A Culture of Poverty—or Depression?

“…poverty is not, after all, a cultural aberration or a character flaw. Poverty is a  shortage of money.”  —Barbara Ehrenreich, “What ‘other America’?” in Salon.com, March 15, 2012

The other week Ms. Ehrenreich attempted to dismantle the “Culture of Poverty” theme that recurs in American political language from both the left and the right, framing the poor as inherently “other”; they “[think] differently, and [pursue] lifestyles characterized by shortsightedness and intemperance.” (Here Ehrenreich is paraphrasing the idea as expressed by democratic socialist Michael Harrington, whose 1962 book “The Other America” influenced the Great Society policies of the 1960s.  According to the essay, Harrington was the coiner of the phrase and the idea.) The essay ends with the blunt conclusion quoted above.

For the record: I am a fan of Ehrenreich. Who else would revive the grand tradition of gonzo journalism by trying to survive on a string of minimum wage jobs, then telling the tale in a book like Nickel and Dimed?

I know what she’s getting at.  Too many voices in the media and political arena feel obliged to cleanse themselves by blaming poverty on what would seem to the casual observer to be the unruly lifestyles of the poor.

But, to paraphrase my friend and associate, a psychotherapist for San Francisco’s public health system whose patients are mostly very poor people: there’s a difference between saying that there is something about the poor themselves that makes them poor—and pointing out that the poor respond to their situation with particular codes of behavior and values that allow them to help each other survive.

If we reject the former but ignore the latter, we undercut Ehrenreich’s essential argument.  There’s a danger in taking a strictly materialist view of the experience of having no money.  The cumulative psychological, emotional, and social effects of long-term unemployment/underemployment are very, very real.  For those of us who know firsthand what it takes to get through Day Without a Job #451, the “Culture of Poverty” meme, even coming from someone clearly out to hurt us, can have the persuasiveness of a grey lie.

I’m certain it wasn’t Ehrenreich’s intention to imply that poverty has no emotional fallout.  But let’s take a moment to acknowledge the landscape of the financially constricted psyche as it rolled out for yours truly.

Changes I observed in myself during a long spell of underemployment: depression, alienation, lack of motivation, anger.

It was the early part of this century, in what we San Franciscans groaningly call the Dot-Bomb. The combination of a failed mono-economy, the psychic aftershocks of 9/11, and the mega-scandals of Enron et al. sent us hurling downward into an abyss from the heights of a skyscraper made of cards. The future seemed worse than uncertain; it seemed over.

Just yesterday we’d all been Tomorrow’s Wonder Kids—web designers, online copywriters, nouveau journalists, glamour-industry denizens on the edge of a new cyberfrontier. Suddenly we were on the scrap heap of the Great Unwashed.

If only we’d known what we were in for, and how long!  The economy would never truly recover; it would stagger somewhat upright in the mid-2000s only to fall eight feet under in 2008.

And the media jobs were gone for good.

For the first half of 2002, there was simply no work.  The office-temp jobs I finally found involved security-related data entry, then packing boxes for a dying company.

This after a corporate media gig that had thought nothing of flying me to New York and giving me my own room in a chic Madison Avenue hotel for a schmooze-fest on the Hudson River.  This isn’t the way the story is supposed to go! I whined inwardly, brushing the cardboard dust off my sweatshirt and jeans.

Probably most of us college-educated New Economy refugees were thinking the same thing. We’d all heard that, statistically, we were supposed to end up financially worse off than our parents’ generation, but obviously we were the exceptions, right? (. . . right?)

Imagine the armor of our arrogance slowly rusting and dropping away. Years dragged on.  How else can I put this?  Nothing happened.  You’d get a temp gig here, a little freelance assignment there.  You’d check Craig’s List and there were a couple of things—temp and freelance things.  Sometimes it was even someone expecting you to work for free.  You applied.   You never heard back.

We all knew the rules.  The Real Jobs weren’t advertised; you had to have an inside line.

But all of our inside lines were unemployed, too.  Our hot contacts were also watching Oprah with mom and dad and a carton of Ben & Jerry’s, hitting “refresh” on Craig’s List every few minutes, wondering what had happened to their lives.

There’s a particular definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results.  This, of course, is the essence of the modern job search.  If it goes on long enough, you will have at least a few “close but no cigar” interview rounds, which seem specifically designed to deliver exquisite emotional torture.  Getting very close to a job achieves nothing but greater disappointment than you would have had otherwise, and it’s at this point “Why bother?” starts seeming like an intelligent question.

Pundits may debate the existence of a Culture of Poverty, but they cannot debate that a Culture of Employment lives and breathes inside the increasingly guarded silos of privilege.  This culture smells of freshly brewed cappuccino, hustles purposefully down hallways, blurts its own inside jargon and private jokes, and is hip to the latest version of Windows because naturally IT has outfitted everyone’s machine with it.  Everything in the Culture of Employment is freshly updated and dynamic by nature.

