Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Five Stupidest Habits You Develop Growing Up Poor? More Thoughts on the "Food Stamp Challenge" as a Type of Live Action Role-Playing for the Privileged

Thanks for great song suggestions earlier. I have lots of pleasant music listening homework to do!

I would like to reach back to our earlier conversation about the food stamp challenge, where I suggested that for many people it is a type of live action role-playing for the privileged classes. The conversation at the Daily Kos about my essay (which was featured in the "Community Spotlight") has been very informative--they have a discussion group called "Hunger in America"--and one of the commenters there offered up the following bit of sharing:
I lived that life for two years during the Reagan recession. I was intermittently employed in a small town, mostly on a casual basis, and experienced some discrimination because of my origins.   I had no car, no bicycle, only as much cheap/used cookware as fit in a copy paper box under my bed, and very little space to store anything.  Either I had a shared kitchen space from which others could and would steal my ingredients (which I could not keep in my room) or I had a hot plate, toaster oven and dorm-sized fridge.  I had lots of time and very little money, and had to hang around near my phone (only landlines then, and no voice mail) so I bought a giant bag of flour and learned to bake.  I also went in with friends and bought cheap ingredients that were only edible if cooked for hours and hours.  Wartime or Depression food.  Peasant food.

I managed because even so I still had certain advantages, which I fully realized at the time: two years of a first-rate college education, some connections to people and places in the better-off world I could use, and free access to the greatest library of cookbooks in the US. I also had experience cooking professionally at a basic level, but so do many other members of the working poor, those being the kind of jobs we got, when we could get them.

I never, ever made the mistake of thinking that because I could do it, that it was easy and that anyone who did less well was a worthless failure/stupid/lazy, etc.   That is a common failure of imagination arising from the meritocratic delusion, itself a product of the Calvinist worldview, compounded by "The Secret"-type BS that bad luck is contagious.  I was raised in a non-Western culture with different issues.  Also I had plenty of opportunities to observe the lives of others over those two years.  

That life was not my choice nor what I was born to, and I was glad to be done with it.   I don't blame the experimenters, I just feel they need to take it further, with teachers to help put it in context and maybe moderated discussions with people whom know the life form personal experience.  
I had a scary moment when I was unemployed for a year. I never had to deal with eating "peasant food." I guess I wasn't really "poor."

Being poor and on the public dole where you receive a pittance to live and eat is very difficult. Of course, there are hustlers who game the system. As I am fond of observing, the very rich can con the game to win; the hustlers who run game on the social safety net are operating from the set of ethically challenged principles. The moms and pops, the regular folks, the working class and poor who play by the rules have few loopholes or programs to exploit. Honesty and hard work are often penalized in this society.

My period of unemployment impacted me in ways that I am still processing. What stuck with me was the anxiety and fear of being homeless, having an emergency I could not deal with regarding my family, or just having to depend on others if my situation had not improved itself. I was relatively privileged in that regard too: I actually have friends and family to lean on if need be. If one year caused some life-long psychic pain, I can only imagine what either years or a lifetime spent in poverty does to a person emotionally.

Cracked (yes, of all places) had a piece on "The 5 Stupidest Habits You Develop Growing Up Poor" that was so powerful and revealing. I prefer to think of the essay as "the stuff that resource limited folks do to survive and adapt...and how it impacts them when they are no longer poor."

Check it out. I am going to start using it in my classes when we talk about poverty and income inequality. To my eyes, the most illuminating observation, of many in the piece, is the following one:
When You're Poor ...

Remember that time you were cleaning out your wallet and found an extra $5 bill stuffed inside one of the pockets? Poor people are laughing their asses off right now because I might as well be asking if they remember the time they found an extra minotaur in the kitchen. When you're living check to check, there is no amount of money that isn't accounted for, right down to the last penny. You don't have "about 70 bucks" in the bank. You have $68.17.

You think in exact numbers because, at any given point, you have to know if swiping the debit card for gas will put you into overdraft territory. You have to be able to figure on the spot how much you can spend versus how much you need to survive until the next payday, and even the numbers after the decimal point are important. The simplest miscalculation could mean the difference between an actual dinner or a bowl of McDonald's ketchup packets at the end of the week.

