Since it’s long been fashionable among economic right-wingers (particularly if they’re in the top 20%
) to dehumanize and, in many cases, outright demonize
the poor, I thought I’d help shatter some of the self-serving myths to which this shameful trend has given rise by posting the following excerpt:
Perhaps the best way to define poverty is to listen to people who considered themselves poor. I attempted to do that in 1994 and 1995, working with a group of women from the Young Mothers Program in the South Bronx who agreed to help me with this book. Our first task was to define poverty.
We sat in a circle of folding chairs, and we were all proper people, serious about the work. Sometimes the women were tired, for we met at the end of the day and they had frequently endured the unrelieved stress of a confrontation session. Now and then children came into the room, and there was rarely a time when someone in the group did not have an appointment to keep elsewhere, for the poor, as they said, do not choose their lives. In that way, the conversations we held were extraordinary, for there was nothing mandatory about them.
Over time, the aspects of poverty, as described by the women, fell into categories: privation
, which produced different feelings in them.
Privation came first, told by H, a big woman, whose hair was dyed in a curious way, tiny blond braids on a cap of black. She had lost many teeth, so that her speech was both slurred and sibilant, and because her back was injured, she could not move with grace. Of all the women in the group, H wore the weariest clothes, the most ill-fitting clothes. In summer, her feet were tucked into ragged shoes, like bedroom slippers, but she gave the appearance of being barefoot.
“Poor is a little girl who worked in the fields all day,” she said, remembering Barbados, where she was born. Her words came in the form of a litany, loud at first, diminishing, and finally lost in tears.
“Poor is all day in the dirt.
“Poor is too tired to eat.
“Poor is walking barefoot on a tar road in the hot sun.
“Poor is a house with no electricity.
“Poor is no water in the house.
“Poor is going outside to use the toilet.
“Poor is not having a mother to take care of you.
“Poor is being carried around in a fish basket when you’re a baby.
“Poor is a little girl making rice for her grandma, that little, hard rice we have in Barbados, cooking the rice, but not cooking it right. Grandma says the rice is good, but you know it’s hard. I didn’t put enough water in the pot. The rice was hard.”
Sobbing took her breath, and H could not speak any more. The little woman who sat beside her, dark and thin, wizened before she was thirty, rubbed her back and soothed her, cooed to her. It was a long time before anyone else spoke.
From the other side of the room, M, a fat-faced, puffy, pallid woman of forty who had lost all her five children to the Child Welfare Agency, spoke. She poured out the words, running the sentences together in a low, thick-ended voice made coarser by the hard vowels and perverse final consonants of Puerto Rican Spanish violated by the New York streets. “I was so poor when I was growing up that all my teeth rotted by the time I was five years old, because I never had a toothbrush. My ass got all red and bleeding, because I didn’t have no toilet paper to wipe myself. At night, in bed, I couldn’t lay still, I couldn’t sleep, because I had nothing to eat for five days. I used drugs, I sold myself, I did anything just to stay alive.”
She, too, silenced the room. Like H, she brought tears to the other women’s eyes, but no one touched M, no one soothed her. She sat alone, she made a distance between herself and the rest.
Other women spoke of hunger and crowding, but hunger was the common thread. It sorrowed them, it debilitated them, it left them weeping. Hunger meant tragedy, a fate that could not be overcome no matter how they tried; hunger meant that nothing more could be found, it implied an end to dreaming. They resigned themselves to hunger, in the way that the dying no longer feel their pain.
They reserved their anger for the other poverty: They raged against oppression, which they associated with the game. “It makes me feel low-class,” one woman said, as if to describe the rules of the game, “not upper-class, not middle-class, low-class; I can’t have self-esteem when I’m low-class.”
“Poor is homelessness,” P said. She looked around the room, as if to gather the agreement of the others, who set their jaws and looked ahead and nodded, for most had known the streets and the shelters; they could recall a night, a week, a season in the park. Nothing spoke so clearly of the relative world as homelessness; the word itself existed only to remark the existence of something better.
When the silence had made its point, she closed out the others for a moment, and spoke directly to me. She began in anger: “I got a nine-month-old baby, a nine-month-old daughter and a twelve-year-old son. I’m f*kin homeless, living in a shelter. All of these things. It’s pressure and it’s stressful. It’s stressful. I’m actually using you, Earl, I’m actually using you to vent, because you know I don’t get a chance to say, ‘I’m sick of being poor. I’m sick of being a single parent, I’m sick of being an addict.’ So, I’m using you, Earl. Help me get my daughter into day care which is safe, get me back to school. I don’t want to be on welfare. Can you tell them that I don’t want to be on welfare? My life’s goal is not to be a welfare bum bitch all my life.”