Once the Culture of Employment leaves you behind for six months or more, it’s very difficult to make it recognize you again, for reasons large and small.

Your hair grows shaggy.  You need a cut.  What are you going to do?  If you’re lucky you can cut your own hair.  If not then a friend or family may donate a haircut.  But the humiliation of it piles on top of you like the shirts you can’t dry clean, the shoes you can’t get polished, the shoddy laptop bag you can’t get repaired.  You can’t support your own upkeep, and it’s not long before you feel that everybody plainly sees this.

“I never realized,” I told a bartender one night in the thick of the Dot-Bomb detonation, who asked why he hadn’t seen me in awhile, “that when I walk out my door, I present a certain face to the world.  Usually I don’t have to work at it or think about it.  The face says, ‘I’m all right, Jack.  I can take care of myself.  No problems here.  And furthermore, you’d better not fuck with me.’  When you’re unemployed for a long time, putting on that face gets to be harder and harder, and soon you feel you just can’t do it anymore.”

The personal appearance front is painful enough to prop up.  But what about all the pragmatic details, like your technology?  It was easy enough to stay on top of the latest applications when the company tech team made it all a no-brainer and a no-coster.  But when you have to be your own IT department, it gets time-consuming, stressful, and expensive.  Soon it makes sense to drop out of that race, too.

(Aside: the cost of being unemployed has skyrocketed in the last 20 years.  It used to be that all you were expected to have was a landline [for which you could get low-income Lifeline service] and an answering machine.  Now you’re expected to have an iPhone and 4G wireless Internet access.  Pay for those rates on top of staggering COBRA payments and all the costs of living, amidst little or no income, and it’s a one-way ticket to Debt City.)

So you stay in.  Which makes sense.  Staying in doesn’t cost any money.  And you can take comfort.  Some in alcohol, some in Internet chat rooms, some in the daydreamy half-sleep of long-term, low-grade depression and disappointment.

It’s amazing what starts to seem logical as the months drag on.  Looking at pure probability, simply lying in bed seems like a good choice.  Chances of your getting hired despite your best efforts?  Pretty slim.  Chances of your finding some shitty, shallow, desperately needed comfort by pulling the covers over your head?  Pretty good.  Add to that the probability of feeling ten times worse after yet another “close but no cigar” rejection, and spending life in your pyjamas looks like a reasonable, adult option.

If you’re not careful, you won’t observe these changes happening in yourself.  You’re likely, for budget reasons if nothing else, to hang out with other underemployed friends who are going through the same thing.  They can provide a certain degree of comfort, but also unwittingly affirm a place of helplessness, a maze of insecurity with no exits.  Your collective personality changes can create an unquestioned consensus reality, just at the time you need to be pinpointing those changes as symptoms of an abnormal situation.

So if a college-educated white chick who once had a totally hot job can feel this level of degradation and resentment towards the world, how much more so if my birth certificate said South Bronx?  South Detroit?  What if nobody I knew had ever had a job?  What if the Culture of Employment didn’t just seem like a long walk across town from me, but like another planet viewable only on TV?

The contrast between the entitlement and confidence I’d always felt without knowing it—and the realization that some people spent their entire lives with this exact sense of futility I was now feeling, only multiplied a gazillion times into a wraparound reality that defined your vocabulary, your social interactions, your cultural opportunities, your ability to conceive of options for your life . . . well, let’s just say some small sliver of new understanding dawned forth.  Hopefully it continues to dawn forth.

After long years of temping and underpaid jobs, underpaid jobs and temping, during which I often felt I was just expensively subsidizing a fragile, synthetic dignity I could use to get through the next day—I got hired on to a Real Job with benefits.

My first big-ticket purchase with the disposable income was a heavy winter coat.  This was February.  My family had offered to buy me one back in November, which was kind, but if I’d taken their offer I would have felt obliged to choose the bog-standard, utilitarian coat they’d approve of.  I held out and saved to buy my kind of coat with my own money.

I walked out of the North Beach boutique bundled up in it (a cape-cut black wool vintage I. Magnin “swing coat” from the early 1960s, since you asked), all warm and cozy in the chill, damp night.  And I wondered: how in the hell have I lived so long without this?

I wasn’t just thinking about the coat.

[The illustration photo: Ocean Beach, San Francisco, March 2012.  To give you some idea of the extreme sandstorm conditions: there were piles of sand in my pockets after 10 minutes of walking on the promenade.]

One Response to A Culture of Poverty—or Depression?

  1. I like the writing. It has truth. Biting humor. Disillusionment yet lots of compassion. And the understated punchline hits you like a wave.

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