For several years when I was a child, we lived in a rural county in Upstate New York. Although beautiful, it is also impoverished. Some of the kids in my school came to school stinking and dirty. One boy arrived at school in the dead of a New York winter without a coat boasting that he was so tough he didn't need a jacket. When I told my mother about it, she explained to me that some parents couldn't afford running water or warm coats for their children. This was a revelation to me. I grew up in a comfortable, warm house in the more affluent village. Although I remember my parents' money-worries, and though I worried about money quite a bit myself even as a small child, I never worried that we would not have enough for food or heat or running water. The poorest kids lived way out in the country on roads that only social workers like my mother often travel. In her job as an advocate and counselor of crime victims, especially of rape, domestic violence, sexual assault, and incest she was out on those roads every day. When she told me that some kids' parents didn't have the means to care for them, she never hinted that their children would be better off somewhere else just because they were poor. She and Dad made it clear that poor people do not choose poverty nor are they lazy or lesser in any way (although I did grow up thinking maybe rich people had questionable ethics and a touch of laziness.) She made me understand that people love their children and that children love their parents even in the worst situations. Sometimes a family became so injured, so isolated and so desperate that horrible things begin to happen. When the human heart is shattered badly enough, it lacerates the soul. My mother's job was to stand up for the rights of women and children whose families were caught in cycles of poverty, violence, and isolation. Her job was to empower and protect survivors of crime and if possible, to assist them in making the steps necessary to transcend those vicious cycles. Sometimes that meant families could no longer live together. Usually it meant that people needed help. They needed guidance, and service and protection. They needed money. My folks taught me that poverty does not, by itself, result in scenarios in which men abuse the physically weaker members of their family. It doesn't necessarily lead to drug addiction and alcoholism, to fighting and prostitution and child abuse. But it doesn't help. It never helps.
I have heard and read Friends discussing "the poor" as if they were a laudable group of simple, faithful souls we can all emulate. Whenever I read such a comment, I admit that I assume that the writer or speaker has never had close contact for an extended period of time with "the poor" or else they wouldn't say something so stupid. Maybe saying those things helps them deal with their guilt over having so much more material wealth than they actually need. Being impoverished doesn't turn you into Bob Cratchett. Not by a long shot. There is nothing, absolutely nothing romantic about poverty. There is nothing so honorable or noble or virtuous in poverty. Poverty is dirty and inhumane. It is degrading and exhausting. Oh sure, you can always find examples of those great souls whose light cannot be dimmed no matter what misery they suffer but for the most part, poverty hurts and it twists and it maims those who live in it. Perhaps it makes wealthy folks feel better to think of the poor as noble but I tell you there is nothing noble about going hungry. There is nothing valiant about sending your child to school with shoes that don't fit or with no warm coat in the freezing cold. Tell me how unemployment or work in oppressive settings leads to spiritual enlightenment. Tell me how it uplifts the spirit to know that when your peers go off to college, you will go off to work at some low-paying, dirty job (if you are lucky.)
Tell me why it is alright that among the most brilliant people I know are women who have no money to fix broken teeth in their mouths let alone get the graduate degree they clearly deserve. Tell me why it is fair that we continue to look the other way as women and children continue to be raped and abused by their own husbands, boyfriends and fathers who are themselves dehumanized by their bosses and other men. Tell me how the loss of unions and the pollution of working class communities does anything to help the American worker. Tell me why there are still people living in the country with no doors on their houses, no water running for their toilets and tubs and no food in their cupboards? Tell me why children die for want of health and dental care, for want of good nutrition? What is so f*cking good about any of that?
I have not seen this famous faithful resignation and special virtue in the poor. I have seen rage and resentment. I've seen violence and sorrow so intense it festers and stinks. And why the hell not? Why the hell are the poor supposed to be the angels of virtue who save the rich from their arrogance? Screw that. Let the rich save themselves. Give the rest of us food, medical care, housing, childcare, and educations. See how many of us are willing to play the role of "simple folk" when we have the means to feed our kids without worrying if we'll lose our homes. For many years now, I've lived on the softest edge of poverty and I can tell you that even the mild poverty in which I live has made me more bitter, more angry, and more resentful than I ever thought I could be. It isn't just the worry about having enough money each month for food and other essentials but the thought that I have been cut off from any real influence as a thinker or a writer or a worker. It is the shame I hide that I can't invite people to my home or that despite my academic degree I'm not welcome at functions with the rich folk who hire me (or use my services for nothing). It is the anger I feel when I am told that a good Quaker provides financial support to their meeting. It is losing almost every battle in which I am engaged whether it is with an employer, a phone company or a doctor.
Having no money has made me more aware of injustice but it has not helped me fight it because having no money makes me a loser. If you don't have money you lose. That's the reality. What I've learned from my life with my husband who is a truck driver is this: They can take your lunch break. They can charge you for services you didn't buy. They can ignore your phone calls. They can deny you medical care. They can make you work overtime and then they can refuse to pay you. They can fire you for no reason. They can threaten you, yell at you and harass you. They can even deny you time to take a piss. And there ain't nothing you can do about it because they have money and lawyers and time and you don't. And we're lucky. We're fricking rolling in it compared to others in our community. I'm using every ounce of "capital" I have as a writer, teacher, voter, and mother to fight but after so many years and so many defeats I'm tired. I'm tired and angry and cynical.
I've gone hungry because I had no money to buy food. Like not a penny in the bank and not a penny in my pocket and debt on top of all that. I've gone without health care because I had no insurance. I slept on folded quilts on the floor of my old trailer because I couldn't afford a mattress. I've had to rely on relatives to put a roof over my head because I could not afford my own place but I could escape it because I had middle-class and affluent friends and relatives who have kept my body and soul together. I'm lucky. Whenever I have been in need, even if I don't complain (and even when I've tried to hide it), my folks have seen my need and they have addressed it. They bought me that mattress. They've given me money. They made sure I had a home and taken my children and me on vacations we could never afford on our own. They've made the calls to officious pricks who wouldn't talk to me but who would listen to my more powerful parents. But what if they couldn't? What if my parents were as divorced from sources of societal power as I am?
Even though I don't make much money myself, I've had all kinds of luxuries just because I was reared in a middle-class home but I've never had the luxury of believing that poor choose their poverty. I've never had the luxury of believing that there was something God-ordained or beautiful about need. For those of you who characterize "the poor" as models of good Christianity, let me tell you about what I learned as a kid. Sometimes women have abortions because they are raped by their fathers. Sometimes people take drugs because reality hurts so much. Sometimes people drink themselves to death. Sometimes mommies are beaten up or even killed by daddies. Sometimes bosses steal money from their workers. Sometimes people give up their dreams for a job at a factory. Sometimes kids go to school without coats in the winter then lie that they are tough to save themselves from shame.
And this is what I know of the rich. Listen up. Their poverty is not a mark of their goodness (though good they may be) but a mark of your shame and your failure to live up to your obligations as a human being. You have no right to your extra income, to your extra homes, to your extra cars, to your fancy clothes and your jewelry until no child has to lie that terrible lie. You have no right to your boats or your vacations or your air travel until no one's has to walk in broken, ill-fitting shoes. You have no right to your plastic surgery and your yoga classes and your health gurus until no one has to watch their child die of a tooth abscess. You have no right to glorify the poor until you have lived among them.