Lately my husband and I have been going through a rough patch comprised of health issues, a recurrence of my clinical depression, overwhelming financial woes, and general hopelessness over our ability to attain any kind of stability or make any substantial improvements in our life. A week or so ago, my husband was chatting with an old school buddy about our circumstances. Because neither of us is either inclined or suited to hiding our feelings, he was open about his unhappiness and sense of futility. After a conversation where my husband went into detail about our circumstances, his friend came back with this stunning piece of advice:
“You should stop doing the things that make you unhappy.”
My husband broke off the chat at this point, mainly because he was at work and had other business to attend to (also, shortly after his friend made this comment, the entire town where my husband’s school is located suffered a power outage). However, a good part of his lack of desire to continue came from incoherent frustration and anger at the inanity of the statement. I first heard about the interaction when Michael came home and said, “I want to slap ____ upside the head.” After telling me all about it, he said, “I want to tell him to please take some time to reflect on the utter foolishness of that suggestion before I go get the Stupid Stick.”
I encouraged him to do so, but with one thing and another–it was band rehearsal night and Michael hates any kind of confrontation–he didn’t. After a few hours of no response, my husband’s friend seemed to get an idea that his advice hadn’t hit the mark. So he amended it.
“Or maybe you should try to do more things that make you happy,” he said.
Michael and I are solidly lower class (and I mean this in a financial sense, without all the cultural connotations the term involves). Between my disability and Michael’s salary as a public high school teacher, we gross a very low five-figure yearly income with no benefits. Michael drives a beat-up ’97 Escort we bought used from a teacher friend. We live in an economically-disadvantaged area in a tiny house that’s been mortgaged up to our eyeballs robbing Peter to pay Paul. (My dad bought this house for us as kind of a wedding present twenty years ago. He paid cash. If not for that piece of generosity, we’d have been homeless years ago.) We do without a great many things most people in the USA take for granted, like cable TV, new shoes, and dental care. Our credit rating is so bad that the other day when we were watching Netflix and someone mentioned that a character had bad credit with a rating of 580, we laughed.
I’m not sure what social class I’d put Michael’s high school buddy in: probably upper-middle. He’s married to a woman who works in the hotel industry and earns a yearly salary that’s at least five times ours, likely more. His job is “minding their investments.” Over the years I’ve known them, they’ve lived in well-to-do areas because that’s where her work is. I have no idea how they spend their money or what their credit rating is, but I think it’s safe to assume they’re a good deal better off than we are.
I feel the need to insert a disclaimer here. I am not writing this to make Michael’s friend–or anyone–feel bad about having money. And I am well aware that even in this country there are people worse off than I am. So please leave those particular straw men at home, ‘kay? Thanks so much.
We don’t like to talk about class in the United States. We like to preserve the myth that any rugged individual can rise to any height on his or her own merit, and that those who don’t achieve “The American Dream” are at fault in and of themselves. Class is for those weird European countries with institutionalized nobility that prevents a person moving from one “station in life” to another. And in the United States, enough people do achieve some kind of class mobility to preserve the myth. These are the ones we hear about: The Black woman from the ghetto who becomes a successful surgeon, the steelworker’s son who becomes a Hollywood celebrity. We love stories of disadvantaged people overcoming obstacles. It’s part of the national narrative.
That’s not what I want to talk about, though. What I want to talk about is how our reluctance to believe in stagnant social class structure blinds us to the reality of class privilege, and how that, in turn, leads people to make idiotic suggestions to the poor about how to improve their lot. As in any discussion of privilege, the point here isn’t to make others feel guilty for what they have (as I stated above), or to imply that your social class is bad or wrong and that you should give away all your material goods. Likewise, it isn’t to imply that poverty is some spiritually elevated state. It’s merely my small attempt to encourage people to open their eyes a bit wider and take fifteen minutes to walk in another person’s shoes.
I have lifelong experience of being around people from a higher social class than mine, from being a scholarship student at an exclusive private school to conducting workshops in Tarot and spirituality for rich (largely white) people, to dating a guy whose father was a fantastically wealthy literary agent and investment banker in New York City. Along the way, I’ve noticed a couple things about rich people. Most of them aren’t bad or evil. Of course, I’ve known some slumlords and greedy real estate agents. But most rich people aren’t consciously out to screw the lower classes.
But most rich people don’t think that they’re rich. They think they’re “just like anybody else.” And this causes problems when they try to sympathize and/or give advice to those of us in lower social classes, because they come out with some incredibly stupid stuff. And those of us in the lower classes get pretty upset when someone who spends $250.00 a week at the hairdresser suggests that we stretch our $250.00 a month food budget farther by “cutting out the things you don’t really need.”
