, and we often lived off of benefits, but that allowed us to get by whilst my mum found a job that she was good at and allowed her to make some money. I think social welfare is a very good thing and, if used properly and the people on it are willing to work hard, it is a means to allow you to live whilst you work out a way to be able to support yourself financially.


junkseller profile image

junkseller 4 years ago from Michigan Author

@Nathan Orf

I was frustrated when I wrote this. I still am. We are facing serious problems and are entire political system is failing to really do anything about it and instead seems to be essentially maintaining the status quo--as in keeping people dependent on social welfare rather than improving their situation in life so they no longer need it.


junkseller profile image

junkseller 4 years ago from Michigan Author

@Rebecca

I absolutely agree with you about social welfare. However, too often, we accept putting bandaids on cuts rather than trying to prevent the cut in the first place. Rather than having the necessary mental health and substance abuse counselors in the first place, we allow mental health and substance abuse to ravage people's lives, and then we help them. Rather than having clean cities, clean food, and clean products, we dump all kinds of toxins and poisons all over everything and then take care of people when they get sick. Rather than providing living wages, we have opened up the world to a competition to see which workers will accept unlivable wages, and then we provide them extra assistance. Etc. It just doesn't make sense to me. Don't get me wrong though. Until we actually make those structural changes, I will always support helping people in need. We shouldn't have so many people in need, though. It is a result of a severely broken system.

    Sign in or sign up and post using a HubPages Network account.

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No HTML is allowed in comments, but URLs will be hyperlinked. Comments are not for promoting your articles or other sites.


    Click to Rate This Article
    working