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Hustlin': The Rise of the Privileged Poor
January 31, 2012 10:04 AM   Subscribe

Writer and comedian A Wolfe writes a compelling piece on education, poverty, and shame.
posted by Dokterrock (42 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
She really nails some of the scraping poverty that people are really blind to if they're not in it. This piece — though a bit old — has been popping up on my facebook feed for the last month or so.

(Not least because she's my new neighbor. And editor. Shit. Back to work.)
posted by klangklangston at 10:09 AM on January 31, 2012


I have to be honest: I didn't understand what she was trying to say. It seemed like her thoughts about this, while interesting and not untrue by themselves, lacked focus. I wasn't sure what the piece added up to.
posted by clockzero at 10:20 AM on January 31, 2012 [3 favorites]


Where does A Wolfe live? New York? How much rent is she paying? Is she paying off student loans from her MFA in Creative Writing? What does she do all day? Write?
posted by KokuRyu at 10:22 AM on January 31, 2012


Yeah, I felt the same way, clockzero. It feels like a rough draft of a longer article.
posted by KGMoney at 10:25 AM on January 31, 2012


Where does A Wolfe live? New York? How much rent is she paying? Is she paying off student loans from her MFA in Creative Writing? What does she do all day? Write?

From her about page, it appears she's in LA. From the "compelling piece" link she says she has a restaurant job.

Any other questions I can help answer for you from the links above?
posted by Admiral Haddock at 10:27 AM on January 31, 2012 [4 favorites]


To be more direct, speaking from experience, writing is not the easiest or quickest way to avoid or escape living in poverty.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:28 AM on January 31, 2012


Any other questions I can help answer for you from the links above?

Well, since you're offering, what is her rent, and how much are her monthly student loan payments, and how much of her monthly does towards rent and servicing debt?
posted by KokuRyu at 10:30 AM on January 31, 2012


"...or the dish towel I have to use in lieu of potholders, which are currently too expensive for me."

I have to say, she kinda lost me at that point.
posted by Decani at 10:31 AM on January 31, 2012


I never know what to think about these things. I've know a lot of people like this, people with advanced degrees that were eating sweet potatos scraped off the bottom of the oven.

It is easy to say, you know you aren't poor right? You are broke. You are young, unnatached, have a degree and likely skills that 99% of the population of the earth cannot aspire to. But how do I know what will happen, this momentary lack of funds may turn chronic.

I've always advised my friends with advanced degrees and no real job to seize any opportunity available. I tell them that making a bit of money will make everything easier. If they take that job they don't really love then they won't have to worry about not being able to get to interviews because they have no train fare, they will be able to get interview clothes properly laundered instead of trying to wash them in the sink. But what do you do once you have taken that bottom rung job and the next rung seems impossible to reach. Perhaps you will never climb any higher.
posted by Ad hominem at 10:35 AM on January 31, 2012 [5 favorites]


She lives in LA now — don't know where she was when she wrote the piece. Maybe Boise? Maybe Portland? She's only been here a couple of months.

But the "I must have her financial details to judge the merit of her poverty" is a little gauche.
posted by klangklangston at 10:43 AM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


But the "I must have her financial details to judge the merit of her poverty" is a little gauche.

Well, she was very gracious when I asked. She said she'll be sending me copies of her W-2s soon, along with her year-end student loan interest statement.

I'll follow up on this thread once I have the documentation and then we collectively decide whether she's poor. In the event of a tie vote, we can use her BMI to see if she's too well-nourished.

Hold off on favoriting this thread until we're sure.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 10:49 AM on January 31, 2012 [18 favorites]


You're right. My comments came off more dickish than I intended (although it would have been nice to have a bit more biographical details in the OP).

Anyway, I think Ad homimen said it best upthread:

I've always advised my friends with advanced degrees and no real job to seize any opportunity available. I tell them that making a bit of money will make everything easier. If they take that job they don't really love then they won't have to worry about not being able to get to interviews because they have no train fare, they will be able to get interview clothes properly laundered instead of trying to wash them in the sink.

