Editorâ€™s Note: This is part three of “Where Would I Fit Into Romney-Ryanâ€™s New Economy?” series of what it is like being part of the 47% that Mitt Romney said he doesnâ€™t “worry” about, and of the Americans Ryan has called “moochers.” Now that the election is over, I decided to change title. This series is an invitation to break the wall that often separates participants into passive audience or active actor. You can find part one here and part two here. Please share far and wide.
“The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” – Baudelaire, “Le Joueur gÃ©nÃ©reux,” 1864.
Now that the election is over, it is time for this country to do some deep soul searching. During the presidential race poverty was barely mentioned, which is a concern.
In the United States, we like to think this country as the very embodiment of meritocracy: a country where people are judged on their individual abilities rather than their family connections. From the outset, Americans have believed people achieve success and rewards through hard work, education, risk taking, and even a little luck.
“The road to fortune, like the public turnpike, is open alike to the children of the beggar, and the descendants of kings.” â€”A.C. McCurdy, Win Who Will, 1872
“If you donâ€™t have a job and youâ€™re not rich, blame yourself.” â€” Hermain Cain, former GOP presidential candidate
Despite the monstrous setbacks by two devastating recessions of the last decade, we still believe if “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” you will succeed despite any odds set against you. The fault lines are very clear and there is not much room for gray. This is reinforced through subtle messages such as Forbes 400 Wealthiest Americans list that reminds us “that the American dream is still very much alive.”
To have or to have not
As I mentioned previously, poverty considered to be relative. When Americans hear the words “poor” or “poverty” they will conjure up images like those on the right. One reason defining “poverty” in this country is vague and allusive, it is often falls in one of two categories: utter penury, of the sort experienced by the billion or so souls who subsist on $1 a day or less; and one that is defined in terms of income levels, official poverty line that is carried out year by the U.S. Census Bureau.
Granted, the poor in America do not starve, the problem with relative poverty it oversimplifies the situation and deceives almost everyone, including even those who suffer by it. As a result, it allows us to make social comparisons among social groups. How often have we consoled ourself by thinking how someone else is much worse off than us?
If poverty is considered to be relative, is wealth the opposite to poverty?
During the presidential debates, both candidates talked about the middle class. Which begs the question, what constitutes the middle class?
It is easy to define middle class if you are content with being simplistic: is a group of people who fall socio-economically between the working class and upper class. A persistent source of confusion surrounding the term “middle class” derives predominantly from there being no set criteria for such a definition. From an economic perspective, members of the middle class do not necessarily fall in the middle of a societyâ€™s income distribution.
“Middle class” is one of those terms that is universally familiar and devilishly elusive. Half of the American public considers itself middle class. According to Chrystia Freeland of Reuters, Mark Gallogly, co-founder of the private equity and credit investment firm Centerbridge Partners and one of President Obama’s economic advisors, the “president’s overriding concern, was with the workers who make $24,000 a year.” Yet, earlier this year World Bank reported a single person earning $34,000 a year after taxes is considered “among the richest 1% in the world.”
However, the official measure of poverty has a number of limitations, some of which stem from the fact that there are no commonly accepted standards of need. For example, U.S. Census Bureau defines a four-person family unit with two children, the 2010 poverty threshold is $22,113. For one- or two-person family units, the poverty thresholds differ by age; the 2010 threshold for one individual under age 65 is $11,344, whereas for an individual 65 or over it is $10,458.
Who are we kidding? No wonder this country is disconnected. We are all accustomed to measuring our worth in terms of money. It is not easy to see relationships always in terms of real goods and real welfare, but if we have any understanding at all of what goes on around us, we soon see how issues such as inflation, the financial crisis, unemployment, immigration reform, taxation, the war on terror, the war on drugs, and more are all tied to the fundamental ideas of economics.
