Why do we hate the poor?

The Thinker by Rodin

Have you ever been poor? I’m not sure where the dividing line is between poor and not poor, but if you are poor you will know it. By that standard I have been poor. One thing I learned during those years is that being poor totally sucked. Anyone who has ever been poor has every incentive in the world to get out of the state and will if they possibly can.

So many of us though resent the poor. We see them as moochers leaching off the rest of us. I’m trying to figure out why this is. At one level it’s easy to say it’s a classist thing. We hang out with people we feel comfortable with and these are generally in our socioeconomic group. Unless you have had the experience of being poor, it’s hard to empathize with those who are poor. It’s easy to think, “How hard can it be? Just apply yourself! You can work your way into the middle and upper classes. Get off your lazy asses!”

Lots of people manage it somehow; it’s the American dream after all. But lots of people don’t or simply can’t. And some people who used to live that dream have had it taken away from them, at least for a while. Count among these autoworkers, garment workers, coal miners and those who find their skills become obsolete. When it happens to these people, it’s clearly not their fault; they were unfortunate. It’s pretty clear where many of today’s Uber drivers will be in ten years: not taxiing people around. Uber is quite interested in the automated car and that’s because it can pay for the software that will drive people around quite easily, probably for no more than a couple of hundred bucks a year per car. Those Uber drivers probably earn at least ten bucks an hour. Uber would like to keep rates the same but channel the cost of their labor into their bank accounts instead.

When I was poor (i.e. independently living but not quite scraping by, roughly 1978-1981) I found the experience depressing. I preferred sleep to being awake because dreams were not as dismal as my life was. I had graduated college with a bachelor’s degree but like in 2008 the economy at the time sucked and my degree was not particularly marketable. I earned just over minimum wage doing retail work. I had roommates and I lived in a cheap part of town. I could not afford my car, so I sold it for scrap and walked, biked or took the bus when I needed to go somewhere. I ate cheaply but never well. Retail employment proved ephemeral. My hours were cut to almost nothing and only moving to another department let me pay my bills. I had no dependents but I did have a student loan to pay. I couldn’t even afford a vacuum cleaner for my apartment. My low status and lack of wheels made me largely friendless and dateless.

I never went on food stamps, mainly because it never occurred to me to try. I probably would have qualified for food stamps, which were much more generous back then. I wasn’t unemployed so welfare was not an option, but like many enlisted people today what I was paid wasn’t enough to really live on, unless you meant a basic and fretful existence, never quite sure whether if ill fortune struck if you would be out on the street.

From my perspective being poor really sucked, but I’m really glad I’m not poor today. Today to get food stamps I’d likely have to pee into a cup and I might not get them at all having no dependents. There were more homeless shelters back then and some states (I was in Maryland at the time) were progressive enough to maybe help you get back on your feet. Maybe there was Section 8 housing that you didn’t have to wait ten years to get.

I also knew that if worse came to worst, my parents might loan me some money or let me stay with them for a while. As there were eight of us, the expectation was that we could handle life somehow. We did but we were blessed in many ways. We were raised in love, treated humanely and attended good schools. Our parents had our backs. We had a pretty good idea how the world worked, knew which pitfalls to avoid and our parents lived sober and sensible lives that were not hard for us to model. In essence life put us a few rungs up on the ladder. Some sizeable but unquantifiable portion of this came from the privilege of being born white.

Being white, racism was not something I ever experienced. We weren’t part of any minority group, except possibly from being Catholic, which was hardly unusual, just that there were more Protestants. My mother’s ancestry was Polish, so there was the occasional Polish joke directed our way, but it clearly made no sense as most of us got straight A’s.

Had I been born black and poor the likelihood that I would have ascended into the middle class would have been much less. As I was born into the middle class, one crushing part of being poor was knowing I was faking it. But at least I had a brain, understood most of the social cues, could read, write and do math and was both white and male. It was these skills that made my years being poor relatively brief.

