Poverty in America and the Emerging Slave Class   11 comments

My partner and I are poor. Really poor. We live in a small rental and we can’t afford many of the things most people take for granted: a car, TV, high speed Internet, health care, furniture. I was about to say we can’t afford anything that isn’t an absolute necessity, but then I thought of all the things we can’t afford although they are necessities, such as the aforementioned health care or even a winter coat. We’re part of a growing number of Americans who work hard, pay taxes–and barely scrape by. And there is almost no chance that our situation will improve.

From the government’s perspective, we’re doing fine. We don’t contribute to the unemployment statistics or the welfare rolls, so where’s the problem? It doesn’t matter to the powers that be that our lives are a daily grind of all work and no play. It doesn’t matter that we sleep on the floor and sometimes freeze in the winter because we can’t afford to run the heater. It doesn’t matter that we’re forced to ignore symptoms of ill health and suffer in agony because seeing a doctor or dentist isn’t financially feasible. It doesn’t matter that we own nothing, have no savings, and struggle to survive, although we’re working full time and paying taxes.

Speaking of taxes, last month we were forced to borrow money to pay our tax bill, and we’ll be paying back that loan for the rest of the year. Not because we owed such a huge amount, but because any amount is a hardship when you often don’t make enough to cover your bills and eat. What? You thought the working poor get a nice fat refund come tax time? Some do, but we’re self-employed. Self-employment taxes ate up our entire refund and left us owing Uncle Sam more money than we had. Hence the loan.

As companies increasingly hire independent contractors rather than take on new employees, more people will find themselves in our position. Although we’re technically freelancers, close to 90% of our income comes from four companies that hire us year round. We’re grateful for the work, but would we prefer steady employment with benefits? You bet!

As is commonly the case for working poor people, we’re forced to spend a disproportionate share of our income on rent and utilities. We had to leave the city we love, the city that was our home, to escape the skyrocketing housing costs we could no longer afford, but even now, rent and utilities swallow two-thirds of our income. There’s no way around that. Cheaper housing simply isn’t available. And thanks to California’s out-of-control energy prices, heating or cooling our tiny 2+1 in the middle of winter/summer leaves us with $250 utility bills at least a few months every year. If we didn’t limit our use of heating and air conditioning, they’d be even higher.

I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while now, but embarrassment about our situation has prevented me from doing so. Poverty is shameful. Most Americans believe that anyone can get ahead if they’re prepared to work hard. My partner and I work hard, but we’re not getting ahead. We’re barely getting by. What losers we must be!

Even progressives routinely treat poor people with disdain. “The poor” are weak, ignorant, gullible, uneducated, unintelligent, superstitious, and bigoted. I’m none of those things, but it doesn’t matter. I’m poor, so there must be something wrong with me. Melissa McEwan* at Shakesville is just one of many progressives who feel entitled to make sweeping judgments about those easily manipulated poor people who are too dumb to know what’s good for them. “(W)orking class and poor whites consistently pick the wrong allies,” Melissa writes. Not some working class and poor whites, mind you. No, all of us are guilty.

Never mind that Tea Party demographics trend middle class and upper middle class with the average Tea Partier being wealthier than the average American. And never mind that poor and working class folks are more likely to be economically liberal than middle class and upper class Americans. And let’s especially ignore the fact that neither one of the two legacy parties gives a rat’s ass about the poor and working class, begging the question just who the “right” allies would be. But hey, stereotyping poor people is so much fun, the left and the right both love to get in on the action.

I was going to discuss how we ended up here in an effort to illustrate how easy it is for someone who’s lower middle class or solidly working class to descend into poverty due to circumstances largely beyond their control, but there’s no way for me to do that without running smack dab into the Worthy Poor Person trope. You know the one: The “worthy poor person” deserving of sympathy and perhaps even assistance is someone who ended up here through no discernible fault of their own, while undeserving poor people have only themselves to blame for their plight. Of course virtually every poor person is undeserving in someone’s eyes. And in reality it doesn’t much matter how you ended up here. There’s something seriously wrong with a country in which millions of full-time workers can’t afford even basic necessities and millions more can’t find any work at all. Meanwhile the richest 10%–and especially the richest 1%–are watching their bank accounts get fatter every year.

The truth is that once you’ve slipped into poverty, climbing back out is almost impossible. Even if you have ideas that might be able to improve your situation, chances are you won’t have the resources, time or energy to implement them because you’ll be too busy working your ass off to keep food on the table and a roof over your head. Even if you have the skills and credentials to qualify for a better-paying job, you won’t get hired if you don’t look the part because you can’t afford a decent suit and dress shoes, or you can’t make it to the job interview because you don’t have a car, or you have no time to search for jobs in the first place because you’re working seven days a week just to make ends meet.

