by Mary Pitt
The adage that people should not condemn others until they have walked a mile in their shoes was never more true than today.
It is one thing to read dry headlines outlining the plight of the American poor and the increase in their numbers. It is quite another to understand their plight without ever having lived in the conditions that they suffer today. We drive through their neighborhoods only when necessary and then, preferably, in daylight. We have developed the habit of not bothering to look at them and, Lord knows, most of them are not very pretty. We have developed the habit of thinking that they are not real human beings, preferring to refer to them, when such reference is necessary, by such terms as Those People, The Dregs of Society, or The Underclass, but we ignore them at our own peril.
It has often been suggested that legislators should be required to live for a while on the income with which people on welfare or minimum-wage jobs must survive and rear their families in order to develop an understanding of the problems of the poor. In fact, many years ago, one newly-elected Senator from Oregon, Richard Neuberger, conducted a similar experiment with his own family, surviving for a time on the food allowance which was at that time contributed by welfare, supplemented by the surplus foods program. He promptly became an advocate for improvements in the welfare program. Barbara Ehrenreich, the author of ANickeled and Dimed@, left her comfortable home and worked at any available menial job in order to experience the lifestyle of the poor. However, she had one advantage over those with whom she lived and worked. She could, at any time, give it up to go home and live in the comfort to which she was accustomed! The fact is that for the people who must live in that milieu, there is no alternative. Life is a continuous and deadly grind from which there is no escape. However, it is obvious that not all Americans bothered to read the book or, if they did, they simply did not get the message.
The problems of New Orleans in the wake of the hurricane a year ago should be sufficient evidence of the lack of understanding of the have-nots by the haves. During the Katrina crisis, it was often said that Those People should have evacuated when the warning was given. In fact, they could not. For families with one breadwinner and a net income of some $800 per month, owning an automobile is simply not a possibility. You might obtain an old clunker for monthly payments that you might be able to pay with great sacrifice, but you will find breakdowns to be a constant burden and it will wind up as Ayard art@, sitting in your drive, simply because you cannot afford the repairs, the insurance renewal, or the fees to renew the license. You are totally dependent on public transportation and, if you have none in your city, you will find yourself to be reliant upon the kindness of more fortunate neighbors. If you do not have families in safe areas with whom to stay, then there is simply no place to go, and staying at a hotel is not an option, particularly near the end of the month when you are scrimping in anticipation of the next puny paycheck, Social Security, or welfare check. In such an instance there is no option other than to hunker down and pray.
Come with me and take a tour of life in the shoes of the American poor. To start, we will assume that your income is derived from one forty-hour-a-week job, Social Security Disability, or simply welfare to support yourself and two children. Unless you have a relative with a home large enough to accommodate both their family and yours, you will have to find a home. Since you can=t afford to spend your entire monthly budget for rent, you will need to look in those sections of town which the comfortable avoid driving through after dark. Your initial payment will probably have to include not only your first month=s rent but also a security deposit which will make you very happy that you are also eligible for food stamps, as soon as you go through the demeaning process of sitting in the local welfare office for the greater part of a day, waiting to make your application. If you are unable to find a suitable house or apartment for your family on the open market, you may need to apply for subsidized housing, another wait to apply and an indefinite wait to be approved for a cramped space in a high-rise to join many others who will share the rabbit-hutch-like enclosures.
Stories are legend of the Welfare Queen who buys T-bone steaks at the grocery store with food stamps. The next time you actually see such a thing with your own eyes, look more closely and then scan your own basket in comparison with hers. In your basket you will see things that you purchase without thinking: paper towels, toilet paper, pet food, dishwashing or laundry soap, or the many inedible products which are necessary in maintaining a home. You will not see these things in the basket of the lady who has only food stamps. You also will not see diapers or baby lotion for the child which she carries, since none of these things may be purchased without cash. Again, check the calendar. If it is the end of the month, she may have enough food stamps left to give herself a treat, having a steak instead of the stultifying diet of hamburger, canned tuna fish, or macaroni and cheese, which is her usual fare. In addition, bear in mind that food stamps are also available for those who draw unemployment insurance temporarily but are normally employed at a good job, justifying the Cadillac into which the food is deposited.
Much the same thing is true of the health care of those on Medicaid. It is impossible to access medical care without the cash to make the Aco-payment@ that is necessary before seeing a physician or entering a clinic. If it is near the end of the month and the cash has run out, one must simply survive until the next check arrives, unless you become so ill that you must go to an emergency room at a much higher cost to moaning taxpayers. And, don=t forget, if you should be hospitalized for an extended length of time, your children will likely be left with no adult care or supervision, placing their well-being at risk. The same problems apply when one needs medications, whether a new prescription or a refill. Some dieases can easily cause your death from a few days without medication.
