The following is a post that I wrote back in March 2014 but decided not to post it until now. My reasons for writing but withholding publication were, as they often are, numerous, but one of the biggest ones was the issue of privacy. It is often, but not always, easier to talk publicly about something not connected to you on a personal level than to discuss that which hits close to home. It is even harder to be specific, to cite your own personal experiences, especially if the topic at hand is a negative one. Yet poverty is part of daily life in the United States. It affects all kinds of people and occurs in people’s lives at different times and for different reasons. Poverty is both a system and a way of life. It is the result of social behavior, legislative behavior, economic decisions such as hiring and firing decisions and wages, government policies and legislation, and cultural ideas about what poverty “is,” who is “poor,” and whether or not poverty is a “good” or “bad” thing. What follows is my own reflection on contemporary presentations and depictions of poverty within various media and the contrast with the poverty I know the most, that of my own mother.
There is a documentary on HBO that examines the life of a woman living at what historians would abstractly call “the margins of society.” Paycheck to Paycheck: The Life and Times of Katrina Gilbert offers the viewer a glimpse into what a young mother of three working a $9.49/hour job at a nursing home facility in Tennessee does to keep a roof over her head, put food on the table, and make sure her children see their father, a man who she left because of his own drug addiction.
According to its website, one of the aim’s of the documentary and it’s accompanying report by Maria Shriver is to “assess the impact on the nation’s institutions and economic future.”
For all this, what appears to have caught some people’s attention are the ways in which Gilbert handles her life and how they do not necessarily match with current conceptions of “poverty”.
Exception to the Rule
One of the issues raised is that Katrina, for all her hard work and generally upbeat demeanor during the course of the documentary, is somehow exceptional.
Writing for Slate, L.V. Anderson dubbed Katrina Gilbert “the most sympathetic poor woman in America“, a sentiment echoed in the actual URL for the article, which includes the text “Maria Shriver finds the poster child for poverty.” Anderson goes on to say that she is not criticizing Gilbert, just that those “less extraordinary and less overtly likable than Gilbert need help, too.” She cites Andrea Elliot’s NY Times article “Invisible Child” as an example of those living in poverty who are less than likable and less extraordinary, and concludes that nothing has been done for the other women living in poverty in the US.
While this closing point is a good one to make, the article’s title, URL text, and Anderson’s musing on a person’s “likability” as a criteria for distinguishing between those living in poverty betray a deep confusion about the very notion of poverty itself. In effect, the language Anderson used seems to indicate that those who are in poverty but sympathetic are somehow different than those who are in poverty but are not.
This idea that someone who is” doing all the right things but not getting by” is an exception to the general rule of those living in or near poverty is both maddening and incredibly damaging. For starters, it continues to define what poverty in an incredibly narrow way — one that privileges a person’s ability as it relates to the ability to purchase tangible goods and services at a bare-minimum level. This is not all that far from the US Census Bureau, which used an individual or family’s ability to purchase food as a major marker of poverty status. For the record, the Census Bureau’s measurement does not take into account the fact that a family may be above the poverty level and still face serious financial hardships.
Defining poverty in one’s ability to purchase food also makes it difficult to deal with the larger issues, namely the fact that those living in close proximity to the poverty line deal frequently with a lack of steady resources. This is something missing from the more narrow definition of poverty as I expressed above. A family farther away from the poverty line can deal with changes to their resource systems within reason; say like putting $1,000 worth of auto repairs onto a credit card and paying the balance over time. It might not be fun to pay something at 16.9% interest but such payments do not jeopardize other key pieces of a person’s life, like the ability to make enough money to pay off the bill without having to skimp out on heat, hot water, or buy a new jacket for themselves or their dependent.
But those living close to the poverty line experience each disruption in their resource systems as a major shock. Every disruption is like getting a $1,000 car bill over and over again, with no time to even pay it back. It doesn’t matter how much one works or how “exceptional” one is. A 40 hour job at $9.49/hour will not magically improve one’s ability to strengthen their resource systems. If anything, working so long and so hard and still not having a sense of security will do precious little to fix the issue.
