ONTD Political

"Being broke is nothing to be ashamed of"

4:48 pm - 12/06/2012
It’s Time for the Poor to Come Out of the Plutocracy’s Closet of Shame
Posted on December 3, 2012

By Jeff Nall
Truthout | Op-Ed

As a college-educated, heterosexual, white, male American citizen I know something about (unearned) privilege. But being poor – for the last three years our family of five has lived on, and continues to live on, well under $30,000 annually – has also taught me that a social analysis that ignores economic standing is doomed to draw incomplete conclusions. In many situations, being poor diminishes these previously mentioned privileges.

Scholarly communities generally agree that it is wrong to disallow a fellow scholar’s participation in a conference due to their race, sexuality, nationality or citizenship, or gender. There is not, however, an equal objection to excluding people on the basis of their economic standing. As a poor scholar tasked with supporting a family, I have been embarrassed to have had to apologetically cancel participation in conferences because of economic limitations that made me unable to pay for registration fees and travel costs. In the realm of health care, poverty has meant choosing tooth extraction over tooth repair because I didn’t have insurance and couldn’t afford the procedure. My missing tooth is a constant reminder that the poor are routinely denied basic human dignity in our society, even when they are recipients of racial, gender, and/or sexual privilege. If this is true of white, male, heterosexual, educated American poor people, then it is likely worse for those who are additionally “othered” due to race or ethnicity, sexual orientation, nationality or citizenship status, and/or education.

Some people who are poor often try to “pass” as middle class. They simply keep silent about their economic conditions, quiet on the healthcare they need but can’t afford, quiet that the reason they can’t attend an event or outing with friends, family or coworkers is because they don’t have the money.

Perhaps most gravely, poor people hide their status by being silent when others speak about the poor. Since being poor is associated with vice, the last thing many poor people want to do is both be poor and be identified with other poor people.

This is clear from Stacey Patton’s article, “The Ph.D. Now Comes with Food Stamps,” (OP: a good article in it's own right, but from May, so perhaps too old for a post?) in The Chronicle for Higher Education. Patton introduces us to several people who admit the shame they feel for being poor. Melissa Bruninga-Matteau, a white woman with a Ph.D. in medieval history and an adjunct professor, begins her conversation with Patton with these words: “I am not a welfare queen.” Bruninga-Matteau goes on to say, “I find it horrifying that someone who stands in front of college classes and teaches is on welfare.”

Elliott Stegall, a white, 51-year-old married father of two who teaches in the English department at Northwest Florida State College, tells Patton that he is appreciative of the government assistance he and his family rely on. But he adds that “living on the dole is excruciatingly embarrassing and a constant reminder that I must have done something terribly wrong along the way to deserve this fate.” Kisha Hawkins-Sledge, a 35-year-old black, single mother with a master’s degree in English, told Patton about her preconceived notions about poverty: “I went to school. I went to grad school. I thought that welfare was for people who didn’t go to school and couldn’t get a good job.” The powerful know all too well that these stereotypes, created by dominant culture, foster a climate of fear, shame and embarrassment in those who do their best to deny their impoverished economic identity. And as a result of this shameful silence, the truth is again and again subordinated to stereotypes. It’s particularly important that poor people who have some aspect of privilege – be it racial, gender, sexual, educational or otherwise – realize that their silence is a form of complicity that reinforces the lies about the poor used to justify the denial of their dignity.

The time has come for poor people to stop letting other people speak for, and about, them; to stop letting others define who they are. Poor Americans need to look to black and gay pride movements. Thinkers like Malcolm X pointed out that it wasn’t enough to change the political conditions of a people; subjugated people also had to stop viewing themselves through the lens of dominant culture, had to shake stereotyped, degrading visions of themselves that they had too often internalized.

To put it plainly, the time has come for poor people to have a coming out of the plutocratic closet of shame. Being broke is nothing to be ashamed of. What is shameful is that so many are degraded by precisely those who rely upon their labor. Most poor people have long histories of hard work. But we have allowed those who control the ideas and the communication of ideas to invert reality, to define the poor as lazy nonworkers. Our silence and compliance breathes life into these stereotypes. To deconstruct this false mythology, we must stop hiding our economic plight and heretically declare that the poor, be they able-bodied or disabled, young or old, mathematically or artistically inclined, are entitled, yes, entitled, to dignity. The time has come for the poor to speak for themselves and stop allowing others to speak for them.

