The inconvenient truths about poverty
This drawing-collage features the hobo symbol for religious people in this town. The hobo alphabet is brilliant in its visual shorthand. Read more about Tony Fitzpatrick's drawings based on the hobo alphabet in a related story
A couple of years ago, a rock star of some note took up the cudgels in a relatively benign fashion on behalf of the poor. The general thrust of his feelings was that poor people had a pretty tough row to hoe, and that the more fortunate members of society should do whatever they could to ease their misery. He wasn’t going out on a limb here. He wasn’t suggesting anything irresponsible or nutty. He was simply asking fortunate people to be a bit more compassionate.
The day after he made these inoffensive comments, I was a guest on a TV show, where I had been invited to discuss the psychological barrier that was crossed whenever the Dow Jones industrial average dropped below 10,000. While I was cooling my heels in the green room, waiting to go on the air, one of the show’s producers started ripping into the rock star for his mealy-mouthed, bleeding-heart opinions.
“Poverty isn’t supposed to be enjoyable,” he explained to me. “If poverty were enjoyable, nobody would mind being poor.”
Interview on TV
I wasn’t sure that I had heard him right. Did he mean that poverty was an invigorating, character-building condition? And even though the television network on which I was appearing was renowned for a certain emotional frigidity, I was surprised to hear him advance this primitive, neo-Darwinian theory. He seemed to be suggesting that anything that reduced the misery of the poor would backfire in the end, because it would simply encourage people to remain poor.
By ensuring that poverty was a hideous condition, society motivated the indigent to pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and haul themselves right out of the slums. Presumably, this sort of motivation was especially useful for premature twins with sickle cell anemia born in the South Bronx. Stop your bellyaching, you two! Shape up! Nobody ever said life was fair!
At this point, I felt it only sporting to disclose that I had grown up penniless in a charm-free Philadelphia housing project and had generally not found poverty to my liking. The man had no way of knowing that I had grown up poor, as alumni of the underclass do not wear badges or rings or special commemorative tattoos. And thanks to a few elocution lessons we pick up along the way, many of us no longer use expressions like “dese” and “dose,” but speak just like ordinary people. Disclosing my humble roots was by way of slowing down the conversation, discouraging my interlocutor from saying something that might completely sour my mood and lead to real unpleasantness.
People who have grown up poor always feel a proprietary attitude toward poor people in general, even when they themselves have migrated to a more congenial economic class. They don’t like to hear well-born outsiders presume to discuss the unexplored charms of slumming. It’s like listening to people who have never left Nebraska rhapsodize about the thrill of sailing the high seas. At a certain point, or so one would hope, even the dimmest human being has to admit that he knows nothing about a subject.
This one didn’t. When I told him that I had grown up poor, that I had indeed written about this in my recent book, Closing Time – which I was promoting on the TV show – he said that this only sealed his argument, for had I not grown up penniless, I might never have been sufficiently motivated to become a writer. Hunger was the spur, deprivation the whip. The hypnotic idiocy of the conversation actually brought a smile to my lips: Every time you think you have heard the dumbest thing you are ever going to hear in your lifetime, somebody steps right up to the plate and hits the next pitch 400 feet farther than you’ve ever seen anyone hit it before. A lot of these people work in television.
Much has been written about the mindset of the poor, mostly by people who were never poor themselves. This is compassion by anecdote, as if warm feelings or righteous indignation ever helped anybody. The professionally compassionate, the industriously empathetic, never, ever get things right; the textures of poverty forever elude them. This is only to be expected, for just as those who did not grow up in a country can never fully understand the mindset of the people who did, no one can really understand what it is like to be poor unless they have been poor themselves.
People who grow up to be powerful politicians often spend a summer hauling trash in Atlanta or teaching remedial English in Timbuktu; it looks absolutely smashing on the résumé. But this is not what we mean when we employ the word “poverty”; this is nothing more than a lark. By poor, I mean institutionally poor, so poor that you cannot see a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. This is a pathologically enduring, immutable condition. Not a lifestyle choice.
Everyone more or less knows that poverty is grinding and depressing and monotonous, in that things don’t change much from day to day or even year to year in the slums, and that poverty invariably involves crime, rodents, disease, hunger, substandard dental care – particularly anything involving aesthetic dentistry – defective plumbing, and incredibly well-armed neighbors.
Just as those who did not grow up in a country can never fully understand the mindset of the people who did, no one can really understand what it is like to be poor unless they have been poor themselves.