The more unstable one’s basic resource systems are, the more unstable as a whole one’s life becomes. Unstable not only in terms of financial need, but also in terms of emotional need and behavior, which can further disrupt financial channels.
“Good Poor” vs “Bad Poor”
At the same time, defining poverty solely as the relationship between’s one’s ability to purchase items and one’s monetary wealth doesn’t take into account societal conceptions and ideas. In particular, it does not address the ideas of “good poors” and “bad poors” that pervade our language and color our own understanding of poverty. The “good poor” are those in poverty not because it’s their fault but but because life dealt them a series of blows. Gilbert was married and had three children; she did not expect her husband would become an addict or that it would wreck their lives. The language in Anderson’s article do a good job at signaling that Gilbert is in this “good poor” category, a view that Anderson suspects Shriver has as well.
The “bad poors” are the ones who are consciously and continuously making bad decisions. This would be Dasani’s family as portrayed in Elliot’s article. They are poor and living in a shelter in part because Chanel and Supreme can’t kick their drug addictions or hold down jobs. They live off of government assistance and their children are trying to grow up and come to terms with the wider world around them. For them, their poverty is the result of what is often referred to as “lifestyle choices.” If they could just get clean, the reasoning goes, they could hold down a job.
What neither category takes into account are all of the ways in which poverty and society at large keeps both families down. It fails to recognize that for all the work “good poors” do, they will never be able to distance themselves from poverty and secure their resource systems by themselves. It fails to recognize the relationship between social ills such as drug abuse and poverty. It places the full weight of blame onto an idea that everyone can always make the better choice , but some just decide not to.
Moreover, the argument for “good” vs “bad” poor is circular, treading on the idea that one’s actions reflect character. A good poor person works hard, like Katerina Gilbert. Thus, she is deserving of our sympathies. A bad one doesn’t, and has a host of other issues to boot. We may pity their children, but we won’t think highly of them.
A similar toxic argument played out in the failure to extend benefits to the long-term unemployed. The logic was the same as the underlying principles of “good poors” vs “bad poors.” The supporters of canceling the benefits extension reasoned that those who wanted to find work would, if they realized that it was up to them. Those just looking to skim the system would see their free meal go away, which would teach them a lesson.
Never mind that anyone with more than 6 months of unemployment faces a substantially harder time at getting hired than someone else.
When Poverty is Personal
The poverty level for a family of two, with one over the age of 65, is $13,609.
My mother is currently receiving $145/month in food stamps so that she and my 90 year old grandfather who she takes care of full-time, can make ends meet. She recently applied for Tennessee’s Medicare (TENNCARE) but was rejected because in terms of household assets and my grandfather’s social security payments, they were deemed to have “too much money.” There is no other family assistance, as one sister is unemployed (since who wants to hire a middle aged woman anyway) and the other is a nun. It’s worth noting that my aunt, the nun, is the only one who willingly chose to take a vow of poverty.
Again, the poverty level for a family of two, with one over the age of 65, is $13,609. She is currently just above that threshold.
My mother has also been denied additional payments for the round the clock nursing care she is providing to her father by the VA. She has three years’ worth of carefully itemized receipts for everything she’s purchased for his health and well-being, and has started on her collection for 2014. The second time her application was rejected, the VA said that she is the one who owes them money, not the other way around. They have since sent papers saying that a collection agency will step in if she does not payback the money they erroneously think she received. [Editor’s Note: She has since given up fighting the VA after another year of going nowhere.]
This is not the life my mother imagined for herself when she got married, went to college, and worked hard as a nurse. It was the stuff of her nightmares. Poverty was always lurking in the background while she was raising me and my brother, especially when I was a young adolescent and we all lived in a one bedroom apartment so as to stay in a good school district and be close to her work. It reared its head more often after she was unceremoniously fired at 5pm on a Friday afternoon from her job after 12 years due to “internal restructuring” just before I went to college. As she bounced from nursing job to nursing job, working just shy of “full time” at various places, often for 90 day periods only to be let go at the end so as to save her employer the “hassle” (re: benefits) of a full-time hire.