Poverty, like wealth, is a self-perpetuating condition. The poorer you are, the greater the chances you will stay that way–no matter how skilled you may be or how hard you work. There are those who make fun of poor people for playing the lottery. Don’t we know what the odds are? Don’t we realize that we’d be better off saving our money? We know what the odds are. But even a 1-in-15-million chance is better than no chance at all.

The libertarian owner of our town’s local radio station frequently defends Wal-Mart’s employment practices by arguing that no one is forced to work there and that the people who do work there are grateful to have their jobs. I’m sure the second part of that statement is true–though I bet they’d be far more grateful if they were paid a living wage and received health benefits–but the first part? Bullshit. A choice between a low-wage, no-benefits job on one side and homelessness on the other is not a valid choice, particularly for women who face an extremely high likelihood of sexual violence if they lose their home and end up in the street. Poor people have no bargaining power here. If I don’t take a job because it amounts to exploitation, it’s not like the employer or client (in the case of freelancers) will reconsider what they’re offering; they’ll just find someone more desperate than me to agree to their terms.

That’s why 20% DISemployment (hat tip to Corrente) suits the powers that be just fine. What could be better than millions of skilled workers so desperate to find employment before their benefits run out that they’re prepared to settle for far less than they used to make in order to land one of the few available jobs? Or, as is increasingly common, they’ll be forced to join the ranks of the gloriously self-employed freelancers where they’ll be asked to undercut the competition by taking on projects that wouldn’t even pay the minimum wage if the project fee was translated into hourly wages.

And yet, all that still isn’t enough for some in our ruling class. They argue that the measly minimum wage is too high and worker protections too generous. More people could be hired, they say, if we created a more “business friendly” environment. Unions must be dismantled or made impotent. And while we’re at it, we need to be slashing social programs to eliminate most of what’s left of the already grossly inadequate safety net. The goal, after all, is to drive as many people as possible into the emerging slave class where they can be exploited until the day they die. They’ll own nothing, they’ll have to accept any job–no matter how lousy the pay or how deplorable the working conditions–just to survive, and when they get sick or injured, the ruling classes will let them die and tell them it’s their own fault for not saving enough to pay for health care.


* I used Melissa as an example not because her statement is the most egregious–in fact, it positively pales in comparison to many of the pronouncements about poor people found at Daily Kos and numerous other popular lefty sites–but because Melissa, unlike Kos & company, usually goes out of her way to acknowledge where she is privileged and to recognize how problematic it is to stereotype those with less power. But the poor-people-don’t-know-what’s-good-for-them and the poor-whites-are-bigots memes are so firmly entrenched that even someone like Melissa plays right into them.

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11 responses to “Poverty in America and the Emerging Slave Class

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  1. I hear you. For many years, I had good middle-class jobs, making anywhere from $50-65K/per year. I got laid off in late 2008, and since then my income has dropped to half that. Now that unemployment has run out, the ONLY income I have is from a part-time job that pays about $400-500 a month.

    I am barely hanging on. I had to file bankruptcy, and cannot last much longer.

    I’m not lazy. I’ve worked since I was 14 years old, and have never been unemployed so long in my life. In your 40s many places won’t even consider you! Worse, they see your degrees and say you are “overqualified” to work there and will not even give you a chance! It pisses me off so bad.

  2. Pingback: Just so you know, Poor People Blog Too | The Deliberate Observer

  3. Good stuff. I reblogged you. Thanks.

    Henry David Thorough
  4. Pingback: Atlas Shrugged. But not in my neighborhood. #GMO | Master of My Universe

  5. I just love it when certain politicians and pundits say that if the unemployed really wanted to work they’d get a job at Starbucks or something. Yeah right, ’cause Starbucks is totally dying to hire people who are so obviously overqualified that they’ll quit as soon as they find a better-paying job. McDonald’s turned away over 938,000 applicants last month! So many people are desperate for work, there’s lots of competition even for minimum wage jobs. And these jobs don’t even pay the bills.

    The age discrimination thing you mention terrifies me. Too old at 40? What are people supposed to do when they’re still decades away from collecting social security?

    I know so many people who are in your position. Hardworking, highly skilled individuals with several degrees who were laid off and are now forced to freelance or work part-time, making a mere fraction of their former income. My heart goes out to you.