Perhaps most essentially, the time has come to reassert that most fundamental, basic of all moral ideas: Human beings have dignity, inherent worth. We must, in the words of German philosopher Immanuel Kant, treat people as ends in themselves and not as mere means to an end. If we dared to speak such increasingly marginalized moral ideas, then we would forever destroy the misguided assertion that the solution to the plight of the working poor is that they get a “respectable” job. By virtue of being people they are deserving of respect.

Whether they are a doctor treating us for an illness or a caretaker of children; whether they are teaching in a college or students taking classes; whether they are librarians or those cleaning libraries; whether they are stay-at-home mothers or firefighters; whether they cut our grass or they do our taxes; whether they drive the bus or they fly the airplane, each deserves respect. And to the extent that they are helping to generate wealth, they should have a fair share to a portion of that wealth. And for those who are impoverished, due to illness, disability, age, or lack of employment, the financially stable who truly respect life will freely give up some luxuries so that others may have basic necessities. But our society has surely lost its moral compass when so many chastise President Obama for affording $68.3 billion a year to feed some 40 million Americans lacking money for food while praising him for spending more than 10 times that amount to maintain Bush-level military expenses to fund the destruction of life.

7 Simple Steps to Revolt against Plutocratic Mythology

1. Disbelieve the lie that “low-end” workers are unimportant or inessential, and, thus undeserving of respect and compensation that affords a decent life.

2. Stop believing and teach others to stop believing the myth that those who are well off are necessarily harder working or more deserving than those who are broke. Some of the hardest workers in this country are also among the poorest.

3. Pay the people whose labor you rely on fairer wages: Don’t pay childcare laborers so little, for one; and buy fair-trade products rather than those that rely on unmitigated exploitation to get you a “good deal.”

4. Don’t presume to know others’ characters simply because you know their economic standing.

5. Criticize and don’t perpetuate the notion that a college education entitles you to a respectful existence. If we stand by the moral tenets that underwrite the basic concept of equality and human dignity for all, then we must maintain that being a conscious, purposeful and free being, rather than holding a degree or a type of job, entitles you to respect.

6. Take time to honor landscape workers, garbage truck workers, baristas, babysitters, cashiers, waiters, as well as police officers, firefighters and teachers. Start with simply acknowledging these peoples’ existence by smiling, extending kindness, and other basic acts of respect so often denied to “low-end” workers.

Finally, if you are poor, come out of the plutocratic closet of shame. Just as brave gays and lesbians around this nation have stood up to say, yes, we are gay, we are among you, and the stereotypes and the hatred we have been saddled with are unjustified, so, too, should poor Americans stand up and say, we are among you, we have dignity, and we will not be spoken about, and for, any longer. We will tell you our stories, and if you have a shred of moral decency, you will feel the need to stop stereotyping, dehumanizing, and discriminating against, the poor.

Jeff Nall holds a PhD in Comparative Studies: Feminism, Gender, and Sexuality from Florida Atlantic University. He teaches philosophy and gender studies at Indian River State College. For more of his work or to contact him go to virtuedrivenlife.wordpress.com/

OP note: I have a lot of issues with some of the comparisons he makes, tbh, but I get the impression he's talking to those other 'privileged' repeatedly mentioned, or something, idk.... Personally, I have never been embarrassed to be poor or considered poor; rather I just don't talk about it that much, because I don't consider it anyone's business (like most other people's finances). I am honest and upfront when asked about those sorts of things, but I notice it's other people who become really uncomfortable... But why, it's a reality of my life, why should I pretend otherwise for your sake? You feel me, ONTD_P?
PS. I'm really sorry mods, I fail at hmtl everyday today. Thanks for your patience.

chaya 7th-Dec-2012 01:51 am (UTC)
You're so close. Add tags, esp. the 'opinion piece' tag.
leaf_collector 7th-Dec-2012 01:59 am (UTC)
Done. I think I got everything.
Sorry for the trouble ;-; thank you so much for your tolerance.
a_phoenixdragon 7th-Dec-2012 02:33 am (UTC)
Poor myself. And I've never bought into the stereotype and I go out of my way to educate those who would say otherwise. The poor make up the majority of the world. There are people who take two jobs just to keep a roof over their heads, food in their mouths and still have to sweat out the last four days before payday. When it comes to getting cereal or getting gas to get you to work...there's a problem. Regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, or other federally protected statuses - any one can be poor. The only 'disease' that plagues the poor is the people who make them that way. The ones at the top get there by the people below them.