The last job she was working at before she started taking care of my grandparents–teaching and training women not unlike Katrina Gilbert to be medical assistants– purposely capped her hours at 34 per week. Full time was 35 hours a week.
Never mind the fact that she worked far beyond 34 hours a week with her office hours, grading, lab set up and clean up. Never mind that she was the only person qualified to teach Clinical 1 and 2, two classes becoming a medical assistant capable of performing first aid, administering injections, and monitoring vital signs. Never mind that she was the one her students practiced on in order to successfully complete their labs (she had so many needle marks on her arm from the practice sessions that she looked like the world’s most incompetent heroin user). Never mind the fact that she enlisted my brother (a biology major) as her Grading Assistant so she could get through her paperwork in time. Never mind that her direct boss gave her stellar reviews. Her employer simply didn’t want to hire her full time. Full time meant benefits and benefits would cost them “too much”.
So instead they wore her out. They knew that there were others out there who would, could (and did) fill her shoes. Others who had bills to pay, a family to support, and needed a job in a crappy economy, no matter the terms of the employment contract. By the time my aunt called and begged for my mother to help care for their parents, my mother was utterly fried. She was so sick of working in a toxic environment and busting her hump that she left everything and moved south.
That was five years ago this February.
Her sister promised to keep working so as to provide them all with income. They moved their grandparents (after much cajoling) to a senior living community with the hopes that it would allow my mother to get full time work.
But then my aunt got remarried, left her job and moved to a new state. Despite a lengthy job search, no one hired her. My grandparents couldn’t deal with the senior living committee, which didn’t provided physical medical care and became increasingly ill suited for an elderly couple dealing with crippling arthritis, dementia and heart failure. My mother spent all of her days there caring for them instead of getting a paying job herself. My mother and her sister agreed that my grandparents would be better off living with my mother. So they moved into her 2 room house in July 2013.
When my grandmother died in October 2013, my mother and my grandfather lost an important stream of revenue, namely my grandmother’s pension. She had the better jobs; as such, her pension was bigger. As a result, they lost about $1200/month when she died.
Since then, my mother’s experienced poverty like approximately 15% of the American population, though in Tennessee, approximately 33% of the state qualifies as poor, but that poverty is unevenly distributed across the state.
My mother’s gone on food stamps, became an official dependent of her 90 year old father (crazy, but that’s how this game goes), got a rent subsidy so the two of them could continue to live in a single level, 2 room house with a bathroom equipped for caring for a senior citizen instead of some section-8 apartment not at all appropriate for an old man with chronic health issues, gone to free dental clinics for the rural poor in West Tennessee, and, as of 2015 got subsidized health care (but not after having it revoked right after having a major surgery because she couldn’t adequately prove that she had no income). She’s learned to swallow her pride and ask for help from whomever is offering it, and deals with the fact that she will never ever be able to pay back those friends who help her out, like the time her car died and needed $1,000 worth of repairs.
But it is still hard. Sometimes when we Skype, she tells me about how worn down she is. About how exhausting it is caring for her father day in and day out. About how she rarely gets out of the house. About how on earth she’s going to deal with proving to “someone just doing their job in an office somewhere who doesn’t care” just how flat broke she is.
“I don’t what else I can give them. I have no credit cards –and my credit is crap, so even if I did have any, it would be a joke –no pension, no other accounts. I just have this one stupid checking account with pennies in it. That’s it. I haven’t filed a tax return in years because I have no income. And the [whatever organization she’s dealing with] says ‘we don’t believe you’re this poor.’ I mean, what the fuck?”
She goes on. “And then there’s all these idiot politicians who want to cut these utterly meager benefits out from people like me and people who have it worse than me. These idiots just want to take hell and make it worse so they can get re-elected and collect their thousands of dollars. Never mind that people like me need this piddling $145 in food stamps to live. And I can’t even by diapers for your grandfather with that money, either. He’s a 90 year old man who pisses himself every day; that adds up in diapers, in laundry detergent.”
She usually shakes her head and laughs at this point in order to disguise her tears, saying “Lord God, they have no idea how much poverty sucks. None at all. I wouldn’t wish poverty on my worst enemy. I’d wish them dead sooner before I’d wish them poor.”