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American Poverty - Working for Nothing
Aug 08, 2011
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.