16 July 2008

Why I don't hate poor people

In coming to my understanding of poverty, that is How people descend into poverty, and What keeps them there, I inevitably move back and forth between different scales of inquiry: the collective and the individual. I think it’s important to point out that at various points in our arguments we tend to focus on one of those to the exclusion of the other because it supports our point. Thus, we make conclusions that can seem perfectly logical when applied to a group, but may be in error when applied to an individual and vice versa. I also point this out because I tend to focus on the individual, and of course those who oppose me will lament that my anecdotal evidence cannot be used to make conclusions about a group. I would reply: So what? For one thing, as a cultural anthropologist I understand that Logic is not often well-applied to human because we often act illogically either because we are innately illogical, or more likely because structural circumstances compel us to act against our own interested (i.e. poor people voting Republican). As an alternative, I’m interested in discussing what I call Cultural Logic, and this is a model that acknowledges that structure does exist, it is compelling, it often defies “logic,” humans are complex, and humans are more or less smart. Cultural Logic allows me to focus on both the individual experience (by way of understanding and beginning to explain collective beliefs and actions) and translate that to an understanding of a group. Is this imperfect? Of course, but to exclude individual experiences so we may with one gesture sum up a collective and declare something about all of them leads us not only to the same logic fallacies that anecdotal evidence can, but also excuses an awful lot of discrimination that should never be excused, let alone ignored and indulged.

Let me share with you some vignettes of people I’ve met recently. What I hope you gain from spending time with these people is that Poverty is a complex process that embodies issues of habitus, socialization, racism, sexism, and of course money.

Vignette 1:
S is almost 60 years old. She is raising her 3 granddaughters, and has been for just over a decade. Her daughter, the mother of the 3 children, lived with S until one day she announced that she was taking S’s car to go get some cigarettes. She never returned, and S over the next week began to realize that she was now the only caregiver for 3 minor children. In addition to the emotional impact of this (at the very least S had her car stolen, she had NO idea what happened to her daughter, she was not emotionally prepared for such a dramatic and abrupt transition), S is a widow; her husband was killed in the Viet Nam war. S had a reasonable job as a bureaucrat, and as a single woman lived an economically comfortable but not cushy life.

In the following weeks S began to realize there would be problems with her job. She had 3 kids under the age of 10 in her house, and no babysitter, and could not afford day care for 3. She began using her sick time and vacation pay so she could stay home with the kids. I’ll skip to the end here and tell you that in a matter of months S had used her savings, and all her vacation pay and was fired from her job because she had become “undependable” to her employer. Why “undependable”? Let’s be clear, it’s not because she had babies out of wedlock, not because she was on drugs and wanted to sit around high all day, not because she was lazy. She was fired because she had to make a choice between working and caring for kids, one of whom was a toddler at the time. Anyone of us would (or should, at least) choose family over work in a situation like this. This seems to me the only moral choice. S attempted to enroll for government services, but found that while she could get coverage, the 3 kids could not. They were not her legal children, and she did not have legal guardianship of them; they were still her daughter’s kids after all. So, using her check for 560 dollars a month, S and her 3 grandkids tried to live month to month while S tried to adjust to her new life as a mom. Over the last decade S’s health has become increasingly compromised. Now, she is legally blind, has arthritis that requires pain medication she cannot afford, and high blood pressure. She told me that when all of this began years ago the government did not understand the complexities of grandparents raising grandkids. Now she, simply because of passage of time, has legal guardianship of her grandkids, and now they receive just over 800 dollars a month (this is in 2008) from the government.

