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.

ljtaylor 7th-Dec-2012 01:09 pm (UTC)
Here pulling teeth is one of the only dental things that isn't automatically repaid, mostly to force dentists to put more effort into saving teeth rather than pulling them.

Yeah according to my former flatmate, a dentist, in the UK NHS dentists are more likely to pull teeth because it's cheaper than going on to do crowns on a filled tooth.

Honestly though I have a hard time trusting dentists. I have a private dentist, not through choice because registering with an NHS dentist is a lottery in parts of the UK and, many years ago I had a cap filling. I side-eyed it a bit at the time because, appropriately, the dentist had just got a new piece of laser-type equipment and he was like "ooh I finally get to try this out!" This was my first filling and I didn't think to ask for an x-ray beforehand. But hey, I'm not a dentist and I trusted his judgement. I haven't had any other fillings since (I guess I have enamel like Adamantium) but a few years afterwards I got a new dentist who was all, "uh somebody did a cap filling on a healthy tooth and now you have a cavity underneath". Cue my having to shell out for a proper filling. But at least she x-rayed it to show me the cavity. Lesson learned... get visible proof of your cavities...

ETA: I still have to say it is WAAAAY cheaper than $1500. Jfc. I can't imagine how mad I'd be if I'd shelled out that amount of money and the same thing had happened to me in the US...

Edited at 2012-12-07 01:13 pm (UTC)
liliaeth 7th-Dec-2012 01:26 pm (UTC)
I'm actually quite happy with mine. I mean, I know little or nothing about teeth, or dental care, but he's often informed me of my options, so I could take a cheaper alternative that has the same result as a more expensive form of dental care would have had.
ljtaylor 7th-Dec-2012 01:56 pm (UTC)
Yeah I've had many dentists over the years, unfortunately the best one I ever had switched professions so I only saw her twice! She also talked me through my options. I had another who scaled my gums and told me it didn't hurt when I complained that it did, so I made sure I never saw him again :/ But I live in Sweden now, dunno if that's any different!
luminescnece 7th-Dec-2012 05:27 pm (UTC)
That's not the end of my dentist fuckery in Canada... When I was getting coverage through the BC healthy kids program, the only reason I *got* dental coverage as a child (which I am thankful for...

The BC government put the program into action and never updated the costs of the procedures covered, so by the time I was 17 there was a substantial difference in the cost that dentists would charge patients and the cost covered by the program. What most dentists were doing was charging poor families up front and giving them what the government gave them to cover their service.

Example. If child's filling will cost 380$, poverty stricken family is supposed to get 380$ and WAIT to get reimbursed with 2/3rds of what they paid.

Bullshit. My family couldn't afford it.

What we did was go to the only dentist in the area that would take people covered by the BC healthy kids program without charging them up front.

The dentist covering me without charging upfront did a procedure I didn't ask him to. He put a cap on a tiny tooth I had to make it look normal when I though I was going in for a filling, and when I eventually went in for the filling, he gave me one shot of freezing and worked on me within 20 minutes. When I told him I could still feel it he told me he could patch me up and send me somewhere else or I could sit there and finish because he couldn't wait any longer or give me any more.

So I sat there and got the filling and cried minimally and never went back.

Same guy that treated my dad great when my dad was paying upfront for everything.

(For comparison, my current dentist gives me two-three shots of freezing on the bottom and has to wait 45 minutes for it to kick in because my lower jaw is just the way it is).
the_physicist 8th-Dec-2012 12:15 am (UTC)
if i had to go privately for dental care and pay US prices i would hop on a ryan air plane and go east of the EU just for the weekend. that would be cheaper.

as it is i go to an NHS dentist who doesn't ask for details and doesn't want any money. the admin cost of filling in the forms correctly to get the money from me is apparently more than the money i am supposed to pay them. i think they should do that at every dentist. i don't get the whole 'pay a bit of the treatment' thing. you don't make people who break a leg while playing football pay towards the A&E visit costs.
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