“Of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity over humanity, nothing exceeds most of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well-warmed, and well-fed.” – Herman Melville
I. Perception and Ideology
Standing on one corner of an intersection on a main drag in Eugene, Oregon, a young man with earbuds dances around while waving and twirling a “Little Caesars” sign in the shape of an arrow that’s pointing toward the restaurant. He stands out there most days from 9 to 5, and most likely makes $9.10 an hour, minimum wage in this state. One only has to stand and observe the dancing sign guy on the corner for a few minutes to notice the reaction to his presence is mostly positive. People wave from cars driving by; others honk,and some give a thumbs-up. The dancing sign man returns the energy as well as the friendly hand signals. He not only receives praise but obvious showings of empathy, especially on a hot day like this one. “You must be sweating!” one woman yells. “Be careful out there!”
On the other corner, a man also stands with a sign. He has earflaps instead of earbuds, however, and its pretty apparent that his physical condition doesn’t allow him to dance. His sign says, “Unemployed, Homeless, Anything Helps.” And, one only has to observe him for a few minutes to notice the reaction to his presence is opposite to what the dancing sign man across the street receives. I watched drivers who refused to make eye contact; others who muttered ‘get a job’ under their breath; others who yelled ‘get a job’ quite loudly; one woman who honked at him, and a car full of frat boys who rolled down their window as though they were going to give him money only to then to roll up the window laughing and drive away quickly as the man walked towards their car. I watched for fifteen minutes or so and saw him take in one dollar and some change, which puts his hourly take-in at well under the $9.10 an hour that the dancing sign man across the street receives.
We live in a society where a person who stands on a street corner doing absolutely nothing other than waving a sign advertising for a business is not only perceived as legitimately ‘earning a living,’ but also receives empathy, praise, and positive reaction from passers-by. And a person who stands on a nearly identical corner with a sign advertising their own personal state of misfortune is not treated kindly but treated as worthless, is yelled at to get a job, and is subjected to repeated public humiliation.
Not only is the panhandler mistreated and derided, but the very act of panhandling is considered to be so offensive that many municipalities have attempted to ban the practice outright; an attempt which often fails due to free speech protections. And in many cases, it’s the same kinds of businesses that hire folks to hold signs on the corner that are instrumental in pressuring local governments and police departments to remove those other folks with those other signs through legislative attempts or simply police harassment.
Call it tragic. Call it inhumane. Call it the sign of a crumbling civilization. Call it what you will. It’s the inevitable result of a society indoctrinated into an economic ideology which judges the literal worth of a human being by their ability to ‘produce,’ by their ability to ‘earn,’ by what they are ‘worth’ under the system of capitalism. The sign-waver for Little Caesars and the panhandler are engaged in the same physical activity, but it is the designation of one as a ‘worker’ who is earning a ‘wage’ in contrast to the other which results in empathy and praise toward one and judgment and mistreatment toward the other.
Actual worth is judged by perceived ‘worth’ under the arbitrary standards of a structure so pervasive and encompassing that few can see through its ideological fog, few question the legitimacy or humanity of such a system. And with this comes the acceptance and promotion of a flawed and arbitrary set of standards, determining how and why we assume some have ‘worth’ (or are the ‘worthy poor’), as opposed to those who are expendable, the throwaways–the ‘unworthy poor.’ Our acceptance of these standards is why we tolerate – even actively ignore – the millions of people, including women, children, and the disabled, sleeping on the streets of our towns and cities every night in America. Worse, we often blame them for their situation and believe that they are not deserving of even the most basic of dignities.II. Five Hundred Years Of War
To the casual observer, it would seem that what was once a ‘war on poverty’ in America has turned into an outright war on the poor. From the criminalization of public feeding in at least 21 cities to the recent pushes from politicians to restrict food stamp use and drug-test welfare recipients, the oppression of an ever-expanding class of poor has increased, along with an increase in the poor themselves. The most recent census figures state that 45.3 million Americans currently live in poverty, up from 33.3 million in the year 2000. The American middle-class is quickly disappearing, and the current gap between rich and poor in this country is the highest on record.