S told me that when her oldest granddaughter began ditching school the state began deducting money from her monthly check. She said, “They want to make the kids go to school, and some parents are so irresponsible that the only way to make sure they act like adults is to take their money, so when kids miss school, it costs a lot.” S called the school and explained what the situation was, and asked what could be done. She cannot afford to lose any money. But the school representatives explained that because S was not at that time the legal guardian, they could not talk to her. Yet, they have the authority to deduct money from S’s monthly check because the kids are registered at this particular address. What a great loophole! To review: S can’t legally be allowed to address the attendance of her granddaughter because she was not at that time the legal parent, but she is still financially responsible for her granddaughter’s attendance. Thinking on her feet, S demanded some form of redress, and was told that she could attend “parenting classes” a couple of nights a week at one of the district high schools. The classes begin at 8 at night. S, who was blind by this time, responded that she couldn’t do that because none of her neighbors were available to travel with her on the bus, something she needed because she was adjusting to her recent blindness, and because by this time they had moved to an unsafe neighborhood where she could afford the rent. She continued to have money deducted from her monthly check until her oldest granddaughter stopped ditching classes.

For over a decade S has lived in poverty. She was, by her own account, plunged into poverty by a situation that was not of her making. She is not in poverty because she failed to boot-strap herself into a more promising position; she is in poverty because she made a responsible choice when her daughter failed to. I know S because she is a student of mine. Through all of this, she is going to school, and her oldest granddaughter will start college this summer. S had to miss class one day because she had to submit her Section 8 paperwork by a certain date, and did not have the 3.20 in postage she needed. Her bus pass is paid for, so she took the only option she had which was to miss class and go to the office and turn in her paperwork. That is a choice I cannot imagine making, and this has little to do with S being lazy or me being hardworking.

Vignette 2:
C is in her 40s, and her health is failing. She is in a wheelchair, has diabetes, hypertension, carpel tunnel, and just about everything else too. Her husband of many decades is also suffering from failing health. Both are on disability, and have been for almost 20 years. C was a nurse before her health began to fail. C is a white woman who married a black man before that was socially permissible (if it even is). She and her husband lived in Watts after they were first married. She told me that they were often pulled over by the cops. They would pull her husband out of the car, search him, and ask her if she was ok. She would ask them what they were doing to her husband, and the often-surprised police officer would respond with confusion, telling C that he assumed she was being kidnapped or raped. C and “the brother,” as she calls him, have 3 kids. One is a lesbian. C, a devout Christian, told me that she has come to understand after years of facing racism that “Mixed families are mixed families are just mixed families, and that’s all! We all make relationships that are meaningful to us, and often most others won’t understand.” Though initially uncomfortable with her daughters declaration that she is gay, C told me that her daughter told C that she was not going to hear anything negative from her mom who had chosen a marriage that few approved of back then. C, wiser than most of us, realized her daughter was right, and they all eat Christmas dinner together now.

C and her husband, because of their terrible health (I can attest to this personally) have been receiving social security benefits for 2 decades now. C’s wheelchair, for example, was paid for by the state. A few years ago C’s oldest daughter got a job at Wal-Mart. Her daughter was a senior in high school, and she wanted to have some spending money and to pay for her prom expenses. The money was not going to come from C, as it is she and a neighbor are sharing diabetes medication because the two neighbors cannot afford the full and proper doses. C’s daughter made 8000 dollars in one year, and quit at the end of her last year of high school. Not long after this C got a letter from the government informing her that because 8000 dollars of income came into that home, she would need to repay the government, and they began to garnish her check. C and her husband gave up all of their medications; their health further declined. C told me recently that after years the government was finally taking the last bit of money out of her check. She said, “They are taking the last payment, and it’s normally 100 dollars, but there’s just 20 dollars left.” I said, “That’s great, just 20 bucks!” She looked at me like I’d said it in Arabic, and then I realized that she doesn’t have 20 bucks, she certainly didn’t have 100 bucks. She was lamenting the 20 dollars, not telling me she’s glad it’s only 20. I felt like such an ass. C told me that the government wants to be paid back for all they have given C and The Brother. If, for example, they wanted to buy a house, they would first need to pay back all the benefits. Same if they wanted to start a business. In other words, it’s actually impossible (in fact, it ends up being illegal) for them to crawl out of this.

Now, I don’t know the legal ins and outs of this. Perhaps all of this is perfectly avoidable for C, but neither she nor I is aware of how this could be avoidable. What I realize about people like C and S is that they are quite smart, and they are more than willing to work. But they are tired. They are too tired to explore the various legal ways they might avoid being penalized for being poor.

