Being Poor in the US in 2021
I have had a difficult time deciding to write this piece. It will be more honest than I usually care to offer to people I don’t know about myself and it will open me up to criticism that I frankly don’t want to listen to.
I am not officially poor, I have a combined income of $26,000 dollars a year between a partial pension from the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters and my Social Security.
I have no real assets beyond these and a left-over van and trailer from my business. I want to be clear about what I have to say from here, none of this is complaint, what I am seeking to do is to describe how I saw things happen to the working class from 1976 when I entered the work force after high school until I was forced into retirement by the pandemic and a failing physical frame.
I have a decent life today because of generosity of family, an incredible stroke of good fortune, which is difficult to come by in these days of leave nothing on the table capitalism, but I have the current advantage of not paying rent to a landlord to make me poorer and that individual wealthier.
By having a decent life I mean that I have shelter, warmth, and time to do things like write. What I do not have are the means to pay for medical care or anything that might be considered luxurious like travel.
I had a series of events, mostly beyond my control that resulted in me losing two business, my properties, I lost my wife, four years after she lost her son. I have medical debt of over fifteen thousand dollars, tax debt of over a hundred thousand dollars and no damned hope.
While I don’t have any real hope for a more prosperous life, I want to acknowledge that I am not writing this from a van somewhere in a southwestern state in some campground on a cold December day, some are.
I was unaware of the larger context for the economics of where we were at when I left high school. I already understood working for a living, I went to high school at a parochial prep school because of reasons of racial unrest in Denver at the time. I was unaware of the greater context of what this meant in terms of my mother’s unconscious racism and of the more conscious racism going on around me.
Our family had moved to Denver from Farmington NM in 1969 when I was eleven years old. I was well aware of the prejudice against the Navajo people, but I was unfamiliar with anything around black culture what so ever, except what I would overhear at church. My dad split from our family when I was four, sticking around only to make us pay for his guilty feelings every time he sent the child support payment. The church was my mother’s support center and the Lutheran Church in America was then quietly one of the most racist organizations in the country.
So I was at first admitted to the elementary system of Lutheran education in sixth grade when we moved to Denver. This was free to contributing members of the congregation, of which my mother always gave her ten percent, no matter that we were eating venison given to us by her co-workers. By high school there was a tuition, again half price for contributing members of supporting congregations. This was still above my Mom’s ability to pay for it, so at thirteen years old I got a paper route, throwing an afternoon paper which Denver had at that time. Their entire deal at the Denver Post in those days was that they published all of the business information at the close of business in New York and got it out to their subscribers in time for their evening meal.
Fifty bucks a month, more or less was mine at the end of the deal, depending on whether or not I could collect all the money owed and the Post got theirs off of the top. I did the paper route until I was fifteen and half years old when I could get restaurant work after school. Finally finished out my senior year selling shoes, which is an interesting choice of employment for a seventeen year old kid.
I did all of this not really being aware that I had an opportunity at this school to play the beginnings of the political games that become a part of all of our futures in this hyper-competitive system we work in. The goal of most of the kids I went to school with was to go on to college and seek out white collar work, the ministry was a fine choice, which is what I believed my path to be. I never did have the idea that my work was to create wealth or in any way be a part of the business of business.
My two semesters at seminary, well a little Bible college in Texas if I am being honest, was the final straw in my ability to believe anything that came out of the mouth of someone claiming to be a Christian, I left there and headed back home to the Rocky Mountain West where I believed a fellow could always earn a good living off of the sweat of his brow and his good intentions.
I began in that cesspool of liars, thieves, and operators know collectively as the oil patch, in Casper Wyoming. I hitchhiked from Denver because my Mom couldn’t afford the bus ticket but because she worked as a secretary for Texaco Drilling she has a line on someone who would take a risk on an unknown kid. Little did I know they were hiring anyone breathing and sober enough to have slept most of it off by the time they made the rig.
My time in Wyoming was deeply educational for me and I quickly discovered a much more sinister version of life than I had grown up around. I am not going to go into a lot of detail here except to say that trouble was available. I realized that I was not interested in jail for any reason, much less stupid ones, and so I went back to Denver with good work habits and some drive to have a normal life. I got married then,found a trade and fathered a baby, At 23.
But I had a trade, a good way to make a living right? What I was unaware of as a naive young man working and living in the Rocky Mountain West was how racism and class were being used by the oligarchs who were tired of being told how they were to run their empires to begin to break the back of what had been a powerful and equalizing force of the union labor movement.
This all had its birth in the civil rights movement and the rich white conservatives viewpoint that it was bad enough to have the “Polacks” and the “Bohunks” telling him what they would or wouldn’t do for his money but damn, now the Blacks and Mexicans want in on it. But push the poor whites against the poor blacks and you might just be able to kill this entire democracy notion where poor people have this absurd notion that they have right to have a voice in the world that they occupy and create with their work.