The poor (not middle class, that hasn't existed for years) PAY FOR EVERYONE ELSE. That's just facts. We do most of the work, pay the most and get the least. Hell with just saying we aren't ashamed. I'm not ashamed. I'm more curious on why it IS this way. I work hard, I pay my bills, I pay my taxes and I struggle through as best as I can. I just wish I didn't get paid so little to do so much.
romp 7th-Dec-2012 03:16 am (UTC)
Some of the hardest workers in this country are also among the poorest

Anyone who doesn't know this needs to leave their homogenized little world. Or actually LOOK around.
darth_eldritch 7th-Dec-2012 03:22 am (UTC)

And stop being afraid of "redistribution of wealth" and start caring very much that 90% of the world's wealth is concentrated in the hands of 10% of the "elite."
poetic_pixie_13 7th-Dec-2012 03:35 am (UTC)
Some people who are poor often try to “pass” as middle class.

Well, hello my entire life. It took me forever to realize it's not something to be ashamed of.

I didn't make it far into the article, tbqh, because I'm pretty sure this is all going to hit too close to home right now.

While I'm no longer ashamed of being poor, it's still shit and seeing what it's done to my family, what it's still doing, I can't properly describe how much I fucking hate it.

(Rereading this makes me realize how much I need a hug. Oi.)

Edited at 2012-12-07 03:36 am (UTC)
squeeful 7th-Dec-2012 03:41 am (UTC)

You're too awesome to be ashamed. You're an articulate, intelligent, kind, and amazing person.
tilmon 7th-Dec-2012 05:15 am (UTC)
I'm nodding my head in agreement with him. Poverty in academia is an especially nasty secret that has gotten worse because of the reliance on adjunct instructors whose untenured, unstable, poorly paid work barely covers necessities let alone research and conferences requisite for advancement, or the massive student loans acquired in order to be able to teach in the first place. I am speaking from personal experience in saying that you are better off taking a clerical position and just forgetting that you ever wrote a thesis or dissertation. The entire edifice of higher education, at least in the US, is founded on the lie of prosperity through educational attainment.

It isn't just in academia that people pretend that they aren't poor, either. We don't tell others how bad things are because we have already been conditioned to believe that we will be negatively judged if we reveal our economic straits. Unless you are eating nothing but rice broth and living in a box while simultaneously maintaining a middle class standard of hygiene and dress and able to be at work 15 minutes early and leave work at any time of the night without a car, you must be squandering your money. If you have a cell phone, you are profligate, but if you don't have a phone and can't be reached any time of the day or night, you are too irresponsible for employment. Almost all of us have absorbed the negative stereotypes so that now we keep quiet in order to not call extra attention to our problematic lives. Of course, what we need is exactly to call attention to our problematic lives, to force the well-off in the country to understand that, ever since the war on poverty was called off, poverty is winning.
veracity 7th-Dec-2012 07:16 am (UTC)
I talk to one of my teachers after class all the time, which I love her for, and she was telling me about how as a teacher they're only paid once a month and by the end, money gets tight. I'm at poverty level at this point, even though I live in a nice place but can't pay the bills and don't have the credit to get another place to live (catch 22). And since I got a wee bit of money last week, I bought my teacher a stainless steel traveling mug to keep in her office so she can have water available, or put in some of her soda from home, and save some money. I get it. So I'm trying to make it easier. But you don't hear about the money issues at all.

Our school's pay is shit anyway, given how they're running a brand new school into the ground. Like our charter won't allow for tenure professors...but they're already looking at adding grad school programs to hit university status since teaching college ain't doing much for them. In the meantime, the students and fac are carrying the monetary weight on our shoulders.
ohloverx 7th-Dec-2012 05:27 am (UTC)
What exactly do you consider trying to "pass" as middle class (other than what is mentioned in the article)? What indicators are we using to define poor vs. middle class? Is it about wealth or earnings, or is it more about what we're able to do with the money we have?

