Learning about poverty through the eyes of the poor

Photo courtesy of Google Images.

For my Wealth & Poverty class we’re starting to read David Shipler’s “The Working Poor.”

The book attempts to unveil the poor in America who have become invisible.

Shipler writes the book from a string of narratives, finding characters to tell their own stories of how they got into poverty, welfare, bankruptcy sometimes, their endless work through low-paying jobs and the cycle of poverty.  The characters add the needed emotional side of the story, rather than solely statistics or an academic essay.  It helps when the narratives and characters are real, live, struggling human beings — it makes the author’s points and message more powerful.

It’s books like these, narratives like these that offer an eye into how these people really live, how their day-to-day or year-to-year lives look like.  As a member of the more affluent middle-class level of society, it is hard for me to know how the poor live, what it is actually like.  It almost becomes a mystical sense of being, full of myths and assumptions.  And Shipler’s book helps to give an eye into their lives, helps to make them real people we can relate to and sympathize with (that’s the first step at changing something, realizing another person’s, the other’s, humanity).

Shipler says, “The poor have less control than the affluent over their private decisions, less insulation from the cold machinery of government, less agility to navigate around the pitfalls of a frenetic world driven by technology and competition.  Their personal mistakes have larger consequences, and their personal achievements yield smaller returns.”

One story in particular sticks out: the story of Caroline, a single mother who has a disabled child.  She often is passed over in jobs because her teeth were decayed and so she had to have them all pulled out.  She is discriminated against and suffers from an all too common occurrence of poverty, moving from job to job, living off paycheck to paycheck.

It was so interesting to me to learn that Caroline didn’t vote in elections.  It really made it clear to me how politics passes the poor by, it doesn’t even affect them.  And we can argue that they should have voted, they can’t complain unless they vote, they must voice their opinion — but honestly, truthfully, that’s a ridiculous thing to say.  Their vote doesn’t mean anything in politics, their vote doesn’t help them pay their bills, their vote doesn’t help them find child care, their vote doesn’t keep their spouse or ex from abusing their child, their vote doesn’t help them get a higher paying job, their vote doesn’t help them out of poverty.  The most their vote could do was possibly give Caroline the woman president she wished for.  But would that president help her?  Not really.  Politics is so removed from the actual lives of people like Caroline.  I think the political system we live in really silences or doesn’t even leave room for the voices of these people.  Politics and economics, the market, all want people who have money, all respond to and are influenced more by people who have money and who can do more.  But the reason these poor people can’t do more is because they’re kept in a cycle of poverty and the government offers them minimal assistance.  As Shipler said, “The first problem is the failure to see the people.”  These people are invisible in America — that means their voices are not being heard, and I am doubtful that votes will change that.  This needs more than votes.

I think this quote offers a lot of insight into where part of the problem of poverty lies.  “Even the most socially minded physicians and psychologists who treat malnourished children, for example, will advocate vigorously with government agencies to provide food stamps, health insurance, housing, and the like.  But when they are asked if they ever urge the parents’ employers to raise wages enough to pay for nutritious food, the doctors express surprise at the notion.  First, it has never occurred to them, and second, it seems hopeless.  The suggestion makes them shrug.  Wages are set by the marketplace, and you cannot expect magnanimity from the marketplace.  It is the final arbiter from which there is no appeal.”  I think this also refers back to the neoliberalism theory of globalization (that I learned about in “In Search of the Good Life“), how the market is seen as all-powerful, as the end-all.  This also speaks to the consumption article and how the market is mystified and seen like it can never be wrong.  But this is wrong.

While reading this book, I couldn’t help but think about instances like it or a little less drastic on campus and that I have seen.  All students received an e-mail tonight about the delayed opening tomorrow due to snow and freezing rain.  While that will be a nice break, the food employees have to stay in town to make sure us students will have food at 8 a.m. — though I doubt anyone will be up that early to get food during a delayed opening.  So these employees don’t get to go home after a long day’s work to their families, they don’t get to sleep in their own bed, they have to go to a hotel, sleep, and then come back tomorrow to work again, work to work.  It doesn’t sit right with me.  It’s almost feeding into the insidious cycle of the poor working for the more affluent, educated, without the educated listening to or responding to the needs of the poor, without the poor’s rights and humanity being respected.

As more affluent and more well-off members of society, we often are very insulated and only think about what will affect us.  “Oh no, the snow will keep me from eating.  How are we going to eat?  The food employees have to cook me food.”  And I’m not saying that people should go hungry.  But I’m saying there could be alternatives, students could come together as a community to cook for each other, or share what they have, forming more of a community.  We could share what we have and then eat and allow the employees who have already worked a long day to go back safely to their families.  But can you imagine this ever happening on your campuses, in our society?  I can only dream, I can only keep voicing my ideals and hopes.  Maybe then someday they will come a reality.


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