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Barbara Ehrenreich on Poverty in America
August 10, 2009 2:50 PM   Subscribe

Barbara Ehrenreich, the author of Nickel and Dimed, has for the past two months been writing a series of opinion essays in the New York Times that discuss poverty, both new and entrenched. The pieces, so far, are "Too Poor to Make the News," "A Homespun Safety Net," and "Is It Now A Crime to Be Poor?"

"Too Poor to Make the News"
In some accounts, the recession is even described as the “great leveler”.... But the outlook is not so cozy when we look at the effects of the recession on a group generally omitted from all the vivid narratives of downward mobility — the already poor.
"A Homespun Safety Net"
So far, despite some temporary expansions of food stamps and unemployment benefits by the Obama administration, the recession has done for the government safety net pretty much what Hurricane Katrina did for the Federal Emergency Management Agency: it’s demonstrated that you can be clinging to your roof with the water rising, and no one may come to helicopter you out.
"Is It Now A Crime to Be Poor?"
In defiance of all reason and compassion, the criminalization of poverty has actually been intensifying as the recession generates ever more poverty. So concludes a new study from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, which found that the number of ordinances against the publicly poor has been rising since 2006, along with ticketing and arrests for more “neutral” infractions like jaywalking, littering or carrying an open container of alcohol.
posted by ocherdraco (77 comments total) 104 users marked this as a favorite

 
This passage from the third link really illustrates how things are and where they're headed:

"In Los Angeles, the fine for truancy is $250; in Dallas, it can be as much as $500 — crushing amounts for people living near the poverty level. According to the Los Angeles Bus Riders Union, an advocacy group, 12,000 students were ticketed for truancy in 2008.

Why does the Bus Riders Union care? Because it estimates that 80 percent of the “truants,” especially those who are black or Latino, are merely late for school, thanks to the way that over-filled buses whiz by them without stopping. I met people in Los Angeles who told me they keep their children home if there’s the slightest chance of their being late. It’s an ingenious anti-truancy policy that discourages parents from sending their youngsters to school.

The pattern is to curtail financing for services that might help the poor while ramping up law enforcement: starve school and public transportation budgets, then make truancy illegal. Shut down public housing, then make it a crime to be homeless. Be sure to harass street vendors when there are few other opportunities for employment. The experience of the poor, and especially poor minorities, comes to resemble that of a rat in a cage scrambling to avoid erratically administered electric shocks."
posted by hermitosis at 3:15 PM on August 10, 2009 [33 favorites]


Why Maureen Dowd has a regular column on the op-ed page and Barbara Ehrenreich doesn't is a source of great distress to me.

Hopefully, the response to these will be deservedly large and the NYT will hire her: the fact that the only women with columns there right now do not write about policy, but about personality drives me nuts.
posted by Maias at 3:15 PM on August 10, 2009 [36 favorites]


This is chilling stuff. It's simple decadence for a society to imagine that people can be treated this way without terrible repercussions down the road. And I'm sure the UK is only a couple of years behind, especially if Dave gets in.
posted by WPW at 3:21 PM on August 10, 2009


From the start, the experience has been “humiliating,” Kristen said. The caseworkers “treat you like a bum — they act like every dollar you get is coming out of their own paychecks.” [. . .]

Nationally, according to Kaaryn Gustafson, an associate professor at the University of Connecticut Law School, “applying for welfare is a lot like being booked by the police.” There may be a mug shot, fingerprinting and long interrogations as to one’s children’s paternity. The ostensible goal is to prevent welfare fraud, but the psychological impact is to turn poverty itself into a kind of crime. [. . .]

It’s no secret that the temporary assistance program was designed to repel potential applicants, and at this it has been stunningly successful. The theory is that government assistance encourages a debilitating “culture of poverty,” marked by laziness, promiscuity and addiction, and curable only by a swift cessation of benefits.


This is exactly the kind of Judge and Blame the Victim bullshit I was complaining about in last week's rural poor thread. As the middle article points out, the "culture of poverty" whose "misplaced" or "inferior" values are often sneered at includes a belief in mutual dependence and helping folks out when they need it, something that might be nice to emulate in public policy. At least in my region, Ehrenreich is correct in observing that the recession has been pretty much life as usual, only worse, for people at subsistence poverty level.

However, if fuel prices shoot up again in this economy, there may well be people starving in the streets since we're talking in many cases about literally choosing between food or gas. In rural areas, no gas = no work = even less food. Only because they're on back roads rather than main streets, they won't be visible enough to become a soundbite.
posted by FelliniBlank at 3:23 PM on August 10, 2009 [7 favorites]


Why Maureen Dowd has a regular column on the op-ed page and Barbara Ehrenreich doesn't is a source of great distress to me.

She should hire someone to pepper her work with cloying neologisms. Then she could have David Brooks' spot. Instead of "aid recipients," she should refer to her subjects as "Value Menu Moms." Instead of "the already poor," call them "Down-in-the-Dumpsters." Instead of "criminalization of poverty" - "Dirt-Pogey." Like that.
posted by gompa at 3:33 PM on August 10, 2009 [17 favorites]


In rural areas, no gas = no work = even less food.

You know what the irony of this is, right?
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 3:36 PM on August 10, 2009 [2 favorites]


If this topic outrages you, make sure you read Michael Harrington's The Other America at some point.

