Thou Shalt Not Be Poor

I watched the film “The Big Short” hoping to understand what it means to “short a stock.” I learned this — and received an education about the global economic collapse of 2008 which, being privileged, I had largely missed. The film’s narrator delivers a fairytale ending in the epilog: banks are held accountable and wealthy bankers sent to jail. Just kidding! That moment of cognitive dissonance is soon set aright.  This movie was based on true events after all. The banks were bailed out by the taxpayers, no one except this one guy no one heard of went to jail, and the crisis was blamed on the poor, immigrants, and minorities. Is this how you remember it too? Do you also remember that the recession is over? It’s as if all those people who lost their homes, who lost their jobs, have become invisible.

I discovered  Sasha Abramsky’s The Way of American Poverty: How the other half still lives (SLC Public Library | Find a Library | Amazon) while researching the racial wealth gap as part of my volunteer work with the YWCA. The title conjured the black and white images by Dorothea Lange and Steinbeck’s characters in The Grapes of Wrath. I thought about my upbringing. I wrestled with my culturally ingrained fear of poverty. I heard the howling wolves. I breathed in a little terror and decided to read the book anyway.

Part one shares vignettes from the lives of Americans already in deep poverty who have been with us for generations and the newly poor who enjoyed the comforts of American affluence in this generation and then lost it. Not since the Great Depression have so many been suddenly ejected from society. Regardless of their point of entry, whether deeply or newly impoverished, the effects on individuals are the same: shame, loneliness and exile from our pay to participate culture. They are invisible. We don’t see them because we can’t face them. Out of fear for those howling wolves I mentioned earlier. We shudder, toss salt over our shoulders, then incant: there but for the grace of God go I.

Part two details the steady dismantling of our half-assedly implemented safety nets for the poor. Abramsky proposes possible policy changes and discussions that would have to take place for our society to make progress on this issue. If we but had the political will, that is. To substantively help the poor would be to admit that there are circumstances that require a little more than hard work, boot-strappedness, and smarts. It requires a stable community, education, opportunity, compassion, a decent diet and a whole lot of luck. Oh, and a dash of vanilla doesn’t hurt. Our current social safety net isn’t crafted to lift the poor out of poverty. No, it’s made to entangle them and justify our blame when they fail to swim. The American Way of Poverty examines our commitment to poverty as a feature of our culture. So long as there is someone poorer then you, you can keep those wolves at bay.

Americans conflate wealth with goodness and intelligence. Anything less is a failure of personal character. Yet most of us are poor— wealth inequality in America is ungodly.  How have we allowed this injustice come to pass?   Kurt Vonnegut captures it perfectly in his 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five (SLC Public Library | Find a Library | Amazon)

America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves. To quote the American humorist Kin Hubbard, ‘It ain’t no disgrace to be poor, but it might as well be.’ It is in fact a crime for an American to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor. Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power and gold. No such tales are told by the American poor. They mock themselves and glorify their betters. The meanest eating or drinking establishment, owned by a man who is himself poor, is very likely to have a sign on its wall asking this cruel question: ‘if you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?’ There will also be an American flag no larger than a child’s hand – glued to a lollipop stick and flying from the cash register.

Americans, like human beings everywhere, believe many things that are obviously untrue. Their most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and, therefore, those who have no money blame and blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since, say Napoleonic times. Many novelties have come from America. The most startling of these, a thing without precedent, is a mass of undignified poor. They do not love one another because they do not love themselves.

I know, such an obvious quote, right? So what. Its obviousness makes it all the more poignant. To be poor in America is to commit the greatest cultural sin of all: failure to realize the American Dream. Ours isn’t a “War on Poverty” its a war on the impoverished—lest we become one ourselves. It’s almost as if we think people are poor because they deserve it.

Do you hear the howling?