There may be be a day when I write a post that isn’t rage dressed up like sociopolitical commentary…
I think at this point rage and stubbornness may be the only things actually keeping my body going.
Disclaimer: I know a few people who know me outside this blog also read here, but this post is not about you. It’s not about any one person–more about an amalgamation of people or an archetype, something like that. So if you think this is about you, it’s not.
Okay, on to the rant.
I’m really sick of people with the privilege of economic security telling me I need to stop worrying about money. There are different varieties of it: God Will Provide, You Attract What You Put Out Into the Universe, We’re All Stressed Out About Money, If You Would Just, and It Can’t Really Be As Bad As All That. There are probably other variations, but these are the ones I keep running into.
God Will Provide
I’ve written a whole other rant about American religion and its relationship to poverty, complete with historical references from John Calvin to Calvin Coolidge. (Okay, I don’t think I actually mentioned either of them by name in that post, but c’mon, it’s great symmetry.) At best, this kind of response is a polite way of saying, “Don’t make me notice things that create cognitive dissonance with my belief system.” At worst, it’s victim-blaming: if God doesn’t provide for your needs, it must be because you’re a bad person/because he’s judging you/because you don’t believe the right way. I think most people fall into the first category–they don’t know how to respond to the reality of poverty, so they fall back on what’s most comfortable to them. Still, it’s dismissive, and it’s disrespectful to those who may not share your particular religious beliefs.
You Attract What You Put Out Into the Universe
Again, victim-blaming, which is probably the most common reaction to poverty. The reality is that positive thinking can’t fix everything. Meditating on my checking account balance will never actually make the numbers go up. If positive thinking makes you happier, makes your problems more manageable, awesome! I’m happy for you, truly. But there is no scientific evidence that positive thinking has lifted anyone out of poverty. And again, this is a spiritual belief that the poor person you’re talking to may not share.
We’re All Stressed Out About Finances
This is probably true of 99% of people, so no argument from me on the basic facts here. But the implication of this kind of statement is that all financial worries are created equal, and that simply is not true. Let me tell you a thing about a guy named Maslow. He came up with this hierarchy of needs that’s a well-known sociological model. The basic gist of it is that until you get your basic physical needs met, you can’t worry about anything else. Here’s a handy visual aid, mostly because oil pastels are a good conduit for my rage. (It’s a crappy photo. Sorry.)
Basically, if you can’t reliably meet needs like food, shelter, and bodily safety, nothing else matters. You can live without the top third of the pyramid. It may not be happy or fun, but it’s safe and secure. It doesn’t mean the higher needs aren’t real or valid or important, though. What it means is that when I’m trying to build the foundation of my pyramid, it’s hard for me to empathize with your struggle to meet needs higher on the pyramid. I get that you want to have another baby, but you and your partner want to buy a house instead of renting so your kids have a yard and you don’t have to keep paying rent. I get that it’s stressful to figure out all of that. But your need is not the same as my need to have reliable housing so I’m not homeless in the middle of a New England winter. When you put them on the same level, you’re dismissing the fact that my need is a matter or life and death. Your need is still real and valid and important, and your worry about not being able to meet it is still real and valid and important. But it is not the same as my need and my worry.
If You Would Just…
This one may be the one that makes me craziest, probably because it’s the one I encounter the most. Occasionally, it’s thinly veiled judgment: “Well, you wouldn’t be poor if you didn’t spend your money on that iPhone” or “Stop shopping at Whole Foods all the time and you’ll have more money.” Those ones are pretty easy to spot–there’s that signature body language and tone of voice we all recognize.
But usually I think it comes from a place of wanting to help. I think most people genuinely want other people to be happy. It’s hard to see someone suffer and acknowledge that we can’t fix it, so to soothe our own feelings of helplessness, we jump in with lots of helpful suggestions. “Apply for food stamps,” “Get on the waiting list for section 8,” “Have you looked at the food bank?” and so on. It’s nice that you want to help. Thank you for that. But please, stop before you start.
Offering unsolicited advice assumes incompetence. I’m a smart, resourceful person. Most poor people are incredibly resourceful–it’s how we survive. We probably already know about the resources available to us, and you’re probably the fifth person to suggest the same things to us this week. I try to be gracious about it, but it gets increasingly frustrating and I eventually want to stand on a chair and yell, “I am not stupid! If there were an obvious answer, I would’ve found it by now!” Generally, when I’m talking to someone in a peer capacity (i.e., I have not come into your office with questions about specific resources), I don’t want you to try to fix it for me. I just want you to listen and hear me and be present with me in what I’m struggling with. It can be hard at first to circumvent the hardwired imperative to fix people, but I’ve found that once I learned how to just sit with someone, it actually became easier for me emotionally, and it allowed me to connect with the other person much more deeply.
It Can’t Really Be That Bad
I don’t actually have that much to say about that beyond a resounding FUCK YOU. Of all the things I could say for attention, of all the things I could make up or exaggerate, why would I tell you something laced with so much personal and societal shame? If I want attention, I’ll tell you about the time I taught a college class the parts of the ear when I was three years old or the two times I’ve gotten to shake President Obama’s hand. If I want pity or I’m trying to make excuses, well, I don’t have to try very hard to find that. I have a disease that makes me shit myself because my entire large intestine turns into one giant, bleeding, excruciatingly painful ulcer. Most days I have to use a cane if I’m going to be vertical for more than 30 seconds at a time. It wouldn’t be hard to find sympathy if that’s what I were looking for.
But if I’m telling you about my experience of poverty, it’s not because I want pity or attention. It’s because I want you to understand. I want you to realize that even though I walk, talk, and look like a middle-class white girl, I’m not. I want you to realize that poverty has a lot of different faces, not just the guy at the corner asking for change. For some of us, poverty is less visible, better camouflaged. In many ways that’s an advantage–we get wider social acceptance, it’s easier for us to find jobs, we face less obvious prejudice and hatred and fear. But it also means that the few anti-poverty programs we have don’t always address our particular needs. It means politicians don’t talk about people like us when they try to address poverty. Nobody wants to be invisible, so when I tell you about my situation, it’s because I’m giving you the chance to see more of you than most people will. Please don’t make me regret that.