It's a fairly old book, but it's even more relevant today than it ever was.
posted by loquacious at 3:37 PM on August 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


Civil_Disobedient, rural areas ≠ delicious family gardens.

Rural areas = factory farms.
posted by Sfving at 3:39 PM on August 10, 2009 [4 favorites]


(So yeah, I'm with you on the irony.)
posted by Sfving at 3:39 PM on August 10, 2009


Thank you for this. I wouldn't have read them otherwise.
posted by small_ruminant at 3:44 PM on August 10, 2009


A number of cities, led by Las Vegas, passed ordinances forbidding the sharing of food with the indigent in public places, and several members of the group were arrested.

That makes sense. Individual or organized sharing is, after all, one step away from [scary music] socialized nourishment. Also, it'd be terrible for Las Vegas to have roving bands of philanthropists ruining its classy image.
posted by FelliniBlank at 3:47 PM on August 10, 2009 [8 favorites]


You know, I have to confess that when Nickle and Dimed came out, I sneered a little bit at Ehrenreich's conceit. Even with her self-conscious invocation of the web of privilege that sustained her emotionally and financially during her sojourn on America's downside, she still seemed like a misery tourist.

But you know what? Fuck that smug earlier me. As the years have passed, Ehrenreich continues to walk the walk. At this point, she's one of the few cogent and influential voices the working poor in America have on their side. She writes vividly and without pretense and she has the ability to make a clear moral case by reciting the uncomfortable facts that are sitting in front of our faces. Even in Nickle and Dimed, it was never really about her. She was just figuring out how to tell us the stories of America's own untouchables.
posted by felix betachat at 3:50 PM on August 10, 2009 [81 favorites]


If you outlaw poverty, only outlaws will be poor.

Right?
posted by pompomtom at 3:57 PM on August 10, 2009


I wish I had more to add besides - holy heck we're lucky more of us don't hate ourselves for our 'freedoms'. It is after all just another word for nothing left to lose.
posted by meinvt at 3:57 PM on August 10, 2009


@gompa, those cloying neologisms made me groan with recognition. By labeling the affected as "Value Menu Moms", it serves to dehumanize and further trivialize their problems. I know you're not pushing that idea as a good one, but you are good at it.
posted by now i'm piste at 4:01 PM on August 10, 2009


A number of cities, led by Las Vegas, passed ordinances forbidding the sharing of food with the indigent in public places, and several members of the group were arrested.

Guess I can look forward to a good tazin'. I never give money but it somebody wants the second half of my carne asada burro, it's better than throwing it away.

Next up on Fox: Nations Poor Responsible for Recession.
posted by snsranch at 4:04 PM on August 10, 2009


If you outlaw poverty the poor, only outlaws will be poor.

It's a significant difference.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:07 PM on August 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


I agree----read Michael Harrington's book, "The Other America." It's increasingly relevant during this time!
Barbara Ehrenreich is a jewel.
posted by ragtimepiano at 4:11 PM on August 10, 2009


Excellent articles, thank you.
posted by agregoli at 4:18 PM on August 10, 2009


The worst retro trend ever, Gilded Age 2.0. At least the Hortito Algar shit will have slightly less boy-fucking going on, what with the genders being allowed to toil equally now.
posted by The Whelk at 4:21 PM on August 10, 2009 [2 favorites]


Meanwhile they were finding out why some recipients have taken to calling the assistance program “Torture and Abuse of Needy Families.” From the start, the experience has been “humiliating,” Kristen said. The caseworkers “treat you like a bum — they act like every dollar you get is coming out of their own paychecks.”

I hope they remember to thank Ronald Reagan for that.
posted by heathkit at 4:21 PM on August 10, 2009 [3 favorites]


As far as I can tell there's no practical reason for this except to appease the vanity of the wealthy - to make being rich a virtue, one has to make being poor a vice.
Only benefit I can see - 'benefit' in the 'Cui bono?' sense, other than security.
It takes effort to do this. More effort than merely pauperizing folks. You look at any pogrom, for the most part if it's not ethnic or religious based it's predicated on making money. Even the Nazis genocide against the Jews wasn't entirely philosophically pure (quite the contrary actually). And there have been various kinds of massacres, riots, oppression, etc, that have an ethnic front, but is really mostly about money (the Chinese massacres in LA in the 1870s, say) and that's where the tension comes from.
This is more in slow motion. And what does anyone, except the prison industry, get out of it?
I'd suspect the one thing I'd be worried about in the U.S., if I had real money, would be the government taking it from me. Only way the government could really do that is if there were enough people, socially acceptable people, involved to give it some sort of legitimacy.

Just speculation really. But it is weird that folks would take pains to continue to follow this path, and I have to agree with Ehrenreich. Everything she says gels with my own experience and observation.
posted by Smedleyman at 4:26 PM on August 10, 2009 [2 favorites]


I was thinking about Reagan too, but about how this relates to the war on drugs. I've heard many conversations in the last couple of years about selling pot and cooking meth to make ends meet by folks who just wouldn't normally do that kind of thing.

