by Jack Rawls
To my sisters and brothers living in poverty,
You’re probably surprised to receive this since we don’t get much mail other than foreclosure and eviction notices, but it’s important for us to begin talking to each other, and I’m hoping this is one way to get the conversation started.
I don’t have to tell you that we can’t expect to receive much help from anyone these days. The politicians have spent all the government money on fighting wars and helping bankers, so there’s nothing left for health care or public works, jobs or college for our kids. At least that’s what most of the Democrats and all the Republicans claim, and they’re backed up on this by all the radio and TV talkers.
Big surprise, huh? Nobody ever pays attention to us except when they claim we all drive Cadillacs. It makes them feel better when they cut what little help we do get if they can claim we’re all lazy, crazy, drug-addled and sexually loose. The millions who are joining our ranks these days because they’ve lost their jobs, lost their houses and lost their credit will soon learn what it’s like to live poor in America. Not only do you have to struggle to keep a roof over your head and food on your table, but you also get to hear constantly that you’re inferior as a human being in every respect.
I know some of us had great hopes that things would be better with this new President, but I think it’s starting to sink in that he’s not going to be able to do much even if he wants to. Early on, he and his advisors decided that it would be better to keep things pretty much as they were with the banks and insurance companies and all the rest. Otherwise, they feared, tens of millions of the “middle class” — those people who are two or three paychecks away from being poor like us — would be thrown onto the trash pile along with us. They paid the ransom money to Wall Street, backed off making any real changes in the system and prayed that things wouldn’t go completely to hell.
What the government has done wasn’t aimed at us. Cash for Clunkers was a bust for us. They’re trashing the only cars we can afford and making parts more expensive for those of us lucky enough to own some piece of crap that we try to keep running. I, for one, don’t begrudge those auto workers who might get to keep their jobs because of Cash for Clunkers, but why do they have to crush cars that we could use to get around? How things affect poor people just never enters into the calculation. The cavalry ain’t comin’. In fact, it’s getting worse.
There are a lot more abandoned houses in our neighborhoods that are increasing crime and shame, two things we already have too much of. We lost our butcher shops and bakeries a long time ago. Now the supermarkets and even the convenience stores are gone, and the cuts in public transportation — if we even had any to begin with — are making us walk miles to get something to cook for dinner.
More and more, you are your credit score. It’s not just that you can’t buy a new car or take a trip on a credit card. We could never do those things. Now you can’t rent an apartment or even get a job if your credit is screwed. How’s that for a Catch 22? You can’t pay your bills because you don’t have a job, but you can’t get a job because you aren’t paying your bills.
That’s enough weeping and moaning. We all know it’s bad. The question is: can we make it better?
I don’t think we can unless we first shed some of the baggage that’s been loaded onto us. There aren’t many of us who still believe in the silly tale that hard work and a little luck will take you anywhere you want to go in America. Life is too hard to let you remain that naive.
But living without hope is unbearable, so we’ve created our own myths. Some of us get by hoping for a lightning strike — getting drafted as a pro, becoming a celebrity or hitting the Powerball. Others have adopted the survival-of-the-fittest morality that the Wall Street types preach. Get in the game. Play hard and ruthless. Get rich. Since we don’t start out with money and don’t have access to a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, that “game” is usually limited to drugs, extortion and prostitution. It may work out for a while, but the product of a beef with your business partners isn’t a law suit, it’s a bullet. And when the government shows up, it’s with handcuffs not a bailout.
Thoughts of a winning ticket may help you get to sleep at night when you’re not sure how you’re going to pay the gas company the next day, but those longshot dreams will never make your life better. The Wall Street types may spout that every-man-for-himself garbage, but we saw how quick they think everybody owes them help when they’re “in trouble.”
Look around at who does manage to get ahead. Most of them are immigrants: the Pakistani guy with the convenience store; the Vietnamese family with the restaurant; the Mexicans with the lawn service. (How’s that for some stereotypes?) Did you ever think that maybe it was an advantage not to grow up in America? These people do things differently. They share housing until they can afford more room. They work for free in the family business until things get going. They cooperate with each other even while they’re competing with the rest of the world. And it works.
If we poor people started working with each other instead of against each other, we could make our lives better. It might be possible to make sure that everybody had a roof over their head, even if their credit rating sucked, by filling up those abandon-ed houses with people who would take care of them. We could band together to help someone buy and maintain a vehicle that could take a bunch of us to the store to shop. People in our own neighborhoods could help tutor kids in reading and math and self-discipline with the result that our schools could do their job better. The government isn’t going to do those things, at least not the federal government.
They don’t have the time, the money or the imagination, and even if they did, it would take years, and we don’t have years. We’ll have to do it in our own neighborhoods. There’s more wasted talent there than we can imagine. On top of that, there have been millions of people thrown into poverty over the past year-and-a-half with skill and experience but no place to work and no place to live. There are barriers to this, I know. We may all be poor, but we come in different colors and speak different languages. We’d better get over that fast, because if we don’t hang together, we’ll hang separately — or at least starve.
The biggest obstacle may be trust. There’s not much trust left in America. We’ve become the land of the hustler and the home of the scammer, and everybody has been burned. It’s even tougher for us because we can’t afford to get ripped off, but if we don’t start working together, daring to trust each other, life will only get harder for us and our children.
Well, that’s it. I got it off my chest. There’s no magic wand to put us all into new cars and fancy houses in the suburbs. There’s no government “every man a king” program about to be signed by the President. What there is, is us. We are America’s poor and this society has said to us, “You’re on your own.” We’re overboard in the middle of the sea in the midst of a storm. All we can do is to declare, “WE’RE on OUR own,” and use cooperation to lift each other, not out of a “poverty” that’s defined by how much you possess, but into a life that can still be safe and full of joy.