“People whom fate and their sin-mistakes have placed in a certain position, however false that position may be, form a view of life in general which makes their position seem good and admissible. . . . This surprises us when the persons concerned are thieves bragging about their dexterity, prostitutes vaunting their depravity, or murders boasting of their cruelty. But it surprises us only because the circle, the atmosphere, in which these people live, is limited, and chiefly because we are outside it. Can we not observe the same phenomenon when the rich boast of their wealth-robbery, when commanders of armies pride themselves on their victories-murder, and when those in high places vaunt their power-violence? That we do not see the perversion in the views of life held by these people, is only because the circle formed by them is larger and we ourselves belong to it.” (Resurrection, Leo Tolstoy, trans. Louise Maude)

New Readers:

Please start reading with my first post "A Cup of Coffee". Originally posted on March 19, the archival date changed when I made corrections on May 13, which is the date under which you can find it now.

I'll learn to manage this all more smoothly someday, but at present I have at most only an hour online each day (that thanks to the San Francisco Public Library system, without which I would be lost).

Saturday, July 4, 2015

The New Poor

I sometimes think that the burdens of poverty fall most heavily on the new poor, that is, on those who were until recently middle class.  Neither their education nor their many friends (or "contacts") provide any meaningful help.  Their education included no lessons on how best to use the resources of a social worker; or on the protocols that apply in the lines for St. Anthony's Dining Room or for the meals served at Glide Memorial Methodist Church; or on keeping one's person and one's clothing clean and presentable when one is living on the street.  And as I learned quickly and much to my surprise (how naive I was at almost 60!), once you have no money, those "contacts", the fellow board members and the buddy-buddy major donors who might have helped you find a job, suddenly don't know you at all.

The new poor have no idea how to negotiate daily life without money.  It is all new to them.  Their problems are compounded by the bourgeois habits and the middle-class ideas that they cannot seem to give up.  For example, I recently met a man who has been homeless since declaring bankruptcy four years ago.  I asked him whether he had applied for GA (General Assistance, a $400 per month cash payment, which is all that's left of welfare).  He said that he had not because he would not qualify because he owns a car.  I believe that my mouth actually fell open in the moment of silence it took before I could gather my wits together again and ask "Well, why don't you sell it?"  His answer:  "I need reliable transportation to get to work."  He hasn't worked in four years.

It gets worse.  His car is a Jaguar for which he paid $42,000.  "I would only get, like, $5000 for it, and I can't do that.  It's stupid."

Four years of enduring the vagaries of street life have not relieved this man of his crippling attachment to possessions and to the social status which those possessions denote.  Of course even the rich are owned by their possessions, a fact that runs counter to thee belief that money buys freedom and happiness.  And this man's case reveals how deep the servitude to objects can run.  He clings to that Jaguar as if it were a life raft that will keep him afloat until he can be rescued or until he washes ashore on a habitable island.  He thinks -- I am quite sure -- that if only people could see him driving around town in his Jag, he would no longer have to begin every new acquaintanceship by explaining himself, by trying to make every new person whom he encounters see that his current situation is not part of his "real" life..

The new poor have the tendency to think that the solution to their problems is to return as quickly as possible to the life they used to lead.  They cast about for a job that pays what they used to earn so that they can have the kind of house, car, and wardrobe that they used to own.  They soon find that no such jobs are forthcoming.  They tally their losses and worry over them like rosary beads (Jaguar, Chief Operations Officer, luxury condo in Laguna Beach, NYU, flying from New York to Paris for the weekend, season tickets for the opera).  When you meet the new poor, they very soon recite the list of their possessions (which they no longer possess) and the positions they held in their past career, noting their professional achievements (e.g. Number One in Corporate Sales for Apple in the Southern California Region) as if these were the Stations of a Cross which they now bear.

What they cannot bear is the sense they have of their own invisibility.  They want those who look at them to see a success, a valuable member of society, who despite recent losses is still the same person -- the same middle-class person -- as before.  This attachment to a lost middle-class identity cannot help these people in their new life.  In fact, their inability to cast off the husk of bourgeois identity hinders them from discovering the possibilities of their new appendages, those soggy, limp growths on their backs that -- if they could only wriggle free from the shell of their old personhood -- could be spread out in the sun and become a power that would allow them to fly.  Caught up in who they used to be, they cannot accept who they are.

They cannot accept that the poor on whom they used to look down are their brothers and sisters.  Instead they become more prejudiced -- more racist, more classist -- than ever.  They trumpet their disrespect for the Have Nots because it proves the truth which they have been trying to explain, namely that they are "really" Haves.  And so they alienate themselves from their true community and inevitably from their true selves.  Encased in memories that now function as nothing more than delusions, locked up in the prison of middle-class values, they cannot enter fully into their new -- their real -- life.