If you outlaw the poor, the poor will become criminals...incarcerated...and taken care of by an existing "social system". Prison.
posted by snsranch at 4:32 PM on August 10, 2009


A number of cities, led by Las Vegas, passed ordinances forbidding the sharing of food with the indigent in public places, and several members of the group were arrested.

You see, giving away handouts to the indigent isn't just unAmerican, why it's downright UnChristian. When you give a handout, you're takin' away a person's ability and their right to change their state. You're also taking away a valuable lesson they could be learning about the consequences of their lives. You teach a man to fish, and he'll eat forever, now that's not just a sayin', that's a fact. Why Christ himself would rather give a man a leg-up than a hand-down, and maybe if these people weren't sitting around expecting hand-outs and being selfish and only thinking of how they can cheat their employers or thier nation, well then maybe we'd see some honest, strong-backed change in this country.

As the Lord himself said. "Blessed are the wealthy, cause they worked really hard and deserve to protect every single penny."
posted by The Whelk at 4:37 PM on August 10, 2009 [19 favorites]


Thanks for your post ocherdraco and thanks to Barbara Ehrenreich for her excellent, compassionate and impassioned articles.

An bloodboilingly outrageous couple of statements from the third link:

A few years ago, a group called Food Not Bombs started handing out free vegan food to hungry people in public parks around the nation. A number of cities, led by Las Vegas, passed ordinances forbidding the sharing of food with the indigent in public places, and several members of the group were arrested. A federal judge just overturned the anti-sharing law in Orlando, Fla., but the city is appealing...

The pattern is to curtail financing for services that might help the poor while ramping up law enforcement: starve school and public transportation budgets, then make truancy illegal. Shut down public housing, then make it a crime to be homeless.


Finding inspiration and comfort elsewhere:
A Bus Driver Who Has Served 70,000 Meals

Jorge Munoz, a bus driver from Queens who comes home EVERY NIGHT (for the past five years!) to cook and feed 150 homeless people.
posted by nickyskye at 4:42 PM on August 10, 2009 [4 favorites]


I wasn't really expecting to crack a smile in this thread. Thanks, The Whelk.

Just this past weekend my family and I were accosted by a homeless lady. AFTER she left, tons of people gathered to see if we were OK. Of course we were Ok, SHE needed help, real help. Help she's not gonna get around here.
posted by snsranch at 4:46 PM on August 10, 2009


the anti-sharing law in Orlando, Fla

I don't think this phrase is entering my brain. Like, in a dream, when I know what something means but I can't read it. I read it and I am blind, so to speak.

Let's all just look at the phrase the anti-sharing law in Orlando, Fla until it all sinks in that this was a REAL THING that happened and it exists in the actual world place we live in, now.

the anti-sharing law in Orlando, Fla
posted by The Whelk at 4:46 PM on August 10, 2009 [20 favorites]


Everyone! Everyone! I've figured out why Sarah Palin quit her job! She's the Borg and she's going to assimilate us all, and she's started with The Wh—

You know, I believe that the best of America is not all in Washington, D.C. The best of America is in these small towns that I get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, full of all of you hard working very patriotic, very, um, pro-America areas of this great nation.

I betcha The Whelk agrees with me.
posted by ocherdraco at 4:46 PM on August 10, 2009


Okay, going into the Rage Cone now. BBN.
posted by The Whelk at 4:47 PM on August 10, 2009


Ehrenreich is one of those people who can't get over the fact that committing crimes is a crime.

Obviously, it sucks super-bad to be poor, which is why most of us exchange the better part of our lives for a paycheck. The best thing you can do for the poor, aside from offering them personal kindness, is to give them safe, orderly streets, public transit they can ride without fear, the opportunity hang on to whatever possessions they have, and good strong jails to hold the thieves, drug addicts, woman abusers, rapists, murderers, parasites and other assholes who are the true enemies of the poor.
posted by Faze at 4:47 PM on August 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


Well, let's see. There's—*gasp* help me, please—of course in the great history of America there have been rulings—there's no logic, no reason—that there's never going to be absolute consensus by every American, and—can't... process... syntax... *gasp*—there are those issues, again, like Roe v. Wade, where I believe are best held on a state level and addressed there. So, you know, going through the history of America—save me from her i'm begging you—there would be others but ―
posted by ocherdraco at 4:51 PM on August 10, 2009


okay, sorry. lame joke. done now.
posted by ocherdraco at 4:54 PM on August 10, 2009


Ehrenreich is one of those people who can't get over the fact that committing crimes is a crime.

Yeah, doesn't she know fines for truancy are part of natural law? My lord, you would almost think that laws were created by our representatives in the government and are subject to amendment and overturning.
posted by Bookhouse at 4:55 PM on August 10, 2009 [19 favorites]


Ocherdraco! I've got just a brilliant, padagism shifting idea! Let me tell you how we can depriotirize our Nonexcellent performing assets citizens and get back some national pride!

*Snort*

These people don't have jobs, right, cause we don't like factories and stuff and cause they have, like all these loans and shits cause they bought stuff, I think? So, um, okay, stay with me, it's really good, cause like okay these people OWE MONEY cause they BOUGHT STUFF or cause they wanted stuff and now they're like living on the street or some crap. WHAT IF we bring some of those factories back and these people can like pay off their debt to Nike or whatever. They'll work cheaper than the fucking chinese or whatever and they'll be off the streets and they buy food and shelter and stuff from the company and pay it all back in labor! It's brilliant! We get jobs back and people off the street, and the companies don't have to loose too much stock or nothing. They'll make money! And all those homeless people or whatever can learn about honest work! Win win!
posted by The Whelk at 4:58 PM on August 10, 2009


which is why most of us exchange the better part of our lives for a paycheck.

