“P” is for “Poverty”

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.

Katrina Gilbert, the woman featured in "Paycheck to Paycheck"
Katrina Gilbert, the woman featured in “Paycheck to Paycheck”

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.

Dasani, the primary subject of "Invisible Child"
Dasani, the primary subject of “Invisible Child”

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.

As Tracy Moore at Jezebel remarked in a great article, within such a narrow framework, Katrina Gilbert “can’t even win at loosing.”

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.

State poverty levels based on  2010 Census data
State poverty levels based on 2010 Census data

 

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.”

Poverty by county based on 2010 US Census data
Poverty by county based on 2010 US Census data.  Some counties have poverty levels at >80% .

Art, history, and “Kim Kardashian. Break the Internet”

“Carolina Beaumont, New York, 1976″

Image originally published in Jean-Paul Goude "Jungle Fever" (1983)
Image originally published in Jean-Paul Goude “Jungle Fever” (1983)

The above portrait by Jean-Paul Goude is a pretty loaded image both in terms of its history, recent and and distant, but also because of its composition.   As a result, it challenges the way in which we not only define “what is art” but also how we view it.

Aesthetically and technically, “Carolina Beaumont” is striking.  The color balance, lighting, and composition pull you in.  It’s has a wonderful relationship with space that I enjoy in photography.  Personally, I find it much more hypnotic that Kim Kardashian’s homage in Paper, also shot by Jean-Paul Goude.

Kim Kardashian by Jean-Paul Goude.  "Paper" (Winter, 2014)
Kim Kardashian by Jean-Paul Goude. “Paper” (Winter, 2014)

Historically, culturally, and socially, it’s problematic.  It is a black body on display for a (presumably) non-black audience.  It is also a pose that recalls a specific individual, Saartije Baartmen, and the ways in which her own body was displayed and depicted.

Moreover, this type of viewer/subject relationship between white viewers and black subjects has been going on for centuries in western art, as medievalpoc demonstrates again and again.  With that history comes all sorts of ideas and practices about how that body can be displayed (and the ways in which it can’t), the language that’s used to describe the pose, and who ultimately is making the image and for what market.

Because this image is both aesthetically beautiful and historically and culturally problematic, us the viewer is in a tough spot. To what extent are we culpable of consuming and perpetuating racist and racially-charged imagery?  To what extent can we be excused for our historical ignorance?  When we feel uncomfortable, what should be that trigger?  Is it the way that nudity has different associations and language based on race and power?  Is it nudity within American culture? Is it because the apparatuses that produced and police the image are rooted in traditions and practices that objectify women of color but honor white women with the exact same pose?

And when we decide that the image of a black woman in a pose that relies on historical degradation and cultural stereotypes is problematic despite how visually striking, aesthetically pleasing, technically innovative or just plain satirical it is, what does that mean in terms of artistic license and censorship?  Should the imagined ideal of “art for art’s sake” take precedence over the historical reality?  If so, what does that mean for our preservation and interpretation of the past and our understanding of the present?  Do we step in as moralists and point out all the ways in which our ancestors were horrible — in a manner not unlike the sanitizers of the Victorian era (to name just one example), who used their own ideas of moral propriety to colonize those who lacked it?

Moreover, is the moral argument the only way in which people can examine, critique, and criticize inequality and racism?  After all, inequality exists because there is a cultural system underpinning it, not because people simply have different things or experiences.  Those experiences mean nothing unless there is a cultural lens assigning a particular meaning or interpretation.  After all, having a different skin tone the the product of biology. Having a different life because of that skin tone is the product of culture.

Thus, in order to process both images we need the ability to read images from multiple perspectives all at once.  One can’t read “Carolina Beaumont” through a single lens, just like one can’t read “Kim Kardashian” through a single lens either.  We have to appreciate the aesthetic and technical compositions while remembering the social, historical, and cultural differences at play in each one in order to understand how the image came into being, was discussed, and ultimately, resigned to history.

Otherwise, we end up staring at both our past and present, ignorant of our own surroundings and unable to understand the conversations.  It’s a position of the powerless, and it’s one that the powerful go to great lengths to maintain.

It’s how you also end up on display, clutching a champaign bottle and balancing a glass on your ass.

The Slipperiness of History

Not to put to fine a point on it, but there has been a lot written about the 2013 US Government shutdown.

Screen Shot 2013-10-18 at 3.02.29 PM

My Pocket reader is stuffed with articles from the New York Times, New York Magazine, Red State, and Al-Jazeera, most of which I will probably never read unless I want to relive the haze of the last few weeks.   Instead of reading through them all and trying to analyze what exactly went on and why, the focus of this post will be on one particular article and the points it raised.  I do this because this article combined two things that I not only like — contemporary perspective plus historical imagination — but this combination is not in any way unique.  It appears not only in much of our contemporary journalism but it occurs throughout history.  More importantly, the combination of the contemporary and the historical underlies the way in which we use (and misuse) history, namely to make a point that relates to today’s society.