No one will argue it takes the money we have to spend. The economic conditions of the country affect our income whether it is earned or whether it is an income which comes to us from invested capital. What we are able to do in our home depends on the cost of the various things which we buy. As an individual you face the problem of having only limited resources with which to fulfill your wants and needs, as a result, you must make certain choices with your money. You’ll probably spend part of your money on rent, electricity and food. Then you might use the rest to go to the movies and/or buy a new pair of jeans.
The Chain Reaction of Losses
Poverty will not feel the same in different cultures. There is a difference between living on a meager income, and being both broke and unemployed. So there is a continuum. I can only speak from my own experience.
I was born into what you might describe as the lower-upper-middle class. The upper-middle class, which had its heyday in the eighties and nineties. Both of my parents have an advanced degree, however, that didn’t mean you were debt free. Rent, mortgages, and clothes and school-bills were an unending nightmare, and every luxury, even a glass of beer, is an unwarrantable extravagance. Practically as my family’s income went, so did the cost did the cost keep up with Jones. It is obvious that people of this kind are in an anomalous position, and one might ‘be tempted to write them off as mere exceptions and therefore unimportant.
Although I may have graduate degree and worked in white collar jobs, I continue to hang on economically by my fingertips. Whether living paycheck to paycheck or being unemployed, poverty is always on your mind â€” it is the thing you fear most. Nobody wakes up one day with the scarlet letter of poverty. It is complicated, for many, it comes in waves; like the proverbial boiling frog.
Poverty is a chain reaction of losses. There are ways to illustrate how not having money causes a chain reaction. Here is a recent example how a $60 utility bill doubled. My average gas bill cost $10 month, after six months, I received a notice my gas service would be disconnected if payment was not received immediately. Naturally, I paid online without running into any problems. Two months later, I received a notice my service was disconnected. To reconnect, not only did I have to pay the amount due, but also over $100 in additional fees. In the end, I had to pay $180 to reconnect, adding more stress.
That is the most obvious. Less obvious are the ripple effects from past and present economic policy when it comes to college education. By understanding what goes on around us, we soon see how outside influences affect our own existence. It was well known a college education was needed to reach the American dream and maintain a middle class lifestyle. By the time I graduated from high school there wasn’t that many options to for college, federal financial aid was based on need-based to qualify. When I went to the University of Texas in 1992, Congress made it easier to qualify for a federal student loan, however, I still did not qualify because of my parents income level. I had to options, I could declare myself independent or apply for a private loan. Because my parents careers where just taking off, they pleaded with me not to declare myself as an independent so they could take advantage of the child tax credit. But to qualify for a private loan I needed a co-signer, which they did. Unbeknown to us these loans have higher and variable interest rates and cannot be discharged in bankruptcy. As a result, we are wedded to this loan. Since graduating graduate school this loan has brought about tensions with my family during period financial difficulty to the point I now equate a call from my mother as a call from the debt collector.
It is expensive to be poor. There is always some notice at the end of the month. Once you go down that path, it seems like I can never catch up. Always behind. Something is disconnected every goddamn month. Paying the cable/Internet bill and the cell phone is always at the 11th hour. You get late feeâ€™d and penalized and overdraft fined to death. I know I have painted myself into a corner that I can’t get out of.
You wear things as many times as you can before they smell to cut down on costs of washing clothes. You no longer buy the brands that are the most environmentally sound, or non-toxic. You do your best, but inevitably, your detergents, shampoos, soaps, deodorants and light bulbs simply become what you can afford. Vacations are put on hold; upgrading the computer will have to wait; seeing a local band is now replaced with television re-runs. Gone are the days of the shampoo and body washes that make you feel better. Gone are the sharp razors. No more full fridge and kitchen cabinets. Goodbye snacks, hello leftovers.
Each day you try avoiding, humiliating situations that rob you of your chance to eat. You go to a store to buy food, as you walk up to the cashier you find out the place does not accept the only credit card you can use that month. You slink out of the place, never to go there again. Or you go to the grocery store thinking you had money in your account only to find out you are short when your debt card is declined. There’s always an anxious moment when I walk into any store or place to eat. Will my card be declined today?
