This week, the current president released his budget plan which included deep cuts in many of the programs that make our country great and that keep people alive.  Programs from meals on wheels to the Environmental Protection Agency to the National Institutes for Health among many others are threatened under this budget proposal in a way and to an extent they haven’t been before.  In some ways this move is not surprising to me as it continues a deep narrative about a person’s value and worth, particularly when they have very little – or rather a person’s lack of worth.  A narrative that blames and shames individuals based on stigmatizing assumptions about who people are – particularly the assumption that when someone has little, when they are poor it is a character flaw, they are merely lazy or uneducated.

We live in a society where meritocracy is lauded above all.  We believe in the “inspirational” story of someone going from rags to riches just by sheer will and hard work.  We make movies and celebrate people on talk shows highlighting what a person can do if only they think positively and never give up.   In fact, that’s the “American Dream” we’re told from a very early age.  And it’s an idea that comes from both democrats and republicans.  During Michelle Obama’s final speech as First Lady on January 6, 2017, she said:

If your family doesn’t have much money, I want you to remember that in this country, plenty of folks, including me and my husband — we started out with very little. But with a lot of hard work and a good education, anything is possible — even becoming President. That’s what the American Dream is all about.

It is our fundamental belief in the power of hope that has allowed us to rise above the voices of doubt and division, of anger and fear that we have faced in our own lives and in the life of this country. Our hope that if we work hard enough and believe in ourselves, then we can be whatever we dream, regardless of the limitations that others may place on us. The hope that when people see us for who we truly are, maybe, just maybe they, too, will be inspired to rise to their best possible selves.

But it isn’t that simple and it is rarely true.

Before I continue, I encourage you to listen to Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast, Revisionist History episode 4: Carlos Doesn’t Remember. (I’ll wait)

The most striking part of that podcast to me is when Gladwell says “this is not an inspirational story.”  And it’s not.  It’s a picture of the hardship many face and most don’t overcome no matter how hard they work or how much they hope.  It’s a picture of the myriad ways that things can go wrong and even more so the myriad of ways that keep things from getting better.

For many people who are born into poverty or who fall into it, getting out of poverty is a herculean task that takes far more than courage or hard work or education. And in this society, we have set up a system that actively keeps people in poverty once they are there.   Though I think that more and more people understand this overall and on the whole people are more compassionate, the narrative remains that most people are in poverty because they just aren’t trying hard enough or they aren’t smart enough to get out.  It is a pervasive narrative that even affects those who are more understanding of how difficult it is.

Earlier today I read a great thread on twitter about a man’s experience as a child of being in poverty and having no food.  I recommend you read it in full as it is incredibly powerful.  But about halfway in, this individual made a comment that really hit me hard.  He reworded it when he consolidated it into a post on medium but to me it reads the same:

Folks in poverty often lack fundamental concepts when it comes to money. I’m a 30 year-old grad student, and I still have issues with this.

Either way, it strikes me as part of and perpetuating the same narrative that blames poor people for their circumstances.  While others have commented they read it differently and I don’t think the author necessarily meant it to be hurtful, I still glaringly see a statement made on false assumptions.

First, “folks” in poverty do NOT lack common sense. The author did say he made it qualified with “often” as if to soften the blow of the statement, it is still a generalization.  His revision isn’t any better really as poor people do not necessarily “lack fundamental concepts when it comes to money.”  Both assume a lack of knowledge at the best and the lack of simple reasoning at the worst.

Perhaps in his experience, his mother who he discusses in the thread did not make the best financial decisions but then again, many people don’t.  I come from a wealthy family and I can say that my parents were lacked a lot of common sense when it came to finances, they just had more money so it had a different impact.  Many could say that our current president who has faced multiple bankruptcies lacks fundamental concepts when it comes to money.  It’s not that people don’t understand money it’s that they don’t have money.  In fact, people in poverty generally make good decisions when it comes to money as research shows – for instance giving cash directly to those in need shows that they spend it on the items they need.  And proponents of Universal Basic Income would make the case when we make resources available to those who are poor, they can actually start finding a way out of poverty (though UBI studies are newer and many are pilot projects, so time will tell the full impact).