Yeah! Why don't they just get a job? Jeez!
posted by small_ruminant at 4:59 PM on August 10, 2009 [4 favorites]


This reminds me of when I was a little kid and when the "old" folks spoke of the "Great Depression", I took the term literally. Huh, silly snskid.
posted by snsranch at 5:03 PM on August 10, 2009


I also highly recommend Flat Broke with Children by Sharon Hays. It's a detailed, thorough look at the state of welfare after the reforms of the mid-1990s.

I think it should be required reading in any high school sex-education class. Having kids before finishing a secondary education, next to disability, is one of the biggest indicators of poverty and one of the biggest impediments to climbing out of it.
posted by Alison at 5:08 PM on August 10, 2009 [2 favorites]


and good strong jails to hold the thieves, drug addicts, woman abusers, rapists, murderers, parasites and other assholes who are the true enemies of the poor, and affordable access to medical and mental health services, and rent control so that the landlords don't take 80% of whatever social benefits they do receive, and access to lifelong educational opportunities to learn life skllls and stuff, and subsidized childcare so they can actually afford to work, and aggressive city planning and zoning such that civil society is less firewalled into de facto apartheid and a more integrated wrt universal access to urban life.

Actual wealth-producing jobs would also be a start, too. $700B/yr will be spent on feeding the war machines this year. That's the collective salary of 20 million lower middle class jobs.
posted by @troy at 5:10 PM on August 10, 2009 [7 favorites]


But you know what? Fuck that smug earlier me. As the years have passed, Ehrenreich continues to walk the walk. At this point, she's one of the few cogent and influential voices the working poor in America have on their side. She writes vividly and without pretense and she has the ability to make a clear moral case by reciting the uncomfortable facts that are sitting in front of our faces. Even in Nickle and Dimed, it was never really about her. She was just figuring out how to tell us the stories of America's own untouchables.
posted by felix betachat at 6:50 PM on August 10


I agree whole-heartedly, while I liked Nickel and Dimed it struck me as poverty tourism. It turns out she found an important message, and has stuck with it.

Great post
posted by dr. moot at 5:12 PM on August 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


...which is why most of us exchange the better part of our lives for a paycheck.

You should head downtown and clue those homeless in on this. I'm sure the whole "job" thing never occurred to them.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:15 PM on August 10, 2009 [2 favorites]


thieves, drug addicts, woman abusers, rapists, murderers

Can you guess which thing is not like the other things
Before I finish my song?
posted by FelliniBlank at 5:16 PM on August 10, 2009 [6 favorites]


*including the link

A Bus Driver Who Has Served 70,000 Meals

Jorge Munoz, a bus driver from Queens who comes home EVERY NIGHT (for the past five years!) to cook and feed 150 homeless people.

posted by nickyskye at 5:22 PM on August 10, 2009 [2 favorites]



Capitalism. It really does work.
posted by notreally at 5:33 PM on August 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


Ok, that was eponyfarsical!
posted by snsranch at 5:43 PM on August 10, 2009


One of the things that struck me is that a lot of these oppressive ordinances have been ballot initiatives approved directly by the voters, and even the ones that weren't were passed by elected officials, who I'm sure will make their 'anti-indigent' ordinances a key feature of their reelection campaigns. Most people in America see the poor as an unsightly nuisance that they would rather not have to deal with (the no loitering, sleeping in public, truancy, etc. laws). Or maybe, as smedleyman says, it's about "the vanity of the wealthy"--although I would use the term 'middle-class majority' rather than wealthy.

Either way, when it comes down to it, it's not that there a few big evil people running society who are out to get the poor, it's that most ordinary, middle-class people (and the majority of Americans are middle class) have a distaste and disgust for poor people, and this is the type of government that naturally arises when a society comprised of such people takes part in the democratic process.

In short, it's a crime to be poor because the non-poor majority WANTS poverty to be a crime.
posted by notswedish at 5:43 PM on August 10, 2009 [9 favorites]


The best thing you can do for the poor, aside from offering them personal kindness, is to give them safe, orderly streets, public transit they can ride without fear, the opportunity hang on to whatever possessions they have, and good strong jails to hold the thieves, drug addicts, woman abusers, rapists, murderers, parasites and other assholes who are the true enemies of the poor.

Ah, Faze.

Actually specialty community courts are handling these bullshit reason-to-roust charges more and more so at least once in the system people can get a relatively short date in and be released to the streets instead of clogging up the jails worse than they already are. Usually the penalties are community service, so in a lot of cases offenders actually wind up leaving the community better off than it was. So, no, it's not typical for homeless people who get caught pissing in a doorway or drinking from a brown bag to do very much jail time anymore, which is how is ought to be. You can read more about Community Courts here, it was one of the good innovations to come from the quality-of-life crime crackdowns in NYC. More and more those caught possessing drugs are routed to drug courts and those suspected of having committed crimes while symptomatic for a mental health disorder can be routed to mental health court where in either case the offender can get beneficial outpatient treatment in the community rather than be negatively impacted by proximity to more severe public safety risk types in prison.

