The holidays are such a special time. As usual, it offered me the opportunity to enhance my understanding of the blatant lack of understanding held by those closest to me, genetically speaking. This isn’t a comfortable segment for me to write, but it’s something I feel I need to address, especially given the increasing evidence that I am witnessing a broken culture pretending it isn’t broken. Perhaps a bit of a disclaimer is in order, so that we don’t get off on completely the wrong foot here.
I’m not suggesting that all the needs of life be offered free of charge. Everything costs something–whether we count the cost in currency or in productivity. What I am suggesting is a bit of closer scrutiny for the “way things are.” Because the way they are is fucked up, not just for me, nor even for a small percentage of the population. An increasing portion of the population of the United States is classified as indigent, critically impoverished, or Working Poor. And the gap between real income classes is quickly becoming vast–a reality that is not mirrored in the way we conceptualize the social status of individuals.
You Keep Using That Word
Everyone in this country seems to think that they are Middle Class. This isn’t true at all. Most people who claim the distinction are, in fact, Upper Class based on their yearly income. The real median for the economic middle class falls in the low thirty thousand bracket. If you make six figures per year, you are not middle class. Get over it. But this leads us into a murkier region of consideration–the social versus the economic. Social classes take income as only a part of their criteria.
For example–economically, I’m impoverished. Socially, I’m in the top percentiles because I am highly educated, among other things. The concept of a social middle class draws on factors such as what others expect of you, how you choose to dress, what foods, languages, and treatment by others you find acceptable or unacceptable. It’s also based centrally on vague ideas that America is a country of equals–which has never been true in actuality. What is true is that it is–at least officially–free of hereditary titles and classes, such as were common in Europe at the time of its formation.
Terms and Conditions Do Apply
I come from an upper middle class family–socially as well as economically. Over the past year, I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable when it comes to dealing with certain attitudes associated with this social class. Nothing illustrates my dilemma more clearly than a series of interactions with my family members. I’m poor. I’m looking for work. I have essentially become a dependent chattel, in spite of my advanced education and infinitely refined intellectual gifts. They cannot conceive of why this is so–surely it must be because I am lazy, not trying, or somehow stupid in a way they had not considered before.
Advice about how to remedy my shortcomings has been free-flowing, and usually comes in the form of aggressively delivered statements about how I should be doing things. There’s one thing none of these people actually understand–their rules do not translate to my situation, to any situation that is not identical or nearly identical to their own. This is due to something called the Cycle of Poverty. It’s not that I don’t want a job. I do. I want several at once. I want as many as I can possibly handle. I can do any job that doesn’t require advanced understanding of fields such as engineering or medicine. Why, then, do I not have these many jobs?
It isn’t for want of looking, although I admit that lately, I’ve succumbed to a bit of defeat in this area. Let’s play a game. In order to have a job, I must have a car. I can’t get a car without a job. A dyad as simple as that has the potential to completely undermine any attempt I make at pulling myself out of poverty, debt, and dependence. And my case is far from unique. In fact, while I must suffer the ignominy of being reminded how grateful and subservient I should be for the gift of living again like I’m sixteen, my situation is hardly as severe as it gets. It, while soul-crushing, is profoundly better than most. My intellectual shame is in no way equal to the inability to be clean, have clean clothes, or relative certainty of at least a meal a day.
A Lack of Empathy
What has also become very clear is that many of the people who censure me for my “lack of initiative” or my “lazy and ungrateful attitude” have never experienced actual hunger. They have no concept of what it feels like to be trapped in a cycle of existence where being shy fifty cents for a bill not only ruins your day, but sets in motion a catastrophic cascade of shortfalls that ruin everything. What I ask for is not that you pity me, but that you understand that you’re operating within a system that perpetuates your lack of understanding.
Until you have experienced another system where all the rules you live by suddenly no longer work the way they always have, you really don’t want to be making any sweeping generalizations about the intellectual, social, or economic value of entire groups of people. Moreover, until you do, what I’m saying will make no sense to you. You will hear socialist propaganda when I talk about basic human rights. It’s how you’ve been trained to think, to correlate, and to look neither left nor right as you progress through life–because seeing things that undermine your cultural values is dangerous to the overall functioning of cultural institutions.
You are trained to see those who are less productive, with less economic value, or who have been caught in the Cycle of Poverty, as lesser beings. So, when it becomes apparent that an increasing portion of our society–of our intelligent, highly educated individuals as well as those who were not afforded the opportunity of higher education or are part of the lower classes–are living below the poverty line, how will you reconcile it? Are we all lazy, feckless, non-contributors? Or is there a bigger issue at play, one you lack the fundamental empathy and therefor the appropriate conceptual tools, to identify?
Heads in the Sand
What I see most frequently from my current vantage, is an increasing use of fear-driven rhetoric that prioritizes consumption capability as a measure of social value and demonizes those who have less economic viability. “The [insert your favorite slur against a particular group of people here] are going to take what I value from me if [insert basic assessment of human rights and remedial legislation or social action here] happens.” What is perhaps most disturbing is that these types of statements are made by people who are otherwise sane, compassionate human beings on a one-to-one level.
Not that it was ever a good way of being on a cultural scale, but now that more and more people are struggling to make ends meet, more people failing to meet a predetermined bar of success that dictates who eats and who doesn’t, the class-driven morality of Those Who Already Have v. Those Who Lack Basic Needs is becoming increasingly difficult to justify. Those who wish to continue with their static ideas about what constitutes right and wrong are going to be driven to embrace ever more intense and extremist variations of rhetoric simply to sustain their concept of social morality.
These variations preclude empathy with other human beings–it’s foundational to their structure. How long before what exists only in abstract ideology becomes a part of how you treat people right in front of you? And what price are you paying for being a part of a machine that runs on the disenfranchisement of those who cannot pay for the privilege of social status? Will you one day fail to meet the bar? Who will speak for you then, because those who Have are consumed by fear of loss, and your need makes you the enemy.
Yes, there are people at the bottom of the social structure who would take advantage of generosity. That personality is available for viewing at every level of every society, everywhere and in every time. But there are also people who would contribute handsomely to the overall productivity and prestige of our society if they could, just for a little while, stop worrying about how they are going to eat ever again. Yes, social assistance programs do exist, but they are hopelessly broken or corrupt and the people who truly need help are often excluded, disqualified, or simply overlooked by a system of rules and exceptions that hamstring the rational allocation of resources.
I have lived for the past eight months with the threat of “You aren’t allowed to question or offer an alternate opinion to mine. It’s my way or the homeless shelter.” And it’s always so awkward when the first question that pops into my head is, “What homeless shelter?” Because the idea of such a place is the only thing left of it in many regions. There are no resources given to those with nowhere else to go–be they victims of abuse or simply caught in a vicious cycle by one too many overdraft fees. The imagination of such places is a large part of the overinflated sense that huge amounts of resources are already devoted to assisting those in need, when in fact last year’s Federal budget allocated less than one percent to this end. Local and State budgets vary, but often sing a similar tune.
The next time you see someone begging on a street corner, stop to ask if they have any advanced degrees, what they did before this, who they are, what they have lost. As a nation, we are in the throes of squandering our most precious resource–People.