The Furies Never End

Frank Rich published a piece entitled “The Furies Never End” on October 13th in New York Magazine, four days before the end of the government shutdown, in which he argues that we’ve seen this mess before — and hints that it will come again.

Furies

He starts out by debunking the idea that the more extreme members of the Republican Party who called for the shutdown are not a fringe minority of their party and don’t come from areas of the country all that demographically different than other Republicans or Democrats.  Even the fact that most of this radical group are white men doesn’t exactly shake things up. To counter the argument that right-wing Republicans are the majority, Rich notes that it’s really the moderate Republicans –“of the nearly extinct George H.W. Bush persuasion”– who are the smaller (and dwindling) minority of the party.

Rich then goes on to argue that the real shift in the Republican party was the addition of Southern Democrats during the second half of the 20th century.  It was this group,  fed up with Johnson’s “Great Society” and the expansion of the federal government, that caused the Republicans to adopt their hostile stance against government.  In addition, the fact that this group was largely Southern helps to explain the animosity towards those who are Southern but like the Federal Government (Bill Clinton) and the open racism towards non-male, non-white, (and presumably non-Christian) politicians (Barack Obama).  Once this point is introduced, Rich spends the rest of the article bouncing back and forth between contemporary events and politics of the anti-Bellum and Reconstruction eras to make his point:  crazy people in politics trying to shut down the government isn’t new, and it’s all because of the South.

The Uses of History

The “cherry-picking of history” is not a new phenomenon. As far back as written record (and probably in pre-written time as well) we as humans have been shaping and interpreting selected sections of the past.  As such, the consensus on such behavior is not positive.  Those who “cherry pick” facts are derided as uncritical, manipulative, and deceitful.  As a public, we often counter such cherry-picking with the claim “but you missed the context.  Anyone can just create a perfect picture (or data set) and say that it reflects reality.  How do we know your proof is real?”  With such a critique, one would be tempted to conclude that people would shy away from the use of history or historical examples in proving a contemporary point.

Herodotus_Beaton

Yet despite this, we humans still do this all the time.  What is illuminating about Rich’s article is that it is a perfect example of the past is commonly used to prove a present point — and how that past only becomes important to us when it relates to the present.

Arguably, Rich is setting out to convince the reader that “the radical Republicans” are not a new phenomenon and they’ve been trying to shut down government since the beginning.  His use of John C. Calhounv, the anti-Bellum senator from South Carolina who was deeply suspicious of the Federal Government and believed that the minority should be able to thwart the majority (as well as Calhoun’s nickname “the Great Nullifyer”) is meant to drive home the point.   Likewise the reference to Jefferson Davis’ arguing that seceding from the Union is a means of preserving the Constitution, also fits into this boat.  So far, nothing too crazy.

JohnCCalhoun
You may remember John C Calhoun from your US I History Class. He and Andrew Jackson pretty much hated each other.

Yet Rich doesn’t use this evidence to show that ideas about the Federal Government, Congress, or the Constitution have always been contentious.  He doesn’t give us a detailed (or even a short, succinct) description of how some members of Congress tried to counter laws or policies they didn’t like.  Instead, he uses examples that fit his particular argument and leaves the reader to fill in the rest.  Since Calhoun famously hated Majoriatarianism and since he was a Southern Senator who defended slavery, he is just like other contemporary Southern Senators and Representatives who are racist, anti-Government, and thought that their minority views were enough to hijack the majority.

The same tactic is then used to discuss the creation of the Republicans as a far-right, socially conservative majority.  According to Rich, Southern Republicans came into being as a result of Barry Goldwater.  Before Goldwater, all those racist anti-Federal Government Southern Congressmen were Democrats.  After Goldwater and the LBJ years they moved to the Republicans, taking their crystalized hatred with them.  Thus, we have the Tea Party. Again, Rich doesn’t give the readers a detailed history of a progression (if any) from those who supported Goldwater to those who supported the Government Shutdown.  Instead what we have is a simple substitution, as though each component is equal in every respect.

That is what strikes me as fascinating regarding our general use of history. We look to the past to find similarities that help us to explain what is going on in our present.  We also pull people, places, and events out of their respective times and project them onto ours, as though historical context  wasn’t an issue.  Yet if we tried to write a history of the Tea Party (or the Government Shutdown) without talking about our contemporary surroundings (say, without mentioning the historical significance of Barack Obama’s election), it would be pretty useless.   We’d be left with nothing but a bunch of holes.

Ultimately, Rich is not writing history.  He is writing an essay in which historical people and events are used to make his point.  What is interesting is that, Rich’s article already is history in and of itself.  It is one person’s attempt to understand and explain to others who the Tea Party is and their reasons for shutting down the Federal Government, a move that many others thought (and still think) was a pretty dumb one.  It’s one of the reasons why I saved it to Pocket. If Rich is lucky, some version of the article will still be around in 50 or 100 years.  Then it will be the chance for new readers to mull over Rich’s words and, perhaps, point to them as evidence for their own understanding of contemporary times.

caution-diamond_history
Or maybe not. Perhaps you’ll just use it to prove your point.