Though, of course, funding for all of these initiatives is currently in the shitter due to the recession.
posted by The Straightener at 5:43 PM on August 10, 2009


The Poor Pay For The Sins Of The Rich
posted by nax at 5:53 PM on August 10, 2009


It seems to me that the people who support, endorse and vote for this kind of crap...you know, the "screw them" folks, are FAR more likely to find themselves in line for aid than the fancy lib types.

Funny how AWESOME the "Us vs. Them" thing works until Us becomes Them.
posted by snsranch at 5:54 PM on August 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


The Working Poor, by David Shipler, is a good companion read to Nickel and Dimed. Because he is not trying to live the experience, Shipler is able to delve more deeply into the complex web of factors that constrain people into poverty, often for generations.

It is one of those books I am always recommending; always trying to get people to read. Every time someone starts going on about bootstraps, I want to get a copy of this book downloaded into their head.
posted by jeoc at 6:18 PM on August 10, 2009 [5 favorites]


Meanwhile they were finding out why some recipients have taken to calling the assistance program “Torture and Abuse of Needy Families.” From the start, the experience has been “humiliating,” Kristen said. The caseworkers “treat you like a bum — they act like every dollar you get is coming out of their own paychecks.”


This is why you should start by contacting a local anti-hunger non-profit. In many states, non-profits are allowed to bypass some of the more humiliating steps and are also nicer and faster. I have received food stamps and I was really thankful someone told me this. I didn't have to endanger my job and further lose income to take a day off work to be humiliated and wait in line for hours. I called them, brought in my docs, and had to only go to the actual gov office for a few minutes. You can mefi mail me for more specifics.

I feel that non-profits do work so much better at providing services than the government offices do.
posted by melissam at 6:35 PM on August 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


public transit they can ride without fear...

Surely, this is Socialism. Why should I have my hard-earned money taken away from me by Big Gummint in higher taxes to subsidize busses for people who are too lazy to get out there and earn enough money to buy a car? Besides, those damn empty busses clog up the road, belch out more pollution that my F-350, and get in my way.
posted by Devils Rancher at 7:09 PM on August 10, 2009 [2 favorites]


Also: I wish I were joking, buy my previous post is often the gist of letters to the editor in my esteemed local daily.

Those articles are causing me a Great Depression.
posted by Devils Rancher at 7:11 PM on August 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


So, no, it's not typical for homeless people who get caught pissing in a doorway or drinking from a brown bag to do very much jail time anymore, which is how is ought to be. You can read more about Community Courts here, it was one of the good innovations to come from the quality-of-life crime crackdowns in NYC.

I once saw a gentleman (I do not know if he was homeless) who was peacefully enjoying a brown-bagged beer on the sidewalk being accosted by a NYPD officer.

"It's a quality-of-life offense," says the policeman.

Replies the victim, "I'm sitting here drinking a beer. This is MY quality-of-life you're offending."
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 7:11 PM on August 10, 2009 [15 favorites]


Some of these things I have seen firsthand, having grown up with a single mom on disability who receives public assistance. This gave me a perspective on poverty that I realize few have, as well as motivation to defend the poor and to consider them in situations such as these.

So many people have utter disdain for those in poverty. On top of fingerprinting, they wish for poor public assistance recipients to undergo drug testing and other new forms of screenings to keep their benefits. There's such a terrible assumption that the poor lack ambition, values, or intelligence.

Policymakers don't reach out to the poor for votes, they reach out to a middle class that is constantly shrinking; become an ideal to bind oneself to and blind oneself to those in poverty.

Some of the stories I have witnessed or heard about with regards to red tape and public social services agencies are not even merely repugnant, but completely illegal. But there is no oversight. Either that, or nobody cares enough to police it.

I am working on a story about this and I hope that I can find a place that will publish it. But I know it will be an uphill climb to get that in print given just how little relevance most people find the poor and how offenses against the poor are so trivialized to the point of inhumane behavior.
posted by cmgonzalez at 9:02 PM on August 10, 2009 [5 favorites]


Maias: Why Maureen Dowd has a regular column on the op-ed page and Barbara Ehrenreich doesn't is a source of great distress to me.

This. While distressing, it shouldn't be surprising that the average NYT reader is only willing to feel guilty about their life of leisure over coffee once a month, not twice a week. MoDo is little better than that guy on Talk Soup, only she's talking about politics so it seems substantive.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 9:17 PM on August 10, 2009 [2 favorites]


However, if fuel prices shoot up again in this economy, there may well be people starving in the streets since we're talking in many cases about literally choosing between food or gas. In rural areas, no gas = no work = even less food. Only because they're on back roads rather than main streets, they won't be visible enough to become a soundbite.