It's a fucking grind sometimes being a Fine Arts or Arts grad, so we owe it to ourselves to be somewhat pragmatic, such as reducing costs like rent, and perhaps questioning the wisdom of getting student loans in the first place.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:54 AM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


we can use her BMI to see if she's too well-nourished.

I love you.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 10:54 AM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


That isn't poverty. *This* is poverty.
posted by storybored at 11:40 AM on January 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


Questioning the wisdom of getting student loans in hindsight is really easy. Not so much when you're seventeen and your parents, teachers, guidance counselor, and loan agent are all telling you what a great job you'll get with a college degree and how easy it'll be to pay them off.

Maybe there's less wisdom in taking out further student loans to go to grad school when you're working your ass off in a menial job that doesn't give you enough money to pay back your loans and your rent in a tiny, disgusting room at the same time, but the the collections agency won't stop calling you at every hour of the day and night reminding you that you're a failure, and you apply to grad school partially for the promise of being better qualified to get one of those $25,000/year positions you were already supposed to be overqualified for with your undergrad degree, but mostly so you can get a deferment on your loan and the collectors will stop. fucking. calling.

And as far as "taking a job they really don't love", even that's not easy. After applying to literally two thousand jobs a that I really didn't want and hearing no reply, I had to turn to nepotism, using my privilege to weasel a job out of the rich dad of a friend from my ritzy liberal arts school. I absolutely fucking despise this job, and will quit as soon as I'm out of debt because I hate the person it's turning me into, I hate how much of a negative effect it's had on my health, and I hate that my labor is working against the kind of world I want to build.

So, it's easy to blame people for what you don't understand.
posted by Jon_Evil at 11:43 AM on January 31, 2012 [3 favorites]


It's a fucking grind sometimes being a Fine Arts or Arts grad, so we owe it to ourselves to be somewhat pragmatic...

Isn't that an oxymoron? (pragmatic art Fine Arts/Arts grad)

While I respect and agree with much of what she is saying, I have to echo that writing is a terribly difficult way to break out of poverty or to "transcend your class"-which is a statement I think sheds a bit more light on this particular perspective than we are acknowledging. Anyone who aspires to be a professional writer and follows that dream on the shoulders of college loans has been poorly advised in my humble opinion and that is as good a place as any to start the finger-pointing.
posted by J.W. at 11:48 AM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


Jon_Evil, if it makes you feel any better, I'm basically avoiding bankruptcy right now because an old friend is throwing me some freelance bones. I do good work and it would just go to another freelancer if I wasn't doing it, but I can tell the person I'm directly reporting to was told to "throw maxwelton some work" even though they probably have a person they prefer working with.
posted by maxwelton at 11:49 AM on January 31, 2012


That isn't poverty. *This* is poverty.

Glad you brought that up. I agree that people have no right to complain to point out problems as long as there is one less fortunate or advantaged person on the planet somewhere.

This is what gets me angry about having more than one doctor and having more than one hospital. We should only provide care for the absolutely sickest, most injured person at any one time.

The rest...malingerers. Every last one.
posted by bswinburn at 11:50 AM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


I should have made my point more clear.

The writer of the article is not in poverty. She might have been hard pressed for cash. And that's a problem deserving of sympathy. I don't think she's a malingerer. If she was she wouldn't have been able to get an MFA. But to label her state as a state of poverty makes a mockery of the real poor (both abroad and here at home).

But "OMG i ate something from the bottom of my oven" as a cry of despair? Lady, you ain't seen real poverty.
posted by storybored at 11:57 AM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


There's a longer version of the post on her personal blog, which includes this statement:

I’m starting to think that they want us to get embroiled in the “who’s better off than who” concerns, because that’s exactly what’s dividing us and making the rich richer.

...

