by Marlana Eck / Lehigh Valley Vanguard
“Poor people are just lazy.”
“In life you just have to pull yourself up by your boot straps.”
“This is America! Everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed.”
These are only a few of the myopic stereotypes people have of the poor.
For those who use the phrase without knowing what it means, pulling oneself up by their “boot straps” does not actually mean “you have to take care of yourself” or “you just have to dust yourself off.” It is a 19th century turn of phrase meaning: you must attempt an absurdly impossible action. That is indeed what poor people have to do to survive in the world.
When I taught college classes, we used to do a unit on The American Dream. I used to show clips from Morgan Spurlock’s 30 Days show which aired in 2005. In the first episode, Spurlock addresses what it is like to live on minimum wage for 30 days. In the show, Spurlock and his then fiancé take on living 30 days while making only minimum wage, which at the time was 5.15 per hour. They left all of their money behind and scouted for a house with the savings equivalent to a week’s salary ($325). That doesn’t buy you much stake in real estate, but they found an apartment for a deal: a recently renovated crack house.
Although they were both college educated, when they went to look for jobs in the area, prospects were bleak, not much different than 2013, 8 years later. Health issues posed an even bigger problem, as a hospital visit cost them three months’ worth of salary. To a poor person, that would be $1,000.
The show details what Malcolm Gladwell coined “the fundamental attribution error”, a mistake that once perpetuated in the minds of many is difficult to correct. If you notice, people like to repeat what is going around. As Jeff Wang said about Spurlock’s exploration of minimum wage living: “Some folks have the misconception that people who can only make minimum wage are uneducated, inarticulate, drug-using lowlifes who couldn’t do any better. Well, Spurlock and his girlfriend are educated, articulate, drug-free vegans who just couldn’t do any better.”
In this case, we have to examine this notion of “couldn’t do any better.” We have to look at the neoliberal assumption that if we all just “take responsibility for ourselves” that all of our problems will go away. “Couldn’t do any better” is a multi-faceted problem that does not rest solely on the individual. To make things worse, I’ve read shocking admissions by credit card companies that the working and lower class are walking ATMs. How could that possibly be if they have no money to begin with?
Let me introduce you to a little corrupt institution called “the legal system” where unconscionable contracts are typically upheld due to this same fundamental attribution of what it means to be poor. Instead of reevaluating someone’s situation (which seems fair considering the unpredictability of life), companies like to stick to the original contract of every user agreement, credit card contract, and lien. Value go down on your car significantly, leaving you to pay twice its value? Bummer. Better keep paying or we’ll sue you and win.
Have a life circumstance come up that prevents you from working? Too bad, we’re sending you to collections (when you read that sentence, stretch out your annunciation of “collections” it makes it more punishing).
Once it’s sent to these criminal institutions of harassment and shaming, it’s also put onto a little something these people have cooked up called your “credit report.” If you’re looking for someone who empathizes with this classist invention, please consult an “e-How” article on how to “clean up your credit report.”
Who else is poor that we don’t talk about as being poor? College graduates. Not just 4 year college graduates, graduate school graduates. Medical school graduates. Law school graduates. Well maybe not law school graduates. Just kidding, law school graduates. When you calculate what these people make when they come out of school, most of them in massive debt, in terms of real dollars, they are not really “making” anything. Or as I’ve seen it put by an activist organization “WE ARE ALL IN THE RED.” All of the money we do make is going to rent, car insurance, gasoline, food, phone bill, and loan payments.
Remember, if you are poor and want to get an education, you’ll be punished for it. You’ll take out loans under the misguided assumption that you will find some type of liberating employment allowing you to pay them off in your early adulthood; most do not get rid of them until they are at least forty. So you go to school to get the job, you take the job to pay off the loans. You pay 50% of what you earn each month to loan companies. Most people’s payback schedule on their loans is twenty five years. I would like to give you an estimated monthly payment for the average college graduate, but it varies so much.
You can anticipate that in college you will be remedialized and put into “basic math”, “basic reading”, and “basic writing” because you had a parent that was absent due to work obligations or you were not able to devote time to studying because you had to devote time to work obligations or your teacher was burned out from teaching too many students/classes/being a temp. By work obligations I mean that your family depends on it; not getting kicked out of your house, having food depends on you working somewhere.
The only way you can avoid an outrageous monthly payment on your school loans after college is if you live in poverty level, which means making under $14,000 a year. Then you can qualify for an income based repayment amount of zero dollars per month. And here’s a real treat, if you stay in poverty for the next 25 years (which puts you at mid-forties–fifties) and are careful not to make any lump sum payments, your debt will finally be forgiven by the government. How delightful!
And don’t go into default. If you go into default because you simply do not have enough extra money to support loan payments each month, you can look forward to your wages being garnished at every job you hold until the loan is paid. You can also look forward to threatening letters and a credit card interest rate for defaulted borrowers of twenty percent. It is actually more profitable for loan companies and government if you default, so don’t expect that to reform any time soon.
Poor people are not just people who just got out of prison or are asking you for money on a bench in the park (although the intent is not to vilify them either because an overwhelming number of them are vets). Poor people are people who have not been able to make it with what they have.
Poor people are also those who were under the mistaken impression that if they wanted something better for their lives they could have it. The same people who now know that finding a job in any industry has more to do with luck than anything else.
When we look closely at who ends up on the underside of society, the deck is stacked. Poor parents, as we’ve discussed, are not lazy, therefore most of their time is spent working and not on child care. Poor children are frequently latch key kids, raised by grandparents, teachers, social workers. If these influences are not strong enough or do not provide enough of a base for success, the child does not have much of a choice. Children can often seem like a burden to poor parents, but let’s examine the origins of that. If you’ve done the mental calculations to determine how hard it is to support yourself on minimum wage, you can see how hard it is to support a family.
If you would like to avoid neglecting your family and only want to work one job, you may need to apply for assistance like welfare or go to a food bank. It is only families that haven’t been shamed into being “too proud” who will do this. You can look forward to people making fun of you by using welfare slurs like “parasite” and “welfare queen.”
You will feel ashamed for wanting to spend more time at home with your family. If you do work, the taxes that are taken out of your non-livable wage make the family sacrifice seem pointless.
Being poor is also strenuous on a marriage. When you are poor, you are likely working a few jobs just to pay bills and buy food. This does not leave much time for family. The people who are the poorest have the children most likely to become part of the prison complex. Most of the time, it is not because their parents do not feel like being good parents, it’s because they are exhausted from being told what to do all day by people who recognize them barely with a wage that will not sustain their basic needs.
Employers, especially small businesses, have taken the step to becoming independent of the working class malaise of being told what to do. However, they have exited that complex problem and entered a new one. They are now being told what to do by the government in lieu of taxation and sometimes gigantic overhead costs. While it would be ideal if employers saw employees more as partners, this does not happen frequently. The reality is that many smaller employers are not making much after they are taxed.
But to get back to the idea of employees being looked at as partners, what about those longstanding conglomerates (and this includes higher ed institutions) that make enough so that their administrators are making six figures but their constituents are barely scraping poverty? This is fundamentally wrong and not a blameless act. This is greedy and there isn’t much else to say about it that wouldn’t be superfluous.
Erica Payne explained it well when she said that we should want to help people who have been “systematically barred from things that are rightfully theirs.” To do this, she suggests that we change the “nuances within the language we use to describe poverty and inequality, we can begin to change the narrative so it is finally accurate.”
We should hopefully start to be embarrassed at ourselves for turning people who had little opportunity for success to begin with into villains.
Marlana Eck is a writer and artist from Easton, PA. She is the editor and publisher of Lehigh Valley Vanguard.