The problem though, is people who are poor often make decisions that seem irrational and thus people try to explain it as either they lack knowledge or they make bad decisions (with the implication they purposefully make the wrong decisions).  The author’s tweets go on to describe that though his mother really couldn’t afford to take the family out to eat, every so often she took him and his sister out for a “treat.” Yes, this does seem illogical – why would someone waste money like that when they have so little and the children starve on other days?  I think it’s a horrible thing to think about the consequences of her actions, that her children did go without food many times, but I also do not see her actions as illogical.  There are many reasons that have nothing to do with financial education for her to want to take her kids out for a “treat” whether as he points out “it saved my mother some time/stress in cooking” or “it gave us a sense of worth to eat out.”  Those alone are powerful motivations that factor in to making decisions which on the face seem to be against someone’s “best interest” which here means their financial interest above anything else.

In her post, Why You Should Shut Up When Poor People Buy New Nikes, Lisa Wade, a professor at Occidental College, points out why people who are poor should not be judged for making what seem to be irrational decisions (or decisions that “lack common sense”) – because every once in a while, it’s okay to have something nice when your entire life is about having nothing.

What [people who judge the poor] don’t realize is the extent to which being poor is living a life of self-denial.  To be poor is to be forced to deny oneself constantly. The poor must deny themselves most trappings of:

  • an adult life (their own apartment, framed pictures on the walls, matching dishes);
  • a comfortable life (a newish mattress, a comfy couch, good shoes that aren’t worn out);
  • a convenient life (your own car, eating out);
  • a self-directed life (a job you care for, leisure time, hobbies, money for babysitters);
  • a life full of small pleasures (lattes, dessert, fresh cut flowers, hot baths, wine);
  • a healthy life (fresh fruits and vegetables, health care, time for exercise);
  • and so, so many more things that don’t fit into those categories (technological gadgets, organic food, travel, expensive clothes and accessories).

They have to actively deny themselves these things every day. And, since most poor people remain poor their whole lives, they must be prepared to deny themselves (and members of their families) these things, perhaps, for the rest of their lives.

Instead of having compassion for people who are in poverty though, society judges them for any decision they make that allows them some measure of comfort.

While it is true that those who are poor may have lack of access to education, particularly financial education that does not mean the decisions they make are bad decisions.  Financial education programs generally presuppose you have some money with which to make choices about.  When you have very little money, you have no choice – money goes to housing, food, medicine, and transportation.  That’s why when I read about programs that encourage the poor to start bank accounts, I am not surprised they fail.  First, I have no extra money to spare for gas let alone savings.  And second, if I do start to have savings (say even $50) that gets counted as a resource and I start losing benefits and end up worse off.  So while taking a financial education class and saving money seem like rational things to offer the poor and encourage them to take advantage of, for a poor person, they are not helpful or even a good use of time and energy.  Again, it’s not that the poor are making bad decisions, many are in fact quite savvy and tenacious to keep going despite how little they have, but the assumptions about their education and choices comes from a place of fundamental misunderstanding of the bigger picture and lived experience of those who are poor and without considering the background of why someone is in poverty (whether it be from systemic racisim, disability/illness, or any number of circumstances).

I could go on about the policy implications here and more esoteric discussion of what poverty means but here’s what it means to me personally.  I don’t lack common sense nor do I lack a fundamental concept of money.  One of my undergraduate degrees is a B.A. in Economics with an International Emphasis.  I know how to balance a checkbook (even though no one uses them) and how to save.  It just turns out that I have multiple physical and mental health illnesses (20 total last count) that keep me from working and so I have no money that I need to balance and certainly none to save.  So when I hear/read the narrative outright that the poor are lazy or gaming the system or the narrative that is more subversive suggesting ignorance, I start to hate myself for having no money.