[on Occupy Wall St.] it unnerves me when people with laptops and video equipment claim to be poor. I’m not sure if that’s wrong, if I’m wrong, if I’m not truly poor, if I’m just led to believe that I’m poor, if I really am representative of today’s poverty, or what. I’m confused. Poverty is confusing. And I’m starting to feel that while these people have relatively a lot, they’re just the Kings of the Poor, and maybe they are the ones who have to be championing for those who don’t have as much. Can a revolution be ignited by privileged youth?


That version of the piece is a bit more cohesive than the Good version, I think.

It's a fucking grind sometimes being a Fine Arts or Arts grad, so we owe it to ourselves to be somewhat pragmatic, such as reducing costs like rent, and perhaps questioning the wisdom of getting student loans in the first place.

I agree, and I think Wolfe would agree with you, too. At one point in the main linked piece, she writes:

At this point, I wish I had never attempted to transcend my class with education; it would make life that much neater.

Ultimately, the piece(s) seem less about experiences in the depths of poverty as a meditation on the somewhat fluid interaction between economic poverty and cultural privilege.

While I’ve technically surpassed my parents in terms of education and advantage, I am still dependent on a restaurant job, and my peers are now considered the first generation of youths to do worse than their parents. Suddenly, we’re all on a level playing field shaking cocktails side-by-side, and my own burdens of privilege-jealousy have come to a dizzying halt, because even the middle class, of whom I had been previously so resentful, are my coworkers and low-income housing neighbors.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 12:04 PM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


If they take that job they don't really love then they won't have to worry about not being able to get to interviews

How does that work? Do you lie and call in sick to your current employer in order to interview elsewhere? Or do you tell the truth:

"Uh - I'd like to take a half day off this week. It's a personal thing."
"What kind of personal thing?"
"Well, it's for a job interview, actually."
"Hey - no problem. In fact, don't come back at all."
posted by not_that_epiphanius at 12:07 PM on January 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


But "OMG i ate something from the bottom of my oven" as a cry of despair? Lady, you ain't seen real poverty.

Polio, pfft! You know what's really lame? Amputees!
posted by Phalene at 12:12 PM on January 31, 2012


I think part of her point is she doesn't to fall into the trap of a poverty pissing match. Maybe we can do that here too!
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 12:15 PM on January 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


Ultimately, the piece(s) seem less about experiences in the depths of poverty as a meditation on the somewhat fluid interaction between economic poverty and cultural privilege.

I don't know what the answer is. Obviously, it's not helpful to say "you shouldn't have borrowed money to get an MFA", and she probably needs to live in LA or a similar city to have any hopes of getting a decent career-type job.

I'm also writing from Canada, which (so far) has escaped the massive unemployment facing younger folks in the States. At the same time, cultural industries everywhere in the world have taken a massive hit since about 2008 - there are just not conventional jobs in broadcasting and publishing like there used to be. I used to rewrite film scripts, but I'm a copywriter now. I have friends who used to write for national pubs and television shows. They're either unemployed, or have adjusted their focus (after a long, hard slog).

The situation for me was the same in 1994: I had graduated with a fucking creative writing degree of all things, and people were actually lining up on the street to apply for positions as line cooks in Canada. So I left for 10 years. When I came back I had to reinvent myself, just to support my family.

So, yeah, poverty sucks. The one thing I've learned is, after 30, if you have family, be very careful about making mistakes.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:15 PM on January 31, 2012


When I came back I had to reinvent myself, just to support my family.

This. If you have an MFA you're in the top 1% as far as cognitive skills, intelligence and drive.
If there's a way out, you'll find it. And this appears to have been the case with the writer who now is apparently working as an editor in LA.

On second reading, I'm wondering if the emotion being expressed in the piece is more to do with the disconnect between being in the top 1% and the lack of *status* in the work she had found to date.
posted by storybored at 12:27 PM on January 31, 2012


"If there's a way out, you'll find it. And this appears to have been the case with the writer who now is apparently working as an editor in LA. "

She works as the part-time editor of a trade mag, as a part-time paid intern at a production company, and as a part-time waitress at a restaurant.