One day, I had a conversation with a friend about her recent mental break down at the bank. Having thought she had made a payment on her car, she was immediately informed they did not receive it. She went to say she nearly had a mental break at the thought that the mistake could not be fixed. She was panic stricken at the thought she would have to ask her farther for a loan.
That feeling never goes away. All these raw emotions and feelings build on themselves. You feel out of breath with the constant hustle, because, when you are poor, the hustle never ends. The need to make do never ends. The nagging feelings of feeling like a loser is ever-present. You know it’s a losing game, and you know it’s fixed. But who wants to lose, even when the game is fixed?
From Apathy to Entropy
The great recession is causing us to check our big dreams at the door. There’s just no room for error anymore as insecurity becomes dread.
As the emotional thorny patch grows thicker, the feelings and thoughts that are a result of your situation begin to entangle with each other. You can no longer tell where they end and you begin. Self-pity becomes the norm, you forget misery is not necessarily part of life. You lose yourself in your thoughts because the insecurity caused by a lack of finances begin to bleed over to your self image and emotional experience. You are insecure about many things: your cash, your ability to pay rent, the ability to keep your refrigerator full, or to respond rationally to any foreseen event.
Soon after funding dried up for Somos Tejanos, my parents began covering some of my expenses so I didn’t go through my savings quickly. Last year after I was in a minor accident, I was not concerned if sustained any injuries, irrationally, my first thought was the additional financial burden I would put on my parents. The stress was so intense, when my mother called to check up I broke down apologizing for my currently living situation. In reality, it was an apology for committing society’s social taboos – being dependent on my parents. Each time I have to borrow, those thoughts drag behind them bags weighted with shame; with fear; with worry and insecurity; with anger. Being full of those feelings all the time erodes your health.
Everywhere you turn, you are confronted with a panoply of rules, taboos, and penalties. Apathy, which is inseparable from poverty, slowly turns into entropy. When you have nothing to do and, underfed, nothing interests you. Entropy is a fact of life, however, when you have disposable cash, the glass always seems half full. You can easily replace, broken items. Make an appointment with a doctor when you feel sick. You don’t worry about the price of parking or admission to some dive bar. If a certain card is not accepted, whipping out your debt card is not an issue. Your clothes and shoes donâ€™t look worn-out and faded; you send your clothes to the dry cleaners, pay a little more for a better laundry detergent. When you have extra cash, you feel rejuvenated and refreshed to function and be effective in the material world.
When you are unemployed and without money, everything seems out of reach. The ever present hand of entropy colors your overall perception of life and self. People are wrong when they think being unemployed our only concern is about losing our income; on the contrary, a sense of purpose outweigh the need for money. Idleness is one of the worst evils of poverty. When there are no means of filling up time it can feel as miserable as a dog on the chain. George Orwell once wrote: “it is such nonsense to pretend that those who have ‘come down in the world’ are to be pitied above all others. The man who really merits pity is the man who has been down from the start, and faces poverty with a blank, resourceless mind.”
No amount of anti-depressants can counter it because the energy needed to fight back the nothingness engulfs you is the same amount that keeps you at a loss. The wear on peace of mind cannot compare to the constant scramble to bridge another gap, another finger in a dam that is constantly crumbling.
Like a Cancer, Anger Inside You
It’s no wonder you end up feeling so exhausted. Perversely, a life of poverty is a life in which you need to run even faster. Because being low on cash marks you. It marks you like criminal; ignorant, lazy, drunken, and dishonest. As you struggle to pay your bills, collection agencies become relentless in collecting their money. Late fees, disconnection fees, early cancellation fees, overdraft fees, bounced checks, low balance fees, higher interest rates, poorer terms for the poor…there is a network of vampiric thorns in place designed to trip up, puncture, and suck the life from those who cannot afford to stay sufficiently solvent.
Since the start of 2010, judges have signed off on more than 5,000 arrest warrants since in nine counties alone. Beverly Yang, a legal aid attorney, says many debtor’s â€” and judges â€” donâ€™t know debtorâ€™s rights, which results in the accused being intimidated into a pay agreement. Sheâ€™s seen judges interrogate debtors about why they canâ€™t pay more and whether they are trying hard enough to find a job.