My dad was a prime example of this kind of thinking. He came to adulthood during the Great Depression, so he had an excuse. He counted every penny like Scrooge MacDuck. He was a minister and our house came with the job, so we never had to worry about rent or a house payment. We always had two recent-model cars and a well-stocked refrigerator (in fact, my dad had some food hoarding issues, so we usually had way more food on hand than we needed). I don’t remember ever having any of our utilities shut off. The credit cards were paid off every month. We went for a two-week summer vacation up north every year and most years we went somewhere in the spring. When he retired, he paid cash for the house my mom lives in now, just as he paid cash for the house I live in. And yet, I can’t remember a single day of my life when he didn’t complain that we were on the way to the poorhouse with every expense. When I reached adulthood and faced real, long-term poverty, I wanted both to laugh and punch him in the face. It’s the same reaction I have when a wealthy person tells me she has a way for me to “put $100 a month in a savings account starting right now” or recommends I simplify my needs by getting rid of my third car.
People who are well-off often miss the point about all this, or get defensive when you mention it, or both. When, a few months ago, I posted on Facebook about the irony of my father always thinking we were on the verge of destitution when we had all that we did, one of my sisters commented, “Well, but they needed two cars because Mom and Dad both worked.” The implication being that 1. Michael and I don’t need two cars because I don’t work outside the home, so stop whining and 2. Um, what does “irony” mean, again? as well as 3. My sister is clueless about the definition of poverty. Incidentally, she posted this from one of her semi-annual vacations to Hawaii.
I read an article recently about a formerly fiscally-conservative Republican getting a wake-up call to the reality of the world. It’s worth reading, but until you get to it, here’s the part that stood out for me: The narrator describes working at a school program for disadvantaged kids, where their parents sometimes went along on educational field trips. One of the field trips was going to a sit-down restaurant, and the educational part involved learning about ordering from a menu, using the tableware, and leaving a tip. The narrator thought this was the lamest field trip ever. It had to be explained to him that not everyone has had the opportunity to go to a sit-down restaurant. The experience doesn’t even enter into some people’s reality.
Or how about this: A Facebook acquaintance once commented on a meme about income inequality with the observation that “poverty doesn’t mean the same thing it did forty years ago. People don’t actually not have the money to pay their water bill.”
Actually, I’d like to point out that there are many places in the United States–particularly in Appalachia–where not only do people not have the money to pay their water bill, they don’t even have running water, indoor plumbing, or central heat.
This is the kind of blind, classist nonsense that people need to get over saying. It’s ignorant, and it’s insulting. And when wealthy people encourage poor people to “think of all the advantages you have that people in third world countries don’t!” at the same time as perpetuating this weird denial of their own advantages over people who don’t have it so good, it comes across as unsympathetic and dismissive. Yeah, I have internet access and a refrigerator and a smart phone. These things do not diminish the hardship of having to decide between paying to heat my house and paying my medical bills. And before you suggest that I should do without “luxuries” I “can’t afford,” I’d like to point out that in all honesty I can’t afford much of anything. I’d also like to invite you to do without those same things for a week and see how you like it.
There are things my husband wanted to say to his high school buddy, but because he’s nicer than I am, he didn’t say them. I’m going to take the opportunity to say some of them for him.
When you tell a poor person just to “stop doing the things that make you unhappy,” you’re implying that they’re too stupid to have come to this conclusion for themselves and too lazy to have done everything in their power to alter their circumstances. Please remember that the next time you’re moved to repeat inane psychobabble as a solution to a real problem of material and resources.
Likewise when you suggest we “do more things that make us happy.” I honestly don’t know what you have in mind here. What makes us happy is anything that temporarily relieves the ongoing stress and struggle of life. It makes us happy the one day of the month we can fill up the gas tank of our car. It makes us happy when we can go grocery shopping and fill up our cart and pay in cash without having to worry that spending that money in that way means we get arrested on the way home for not paying our car insurance. It makes us happy to have our car insurance and registration up to date so that we don’t have to worry about getting carted off to jail if the local cops pull us over for the wonky taillight we can’t afford to fix. It makes us happy to see a refrigerator full of food and to be able to forget hunger for a few days. It makes us happy to pay every bill on time and still have enough left over to pay the mortgage. When we can scrape up enough for a meal out, it’s a celebration. We’d be deliriously happy if we could pay everything that needs to be paid on time AND still have money left over to go shopping. One month free of financial stress for us would be like a month at a resort with room service for someone else. Getting away for a weekend–just getting in the car and driving somewhere new, and stopping on a whim at a cute B & B, and sitting down to dinner at a diner–yeah, that would be cause for ecstasy. But it would cost half a month’s pay, and everything else would go down the drain, and in the end, it would cause more stress than it relieved.
When you get right down to it, suggesting we “stop being unhappy and start being happy” is a sideways way of saying, “just stop being poor, why don’t you?” Believe me, if it were in our power, we would. And really, when I hear that what I hear is, “I’m uncomfortable with your reality and I have no concrete solutions.” That’s okay. I’d rather hear that up front.
What I hear most of all, though, is “I have NO CLUE what poverty is really like.” So do us both a favor and take a few minutes to imagine it. Really imagine what it would be like to get by on less than a quarter of your current income. And after that, maybe we can talk.