Between those three things, I think she eats OK. But she wrote that piece a couple years ago, when those things weren't certain. She's also living in LA — one of the few places with a big enough creative class to make her current life possible, but that also has a tremendous amount of blasé classism and weird wealth blindness, something that is even more true in a lot of the creative industries around here.

And I'm also going to take a brief moment out of my gentle correction to kinda say: Fuck your judgmental attitude towards poverty from someone who (like April) grew up really poor and knows what actual poverty looks like. There isn't necessarily a way out for everyone, and even being smart and driven doesn't guarantee anything — Horatio Alger's a pernicious myth that lets smug bourgeoisie blame others for their poverty.
posted by klangklangston at 12:57 PM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


Horatio Alger's a pernicious myth.

That was kind of my point about things being broken these days in the US. Things were broken in Canada in 1994 when I graduated from university, so I left.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:03 PM on January 31, 2012


And I'm also going to take a brief moment out of my gentle correction to kinda say: Fuck your judgmental attitude towards poverty from someone who (like April) grew up really poor and knows what actual poverty looks like.

I seemed to have pressed the Horatio Alger siren button. I'm not saying she's going to turn into Bill Gates. I'm saying she's well-equipped to take care of herself.

The real poor are not.

Sympathy is a continuum. I'm sympathetic towards her situation, but I'm a lot more sympathetic to others who are in a poverty *trap*.
posted by storybored at 1:22 PM on January 31, 2012


I'm saying she's well-equipped to take care of herself. The real poor are not.

Isn't that why we should eat their children? It seems odd to me to say you're not really poor until you're a perpetual ward of the state.

In the main linked piece, she describes growing up poor in a single parent/teenage mother household where they ate potato chips for dinner. At one point she goes to live with grandparents she describes as growing up in "abandoned by their parents" levels of poverty. But, since her grandparents eventually owned a bar, and she herself got an MFA, I suppose she was never really all that poor.

As she succinctly puts it towards the end of the article:

There’s no way anyone can compare the harshness of the life of an undocumented migrant worker to that of a former graduate student. But this implies both that I should pity migrant workers and that I’m too good to be associated with their class. I have learned something about pity in my most recent year of poverty: Very few people on all rungs of our society are equipped to assist others who need it without thinking lesser of them, and in some cases, vilifying them.


And this, from the alternate version:

I’m starting to think that they want us to get embroiled in the “who’s better off than who” concerns, because that’s exactly what’s dividing us and making the rich richer. Clearly, this isn’t a new idea, but its recent application into my life is forcing me to see this at eye level. If you do happen to have more opportunities than a migrant worker (heads up all you white people who don’t realize how damn good you have it), it should be your duty to use what little power you have to advance your class–interns, temporary workers, service workers, the chronically unemployed, the disabled, etc.–because you’re all the same: Fucked. Just don’t forget it when you reach the top.

posted by Admiral Haddock at 1:39 PM on January 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


Thanks for linking to the alternate version, Admiral.
posted by clockzero at 1:45 PM on January 31, 2012



I must admit that my take away from the piece was not that I should feel sympathy for her. To me it was about the whole fucked up notions of what poverty ought to look like versus the reality of how many people are living. You can have cultural capital and still be poor. You can be struggling and still there are others worse off than you, but that doesn't mean you're not poor. Hell, you can be poor and still have some resources.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 1:50 PM on January 31, 2012 [8 favorites]


Admiral H's link is probably what the OP should have linked originally. It's a little clearer what's being talked about.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:57 PM on January 31, 2012


It's a little clearer what's being talked about.

Yeah, I think something was lost in the editing for the Good version.

And, what's more, I think Mandyman's comment puts the takeaway much more succinctly than I have been able to articulate.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 2:02 PM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


You can have cultural capital and still be poor. You can be struggling and still there are others worse off than you, but that doesn't mean you're not poor. Hell, you can be poor and still have some resources.