Yes!
Living in already economically-depressed Maine, there's enough people in my town who are really living on the edge and find themselves making the choice between spending money on food or fuel. It's grim already, it could get really fucking ugly if the economy slides further. The tourists still get to go to their carefully curated (and policed) tourist towns, but beneath the veneer it's pretty desperate- the cops will come down on you like a ton of bricks if you try begging, much less taking nickels out of a fountain or sleeping in the park.
To quote Phil Ochs, "Wouldn't it be a riot if they really blew their tops?"
posted by dunkadunc at 9:53 PM on August 10, 2009


Went to a book launch tonight for a guy who's written City of Disorder: How the Quality of Life Campaign Transformed New York Politics. It looks to be a fascinating (and depressing) read about how NYC was "cleaned up", and what the very human cost has been.
posted by rtha at 10:11 PM on August 10, 2009


Civil_Disobedient, rural areas ≠ delicious family gardens.

No, that's not the irony.

The irony is that these are the very same people that are pushing for these laws.

I used to live in Nebraska, I think I've seen a farm or two. I've also seen all the self-destructive, self-loathing, narrow-minded, small-brained, shallow-visioned fuckheads that repeatedly re-elect their own fucking doom.

I hope oil goes up ten fucking dollars. Because then it will hurt them so much that they'll have to put aside their fucking pettiness and take their noses out from their neighbors business. I hope their politics bankrupts them all. It's clear to me they're not hurting enough. I want to see their humbled, frightened faces when they realize Santa isn't real, that God isn't going to come to save them, that they'll starve and rot just like the rest of us--immigrants, crackheads, gays, liberals, we're all the same damned sinking boat. Just because they're a couple decks above water doesn't mean the ship ain't sinking.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 11:26 PM on August 10, 2009 [8 favorites]


Because then it will hurt them so much that they'll have to put aside their fucking pettiness

Surely this?
posted by prak at 1:25 AM on August 11, 2009


If these anti-poor people measures do get reduced, it's going to be because of those shallow-visioned fuckheads, and they will be the first, and possibly only beneficiaries of the reduction. Because they are the Real America, dontcha know.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:09 AM on August 11, 2009


Policymakers don't reach out to the poor for votes...

First, valuable fund-raising time can't be wasted on a portion of the constituency who have to funds from which to raise.

Also, Politicians probably correctly summarize that "the poor," as a voting bloc are going to be apathetic because when has voting ever done them any good, or too busy trying to cling to their tenuous employment or meeting the onerous demands of the TANF program, and will be unlikely to show up to vote, either way.

The middle class can be reliably expected to contribute at least small amounts, take time to discuss politics with one another, perhaps do a bit of volunteering, and actually show up on a Tuesday during working hours to poke at the chad.
posted by Devils Rancher at 5:07 AM on August 11, 2009


Your typical welfare caseworker in Philly has about 450 clients on their caseload. Imagine that. It's impossible for a welfare caseworker to provide quality services, the system isn't set up for them to do so. A close friend of mine works in the welfare department and expresses her frustration all the time with her inability to have much positive impact on clients. All she can do is apply whatever rigid rules apply in each case, regardless of whether she thinks it's the right or best course of action. If she deviates from whatever rule is supposed to apply because she feels it's better for the client she can lose her job.

It's classic bureaucracy at its worst, it pays shit, and not surprisingly it does not attract a high level of talent or passion the way other areas of social service do.
posted by The Straightener at 6:19 AM on August 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


I'm horrified by the examples in Ehrenreich's pieces. Our treatment of those in poverty is appalling. While I like free-market capitalism as much as the next person, I do think that England has some things on us. How different would the lives of the poor be if they didn't have to worry about medical care and a steady income? Sure, life on the dole is no barrel of monkeys, but at least the kids get fed.

Additionally, programs and agencies that exist to help the poor, threaten the middle-class with their existance.

A friend of mine bought a beautiful historic home in a southern coastal city. Then a food pantry opened across the street from her. Then the church down the street started offering free meals a couple of times a week. Her neighborhood became cluttered with homeless and poor people queing up for food and roaming the neighborhood panhandling.

This was a concerted effort by the city government to get these folks out of the downtown area, thus chasing them into the residential areas.

So they chased the problem into the neighborhoods. The housing market wasn't doing all that great, but try selling your house in a declining market with poor and homeless people hanging out all over the place.

After a year of trying to rent the place and hoping for a market rebound, the house is in foreclosure.

On the surface you'd think that if you've got your job, your house, your groceries, that this stuff doesn't affect you. It does.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:48 AM on August 11, 2009


So many people have utter disdain for those in poverty.

I swear part of that disdain stems from the appearance of the poor...ah if only the poor looked like Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt there would be more sympathy. Alas, the poor are dressed badly, over weight, unkempt and missing teeth and so the usual reaction is one of disgust rather than sympathy.

I have found myself wondering over the last several years what we expect the truly poor to do? A hundred years ago they would have been able to build a hut on unclaimed land next to the town, fish in the streams, hunt rabbits and squirrels. But now the land outside of town is filled with suburbian pre-fabs, the streams are polluted, and hunting prohibited. During the last Great Depression people lived in their cars and erected tent cities, but I am afraid that there is no toleration for that sort of thing anymore.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 6:55 AM on August 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


ah, yes. las vegas. where it is illegal to give food to the homeless, but entirely legal to give them free liquor.
posted by rmd1023 at 7:02 AM on August 11, 2009


Also, Politicians probably correctly summarize that "the poor," as a voting bloc are going to be apathetic because when has voting ever done them any good, or too busy trying to cling to their tenuous employment or meeting the onerous demands of the TANF program, and will be unlikely to show up to vote, either way.