  6. Politicians and pundits are all in the 95th percentile or better of incomes. People don’t stop to realize that it’s more luck of the draw than something of their own doing to find themselves in a certain economic situation. If they’d been born in Somalia or Iraq or East LA their plight would have been otherwise determined. Good news is that, if there is such thing as karma, they’ll probably come back as some sort of rodent.

  7. My brothers and sisters and I grew up on welfare, with a mentally ill mother and an absentee father. When we were teens and my mother was committed again and again to mental institutions, we had to steal food, clothing and toiletries to survive. Yet, today, we have all broken the cycle of poverty and abuse for ourselves and our children. How? We had exceptional teachers. They didn’t just dispense facts. Instead, they provided opportunities for us to confirm our self worth. Money is not what is needed to improve education. Making it possible for caring, competent teachers to make a meaningful connection with EVERY child in the classroom makes all the difference. A high school teacher’s few positive comments scribbled in my weekly journal were enough to sustain me for a week. Soon, one week led to another and before I knew it, I was graduating from college. This magical connection in the classroom can never be measured by a standardized test.

  8. I share many of your sentiments and passion. I wrote a book last year, “The Making of the Slave Class” to express my thoughts on this subject. It is doing well in colleges and universities, but not so much with the general public. Many find it controversial and I have been attacked quite a few times by the religious right for my connecting class to religion. The leisure class know how to protect their wealth.

  9. I’m here as well. I’ve had to seriously adapt to this lifestyle, or at least try to. I’ve converted my garage into a domicile and moved into it, allowing me to free the old house I lived in up. I’ve sectioned the home off into three and have rented each section out to other people in serious need for $250/month., electricity/water/cable/internet included. Together, we all have kept this property running for the last year and a half. The kicker is that I’m a recently honorably discharged vet w/ absolutely no health care. The only bright spot in all this is that I am receiving benefits for college, which I will hopefully finish my B.of S. this next semester. With job prospects the way they are though, I’m not overly excited about losing my benefits in trade for a degree. I’d almost rather have the benefits. A vet w/ a bachelor’s in this economy? McDonald’s wouldn’t hire me because I overqualified, a legit company wouldn’t hire me when they can just get someone overseas to do whatever I would end up doing for less. This economy went from production to service., and now to what? How many other tactics can companies use to cut cost at the expense of Americans? The wealth of this country has pooled into the EXTREME upper .5% of families. They’ve created wealth black-holes in which none of the money could possibly be diverted backward if even they wanted it to be. I believe this to be a natural end function of capitalism. Eventually, in any economical system in which there’s a nexus or zenith where force needs to be applied to either reset or change said system. Idk, I’m a rank amateur. Thanks for letting me rant on your blog.
    JR

  10. I work at a job which used to pay a decent wage but now has devolved from an hourly wage to a production-type situation employing independent contractors, with most of the work exported to India via the Internet. I lived your life for 12 years, watching my earnings decrease while fighting with the IRS, dreading every April because it would mean I couldn’t pay the rent, which meant moving (again). Eventually I ended up sleeping on the couch in somebody’s basement while paying rent, eating peanut butter sandwiches for most meals, watching my car deteriorate because I couldn’t afford an oil change let alone new tires or a brake job, and I couldn’t afford gas or insurance anyway. A car, but no way to drive it? I lived with 4 different people in a kind of cheap rent/servitude position, for a place on the couch at night. I finally decided I had to get a “boyfriend” (at age 56??) who had a job to live with me so we could afford a decent meals – mistake! I’m not stupid. I’m not lazy. I’ve worked steadily since I was 16 years old. Other than divorcing an abusive husband who happened to earn a good living, I can’t think what I did to deserve this. And even as I write this, I realize there are so many people out there who have it much worse. God, I pray for them! At least I HAD friends who would let me sleep on the couch. At least I had some kind of pseudo-job that kinda sorta paid some kind of wages. I used to marvel at my friends who could afford to buy proper clothes and shoes, or maybe plop down a $20 bill for a little what-not extravagance to cheer themselves up. I’ve listened to successful people of my parent’s generation tell me how they made it in this world by working hard and getting better jobs if they had to. They refuse to believe that there ARE no better jobs. I’m 58, single, no medical insurance, and make $4 to $8 an hour before taxes. With no medical insurance, I can’t even get sick. I’m not proud, but I’m not ashamed.The shame lies with the greedy slaveowners.There’s another French Revolution on the horizon.

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