Universal innocence also gives rise to universal failure to act. It won’t happen to you? It will all blow over? The upper middle class feel they are immune to the financial crisis. That is what former “CSI” star Gary Dourdan thought before he threw in the towel and filed for Chapter 11.
The troubled actor filed papers on August 30th — and according to the docs, has a little over $1.8 mil in assets … but is in the hole to his creditors to the tune of $1.73 mil.
A large chunk of that debt — $1,689,704 million — is owed to various banks, including Union Bank, which apparently holds the mortgage on his home that may be in default.
As for his assets — $200 cash, $3k in a bank account, $4k in furniture, $200 worth of books, $1,500 in clothes, $500 in watches … oh and a 2006 Dodge Charger worth $7,000.
Here’s the kicker … Gary says his disposable income is only $321 a month … claiming his bills ($14,562 a month) eat up just about all of the $14,883 he pulls in on average.
The majority sit quietly and dare to hope. In fact, some believe they are immune to the Great Recession. As long as you play by the rules, how can it happen to you?
It’s only a matter of time. You grow resentful; afraid of what the next penalty will be; their is a state of terror when you check your mail or answer the phone. You avoid it. You don’t empty the mailbox for a week or a month. You screening your calls more frequently. What do you care? There will only be more news about how much you owe. A recipe of penalty. Another mouthful of dread. Life suddenly feels like a condemned building and that the wrecking ball was coming swinging.
There is always this pushing upon you. This force pushing down upon you. It is entropy. Resisting it is painful, and gets harder the less money you have. Somehow, you believe in yourself. It’s a rough patch. the whole nation is suffering. And then you think Well…most of us. There are those who are not.
It is inevitable that living in these conditions long enough an anger will grow in you. An anger that in this whole dumb lottery of chance, you drew the short straw. Not because you deserve it, but because that’s the luck of the damn draw. The well-coiffed sons of privilege laughing as they duck to get into their Porsches or slide into their Senatorial seats are not inherently more worthy souls, or righteous beings.
No matter what the movies and advertisements try to tell us, you know they got lucky by birth or other circumstance. At worst, they were blessed by an institutional corruption that favors them. Why should they get bailed out of every scrape and set back on the path of good fortune, while you end up running yourself ragged and broke over ten bucks? Why should there be such different worlds, and some born to hardship from the start? What makes them so special as to be given such carefree lives? Why shouldn’t your worries also be theirs?
The anger poisons you. Poisons your heart. You try to talk yourself back to the generous soul that you know yourself to be. You are careful not to cultivate self-pity. You focus on the good. But…you still live in the U.S.A. You “should” have it all figured out by now. You “should” be comfortable. You “should” have an IRA and savings, and a new car, and be spending money. You should have some security for tomorrow.
And despite your best efforts, the bitterness grows. And before long, you have a hard time feeling good for other peoples’ good fortune. You live in a vicious competitive environment, and you are losing out. Each tip of the personal coffers signifies your own moral worth and competence as a human being. It’s no wonder your emotions run high; it’s no wonder you feel worn out. And you feel disappointed in yourself, as well. Even for having such thoughts and feelings. You know you are not a cynical person. But maybe you are not.
It’s very easy to call yourself kind when you are not worrying about tomorrow. Let the resources run dry for too long and you may find yourself to be quite another sort of person. Either way, you can’t help it. You don’t need a handout or a hand up, just a way out, that’s all. You can’t think and you just need a goddamn break, already.
Time is Never On Your Side
Itâ€™s true! When you are always lacking cash, you end up stressed out: about deadlines, schedules, closing times, bank holidays, end of the month, first of the month, bus schedules. You are very aware of time. And it is not your friend. Penalties await. Last chances await. Bounced checks await. Overdrafted accounts await. Shutoff notices await. And you better stay sharp on all of it.
