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.