This. Excellent and insightful summary, mandyman.
posted by clockzero at 2:05 PM on January 31, 2012


I would also venture to say there is a bit of a cultural disconnect here... Although youth (18-25) unemployment can be very high, Canada hasn't been hit nearly as hard as the US during the ongoing recession, and, as a rule, unemployment is dramatically lower north of the border. Social mobility is still possible for many high school grads, if they choose to attend vocational colleges or universities (most do). So it's a bit of a different situation here, as far as I can tell.

At the same time, something like 10% of Canadian children live in poverty (household income under $18,000 a year), and the majority of these households are single-parent households headed by women. Immigrants also make up a large part of Canada's unemployed, as do First Nations folk, who traditionally live sort far at the edges of Canadian society as to be residing in a different country.

So it's a bit of a different perspective in Canada for the most part.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:10 PM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


KokoRyu, while it is true that there is not as great the economic inequality in Canada as in the U.S., marginally greater socioeconomic mobility, and smaller overall numbers of homeless; Canada still ranks lower than most other developed countries on these and other measures of economic justice. Furthermore, those who are living in poverty in Canada, though they may be fewer in number than in the U.S., are still living in poverty. Poverty is poverty, and it sucks, north or south of the border.
posted by eviemath at 3:13 PM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


"I seemed to have pressed the Horatio Alger siren button. I'm not saying she's going to turn into Bill Gates. I'm saying she's well-equipped to take care of herself.

The real poor are not.
"

Are you "the real poor"?
posted by klangklangston at 4:09 PM on January 31, 2012


Poverty is poverty, and it sucks, north or south of the border.

Yeah, 10% child poverty is a huge issue that is not really being addressed.
posted by KokuRyu at 4:38 PM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


10%!? Nooo, it's more like 15% across the country on average and, in BC? We're at the bottom of the heap compared to the rest of the country and those numbers have been rising over the past decade here. Nothing is being addressed.
posted by squeak at 7:25 AM on February 1, 2012


Are you "the real poor"?

I was but not any more.

She works as the part-time editor of a trade mag, as a part-time paid intern at a production company, and as a part-time waitress at a restaurant.


I parse this as good news because she seems to be facing the challenges head-on. I'm learning from this thread though that others may parse it differently.

Why's that?

Maybe the reason for the difference is this: My life history is one of starting low and going up. Whereas her story seems to be one of expecting high and being given low.

In both cases, IMO, the way out is hard work and smart choices. But it was easier psychologically in my case because there was mostly upside. In her case, it's more painful because she's starting from a loss situation?
posted by storybored at 2:36 PM on February 1, 2012


"I was but not any more."

You couldn't take care of yourself at all? How did you get to Canada? Given that there's national health care in Canada and a greater safety net than even your neighbors to the south — and since we're playing the absolute, and not relative, poverty game (you know, by ignoring the parts of the article about social context) — it seems pretty bold to declare that you were the real poor.

But good on you for making it to Canada while only making $1.25 US ($1.24 Canadian) a day. I mean, just based on the World Bank figures. Were you still "real poor" once you made it to Canada? If so, congrats on making it on $456 a year. Good on ya, eh?

I guess the next question is whether I was "real poor." I mean, I grew up with stretches on food stamps. Was that "real poor"? How long did I have to spend in section 8 as an adult to be "real poor"? I mean, was five years long enough? I did get a journalism degree during that, so I might count as just pretend poor — especially to someone like you, with real World Bank bona fides. But what about the time before I went back to school? Was I real poor then? Or after I graduated, when I made about the same amount of money? I've never been able to afford insurance on my own, and only had a job that gave me insurance for about two years. Am I real poor now, working for around $14 an hour at an activist job? I don't know — I live with my girlfriend and she makes adult money as a librarian, but we don't share finances. Now, does that $14 an hour count against me because I could live pretty decently in Guelph on that? Or does the cost of living in Los Angeles count against me? Are there any "real poor" here in LA? Only the institutionalized ones?