Said a different way, it is expensive to be poor. Because people have to share medication (!!!) they become increasingly sick, and can work less, and so on. Because people don’t know how to shelter their assets from liability they lose what little they have, and for some it’s not a big fall into the kinds of poverty from which they cannot extract themselves. The big point here is that some of us are closer to catastrophe than others, and whatever margin there may be is not always a direct correlation to how hard we’ve worked. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that most of the time that margin is more easily explained if we turn to the structural barriers that prevent class mobility for most, instead of turning to the degree to which we work or boot-strap ourselves.

More on structural barriers:
There are 2 books out now worth reading. For the record, they are both copyrighted for 2008. The first is called “A Crime So Monstrous: Face-to-Face with Modern-Day Slavery.”
Author E. Benjamin Skinner tracks slavery all over the world, including the land of the free: the U.S. Using data gathered from fieldwork, from the U.N. and the United States, Skinner gives us some shocking things to contemplate:
1. More slaves are imported into the United States each year than during all of the time combined that slavery was legal.
2. A child in Haiti can be purchased for 50 USD. During the time of legal slavery in the States, a slave cost between 40,000 and 60,000 (adjusted for inflation), thus indicating an appalling devaluation of human life in the last century.
Let us be clear about what slavery means in this context. “Slavery” refers to the practice of depriving a person of his/her rights to his/her sexuality, to earn a wage in exchange for selling labor, to determine one’s course in life (i.e. to attend school, get married, have kids, take vacations), and to remain free from violence. I suspect few of us would argue too much about this definition, but when we apply it to, say, a poor person in the U.S., people can become pissed-off, not to say self-conscious. Let’s look at S. She has been denied the ability to determine her financial future, as the State has stepped in to garnish her wages while still telling her that she has no rights, or limited rights, to contest this on legal grounds. She wrote in a paper that, “I haven’t been out to dinner in 15 years. And dating? Forget it! Who wants to date a woman in her 60s with 3 young kids?” Her sexuality is denied because raising kids must take precedence. Now, is she being legally denied these rights? No. Is anyone standing at her door and preventing single men from talking to her? Of course not! But, here we meet the important distinction between legality and social reality. While nothing is legally preventing S from dating, or working, it’s just not that simple. And while slavery is no longer legal, we see that it happens more than ever. In fact, I’d argue because something is not legal, that merely makes it harder to detect, yet no less prevalent.

Book 2:
Douglas Blackmon (who is a white mon) looks at what he calls Neo-slavery, that is, the ways in which African Americans have been compelled into servitude even after the Emancipation Proclamation. The Books is “Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black People in America from the Civil War to World War II

Why he stops at the second World War, I don’t know, as I see this as an on-going issue. Typically the ways this is carried out is by compelling blacks into the prison system. The prison industry, a complex of large corporations driven by profit, lobby successfully to target specific populations by making specific activities illegal and punishable by longer sentences than others. For example, targeting specific drugs (instead of all of them equally) that have higher use rates by non-whites for longer sentences. Interestingly, Blackmon argues (backing his argument up with actual data for all you positivists our there!) that prisons are not even good for the communities they operate in; they in fact do not contribute significantly to the tax base, or by providing jobs. In other words, crimes that target blacks and keep them in the prison system only benefit the corporate prisons, not even the poor whites that work in the prisons benefit in the long run.

Another person I met recently has been in and out of the prison system, and I see for him that serving his time (which he did) is not enough. He will be tied to this system and will be financially responsible for his own abuse. Yesterday he told me about the group home where he is required to live. He said, “They call themselves Christians, and then they send me out to work for them. I have to go up to the desert and dig ditches while some 16 year-old tells me I’m a nigger! What is that now?” Some day I have to post about his story. He has shown me that prison is most definitely for punishment and not rehabilitation.

