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.

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.
keeperofthekeys 7th-Dec-2012 04:24 pm (UTC)
And people wonder why uni faculty aren't all excellent teachers/use textbooks as guides for assignments, quizzes and exams. I've tried explaining to my (republican) parents that most professors aren't raking in $100k/year, and if they are they 1) Are in a high-paying field that requires a salary incentive to work at a uni and 2) Have been hired to perform another job (admin) and teaching is something they're not suppose to be spending much time on. Professors are often given very little support and have far more to do than they're getting paid for. When I was TAing I was suppose to split my time in the lab and my time doing TA work 50/50. Which, lol, because my TA responsibilities pretty much sucked up all of my time.
veracity 7th-Dec-2012 04:37 pm (UTC)
At my college (literally not a uni level), it's a teaching college, so there's like no support for the actual fac. I don't even think the fac at my school make $40k, to be honest, given where they live. My teacher was actually hired as a teacher but knew the pay was shit, so now she's the mentor liaison for students and fac. And she teachers French no less. So, no, her time is totally not valuable outside the classroom, right? No way her students would want to see her for help but it's hard to catch her.

My favorite teacher doesn't make us do much in creative writing because, well, it's essentially a out-of-classroom class. And she'd let us go home early. I kind of love her so much for the fact she didn't try and bog us down. She's been teaching since the early 80s in at least three states now, so she knows the shit job side, as she puts it. She just soldiers on. She wants to move to Philly next because she's tired of my college.

I should mention that my college does EVERYTHING by committee. There is no one in any program (or 'discipline' as my school calls them) that is chair or head, so there's a billion meetings a week, too. Creative Writing teacher is like "Why? This costs gas when I don't have to be there and my husband needs me." I feel so bad for her.
the_physicist 7th-Dec-2012 10:50 pm (UTC)
I should mention that my college does EVERYTHING by committee. There is no one in any program (or 'discipline' as my school calls them) that is chair or head, so there's a billion meetings a week, too. Creative Writing teacher is like "Why? This costs gas when I don't have to be there and my husband needs me." I feel so bad for her.

D: D: D:

Hell no, that sounds absolutely terrible. I'm on one committee and that's enough for me.
sfrlz 7th-Dec-2012 06:45 pm (UTC)
As an engineering student I always have a lot of respect for my professors, because engineers in industry, especially with graduate degrees, are extremely well-paid. You have to be really passionate about something to get a PhD in engineering just to make less money than you would have after a few years experience with a BS.
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.
veracity 7th-Dec-2012 04:18 pm (UTC)
I just found out she got so little and as I went through a store, I went "I know!" I had planned on something stupid, kitchsy, and then I realized what she really needed. And it's got a great top so it won't spill out and she can attach it to her roly cart thing.
keestone 7th-Dec-2012 04:24 pm (UTC)
That really is awesome.

One thing I do like about the place I'm teaching right now is that they have a staffroom with free tea and coffee. The place that didn't hire me back this year had a faculty lounge only for full time staff only, and after an hour and a half long bus ride in I'd be chilled to the bone, so I'd keep a tin of teabags in my bag and buy hot water in the cafe.
veracity 7th-Dec-2012 04:30 pm (UTC)
I think we may have that, but considering the push for everyone to spend cash at the Starbucks...probably not the best tea or coffee. We have a lot of water fountains. I take my Brita water bottle and just fill it up all the time. I don't understand the stupid reactions. Apparently my school is really, really deep in the hole. I can tell you why, too. They're building these amazingly expensive, beautiful buildings and sports fields but they only graduate like 250 people out of 10,000+ a semester. If you don't graduate some students, you're gonna need more teachers. And most people use it as a stepping stone. It has no rep. I mean, none, except a cheap ass college to work for that things "doing good for the kids" is pay enough. (Hint: no.) Everyone thinks it's a community college. It's not. Four year.

The one advantage is we have some professors with such a niche specialty that those teachers provide good references for people getting into grad school and talking about the school to the other specialists. And those people are paid shit. Amazes the hell out of me that they keep coming back.
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.
veracity 7th-Dec-2012 04:20 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I'm really, really not surprised. I'm an English major, with a emphasis on rhetoric/writing because I'd like to teach the little shits I call peers how to write a complex sentence on occasion. Not always. Just. Not "Joe called Laila. He wanted her to go out. She said no." on a major paper.
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