I struggle with these things because while my husband and I live on less than 30k a year, we have some luxuries, we have healthcare, we have a nice, working car, etc. Based on income, we'd be considered poor, but based on lifestyle (which we are able to afford with little debt), our experience doesn't resonate with that of a lot of other low income families. Sure, we can't afford everything we want with ease, but if I go into a store and see a book I want, or a video game, or we don't feel like cooking and want to go out, we can have it and not worry about bills, food, shelter, transportation, etc. I don't know where we fit. We're too poor to be middle class, it seems, but we're not poor enough to really be poor.
leaf_collector 7th-Dec-2012 05:55 am (UTC)
My family and I make something like 8k a year, supplemented with some things like, grant/scholarship money. In that way and some others we have some luxuries (car, computers, But things are largely up in the air where the reliability of those things stands. Examples: if our car broke down, we probably wouldn't really be able to afford any kind of not-short-term fix (it helps my husband has a little know-how with cars, though nothing official). And, scholarships/grants are all well and dandy, but they're an investment in time and effort, first and foremost, with no guarantee they will pay back. And they're based off previous effort/experience (gpa/whatever), which is hard to garner in some cases.

I think a redefining of poverty, middle-class, and poor is in order - they just don't contain all the varieties out there. Or anyway in the instance of federal definitions and which amount qualifies .
Maybe the terms don't really matter so much, but how secure one feels. I think to a certain extent everyone feels insecure financially these days - like things could so easily spiral out of control if some sort of domino effect began. :/ Or anyway, I feel that way.

Edited at 2012-12-07 05:57 am (UTC)
luminescnece 7th-Dec-2012 06:13 am (UTC)
Tooth extraction rather than tooth repair. THIS FOREVER.

When I had to have a root canal, after digesting the cost of getting a crown put on even with the coverage I have through my partner's job, 1500 for the canal, 1500 for the crown (covered at 50% thank goodness) I asked the receptionists how much it would cost to pull the tooth because I didn't think I had enough money even with the coverage.

They told me it would cost 300$ and that was fully covered. They also acted like I'd talked about disembowling a kitten.

Eventually I got it covered and paid the money and things were good, I have a gold tooth which I call my 'privilege tooth' because I shouldn't have it without my partner's coverage I would never have been able to afford it.
the_physicist 7th-Dec-2012 12:32 pm (UTC)
Fuck. I'm so sorry you had to go through that stress, glad you got it covered. It's so friggin' terrible you get scammed in the US on healthcare costs. 300 to pull a tooth? Wtf

My aunt became US American and had insurance even, but they wouldn't pay for her illness and she lost everything really and still had medical bills debt 20 years later. It ruined her life.

Edited at 2012-12-07 12:34 pm (UTC)
adalmin 7th-Dec-2012 07:04 am (UTC)
As an immigrant this is a problem that plagued my family.

We moved from Burma to Singapore, so we were really poor (the kyat to the Singaporean dollar rate was terrible) and basically it was awful for my family. There was this huge stigma for being poor - we'd walk instead of taking the bus and we lived in a tiny one-room flat for a long time (4 people squeezed in). But the whole time, it was really important to sound rich, to buy gifts for visiting relatives, to show off in front of friends, etc. Like buying dinner for your friends, that kind of thing. The whole time we're eating ramen noodles or nothing at all.

Now that I've moved from Singapore to America it's a little better - I'm a hermit so I don't feel the need to show off to my friends, but every now and then I have huge freakouts about how shitty my apartment must look or how worn out my shoes are or something equally stupid.

Edited at 2012-12-07 07:05 am (UTC)
ljtaylor 7th-Dec-2012 02:04 pm (UTC)
One side of my family, my mother's, were very poor and have the same attitude to money. My gran is always buying gifts and giving to charity. She is better off now, but she's taken that as a cue that she can be MORE generous. And yes, she is very houseproud, and irons all her clothes which has passed down to my mother and myself (though, I hate ironing).

But honestly, even if it shouldn't have to be that you disguise the "shame" of one's poverty, that generous attitude a million times over my wealthy and tightfisted grandparents who charged my dad rent from his paper round.
jeri741 7th-Dec-2012 02:00 pm (UTC)
Hoping things get better for veryone this year.
dangomango 7th-Dec-2012 04:45 pm (UTC)
Me too.
angelofdeath275 7th-Dec-2012 04:10 pm (UTC)
i need all four wisdom teeth pulled and have no fucking insurence

alryssa 7th-Dec-2012 07:46 pm (UTC)
Fuck. I'm sorry to hear that. :( That's such bullshit.
deleriumd 8th-Dec-2012 12:58 am (UTC)
I suffer from Gastroparesis and the medication I take must be taken three times a day. Because of the situation Im in now, I take the pills one time a day, every other day simply to stretch the medication as long as I can. I can afford to alter the dosage of the medication for that.
peace_piper 8th-Dec-2012 03:39 am (UTC)
I have a bachelor of science in engineering. I've been on welfare for over two years, going on three.
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