"I parse this as good news because she seems to be facing the challenges head-on. I'm learning from this thread though that others may parse it differently."

I'm learning that you don't read very well, given that I've mentioned several times that she wrote this a couple years ago.

But having three jobs is a lot of work — it's good news that she has three jobs; it's not great news because she has to have three jobs to make ends meet, and even then it's a life that doesn't afford things like savings or health insurance. It's the kind of life that, if we're talking about definitions, doesn't provide stability nor security.

"Maybe the reason for the difference is this: My life history is one of starting low and going up. Whereas her story seems to be one of expecting high and being given low."

Well, it seems more that the difference is that you've gotten lucky and are now assuming that the difference comes from something external. April grew up poor — started low — and is doing better, but not much better. And it's pretty presumptuous — and pretty obtuse, given the actual text of the article — to assume that the difference is that you've gone up and she hasn't.

In summation: Your judgmental attitude toward who is "real poor" is insulting, whether or not you mean it that way, and by over-generalizing from your good fortune you both miss the point of the essay and make a pretty classic cognitive mistake.
posted by klangklangston at 12:52 AM on February 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


You said that I don't read very well. In this case I plead guilty as charged. So I reread the article and now I realize that the first part of the article pressed some visceral buttons. This'll sound funny but it's all about the "food off the bottom of the oven". That came across as a whine to me. This is probably personal history speaking. And to give her credit she does say she's uncomfortable with comparing her situation to that of the migrant worker.

My grandfather was a migrant worker. He arrived in Wales on board a freighter as an illegal stowaway. Believe it or not this was a high point in his life up to then. I only have details from my father who told me the family almost starved to death during WWII.

My grandfather was also a dick. He brought my dad over to work for him and proceeded to screw him out of his wages to support a drug habit and relatives back home who were in to gambling. My dad was sixteen years old, with a grade school education and no English.

After my grandfather died, my dad took over the business. My dad (and mum) proceeded to work seven days a week, ten hours a day. He saved money. God knows why he did that but it was the right choice. That decision is seared into our family's DNA. Cognitive bias? More like a cognitive tattoo, six inches deep, right into the fucking bone.

So yeah, you're right. I wasn't as "real poor" as my dad. Growing up, we didn't have any appliances other than a gas burner. We kept our milk in a bucket of cold water to stop it from going bad. Used newspaper instead of toilet paper. We had a fireplace for heat in the winter. This may sound like hard times but they weren't. (I had a lot of fun burning stuff in the fireplace, fires are more interesting than radiators for a kid)

I am trying to understand why the "food at the bottom of the oven" comment pissed me off. It's because when I was growing up, I was fine and so was the rest of the family. Which says that you can be poor and still be happy. There are different types of poor, aren't there? It's not the material circumstances that matter, it's the trajectory and the social or family environment. The fact that you have to eat off the bottom of the oven is not necessarily a poor-defining moment.

After twenty years of work, our family saved enough to make another choice. My Dad had learned English in the meantime. He read. He found out about Canada. There were plenty of good people in Wales but also unpleasant barriers for those who were "foreigners". He applied to immigrate and we got in.

What choice do you think I had personally given the lessons that were right in my face? I took those lessons straight to heart and with no regrets because they worked. Not enough money for university? Study hard and get a scholarship. Can't get a job because of lack of experience? Volunteer. The industry I'm in is getting wracked by layoffs? Develop a rare skill, get very good at it so that you're indispensable.

This is already too long but one possible misinterpretation I would like to clear up is the role of luck. I do believe that luck has a big impact on where one ends up. But there's both good and bad luck. Then there's stuff in between, the lucky or unlucky things that happen as a result of choice.

Luck is the cosmic noise of the universe. Regardless of what your luck is, making the proper choices (frugality, hard work, good friends) is the best way out of a bad situation. Is it guaranteed? No. Always persevere. Maybe prevail.
posted by storybored at 11:12 AM on February 5, 2012


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