Those years though were not wasted years. They gave me insights into life that wholly elude Donald Trump, most Republicans and conservatives and many who simply haven’t experienced it. Being poor is hard and incredibly stressful. You are never sure when the next shoe will drop but often you have to simply hope for the best. I am quite confident that as hard as it was for me, it is magnitudes harder for those who were born poor. I never had to worry about gangs or being shot in the street. Burglary virtually never happened where I lived and our schools were well funded with decently paid and engaging teachers. I had regular parental supervision, and two parents to turn to. A frequently absent single mom that worked three jobs and that shuffled me between many babysitters did not oversee me. I never went hungry or malnourished. My clothes were sometimes second hand but they were usable.

Being poor depressed me but for the chronically poor the symptoms look a lot like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Worse, the PTSD occurs at the worst time in life: when you are a child, and can last decades or a lifetime. It sets in motion patterns of behavior that become instinctive but become nearly impossible to change, driving many mental, physical and emotional issues that tend to carry through adult life.

When you are poor you really want people with the empathy to cut you some slack. But these days that’s largely not an option. Rather, those with the power will turn the screws even more. They will reduce your food stamps. They will introduce ever more burdensome obstacles simply to summon the very basics to survive. Today’s safety net has many holes in it. Whether the net will catch you at all or let you slip through it depends on many factors, but it’s problematic at best. No wonder it’s increasingly difficult for the poor to ascend another rung or two in life. The mines are laid everywhere. You will take some hits; it’s guaranteed. You simply hope for the best but there is too much road kill around you to have unrealistic expectations that you are all that special.

As miserable as it is to be poor, it’s much worse to be homeless. It’s a combination of pain, poverty, hunger, despair and feelings of unworthiness and shame that feels equivalent to being in hell. I can’t say this from personal experience, but it’s easy enough to infer. I can see the searing pain etched on the faces of the homeless I see in the streets everyday.

Why do we hate the poor? The answer doesn’t matter. What does matter is understanding that being poor is difficult at best and traumatic and potentially life threatening at worst, and it should require society to act compassionately. It is to be avoided at all costs if possible, but as there are no guarantees in life it’s always a possibility that it can happen, even to you. It’s unrealistic to expect people to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, particularly if you don’t have any boots. If you have been poor, you will feel nothing but compassion for those who are poor. If you have not, count your blessings. Only good fortune is keeping you from finding out.

Yes America, we have a race and class problem

The Thinker by Rodin

In case you missed it, Alvin Toffler died on June 27. The author, principally known for Future Shock (1970), warned us that our future was not going to be easy. The book was a warning that too much change happening too quickly would have predictable consequences. In 1970 change was everywhere. Bellbottoms have since disappeared but we’ve been racing toward the future since then, with economic (industrial to service economies), gender, sexual, class and racial changes occurring far more quickly than most of us can handle them. Future shock is still a thing but with his death at least Toffler doesn’t have to deal with it anymore.

Currently it’s manifested in our racial strife. The fatalities keep rolling in. It’s getting so that when I wake up and read the news I expect to feel a wave of nausea. Not even two days apart there were egregious murders of black men by police officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and St. Paul, Minnesota, at least partially recorded on smartphone cameras. It used to be that white people like me could sort of excuse these events as the act of a rogue cop or two, but that’s not the case anymore. Last night of course in Dallas, Texas following a protest on police shootings of blacks more than one sniper killed five police officers and wounded seven other officers, plus two civilians. At least one of the shooters was killed by “bomb robot”, something that sounds like it is from a Terminator movie but is apparently quite real.

Toffler would not be surprised by this reaction. It was neither a right nor a just thing to do, but it was entirely predictable as tone-deaf police departments and officers continue to disproportionately kill blacks in altercations that are at best minor. I mean, killing someone for having a taillight out? There’s little doubt in my mind that if I had been driving that car I would likely have gotten a friendly warning and I would have been on my way. But then my skin is white and that gives me privileges obviously not afforded to many blacks by police.