Paying the bills becomes a work of algebraic artistry as you find out how much they'll take in order to not shut off your gas. Then calculate on the fly the smallest amount of money you need to survive for the next four days, then subtract that from your current bank account, then make adjustments where necessary and eventually arrive at X ... where X equals how much today's bill is going to fuck you for the next three weeks.


Paul Sunstone said...

I grew up in a single parent household living below the government's poverty line, but I didn't think of myself or my family as poor. There were several reasons why I didn't think of us as poor, and it would take a while to explain them all, so I won't go into them here. But suffice to say that, despite not consciously recognizing my own poverty, that poverty still had an effect on me. It just took me longer to see it.

One of the ways it affected me was it taught me to all too quickly resign myself to not getting something I want. Growing up, things that were out of reach tended to remain out of reach. Consequently, I got pretty good at adjusting my expectations downwards. But, oddly enough, I didn't see that until I was middle aged.

Now, I don' t think it was entirely poverty that taught me that. I think there might be something in my make up that inclines me towards drawing such a conclusion from the circumstances I grew up in.

Hence, I think the larger issue might be how poverty interacts with individual psychologies. Some people, it seems to me, are going to respond one way, while others respond another.

Invisible Man said...

Damn Nigga!

I'm sorry, I know you don't like the the N word, but I just got excited), but how is it that you write so socratically about stuff, So on point, like you're the only spotter on the corner for the Wu Tang Clan ( from the heart of Medina to the head of Fort Greene), but yet you will not hold Obama accountable about the 40 percent poverty ratio of Black children?????? Why is it that you spend so much time glorifying him, but not calling him out for not addressing poverty in America? What about a ,Marshal Plan? Look this economy is not getting better,( you know that) we need to start talking about poverty, but yo boy is allergic to the word.!

chauncey devega said...

What would you have Obama do? Offer up a plan. Obama is President of the United States. He is not a Black President. The sooner folks come to grip with that fact the better off they will feel. The last President to really do something for the poor was Johnson. Good luck.

chauncey devega said...

isn't it funny how so many folks who were poor never realized it. But there are all sorts of rich and middle class kids who cry poverty?

Invisible Man said...

Obama is also not the Latino President, but he sure put some muscle into immigration! Can I get a witness? He put a lot of muscle to bail the banks out? So what about a "Marshal plan" for Urban America?

André Brock said...

John scalzi had a great essay about being poor a few years back:

chauncey devega said...

read Fred Harris' book Price of the Ticket and meditate. Hispanics are the new model minority in less than a generation. They are also the next group to transition into whiteness. Once you connect those dots all of this is elementary. Blacks folks by definition are "unassimilable." Ironic huh? Among the first people here, got a "black president" and you are still marginalized.

Invisible Man said...

Damn yo did the mask fall off??? Damn skippy, you all up in the business. This reminds me of Derrick Bell's short story called Space Traders. This sh*t's is scary yea them dots are evident. But they got something for the black poor, the prison industrial complex. Think about it, no matter what they say big industry aint coming back in America Prison's are gonna become bigger and bigger economic engines and charter schools, and the two will go hand and hand.

chauncey devega said...

I am Ol Dirty on Derrick Bell's ship offering you a hand up. Choose to accept it or not. We are at that point. I cannot tell you how to proceed in the face of realpolitik. Black politics is dead. It pains me to write that. Nevertheless, the description is accurate.

Invisible Man said...

That's the whole thing about it, the poor won't admit to being poor and the rich won't admit to being reach. But I think Black people are far more willing to admit being poor because it's a natural condition for us, meanwhile poor white people still have white privilege which at the very least provides hope of a better tomorrow.

Invisible Man said...

The problem is where Black politics goes so does class politics. But I'll tell you what, realpolitik for Black people means for us to start telling the unvarnished truth no matter how painful it is. I'm hoping that this process begins very soon, because we are twelve percent of the population, living basically either in The Bottoms or The Low End, in other words aint nothing permanent about us.

chauncey devega said...

Is it "natural?" or manufactured. We have to be careful though the majority of black Americans are actually working to lower middle class. We must also not neglect the growth of the black upper class either. While black folks certainly are poor in terms of wealth, there needs to be transparency in discussing how we are not all part of the ghetto underclass.

chauncey devega said...

thanks. I am huge fan of his. I regret not seeing that then.

chauncey devega said...

"The problem is where Black politics goes so does class politics."

Please flesh that out. I do not know if that is true as an empirical matter of a historiographic one either.