So, I hit the trade in the summer 1979 and the media wars against the unions and in particular the automobile manufactures unions was hitting its peak. Anti- union sentiment was often high in west, often violent, and often erroneously blamed for the boom and bust cycles here, and so not being aware of better choices; I began my apprenticeship with a non-union shop, got married and had a kid at 23.
All went along swimmingly until I had some personal crisis and found myself changing jobs after I earned my Journeyman’s License, going to work for a tract home plumbing company after having done my apprenticeship with a company that was a small family run concern that was going after a bigger position in the market. The tract home plumbers were all about production and competition among the workers, some paid by the hour; some by the piece. Craftsmanship was what would the inspectors and the builders would sign off on.
The rest of the 1980's came along and so did the the coming of the Reagan administration, Milton Friedman, Arnold Laffer and Carl Ichon and the rest of the free market cowboys and the first thing they did was to collapse the savings and loan institutions and market. With this came the collapse of the housing market, and in the Rocky Mountain West jobs got pounded in a big way with a collapse of energy pricing as the Saudis came back on line. My work and my marriage, my fledgling company and my property all went belly up.
So, I move to Southern California where they were building on anything that looks like stable land and some that didn’t. This was my first time living in a van, but I was moving out there just as broke as I could be and emotionally devastated over what I had lost. But I was twenty-nine and too young to call it quits. I found work in the Orange County area and also found the union, for whatever it was, it was better than any of the jobs that I had had in the trade prior.
The end of 1990 rolled around and housing construction in Orange Country has gone to fuck, and I am again getting laid off. But Denver is about to build an airport and every trade union hall in the country is talking about that work. My son and my mother are still in Denver and Colorado is my home, so back I bounce again. All I ever did with my money in California was survive, so I was moving again broke. At least this time I wasn’t hitchhiking.
So, the 1990’s were very good to me, the reason I have a pension at all in my life is because of the work had in those years. I built up equity in a property that I lost later in a divorce and was in my prime earning years. But the election of 2000 and the subsequent theft of the Presidential election by Roger Stone, the violent right and The Supreme Court of the United States sent all of that right into the crapper and the difficulties that followed the attacks of 9/11 forced me into starting another business because the work had dried up so badly by 2005 that the only work I could find was using the connections that I already had to start up a plumbing company. I made the only choice I considered to be the correct one and signed and operated under a union contract. I was not very successful as I started, but I was learning how to own and run a company and had begun to be profitable when 2009 fixed that right up. I lost a high dollar contract, it was State work and wouldn’t get looked at again for four years. I had organizations fail to honor their contracts and was left unpaid forty- five thousand dollars that I was owed for work we had completed, and what I owed in debt insured that I had to file bankruptcy.
After losing that company, my wife’s health was failing and I started another company just to be able to pay the bills, I was it’s chef, cook, and bottle washer. Then my wife passed in 2011 and the bank took back my property in 2013. I finally burned out of trying hustle up enough work to live and took a job doing pipeline maintenance at a large university for a contractor. That turned out to not be the job that was promised and I found myself now physically unable to work my trade anymore as my back and knees were giving up the ghost and would not cooperate for 8 hours anymore.
My last job for pay was working for ten dollars an hour and tips, driving a ski shuttle bus for the evil empire and living in a 1968 single wide mobile home that I bought from a woman who had gutted it in a nearby mountain town and I fixed it up enough to live in through the winter for three years, but my landlord wasn’t going to renew the lease, I was unable move the trailer because of its age and condition and I lost my job to the pandemic.
I have finally figured out that enough of my life that went south was bad luck and bad timing while living in end stage capitalism and oligarchy, not just my fault for being a lousy human. Every extra dime I ever made went toward making a wealthy man richer. Every attempt I had at building wealth was stolen from me by a banker. At sixty-four this is as good as my life will get and the current mass of evil capitalistic intent has gathered over the medical profession which means that getting decent medical care as a poor person is a joke that I cannot provide for myself.
Again, I am not looking to complain here, but I am trying to tell some history here, even if the only context I have here is my own story and my perspective on it. Yes, I had personal issues through all of this, divorce, addictions and grief, but everyone does. What I am pointing out is that my work history reveals an economic story line that was and is happening to more than just myself or my unique perspective.
Capitalism is the preferred economic system of the Oligarchs because it feeds their power structure. If you are not in that power structure; what you are to the system is a slave. Whatever this system tells you about your buying “power” reality reveals that what you do is make someone else wealthier at the expense of your time, your body and your life.
I am grateful for life, I am grateful for my family, but I am lucky, there are those in my community who sleep on the streets because of the greed of the investor class, who don’t deserve to live better than anyone else.
This system is wrong and we know how to fix it, civil rights for all people and unionize labor. That’s all, I am not asking to make rich people poor, just to control them for the danger to us all that they are.