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.

ohloverx 7th-Dec-2012 05:13 am (UTC)
I seriously wish my mom would do this. She used to be a lot more liberal, but the older she gets, the more conservative she gets.

At Thanksgiving we got into a screaming match over "wealth distribution", socialism, how my generation had no answers for anything (and when I tried to tell her what our answers were, she'd cut me off), etc. She asked me if I hated rich people for being rich. I told her no, but that she was oversimplifying the issue, and that each mega-millionaire is different, and I judge them for how they use their money and treat others/run their businesses. I don't hate hard-working, wealthy philanthropists because of the amazing things they does with their money, but I don't care for big banksters who authorize raises they don't deserve while their banks screw people over. So she told me that I proved that I hated the rich (all of them), and wanted to take their hard earned money.

Then she tried to ask my husband if he'd be okay with a Wal-Mart cashier making as much as he does if they worked just as hard with the same hours, but weren't educated like him, and would he be willing to take a small pay cut to ensure they got paid more. And when I said that we shouldn't take from the poor to make sure other poor people have more when we could take a little from a multi-billionaire who wouldn't even NOTICE that money missing, she wouldn't hear it.

And when I brought up socialism as not such a bad thing, she said, "In my day, we called that living in a commune and it didn't work!". Yes, mom. Because living in a country like England or Canada is JUST like living in a commune! Wow! How didn't I see it before! *eye roll*

It really does baffle me because she didn't used to be this way. She was a little more socially conservative when I was fairly young. By the time I went to college, she was socially and fiscally liberal, and now that I've been out of school a few years, she's socially moderate and fiscally conservative. It doesn't make sense...at all! The only link I can see is that when I lived with her (from 16 to 23), that was when she was most liberal, and she seems to be regressing now that I'm married and moved out.

Sorry for the rant. This just all really struck a nerve. :/
romp 7th-Dec-2012 06:08 am (UTC)
Clearly she was depending on your good influence.

I was told I'd understand the Republicans in my family (i.e. everyone) when I got a job. I'm in my 40s now and just keep moving to the left. But I moved out of the Republican stronghold where the rest of my family stayed. I don't know how someone's values change so maybe it's the input that's changed for your mother.
ohloverx 7th-Dec-2012 06:17 am (UTC)
Heh, my mom said a similar thing. She said I'd feel differently about not minding if taxes were a bit higher if it paid for things we really need once I got out on my own. Oddly enough, now that I'm out on my own I feel even STRONGER about paying a little more to have better schools, more people covered by healthcare, nicer roads, libraries from shutting down, etc. I feel more liberal all around the older I get!

I also used to get on her about spending because she'd spend money we didn't have, and come the end of the month we'd be struggling. She always told me, "I earned this money, I can spend it how I want! When you have your own money and family, you'll understand!". Now, she is on her own, makes more than us, and still can't get her finances together, while we make less, have less instability, and don't splurge if we can't afford it. And somehow, it's still poor people's fault that things are so bad for her, and even though I'm out in the world, she still says I don't get it because I don't believe what she does. Drives me up the wall, tbh!
pleasure_past 7th-Dec-2012 11:34 am (UTC)
You might want to point out to your mother that if her beliefs only make sense if one is starting with the premise that she's right, there is something seriously wrong with her beliefs.
darth_eldritch 7th-Dec-2012 06:30 am (UTC)
Heh, the more I worked jobs the less and less I liked Republicans.
lone_concertina 7th-Dec-2012 02:38 pm (UTC)
Your mom sounds like my parents and Old Economy Steven.
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