My point here is that race and class become pretty tangled up, and giving an issue such as Poverty simple treatment certainly ignores the real constraints on people, and more importantly it enforces racism and sexism and all those other isms. I have been alive long enough to understand that ignoring something ends up being the same as condoning something.

In class a few weeks ago I was playing devil’s advocate, and I argued that a crime is a crime, and no one is holding a gun to someone’s head and making him or her steal something. One student responded [rightly] that any one of us would steal if we needed to do so to feed our kids, she went on to point out that this is simply what it comes down to for too many families even in SoCal. Sure, a crime is a crime, but what is the harm in asking What compels people to behave as they do? In other words, is there a cultural logic that explains why the poor behave as they do? There is. And by ignoring it and making simple claims (or Hasty Generalizations for you fans of logic fallacies) that these people got themselves into this, and we should not feel compelled to address the bad decisions that others make is not just off the mark. It is cruel.

There are lazy people everywhere, and there are certainly assholes everywhere. My concern, turning to the collective from the individual, is that we seem to have lost (if we ever had) a sense of collective concern. In my archaeologist days I learned about Reciprocity. PJW once said in class “Reciprocity is the single most important reason we are all still here. It’s gotten us through millions of years together because people either all lived together or died together.” Now we have this bizarre hard-on for the rugged individual, and to heck with the others. Why would we abandon a strategy that is time-tested and that we know from literally millions of years of prehistory actually works? What is it we fear or loathe so much about occasionally helping someone else? I ask these as rhetorical questions, for I have answered them for myself. I direct these questions at those who actually manage to ask with a straight face: “Why should I help these suckers who got into mortgages they can’t afford? I’ve worked hard for my money!”

I’ve also worked hard for my degree. But, turning to structures that prop up instead of push down, I understand that in addition to my hard work I have benefited from White Privilege. “What a bunch of psycho-babble,” you charge? Well, Peggy McIntosh provides us with a check-list of everyday, taken for granted things we should ask ourselves before dismissing this. Here are a select few from a list that spans almost half a dozen pages:
1. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I want to live.
2. When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
3. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.
4. Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.
5. I can be pretty sure that my children’s teachers and employers will tolerate them if they fit school and workplace norms; my chief worries about them do not concern other’s attitudes toward their race.
6. I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty or the illiteracy of my race.
7. I can speak in public to a powerful male group without putting my race on trial.
8. I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
9. I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons of color who constitute the world’s majority without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.
10. I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its politics and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.
11. I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to the “person in charge”, I will be facing a person of my race.
12. If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.
13. I can easily buy posters, post-cards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys and children’s magazines featuring people of my race.
14. and on and on.

Of course it isn’t illegal to make most toys look white, and it isn’t illegal to pull someone over for speeding. At interest here to me are the ways in which we deviate from what we say we do as a society and what we actually do. Truly, only the oblivious walk around thinking that just because we all get to drink from the same fountain, and sit at the same lunch counter that prejudice is no longer a problem, and that the civil rights and women’s rights movement have equalized everyone, and so those who don’t succeed are losers.

Let me also be clear here that the examples I have given are not intended to prove my point, only to illustrate it. Suffice to say that it is clear to me that there are many barriers that work well at keeping large segments of this population in peril, and sometimes those barriers are subtle and social, and sometimes they are direct and legal.

The other day C reminded me that “You [middle-class folks] don’t have to see what it’s [poverty] like for us,” and she is right. I’m just now beginning to realize that all the talk of a weak economy is simply irrelevant to people like her. What has changed for her in the last 2 years? Not much. She takes the bus, so gas costs don’t hurt her. She has had marginal access to the medications she needs. It’s not like she’s fussing over smaller returns on her investments. I, on the other hand, am feeling the pinch. I can’t sell my house right now, my insurance company just informed me that they won’t renew my policy because we live in a “fire hazard area,” and the gas prices are killing us. It seems to me the economy is in a crisis to the extent that people like me are feeling more and more marginal. But what about people like C who have felt this for decades? Why is that not a crisis to us? There is no logic, to me, in defining something as a crisis when just a few of us at the top feel threatened.