Poor in America: Dream, Myth, and Reality

Every few weeks or so my mother will come home from work (in case you hadn’t heard, I’m in Vancouver for the summer) really worked up about some mother at her work.  She’s an RN at the local hospital, and she works with newborn babies and their mothers, postpartum.  In her view—I can’t really verify whether this is true or whether this is just her perception—a happily wedded couple coming in with a planned preganancy is now the minority.  Those ones I never hear about.  Sometimes I hear about 14-, 15-, 16-year-old mothers, which really aren’t a shock to anyone anymore; her tone when talking about them generally takes on a sort of resigned quality: it’s too common to make her upset, but you can tell she thinks it unfortunate and feels sorry for the baby.

But what really pisses her off are welfare queens.  You know, those women of ancient conservative lore who pop out babies so that they don’t have to work.  The ones who have a sense of entitlement but no sense of responsibility.  These women infuriate my mother.  “She’s just livin’ off the system,” she says.

What breaks my heart, personally, is the depth of her contempt for these people.  She is past pity, past frustration, and approaching hatred.

I can understand, really.  I remember last summer when I was working at a Subway in a pretty trashy part of town, these two women came in with two kids and it was one of the worst twenty minutes of my whole summer.  They must have been mother and daughter, about twenty years apart, and the daughter had these two kids who were really sweet and more than a little rambunctious.  But damn, could that woman yell.  I hated watching the way she treated her children.  And I hated her mother for the way she treated me, a lowly sandwich artist.  I imagine it would be worse, having to watch wretched, undeserving women such as these drag tiny, innocent babies into their hell of an existence.  My first instinct would be to protect that baby, too, and to be furious at the injustice of it all.

But sometimes our first instincts are not always our best ones.

In The Working Poor, Shipler talks about the widely held belief that no one who works hard should be poor in America.  So firmly is this conviction held in the American psyche, reinforced by countless tales of people pulling themselves “up by their bootstraps” to into fame and fortune.  Indeed, this was part of the appeal of Obama’s candidacy last year: born to a single mom in poverty, we would like to believe—and Obama, I’m sure, would like to us to believe—that his success was due entirely to his own diligence, brilliance, and refusal to give up in the face of adversity.  Obama is playing that very same chord with his nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court.  This is the American Dream: that anybody in America, if they try hard enough, can achieve anything they like.

The problem with the American Dream, of course, is that it remains just that: a dream, and not a reality.

Shipler recasts this national conviction as The American Myth.  Perhaps we deserve some credit, I would say, for having this Myth as one of the favorite plotlines of the American story.  We’re probably the first to even pretend that such a thing is true, here in the land of possibility.  The Dream, at its best, represents an ideal to which America aspires, not necessarily the reality in which it lives.  It is something for which—again, in our best moments—we strive: equality of opportunity.  And that’s saying something, isn’t it?  After all, most countries don’t even bother pretending.

What Shipler is saying, I think, is that, far from striving for this ideal, America merely does it lip service while trampling on the very people on whom its own prosperity depends.  They fade into the background of our existence: fast food workers, farmhands, and factory workers, copy editors, grocery clerks, and hotel maids.  After following the lives of two dozen or so of the working poor, bringing them for a moment off of the margins and into the text, Shipler gives us a dilemma, of sorts: either stop talking about the American Dream as something which resembles reality, or start doing the hard work of making it a reality.

The book hurts.  The situation of each and every person he follows is a combination of bad decisions, bad luck, and a bad system.  One theorist I read for an urban ministry class this winter characterized poverty as entanglement; Shipler’s testimony overwhelmingly agrees.  Poverty is much more than a lack of money.  It is a lack of money both produced and exacerbated by a lack of emotional, social, intellectual, and spiritual resources.  Many “chronically poor” people have deep psychological problems resulting from their abuse—verbal, physical, and, all-too-often, sexual—as a child.  These scars make it more difficult for them to make good decisions, to deal with stress, to have any sense of self-worth, and so on.  The stories of sexual abuse are particularly tragic: at the opening of one chapter, a ten-year-old girl asks a case worker, “How many times have you been raped?”  When the worker replies that she hasn’t, the girl is surprised.  I thought everyone has, she says.

I heard a story about a guy who decided, as a kind of experiment, to check into a homeless shelter with nothing but the clothes on his back.  His goal was to acquire, in six months (or something like that), a working car, an apartment, and $600 in savings.  He had to back out before the deadline, but he got pretty close to his goals.  Such experiments are supposed to illustrate that it is possible to get off the streets, that all it takes is willpower.  But the experiment misses the point: the man was upper-middle-class going in to the experiment.  He knew how to set and achieve goals, how to make a budget, how to communicate effectively, how to manage his emotions, how to believe in himself.  That makes everything else a hell of a lot easier.

That isn’t to say, of course, that the poor are entirely victims of circumstance—an ideology which Shipler titles “the American Anti-Myth”.  They make bad choices, to be sure: Shipler reports one couple who, despite being tight on money, frequently go out to get tattoos.  Tattoos are expensive, and they know that.  But they have to be kids sometimes too, they say, since they missed out on a real childhood.  The issue is: Do (all) poor people know how to make good choices?  Do they have the ability to make good decisions?  Common sense and a sound decision-making process are values that the middle class takes for granted, but they are acquired qualities.  You aren’t born with them.

The thing is, I’m not sure we can know why any single person is in poverty.  Sexual abuse, lack of education, poor decision-making, poor self-esteem, materialism, addictions, food costs, the cable bill—all of these things are tangled together in a massive knot of cause and effect.  Working that knot out, I imagine, is kind of like trying to get the kinks out of ten-year-old Christmas lights at the top of a twenty-foot ladder in a snowstorm.  Or something like that.  The point is, we can’t judge a person for being poor.  It could be 90% their fault, or 90% someone else’s.

(Flip that statement around: how much of our own financial situation—whether poor, middle-class, or upper-class—is of our own doing, and how much is because of circumstance and luck?  Are we willing to put a percentage on that number, either?)

And that—wow, I’ve really taken the long way around on this one—that is why I think that every time we encounter someone in poverty—every fast-food worker, every homeless person, and yes, every welfare queen—our primary reflex must not be contempt, but compassion.  If we cannot manage compassion, we must at least manage pity.  But compassion is best.

That, I think, is my first response to this book.  I want to blog more about what I think about all of this politically, and theologically, especially, in order to flesh out my last paragraph a bit more.  But that will have to wait, for now.

By the way, your comments on this issue are more than welcome.  I get sick of reading my own writing, and it helps me to have people give their own opinions to cut my teeth on, so to speak.  I’ll be at the beach for the weekend, regardless.

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