Living in poverty is massively inconvenient. It’s hard to get around places when you’re poor. It’s hard to take advantage of special discounts at distant outlet stores while relying on public transportation, especially buses. Buses, whatever else you may have heard about them, are no picnic. They arrive at irregular intervals, break down a lot, and often have crummy suspension systems. They are usually overcrowded, forcing patrons to stand for long, long distances. Buses aren’t much help in the winter when it’s freezing or in the summer when the air conditioning goes on the fritz. But they’re also not much help when you’re shopping. You can’t load a bus with a six-month supply of toilet paper or hamburger rolls from Sam’s Club. Chances are, the bus is already loaded with people and you’ll have to wait for the next one. Poverty simply cannot be done on the cheap.
Most budget-conscious people in the United States can take advantage of coupons they download from the Internet, but a lot of poor people don’t have computers or printers or scanners or anything along these lines. Poor people are usually not on the cutting edge of technology. They are not early adapters. They do not rush out and buy iPads or 3D TVs the first day they are available. It takes them awhile to get around to making these sorts of purchases.
Poor people rarely buy products in bulk. Mostly, they shop at the local level, purchasing food and other necessities in smaller retail establishments that do not offer the best prices. Because they are short on cash, poor people tend to buy cheap appliances that break and are replaced by other cheap products that break. Repair shops are hard to find in the inner city. When I was a kid, my father was always buying televisions and even radios “on time,” paying a small deposit upfront and then a small installment each week. The appliances were always massively overpriced, but this was the only way we could afford to have them. In the end, we always paid twice what the appliance was worth, or sat by in stunned silence as burly men came into our house and repossessed it. It took me a long time to figure out the difference between gangsters and the merchants who sold us our overpriced TVs. Actually, I’m still trying to figure it out.
Poor people have a tough time networking. They are rarely in the right place at the right time. A lot of this has to do with being dependent on buses. You never meet the well-connected on buses. You just don’t. There are tens of thousands of poor kids in the run-down neighborhoods that ring Yankee Stadium, but the batboy is usually a well-off kid from the northern suburbs who then bequeaths the job to his brother. That’s largely because the person who hands out these plum assignments doesn’t ride public transportation. The poor are never in the vehicle when the useful deals are made. When you’re poor, you never find yourself sitting next to someone who can land your daughter an internship at a white-shoe law firm. Besides, internships are predicated on the voluntary entrance of the offspring of the affluent into indentured slavery. In a society like ours, only the wealthy or near-wealthy can afford to work as slaves.
The philosophical infrastructure of poverty is rooted in an interlocking series of self-fulfilling prophecies. Poor people eat bad food, drink bad beverages, and ceaselessly make bad decisions, and these counterproductive activities are then used as an indictment of their moral character. Thus, the poor become the architects of their own destruction. Poverty is a dunce school where the old teach the young how to make bad decisions. Adults who have bad eating habits, adults who smoke, adults who have substance abuse problems teach young people how to acquire these bad habits. They lead by example. The acquired bad habits are then used as an indictment of the poor children when they themselves come of age.
The only way poverty can be justified – except as the character-building recreational activity posited by my TV producer friend – is if the poor somehow behave in a fashion that justifies their being poor. If the poor behave badly, it proves that the poor deserve to be treated badly. You have made your bed. Now lie in it. And let your children lie in it as well. This sort of thing happens all the time in American cities. I believe the technical term is “a vicious circle.”
Flat tire in Philly
The farther an alumnus of the slums travels from his childhood, the easier it is to forget what poverty is like. Once you yourself become affluent, you lose contact with the realities of poverty. A case in point: Whenever I am in Philadelphia, I go to visit the crummy old neighborhoods I grew up in. I never do this at night. I visit these places – the popular term for them is “hardscrabble streets,” but I prefer “hell” – for the same reason my children will one day revisit Tarrytown, N.Y.: because this is where I grew up and this is where my memories abide. One torrid summer day two years ago, I parked my car outside the Catholic church where I’d served as an altar boy in grade school. I had a fast walk around the neighborhood, then climbed back into my Previa minivan, only to discover that the front tire on the driver’s side was completely flat.
This was not a good place to get a flat tire. Not a good idea at all. I asked a man who came driving past where the closest gas station was and he simply laughed. There are no car-repair establishments in neighborhoods like that. There are no gas stations. Slums lack support systems. Like so many people of whom I am critical, I had no idea how one would go about getting a tire repaired when living in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Philadelphia. I had lost touch with my own impoverished roots. I was visiting the old neighborhood as a tourist, for nostalgic purposes. A short while after, the AAA guy I’d called showed up to repair the flat.
“What are you doing here?” he asked, in disbelief.
“I used to live right up the street,” I said.
“Well, welcome home,” was his response.
A few minutes later, I drove away. It was starting to get dark. You don’t want to be a nostalgic tourist in a poor urban neighborhood after sundown. Nighttime and poverty make a bad mix.