The children suffer most under the current system. Due to television commercials as well as the perceived prejudices absorbed from the parents, class consciousness begins at an early age and children can be brutal in their condemnation of those whose parents cannot buy the toys, knickknacks and doodads that they see advertised daily.. The children from wealthy families attend private-pay pre-schools where they are culled for acceptability based on ability to pay while the poor are relegated to such programs as Head Start. First-graders of the middle-class and wealthy go to school in designer jeans and dresses while the poor have clothing purchased from Salvation Army or St Vincent De Paul thrift shops. The poor are thus pushed into what is determined to be Their Own Place with Their Own Kind. Class discrimination is also practiced by the educators as teenagers from comfortable homes will be studying college prep courses while the poor are relegated to vocational training programs on the assumption that they will have to earn their living as laborers. In short, the majority of the next generation are, before getting out of school, totally convinced that the word, poor, refers not to the level of income but to the quality of the person.
Forget the old adages about every man being created equal and No Child Left Behind. Children are left behind routinely by a compassion-less and uncaring society. The middle class and the wealthy are not at all concerned that the minimum wage is not a living wage, more children now go to bed hungry than at any time since the Great Depression, and people of all ages suffer needlessly because they cannot afford medical care or the needed medications. Many died in New Orleans, not because they were stupid or unworthy but because they were poor or old or infirm. But the wealthy are bathing in the luxury of their liberal tax cuts and the upper middle class are still living in their comfortable homes with multiple vehicles in their garages, secure in the belief that they deserve it and the poor are poor only because they are inferior beings.
One need not wonder that these children, having been excluded and weeded out from mainstream society through all their early years, become convinced of their own lack of self-worth, feeling that they must somehow deserve the misery under which they are condemned to live. They reach the logical conclusion that the only way they will get what they need is to steal it, or steal something that they can sell to pay for it.. If they get caught, they will unquestioningly march off to jail on the premise that it is what they deserve while the prank criminals and thrill-seekers are represented by attorneys and escape severe punishment. The level of defeatism and lack of hope among the long-term poor is shocking. For them there is no American dream, no brighter future in the offing, simply another day of deprivation and struggle to stay alive. One should not wonder that there is so much crime in America but that there is so little.
In the history of the world, the poor do not tolerate extreme neglect over long periods of time. France and Russia, as well as many Latin American nations have suffered revolutions as the result. We often hear references to the world of Dickens and perhaps Britain was spared a similar fate by the opportunity for many of the poor to emigrate to the New World where they could pursue their own goals and create a nation based on individual rights and human dignity. Such is no longer the case and the problems must be worked out by ourselves and our children. This rampant class distinction is a looming disaster and sitting smugly by while it develops is the height of folly. We respond reflexively to cries of Smaller Government and Cutting Spending but the problem will not be solved by Eliminating Entitlements while cutting funding for student loans, low income housing, or Medicare. If we remove the assistance which enables poor children to gain an education and become self-sufficient, we only increase the misery among a greater number of people and, eventually, the likelihood of the uprising that is certain to result.
With full-time workers earning less, adjusted for inflation, than at any time since 1973, health care costs going up three times as fast as wages, with insurance companies writing our national policies on health care while health care prices are growing exponentially, it would be wise to pay attention to this growing crisis within our own nation rather than continuing to re-establish a feudal society in the Land of the Free. The people in Washington, DC, who make the decisions for us all, are totally oblivious of the hardships which are borne by the working poor, instead having developed the attitude of Marie Antoinette that, having no bread, the poor should just Aeat cake@. In the long run, the results may be the same.
While our President and Congress are busily lessening the flow of funds into the Treasury by cutting the taxes required of the super-wealthy and spending billions on a War of Choice while boasting of a great economy, the rich and the upper-middle-class should be aware of the problems in their midst. Poverty is rapidly becoming a cancer on the nation with the potential to destroy not only our lifestyle but, possibly, even our persons if it is not treated promptly and properly. It COULD happen here. One recalls the time, just before the stock market crash in 1928 when only the poor were doing the suffering and World War I veterans marched on Washington to demand their pensions which President Hoover had ended in order to help The Economy. The President sent out the army to put an end to the demonstration and some veterans were killed as the result. It was only later that the stock market fell and the wealthy felt the problem, but the presidency of Herbert Hoover effectively ended when the first shot rang out and the first veteran fell.
We must acknowledge the humanity of the poor and the inhumanity that they are suffering while the rich live The Good Life. History has proven that it is not foreign enemies who can bring down a nation but the dissatisfaction of its citizenry. We are in danger, not from without but from within.