We Were Promised Bootstraps..
In America, shame keeps the poor from eating the rich.
If you haven’t read Ketchup sandwiches and other things stupid poor people eat, by Anastasia Basil, then you should. It’s a pitch-perfect essay about poverty and the stigma attached to being working poor in a country of delusional people who think they’re all just temporarily embarrassed millionaires.
In the essay, Basil talks about the time she accidentally damaged her friend’s stirrup pants and how her mother cried as she tried to fix them because she couldn’t afford the $17 her friend’s mother demanded to buy new ones. For anyone who grew up poor this story probably sounds all too familiar. Something as small as $17 may seem trivial to a middle class family but it can literally break a poor one.
The problem is, seventeen dollars feels like a billion when you’re four days away from payday and broke as hell.
Back in 2006, I worked at a posh little laundromat in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn — aka ground zero for the hipster implosion. Back then I was a 20-year-old single mom with a toddler who was drowning in bills and just grateful to have a job, any job. Even if that job only paid six bucks an hour and I was forced to wash and dry twee t-shirts and designer jeans that cost more than my rent.
Mind you, the minimum wage in New York City at the time was $7.15 but my kid was hungry and I was desperate. And the owner knew it.
During my fourth week as a laundry wench, an ironically dapper customer stopped in to bitch about two t-shirts he claimed were missing from his previous week’s wash. According to Harry the Hipster, it was definitely our fault because… he “had a hunch.”
Now, this pretentious poseur was a regular and I was sure that I hadn’t touch his musty, jizrag-filled stank schmattes that particular week. How was I sure? Well, The week before, he spent 20 minutes bragging about how he planned on skipping work (and thus his regularly scheduled laundry pick-up) to go on an all-inclusive vacation to Cancun.
In a sane world this would be the point where Boss Man kicked this dick out of our fair establishment. Unfortunately we live in America, and in America, the customer’s always right.
The owner reasoned that, hey, I “could have misplaced things,” and either way someone had to “make things right.” That someone was me, out of my paycheck, of course. Whether I was to blame or not.
All told, the two shirts cost over $90. Aka, almost a “full hundo” in hipster speak. To the customer, a hundred bucks was probably nothing — just a drop in the proverbial bucket of warm PBRs.
But to me it was devastating.
Boss Man was “kind” enough to offer me a “two-week installment plan,” to pay off the loss. But shelling out for those t-shirts (which were almost certainly moldering underneath that bro’s noxious futon) mean’t losing half my paycheck and being forced to choose between rent or food for my two-year-old.
So I did what any self-respecting person would do — I walked out and I never went back.
I figured I could find another shitty job in a matter of days — and I was wrong.
It was the beginning of a messed up spiral that ended with my daughter living with family for six months while I first couch surfed and then lived on the street. It’s terrifying how fast it can all fall apart when you’re living paycheck to paycheck.
Poverty is soul-crushing. It’s exhausting. Poverty is its own little prison, with no windows or doors. It’s claustrophobic. Sometimes it feels like you’re in a burning building and the only way to escape is to jump.
The strength of character it takes to not give up, when everyday is a lesson in drudgery and there’s no guarantee that anything will get better, is astounding. Life for the working poor is often no life at all. It’s just survival.
We may have no official class or caste system here in the U.S., but for people living in poverty it can feel like you’re predestined to live a life of failure, toil, and unending stress. For the working poor the pursuit of happiness is a joke. You can’t pull yourself up by your bootstraps if your boots are strapped on with nothing but duct tape.
In America we’re supposed to tell our children that if they work hard enough they can become anything they want. But it’s bullshit. There just aren’t enough seats at the table and for every ‘self-made millionaire’ there are thousands of people who are just as qualified and just as hard working. What those folks lacked was LUCK.
A huge portion of Americans live precariously close to financial ruin — most are just one or two paychecks from being broke and, when you hit zero, it can take weeks, months, or even years to claw your way back to the semblance normal.
Life, when you’re a part of the working class in America, is rife with instability. People assume this is the cause of rather than a symptom of our precarious financial position. I’m sure this ultimately stems from the illusion of control — the fantasy that bad things only happen to those who deserve it. We (falsely) assume that abject ruin could never happen to hard working people like us.
Of course, it’s just more bullshit. And what cruel bullshit that is.
One time I lost a job because my weekly metro-card was stolen, forcing me to walk 6+ miles to and from work. Turns out no one wants to buy vitamins from someone who smells like sweat and sadness.
I lost an apartment once because my shitty job wanted save money by cutting everyone’s hours in half. Twice I had to leave apartments when the utilities (which were supposed to be included in the rent) weren’t paid, leaving us with no heat or hot water. One employer disappeared overnight, with the contents of the store thrown into into a dumpster outside. That guy still owes me 400 bucks.
And I’m one of the lucky ones.
So what keeps America’s poor (aka the 48% who live at the poverty or near-poverty level) from eating the rich? Shame. As Neal Gabler recently said in his piece, “The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans,” for The Atlantic ,
America is a country, as Donald Trump has reminded us, of winners and losers, alphas and weaklings. To struggle financially is a source of shame, a daily humiliation — even a form of social suicide. Silence is the only protection.
Fuck that. If it’s social suicide to talk about being broke, then fuck it. I’ll gladly jump from that burning building if it means someone else won’t feel so goddamn alone.
Because they’re not alone.
A mind-blowing 47% of Americans wouldn’t be able to handle an emergency that cost them just $400, according to a report from The Federal Reserve Board. It’s happening to retirees, college students, the old, the young, the working poor, and the middle class. It’s happening to damn near everyone.
So what the fuck is there to be ashamed about? Nothing.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau is credited with saying,
When the people shall have nothing more to eat, they will eat the rich.
Now mind you, I’ve always been opposed to killing and eating of the rich. Cannibalism just isn’t my thing and — let’s be honest — on any kind of reasonable global scale I am part of “the rich.”
However, considering the most recent presidential election, I’m now slightly less sure of my stance on the edible bourgeoisie. Guys like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz make me reconsider the benefits of this plan, even if I were to end up on the menu.
There’s only thing that keeps me from supporting our new national diet — and it isn’t the wonderful character of the American one percent. Those bastards are gob-smackingly greedy, stupid, and cruel.
But the upper-classes have always been that way (ie: filled with greed, stupidity, and utter cruelty). The problem isn’t due to individual awfulness, but rather awful systems that have grown from the most awful aspects of human nature.
Killing the rich won’t help us, we’ll only have to kill another crop of them in a few years because it’s the system that’s broken, not the people. Or rather, it’s the broken system that allows people with broken morality to rise to the top.
So, until we find a better solution, I’m forgoing the shame to talking about the problem. Because, as delicious as it sounds to devour men like Trump or Cruz, eating the rich won’t get us very far.