I once wrote optimistically about our post-racial society. As I look back on it, clearly I was widely off the mark. It’s truer to some extent for the latest generations that are at least growing up in a multicultural world. Post racial for them is the new normal. But it’s not quite as normal as we think. Americans are in general strictly self-segregating along racial and class lines. Having spent more than thirty years in the Washington D.C. area, its multiculturalism became the norm, which was surprising given that I grew up in an area almost exclusively white. Moving to a more white area in retirement seemed quite odd.

You have to wonder how this happened. I don’t think most police officers are overtly biased against blacks. Police officers though work in the real world. Crime tends to occur more often in poorer neighborhoods, which are usually minority and typically black. If I had to struggle to survive like a lot of these people I’d be more likely to commit crimes as well. It must not be hard for a police officer that constantly finds trouble in these parts of town to develop an unconscious bias against the poor and blacks. Their job is to keep society safe so naturally they are going to focus on those areas they perceive as less safe. When you have your wealth and status, there is little reason to cause trouble.

Policing though is a tough job. You deal with life’s nastiness everyday. It’s not for everyone. I suspect if I had been a police officer I too would eventually behave a lot like these rogue officers, simply because of the constant pressure of it all. Despite their training my bet is a lot of these officers are victims of PTSD simply from being officers. It comes with the territory. Clearly we should recruit officers that can keep an even keel, but in reality police officers come from a pool of people with aggressive and authoritarian tendencies. In addition, we don’t pay them nearly enough to deal with the stress they endure everyday.

And speaking of stress, when you are poor, black or really any minority in this country, your life is unlikely to be a bed of roses. You spend much of your life being ethnically profiled. Add to this the likelihood that you will be poorer and live a more challenging life. Unlike me you are unlikely to inherit tens of thousands of dollars when your father passes away. You will struggle for respect, for equal pay and simply to keep the floor under you.

The results are not too surprising. Police officers, many carrying around an unconscious or overt bias against people of color, hired for being aggressive and authoritarian, but also understanding that their place within society in on the lower part of the bell curve will tend to act out their anxieties. And since they literally have the power of life and death, it’s pretty hard to keep your feelings in check when you figure that black guy probably doesn’t like you and has a gun, and you want to make it home to dinner. Meanwhile the black guy, being an otherwise normal human, is sick to death of being pulled over and acting subservient to police officers and white people in general. It all feeds on itself.

But feeding it all are those on top: the politicians and basically those with money, projecting their class and racial biases on those who enforce the law, and tacitly looking the other way so often when incidents like these occur. It’s a rare cop whose behavior will be judged criminal when they happen.

How do we stop this? In reality it is a very complex and multidimensional issue. Getting cops some cultural sensitivity training and making them wear body cameras isn’t enough. A real solution requires a lot of lowering of shields, community discussion and transgressing not just our racial prejudices but our class prejudices as well.

Certainly those we are hiring as cops aren’t getting the right training for a 21st century America. We are in general picking the wrong people for these jobs and not paying them commensurate with their difficult jobs, much like teachers. The overarching issue is really our staggering level of income inequality, if not the downright cruelty of society in general. Recently the Arizona legislature decided it hadn’t made the poor miserable enough yet. Now it’s limiting TANF benefits to the poor from two years total to one year, as if people are only allowed to be poor once. Otherwise, let ‘em eat cake, which in their case may be Twinkies. There is no compassion here, simply on overwhelming disgust from those in power toward those that have none.

In short, it’s going to take a lot of time but mostly it’s going to take a lot of white people like me to stand up and say “Enough!” This is because apparently we’re the only ones the power brokers listen to. Besides posting essays like this, I’m pondering the best way that a white male like me can move the needle on this issue. Suggestions are welcome.