My long-held theory is that the power structure sees making more and more of us too busy to get involved, and too poor or selfish to contribute money, as positive outcomes. Remember the League of Women Voters? They used to sponsor Presidential debates; had lots of clout. They still exist, but they rarely get mentioned by the Corporate Media. When lots of women in middle-class and even blue-collar families could stay home, they had time to think about and get involved in political issues. Now most of them have to work, and just don't have time. Likewise, men and women who have to work more hours for less money are less likely to be active politically or to contribute to causes, or even to vote. That's fine with the corporatocracy.

The pendulum needs a good, hard shove back toward th benefiting of ordinary people.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 7:10 AM on August 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


This is a great post. I've been wanting to comment, but I'd type a wildly inappropriate comment, backspace, type another radical screed and delete it. I've done ethnographic research on homeless shelters and aid organization and work extensively at a education/arts-centric community center in Ocean Hill/East New York and so as much as I would like to make a well-reasoned and poignant comment, whenever I get started talking about popular perceptions of "the culture of poverty" and so-called welfare fraud I get pretty frothy and antagonistic. Barbara Ehrenreich is great because she can express what I want everyone to know without the personalized anger.

What can an individual who cares about this issue do to start remedying this savagery?
posted by fuq at 7:50 AM on August 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


Alas, the poor are dressed badly, over weight, unkempt and missing teeth and so the usual reaction is one of disgust rather than sympathy.

Perhaps if we started smaller? Perhaps with government dental care and public baths.

After a couple of years we might have a slightly more attractive homeless population that would garner enough sympathy to get a bit more.
posted by prak at 8:27 AM on August 11, 2009


It's clear to me they're not hurting enough. I want to see their humbled, frightened faces when they realize Santa isn't real, that God isn't going to come to save them, that they'll starve and rot just like the rest of us--immigrants, crackheads, gays, liberals, we're all the same damned sinking boat.

Your sympathy for the rural poor is overwhelming. I just can't imagine why they haven't flocked to your side of the fence.
posted by Bookhouse at 9:18 AM on August 11, 2009


Civil_Disobedient: I hope oil goes up ten fucking dollars. Because then it will hurt them so much that they'll have to put aside their fucking pettiness and take their noses out from their neighbors business.

I would love to see the aforementioned dimwits vote themselves to death with the leaders they deserve (A recent letter to the Bangor Daily compared gay marriage to a man marrying a cow), but as a fellow Mainer I have to say that my rural area would also be a candidate for mass starvation and that the nice people would starve along with the absolute douchebags.
posted by dunkadunc at 9:30 AM on August 11, 2009


Counterpoint:
Cities Tolerate Homeless Camps - WSJ

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Last summer, police responding to complaints about campfires under a highway overpass found dozens of homeless people living on public land along the Cumberland River. Eviction notices went up -- and then were suspended by Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, a Democrat, who said housing for the homeless should be found first. A year later, little has been found -- and Nashville, with help from local nonprofits, is now servicing a tent city, arranging for portable toilets, trash pickup, a mobile medical van and visits from social workers. Volunteers bring in firewood for the camp's 60 or so dwellers. ...

Note the references to opposition in NYC and Tampa, however.
posted by bright cold day at 9:31 AM on August 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


The most appalling thing to me is not the poverty itself, or the "pull yourselves up by your bootstraps" and Calvinist attitudes toward the poor, or even the systemic barriers to escaping poverty such as poorer schools in poorer neighborhoods. Those are all bad enough on their own, but what really gets my goat is the deliberate, punitive, measures to increase the barrier between poverty and the way out. It's like a sick Calvinist fantasy.

Get arrested (possibly for jaywalking, public urination, sleeping/drinking in public, loitering, resisting arrest, drug possession, or other violations selectively enacted or enforced against the poor)? We'll jail you and charge you room and board for the time you spent enjoying the sherriff's hospitality.

But others are tightening the screws: not only increasing the number of “crimes” but also charging prisoners for their room and board — assuring that they’ll be released with potentially criminalizing levels of debt.

Got out of custody (or managed to skip that part this time) and now you're on probation? We'll charge you fees by the week or the month for supervision, monitoring, testing, classes, counseling, and whatever else we can think of, or charge your parents if you're a juvenile. In some cases, you may have the option of choosing (more expensive) incarceration over paying the onerous fees. Of course, if you try to keep up with your payments but fail, you're in violation of your probation and get locked back up, which may make you lose your job and/or incur further debt.

Your kid misses the bus? We'll fine you for your child's truancy, in an amount that could readily affect your ability to pay for housing, transportation, or food.

In Los Angeles, the fine for truancy is $250; in Dallas, it can be as much as $500 — crushing amounts for people living near the poverty level. According to the Los Angeles Bus Riders Union, an advocacy group, 12,000 students were ticketed for truancy in 2008.

This is backward and shameful.
posted by notashroom at 9:32 AM on August 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


Your sympathy for the rural poor is overwhelming.

"Doctor, it hurts when I do this."
"Then don't do that."
"You're not being sympathetic to my pain!"
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 11:33 AM on August 11, 2009


"...that most ordinary, middle-class people (and the majority of Americans are middle class) have a distaste and disgust for poor people, and this is the type of government that naturally arises when a society comprised of such people takes part in the democratic process."