A soldier’s anger came into the room, and remained, for relative poverty isolates the rich from the poor, the poor from each other. In the game, everyone plays against everyone else. There was no more touching.
They turned to education; everyone agreed that lack of education was a form of poverty, but it produced no discussion, no passion, for education of the kind the winners know was too far away, which made it cool and beautiful but unreachable.
No matter who tried to define poverty, the welfare department turned up as an aspect of being poor.
“Food and shelter,” A said, “became I have a education. I finished high school. I know how to read and I know how to write. I can get a job, but if don’t have food and shelter, even if I have a education, I’m not gonna have what I need. I define poor as being on welfare, because without welfare my rent wouldn’t be paid. If I wasn’t getting no welfare or anything like that, I wouldn’t have no shelter and those food stamps wouldn’t be comin to me and I wouldn’t be able to eat. That is poor, not knowin where your next meal is gonna come from, havin to depend on society or welfare. For me that’s poor.”
C carried the discussion of the welfare system on to the issue of what wounded most deeply. She spoke, as always, in a blunt, irrefutable way, using words as if they were bludgeons made of mixed languages and Brooklyn streets. She was the one who found the heart of things, the bitter one, the one who had been to prison, who had touched the bottom the others feared. They studied her, as if to see how long she could avoid destruction.
“Right now, I’m living in a place that ain’t mine,” she said. “Even though I get welfare, it’s not enough. What if they cut you off?”
The rest of the day followed her. The others could not let go of the idea of the absurd in their lives: almost everything intended for them was used against them. “What if they cut you off? What if the computer makes a mistake?”
No woman could escape the question of the differential, the relativity described with such eloquence by the counter and the desk in the welfare office.
M said, “They act like they’re givin us their paychecks. They look down at you. It’s like my worker, she says, ‘Well, who knows what you’ve been doin with that money?’ So I says, ‘Let me tell you somethin, sweetheart, I worked, I pay taxes just like you’re doin right now. You’re no better than me. And it don’t give you the right to talk to me any way you can. I can change workers. I can report you. And if that person doesn’t want to do right, I’ll report that person.’”
Her voice had risen to a shout by the end, color had come into her pallid cheeks. And then she fell from anger to defeat: “In reality, they treat you like you’re a piece of shit,” she said, “like you’re just a roach, a cockroach. You don’t mean shit. They don’t care about you.”
C rescued her: “For me, I give an example. I’m on my own case budget, that’s what it’s called. I had my own apartment. They were only give me two fifteen. Where in the hell would I find a apartment for two fifteen unless it’s tore up? It would have to be all broken down. I feel that’s unfair, even though the welfare is always doin it. By starting us off and paying two fifteen a month, that’ll bring down our self-esteem even more. I have to move all the way, way into the ghetto, maybe where it starts.” Everyone laughed, even M.
P leaned into the conversation again. Although she was not as large as some of the other women, she gave the impression of weight, like a Henry Moore statue, smooth and dense, the immovable occupier of a certain place in the world. She said, “I know it’s big business who’s on his [the case worker’s] back, saying we’re tired of picking up the slack, we’re tired of paying for women laying down having baby after baby for the same old chump. Goin down to these welfare systems and sayin, ‘No, I don’t know who my baby’s father is. No, I don’t know this. No, I don’t know that.’ Because the welfare system is set up like that. You can’t go in there and say, ‘Yeah, John Brown. I got four kids with John Brown, and me and him is layin up in this Section Eight apartment.’ It don’t work like that. John Brown has to disappear from the scene, like four years ago. You ain’t never seen the niggah, nothing but it ain’t bullshit. I need your help, this is how desperate I am. We all know and understand that all that shit is lies. It’s lies, but this is what you’re forced to do. That’s what I mean when I said it’s degrading. It does not promote a sense of family. I can’t go down to a social worker and say, ‘My man did not graduate from high school, therefore doesn’t have what it takes to get certain job skills, therefore does not have a job. I love him. He’s the father of my children. I would like to keep our family together. Can you please help us?’ Look, you can’t go in there with that. That nigger got to be twenty miles north of West Motherf*ckland and nobody can’t find him. And you have to be totally desperate as to be deprived and degraded.”
A said, “I think that poorness have to do with the generations. It start from whoever was way back.”
“I say poor is the spirit,” D said. “If you feel poor in the spirit you ain’t gon do nothin.”
The list grew during the conversations: The compassionate union of H’s description of desperate poverty never returned; absurdity stayed in the air, always the enemy, attacked by C and others, too. P changed the understanding of absurdity and the thrust of the conversation from then on, when she said, “People don’t just wake up with this idea: Oh, I wanna be poor or I wanna get food stamps or I wanna live in the ghetto. Nobody grows up with this idea that you just wanna stay at this one level. You know, there are certain things that happen that set up the dynamics so you stay right there, in the ghetto.”