I hate myself for any number of reasons every day, but primarily I hate myself for being a failure – that’s how I see myself regardless of all of the issues I’ve faced that may have contributed to my situation.  I see myself as a failure because how is it that I have my law degree and yet have to apply for food stamps and rely on others to subsidize my housing so I don’t live in my donated car?  It must be that I’m at fault – it must be that I “lack common sense” and thus make poor decisions or that I’m too lazy, right?  That’s what society says is the reason poor people are poor.  It’s what I have heard on multiple occasions lobbed at me personally over time, even some of the comments from readers of this blog imply the same (primarily comments on how my mental health diagnoses and their resistance to treatment are a personal failing of me not trying hard enough).

Why can’t I keep a job some might ask?  Well it’s hard to keep a job when one day you are late because of a bad low blood sugar (type 1 diabetes), and another day you have a panic attack (PTSD), and another day you’re so tired you can’t think straight (insomnia/painsomnia), and another day you can’t get out of bed because you have such terrible cramps (endometriosis), and another day you have an asthma attack that sets you out of commission, and another day the headaches flare (herniated discs/cervicogenic headaches/occipital neuralgia), and another day you have digestive issues (celiac/hiatal hernia/undiagnosed GI issues), and another day you can’t stop crying (depression), and most days you think at least once that you should be dead (BPD), and so on and so forth.  And if any one of those happens, it tends to cascade and flare the others.  So I’m a poor investment for any employer and if I work for myself I run the risk of not being able to fulfill promises to clients if I get sick.  Even if I wanted to work part time as a freelancer, it creates problems because earning even $100 extra per month would mean I no longer qualify for the healthcare I have and I’d lose food stamps – without which I can’t stay healthy enough to function minimally and could threaten my life all together.

In other words, I’m stuck and I can lay out the reasons for my predicament in a rational way that helps people understand that it wasn’t necessarily all my fault I ended up here.  But that understanding gets wiped away by the narrative that it is the poor person’s fault that they are poor.  After all, I have an education and have worked hard my entire life like Michelle Obama said I should to get ahead – so why else would I be poor?  It must be my fault.  And if it’s my fault, then why can’t I pull myself out of poverty?  I must be fundamentally flawed if I am supposedly so smart and yet I remain a failure.  And if I’m just a failure, then I don’t deserve the help I receive even in the form of $90/month in food stamps or $893/month in disability benefits, which isn’t enough to get by on my own.  And if I don’t deserve those benefits because I am just a burden on society – taking more than I can ever give back, then I don’t deserve to be part of society.  Because what good am I to anyone if I’m just a “taker” and if I will only ever be a failure?  And if I’m of no worth to society, why should I exist at all except that to take my life would also be deemed selfish?

And so I start to internalize these narratives and they are reinforced again and again in society to an extent I feel as if I am no longer worthy of being in this society at all and yet I’m trapped living in pain because I can neither die nor live a full life.  That’s how dark it gets.  That’s the real bottom line for me of how these narratives are harmful – because they ultimately make me feel that I am not wanted, that I am a bad person for simply existing.

The budget proposal (and even the republican proposal to replace the Affordable Care Act) cements the overt and implicit narrative that people like me who are poor – for whatever reason we are poor – are not worth caring for.  The elderly who need Meals on Wheels aren’t worthwhile.  The sick awaiting cures from the NIH aren’t worthwhile.  Children and the poor who need food stamps aren’t worthwhile.  Instead, people who need the most compassion are supposed to somehow pick themselves up by the boot straps and chase “The American Dream,” their neediness seen as a moral failing and all other obstacles ignored, because that narrative insidiously pervades our culture and supersedes all other narratives.

The question is, where does that narrative get us?  What story does it really tell?  For me, it is not a “dream” but a nightmare.


2 Responses to Narrative

  1. jennjilks says:

    You have written a powerful piece. I agree with all of this. A local town was trying to institute a new program intended to raise the minimum subsidies for those living in poverty. One of the most vocal was a woman who had lived as a poor single mom and raised herself up. It was a different day and age. She looks to be in her 70s. I am so upset that people judge. Keep up your good work educating us all.

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