Among middle-class people, another common example of scarcity is time.
“When people are facing a deadline, they become much more focused on that task, and they may even ‘borrow’ by asking for an extension, which means they might end up leaving themselves less time for future tasks,” he said.
When money is not a worry, it’s as if the whole world slows down. It literally feels that wayâ€”that the world is turning slower. You don’t need to rush to meet a deadline. You don’t need worry about overdue notice because you’ve already paid your bill! In fact, you paid it as soon as it arrived instead of racing against a shut-off notice. You don’t need to rush for much of anything. You can wander and muse. Because your life is not a constant battle to stay alive. Because having money means having leisure time.
And just as with cash you feel empowered, belonging, and able to tap into the society machine at will; when you are broke you feel like an outcast. You don’t belong. At no point in the chain of societal nodes can you take command. At no point can you enter. At no point can you negotiate anything, unless it is by the good graces of another. You best not loiter. You will be okay if your clothes are new and look more middle class; if not, you are an arrest or police harassment waiting to happen.
When Backed Into a Corner…Watch Out
Do you note the narrow focus of this writing? How it all becomes about your own self, your own mind, your own body, your own future? Even reading through it feels like being stuffed into a hole all alone with your rancid mind. And thatâ€™s what these situations do to a person. That’s part of that isolation; the survival instinct, which is running on overdrive. Thereâ€™s nothing more selfish than the instinct to survive, after all. And living in that place for too long can make you bitter. And it can make you ugly. These fears and feelings distort a person. Iâ€™ve seen it up close in the faces of people in my life; people stressed out about paying their share of the rent or buying a simple Xmas present. People who are living with all the feelings have kind and beautiful souls, but after years of living this way, those qualities become harder to see…because poverty can twist you out of shape.
And all the emotions that poverty breeds do this; you forget what it is like to view things differently. And you feel there is no salvation for you. You easily begin to burn inside with the injustice that is all around you, the injustice that is reaching into your home; the injustice that is mocking your manhood, and degrading your personhood. It doesnâ€™t take too much to bring you to the point where you feel you are ready to blow. Being poor doesn’t mean you are stupid or that you can’t see how everything is failing and divided unfairly. For you its painâ€”for others, its pure pleasure.
When we are talking about a â€œdivide,â€ we are not talking about how one person has a BMW and used car. The divide is much more significant and dangerous. We are talking about a divide that led me to write this series; its about the overall peace of mind. A divide in the feelings of self-worth that some have and some lack. A divide between ideas like â€œI belong here and I deserve to be happyâ€ versus â€œI am tolled and there is no way out for me.â€ A divide between â€œI want this society to work out and Iâ€™ll do what I can to perpetuate its successâ€ and â€œIf this thing topples, let all those who benefit from it, scream their way down.â€ We should not underestimate the volatile nature of a publicâ€”or even one personâ€”who feels s/he has nothing left to lose; that the deck is stacked against; that nobody is listening, and nothing will change.
Last year after being denied food stamps a desperate mother shot her two children and then committed suicide at a state welfare office. Naturally the first reaction is to disappointingly smug, and not just a little nÃ¢Ã¯ve: I wrote that he obviously had other issues if losing his job caused him to become violent in such a jarring way. Desperation is the great unspoken truth of modern life. I hope this writing has helped illustrate, in my opinion and experience, prolonged poverty and unemployment are big enough factors in and of themselves to destabilize a person. You donâ€™t really need much more than that to send you off the edge. And the fact that despite my upbringing, it is easy to be oblivious but it should have us worried that the conditions that pushed the mother toward destruction are common today, and only growing more ubiquitous.
Europeâ€™s leaders should recognize the full magnitude of yesterdayâ€™s European mobilisation. Some 50 trade union organisations from 28 countries participated actively in this day of action. It is impossible to pursue the path of austerity, which is a total failure. According to a recent report by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the austerity measures implemented in Greece are leading to violations of fundamental rights. We need to change course immediately. The social situation is urgent.