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.

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.
bowtomecha 7th-Dec-2012 09:04 am (UTC)
"live in a nice place but can't pay the bills and don't have the credit to get another place to live"

I hate this situation. Its like somebody telling you how many times a minute you can breathe and to do it quietly otherwise they'll take your air.
veracity 7th-Dec-2012 04:11 pm (UTC)
Nah, it's a direct effect for me of my diabetes. "Oh, rice is bad for you? That's all you can afford, you're hosed." I never breathe easy anymore.
keeperofthekeys 7th-Dec-2012 03:32 pm (UTC)
and she was telling me about how as a teacher they're only paid once a month and by the end, money gets tight

Yeah, this is how my uni pays graduate students. When I first started and was getting about $21,000/year, I lived on my credit card, then paid it off when I got paid at the end of the month. It took a long time to get ahead where I actually had money in my account during the month.
veracity 7th-Dec-2012 04:16 pm (UTC)
It's boggling to me how you have to carefully balance. And my school keeps hiring teachers because they have open enrollment with very little standards (think community college), so they're all fed up at this point. It's so ridiculous. Her story involved they had enough gas in the two cars (hers and husband, who can't drive right now) so she's measured it to the day of being paid. She got excited when she found the 1.25 in change to buy a diet drink. All the professors at my school are "associate" level. To make full-time pay, another one of my professors teaches and took an admin role at the school so bills can be paid. Her husband has a good job as a chef, but for three people (little kid), she wouldn't make enough.
keestone 7th-Dec-2012 03:36 pm (UTC)
As another person who teaches college classes and has a really shitty pay situation, thank you for doing that for your teacher.
elialshadowpine 7th-Dec-2012 03:58 pm (UTC)
Back in the early 2000s, I was taking college courses ostensibly to get a degree in English and teach. I then started actually talking to some of the teachers and found out many of them had to work second jobs in order to make ends meet. There was even a professor who worked as a waitress that earned more at her food service job (should note: WA State requires actual minimum wage for servers) but kept with her educational position because she loved it so and hoped that once she got tenure she would start to make more money.
lastrega 7th-Dec-2012 08:24 am (UTC)
Yeah, when some colleagues of mine in NYC were talking about getting me to come there to teach in my specialty at their university(long story), I looked at what people were earning in the field and realised there was no way I could afford to live on what they could pay me. Tuitions are enormous, so who's making the money?
ljtaylor 7th-Dec-2012 09:36 am (UTC)
I dunno how it is in the US, but I just did some research and in the fiscal year 08-09 the Dean of London Business School made £474,000. The vice chancellor of my old university made £386,000 in the same year, and given the massive fight my school had to make in order to get a guillotine (I studied architecture) I find it hard not to rage.

Not counting for international students who paid tuition of £10k, in the School of Architecture alone the university could expect to rake in excess of £136k a year in students' tution fees. That figure will have now more than doubled with the rise in tuition, unless the number of students studying architecture has dropped off as a result of the pay rise. Pisses me off because it keeps architecture (at least in the UK) as a hobby for the rich instead of as a serious profession for those with talent. I'm poor, but I love designing buildings damnit :|

Edited at 2012-12-07 09:36 am (UTC)
yeats 7th-Dec-2012 09:50 am (UTC)
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.

*sobs* then what the fuck am i doing pulling two all-nighters to write two seminar papers, jesus.

(for real, though, if i weren't on a funded program, there is no way i'd be back in school.)

Edited at 2012-12-07 09:50 am (UTC)
the_physicist 7th-Dec-2012 12:23 pm (UTC)
Yeah, if I had not had my PhD paid for by a grant? Forget it.

What field are you in?
elialshadowpine 7th-Dec-2012 04:05 pm (UTC)
My best friend's husband was a professor of advanced mathematics for several years. I can't off-hand remember all his specialties, but he was pretty high up there, and I believe had a doctorate. Between the shitty pay and the whole tenure process (which I will admit to not really understanding except that it was a big deal and something dangled over his head for years) and then the academic politics...

He ended up leaving academia to apply his mathematics skills commercially. I believe he's making three to four times what he was in academia. He is one of several academic types I know who have been really burned by the whole system and basically tell people don't do it unless you really love. And even then......
veracity 7th-Dec-2012 04:24 pm (UTC)
basically tell people don't do it unless you really love. And even then......

That's what my awesome teacher says. And I will say it's one reason I took up rhetoric. It's a pretty applicable degree since, well, rhetoric. Even if I had been in love with lit, I would have taken rhetoric based on possibilities once outside a degree.
the_physicist 8th-Dec-2012 12:09 am (UTC)
yeah, you have to really love it, i would agree with that completely. most of my colleagues want to get the hell out of academia and they are just miserable to talk to in regards to how things are at work. i will complain like the next person if something is bugging me, but i also don't hide the fact that i could not be happier with another job.

what's important is that you earn enough money, though. the stress of not being able to meet your bills...

some people are surprised how little i earn (people in industry), others are surprised how much i earn (generally other academics). *shrug* i have had many jobs. i know academia is not the easy path, because I could work in industry, but... academia is the best path for me in life. i need enough money to pay my bills, but i simply don't care beyond that.
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