I guess my point being - where does this distaste come from? I think a lot of middle class folks want to emulate the wealthy (otherwise why have knock off prada bags and such?).

Although my point isn't just egotism and facile self-serving denial (because *I* always think "hell, that could be me" when I look at a poor or homeless man - and it could be, just a twist of fate, a bad accident, a push over the edge - I'm strong, smart, capable, my resources are nearly limitless really and I've been accustomed to success all my life, but, if something happened to my wife and kids, I can't say I'd find much meaning in life anymore. Maybe I could recover. But maybe I wouldn't want to. There are no guarantees. And my odds of 'making it' are just that - odds. Hell, how can I take credit for any success I have in life if I don't acknowledge that it wasn't a certainty?) - my point is that these sentiments have real effects.

So - what's your home worth?
Well, whatever 'the market' says. How's the market determine that? There are some hard numbers there but really, it seems pretty subjective. I'm not a real estate guy, but it's pretty obvious if you have a bunch of homeless folks in your neighborhood property values could drop.
Ergo "quality of life" laws.
That pressure has to come from somewhere.
And indeed, I've felt it myself looking at homeless folks in the libraries. Granted my reaction is a bit different (we need more social programs) but the sentiment is the same (they shouldn't be here spot bathing in the toilet sink).

So you can lose, say $50,000, because a prospective buyer sees some guy going through the trash next door to a place he's looking at buying. Or you can 'think' you'll lose it.
Whatever the case that 50 grand is a reality, in part because money is pretty much just conceptual now as it is (being off the gold standard), and so you defend that psychic terrain. Laws get written all that.
But hell, local cops get paid by local taxes, any wonder they're sympathetic?
Too many variables and details to go into regarding this concept so I'm just alluding to bits of it. But the gist should be clear.
Not that I sympathize, I mean, I understand, but the 'no sharing' laws and so forth just seeks to push the problem off publically and maximize private - or local public - profit.
It's cloaked aggression really. And, to my mind, the worst form, because one can pretend (to my mind like Rosie O'Donnell) that one is not being aggressive but being caring about one's community and so forth.
But this process - exhausting a given mass with nearly futile actions just to live, harried by time, lack of access, etc. etc. - it's been a foundation to stop revolt, upheaval, etc. as well as a mechanism of oppression for a very long time.
The most spectacular bit of this pattern is Basil II blinding 99 of ever 100 men of a 15,000 man army and sending them back to burden his enemy. Because what, you kill your own returning men?
Ingenious, if horrific and ruthless. But today - outmoded. Because there is nowhere 'else.' There is - barring some few places on Earth - nowhere outside the scope or realm of human interaction. You can't burden your enemy and collapse them with impunity anymore because we're too interdependent.
So too - what, you move these people along to another town? We're at war with each other now?
Screw that noise. We have to recognize we're fighting a common enemy (poverty) and accept that it will take a unified effort to combat it.
Otherwise, like Basil, we drown others in our castaways. And pretty soon - even if we avoid being drowned by the law enforcement resources we bolster to keep that going - pretty soon we find someone we have some commitment to - a cousin, a friend, a brother - being affected by the system we've called into being.
We let them drown in poverty through no fault of their own as well?
I'll grant there are the notions of the middle class - but it all stems from a dependency of the elite, whether cultural or directly economic, that make laws to their benefit and minimal taxation and create an environment which benefits, and serves, their 'quality of life' - whether directly (as is very rare) or in the abstract, which is common. And which will not tolerate some guy sitting in a park drinking a beer. His time, his 'quality of life' must be taken - not to enhance theirs directly so much - but as an enhancement of the ideation, the concept of the good life in the U.S.

Rome had a similar raubwirtschaft, a plunder economy. How they doing right now ... oh jeez, yeah.
posted by Smedleyman at 11:46 AM on August 11, 2009 [4 favorites]


Civil_Disobedient, please take a look at this post over at FiveThirtyEight. You'll see that the only two states where a majority of people who make under $20,000 per year voted Republican in 2008 were Wyoming and Idaho. Even in those states, the margin was pretty narrow in that income bracket. In other words, the poor, rural or otherwise--and we're talking about the really poor here, the ones who actually have to choose between gas and food--didn't vote for these policies at all. Your apparent hatred for all things rural is a misguided oversimplification. And what's even more disturbing is that you use it as an excuse not to have any compassion whatsoever for people whose demographic as a whole might have voted for the wrong party. It's pretty ugly.
posted by Hypocrite_Lecteur at 12:28 PM on August 11, 2009 [3 favorites]


"Doctor, it hurts when I do this."
"Then don't do that."
"You're not being sympathetic to my pain!"

Pretty much the same thought process used by Republicans to demonize the urban poor.
posted by Bookhouse at 1:25 PM on August 11, 2009


"Doctor, it hurts when I do this."
"Then don't do that."
"You're not attempting to diagnose the causes of my ailment and, by condescending towards me, trivialising my experience and refusing to empathise, are contributing to the perpetuation of my condition!"


...I hate this acronym, but, well, FTFY.

posted by aihal at 2:16 PM on August 11, 2009


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