We have learned not to try too hard to be middle class. It never works out well and always makes you feel worse for having tried and failed yet again. Better not to try.
Poverty is when a quarter is a fucking miracle. Poor is when a dollar is a miracle. Broke is when five bucks is a miracle. Working class is being broke, but doing so in a place that might not be run-down. Middle class is being able to own some toys and to live in a nice place—and by “nice,” I don’t mean fancy; I mean that you can afford to buy your own furniture and
not lease it and that while you still worry about bills, you aren’t constantly worried about homelessness. And rich is anything above that.
I think that most liberal Americans don’t have too hard a time believing that it’s difficult to make ends meet when you’re making minimum wage. But I also think that people in both parties get hung up on the minimum wage as some kind of miracle line of demarcation—as if making more than the minimum puts you on easy street.
It’s not like we don’t wish for more, but really, what’s the better option? School is an investment that doesn’t make sense for people who aren’t the academic sort. You have to pay cash money for it, you can’t hold down as many hours at work, it’s harder to find work because your schedule’s inflexible, and dear God the cost of textbooks is enough to kill you. Hell, I am the academic sort, and for many years school wasn’t a good investment for me. It left me in debt with nothing to show for it.
The dark truth of many fulfilling, creative jobs and industries is that you are expected to accept very little pay at the start, just for the privilege of learning the ropes and working your way up. And that’s fine if you’ve got Mom and Dad helping you. But if not, you tend not to go into those fields. Which means that the people who do go into those fields are often pretty privileged; not many Congressional staffers come out of the lower class.
If you’ve got excess money and throw it away on booze and cigarettes, then that’s your business. But if you’re poor, then that’s a sin and a shame. Because if you’re poor, rich people assume you’re on welfare, or you’re getting food stamps or some other
social services. Once you take a penny from the government, a morality clause goes into effect, where you’re never allowed to have anything that you might actually enjoy. It’s the hair shirt of welfare.
What it comes down to, then, is the idea that the very same situations and behaviors are treated completely differently depending on how nice your stuff is. Kid gets into a fight at school? If he’s black and poor, he’s going to jail. If he’s rich and white, he’s going to military school. Was your daughter busted with drugs? If she’s poor, she’s getting charged. If she’s rich, she’ll go to a nice rehab facility for however long propriety demands. The only reason it looks like our kids misbehave more is that we can’t afford to cover up for them when they do.
It is impossible to be good with money when you don’t have any. Full stop. People tell me to save, not to buy luxuries like basic entertainment or communication or expensive food like hamburgers or pretty much any seafood according to Fox News (Dear The Daily Show: More of those segments, please), that those things are reserved for people better than me—read people with disposable income. And to the people who say that, I have only the wise words of Dick Cheney: Go fuck yourself.
Okay, so we’ve established this: Poverty isn’t pretty. We can’t afford to dress nicely. Our yards are a mess. We don’t really care about your political pet projects. But do you know what we really do care about? Each other. And I’m going to make a big leap here that I am very comfortable with: Poor people are, as a rule, a bit more generous. We understand what it might be like to have to beg even if we have never done it ourselves. In fact, there’s data to back me up. The latest research shows that people of low socioeconomic status are more likely to be altruistic than their higher-class counterparts. In 2011, the bottom 20 percent of earners gave a higher percentage of their wealth away than the top 20 percent. I’ll put it to you this way: If good citizenship consists of a well-ordered life, then we poor people make terrible citizens. But if it means being willing to help out your fellow human beings, I’d say we’re right out in front waving a flag and waiting for everyone else to get on the bandwagon.
Being rich is like being white, you guys. It’s not that sometimes your life doesn’t suck even if you’re white. It’s that you’re not allowed to complain about the two times being white is unhandy, because all of your alternatives are much unhandier. Your other options are any race or ethnicity but white, all of whom face normal human shitty existence and racism of the entrenched or overt variety.
It’s rare to hear directly from the poor. Usually their voices are filtered through journalists or activists. Linda Tirado's Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America is a much-needed exception. Find the full text here (if you don't have an ebook reader, transform into .pdf over here) and some essential quotes below.
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This blog (EN-DE) is about knowledge production within and without Academia. We review, we critique, we read, and we record and discuss what goes on behind the scenes of universities, publishing houses, the news media, and everything else that determines our everyday lives.