Thursday, October 13, 2011

Being poor in America

"If the goal is to eliminate poverty it seems like the current economy is quite good, in the United States the bottom 5% in terms of 'wealth' have a standard of living that is better than 60% of the rest of the world. In the United States 65% of those that are classified as poor have amenities like cell phones, about 2/3 have DVD players, 90% own a microwave oven, and so forth. A dynamic capitalist economy creates a system that essentially eliminates poverty as known by the rest of the world.”

So the argument goes, in a comment in Richard Aleman's Distributist Review post, "In the Beginning". And yeah, it's pretty easy to find a picture of a homeless lady with a shopping cart full of trash and post it as representative of poverty in America, when most of the bottom 5% aren't in homeless shelters or sleeping under bridges.

But that doesn't mean they're eating strawberries and cream, either. I know; I've been there, and but for the grace of God and generous friends and family I'd be there right now.

A cell phone is no longer an "amenity". Like the car before it, the cell phone has become a survival tool. If you never take a picture or text a friend or download an .mp3 with it, you still need it to be employed, just as you need "reliable transportation" (which in most states east of the I-95 corridor means a personal vehicle). The main difference between the cell phone and the car is that the cell phone won't cause a major financial crisis if it quits working.

While a PC and a microwave aren't strictly speaking necessary, you can be severely hobbled if you don't have them. While you can use a PC at the library, it's not convenient: you're a hostage to the library's hours of business. And having a PC at home expands your employment potential, because you may — and probably will — be asked to do things from home for your job. As for the microwave: if you're a single mother working two jobs (or one job with massive overtime), you don't have a lot of time available to cook from scratch, and fast food ain't cheap anymore.

Yes, I spent a good portion of my adult life throwing frozen dinners into the microwave — or, more often, the oven. That's when I had money for frozen dinners, and didn't have to content myself with a pantry full of Ramen noodles, Kraft Mac n' Cheese (mixed with Star-Kist tuna for protein) and rice. I also ate a lot of spaghetti, Hamburger Helper and PBJs. That's because I'm not a single mother, and never qualified for WIC or food stamps; although I made barely more than minimum wage, I made too much to qualify for rent assistance or any other social programs.

That meant months without a telephone. No cable; I didn't have a TV to begin with, anyway. That meant scrambling in December to buy el cheapo Christmas gifts when I could afford them because it took me until November to pay down the summer's electric bill ... when I had air conditioning.

Being poor means pounding half your paycheck down a rathole labeled "rent". It's money down a rathole because you'll never own that apartment no matter how long you live in it.

Being poor means letting the rest of your car fall apart while you struggle to maintain the drive train, hoping that your tranny won't drop out on you on your way to work and take out your next paycheck. It means that, nine times out of ten, if you can't fix it (whatever "it" is), the sumbitch ain't getting fixed.

Being poor means that the jalopy you're driving is uninsured because you traded off a payment for another bill, and because the Paternal Government that requires you be insured has no assistance program to help you remain insured (which you probably wouldn't qualify for anyway because you make too much money).

Being poor means calculating very closely just how much — or even whether — you can contribute to a 401(k) without hurting yourself someplace else.

Being poor means selling your plasma to eke out your check, or trading in that DVD player for a loan to cover a last-minute bill. In my case, it meant selling the only decent six-string I ever owned, a blondwood Fender American Standard Stratocaster, to pay my rent. (Tolkien: "He who can not sell a precious thing at need is in fetters." I don't regret the decision, no matter how much I miss the guitar.)

Being poor in America means living in neighborhoods where your eyes are constantly checking out each alley and dark corner as you walk down the sidewalk hunched in preparation for fight or flight, where you're awakened in the middle of the night by gunshots or your upstairs neighbors' domestic quarrels, where the cops stake out an apartment in your building as a suspected dope ring center.

Being poor in America means working 60-hour weeks to have the most basic things the children of privilege take for granted, struggling just to keep your head above water, knowing that a serious-enough illness will drag you down. And the odds are that that's the way you'll live for the rest of what will be a shorter-than-average life.

In sum, don't tell me how good poor people in America have it, as if it justifies CEOs earning over three hundred times the average workers' salary and the top 10% owning 83% of the total American financial assets. Yes, many of the bottom 5% should be grateful they have working toilets and that their children aren't suffering from beri-beri or scurvy.

But they don't have capitalism to thank for that. For that, they have an inefficient and bloated federal bureaucracy to thank for correcting a little — very little — of capitalism's inequity.