While independent studies and government data both make it clear that most of the poor who are able to work are either already working or actively job-seeking, the overwhelming perception in America is that the poor are lazy; that they are ‘takers’ and that they don’t want to work, preferring to live off welfare. Such attitudes are most often stressed by conservative politicians who claim Christianity as the moral basis for their beliefs, which is often countered by liberal and/or progressive Christians who point to the words and teachings of Christ as contradictory to such a position. And while the liberal-minded Christians have a point regarding the words of Jesus, the conservatives are correct about the Christian origins of their ideological stance regarding the poor. For while this attitude generally manifests as an outgrowth of the ‘American Dream,’ (i.e. that hard work equals success), which implies that if one is not successful than they did not work hard, the attitudes concerning the poor – parroted by conservative politicians and citizens alike – are rooted in the days and ideas of Martin Luther, John Calvin, and the Protestant Reformation. That is, the era in which the landless underclass was first created and identified.
History is too-often recited as specific events in isolation without their proper context. This reduction of historical upheavals makes it easy to ignore that neither the transition from feudalism to capitalism nor the Protestant Reformation happened in a vacuum. In fact, they were coterminous and codependent. Feudalism claimed its legitimacy based on the divine right of kings, with lord and peasant as a divinely decreed, unquestioned hierarchy. It wasn’t until the emergence and rise of the first ‘middle class’ of laborers and merchants in the years after the Black Death that such claims to legitimacy showed wear. The status and experiences of this emerging class during this economic upheaval, along with the creation of a class that ‘labored’ as the poor had yet enjoyed many of the luxuries of the upper-classes gave rise to a new ethic. The “Protestant work ethic” or the “Calvinist work ethic”, i.e. the belief that ‘hard work’ is not only divinely prescribed but will be divinely rewarded, perfectly matched this new class.
The peasant classes also looked to the ideas of the Reformation for their claim to freedom. The Peasants’ War in Germany, less than a decade after Martin Luther published his 95 Theses, was a direct result of the collision between the Enclosures and the Reformation. The peasant class in Germany was stripped of the right to the commons in the early 16th century, and were forbidden from freely hunting or gathering wood by the feudal lords who had taken control of the land. The loss of their economic freedom combined with the rhetoric of the Reformation ignited a series of revolts in 1524-1525, which spread throughout Germany like wildfire and were backed by many Reformation priests, although Luther himself opposed the revolts despite sympathizing with the peasants’ plight. The aristocracy met the peasants with a level of force that nowadays could only be wielded through the legitimacy of state power, and in the onslaught approximately 100,000 peasants were slaughtered to maintain the social order.The Protestant work ethic was essential in shaping a rapidly changing society in the midst of the Enclosures. Peasants were forced off the land into the cities and factories, which created an inevitable underclass of ‘paupers’ and ‘beggars.’ From the crisis of poverty that hit the cities came the Poor Laws, which first carved out the distinctions between the ‘impotent poor,’ the ‘able-bodied poor,’ and the ‘idle poor,’ distinctions which set the stage for the role of the State in the criminalization of poverty, a role still enacted to this day. The philosophy and implementation of the Poor Laws is the direct predecessor to both the modern welfare states in both the United States and Europe as well as to the ideological position regarding the poor that conservative politicians express.
Whether one solely focuses on medieval Europe, or expands their view in order to look at the horrors and ravages of colonialism from a global perspective, the scale of the continuous violence and oppression of those who lack economic power and/or a ‘work ethic’ is everywhere. In Western society, the welfare state and the criminalization and dehumanization of poverty are anything but mutually exclusive.
In reality, the war on the poor is nothing new, if anything it is a war that’s been continuously waged for over five hundred years.
III. Privilege, Disability, and the Exception
It took me well over a decade as an adult to recognize the extent of a significant superpower that I possess, a completely unearned and unacknowledged advantage that allows me to experience day-to-day life in a way and manner that I don’t “deserve” and I haven’t “earned.”
It’s a superpower best described as middle-class privilege.
For I am one of “those people,” one of the “dependent” poor, having lived in poverty for nearly a decade now without any real expectation that my situation might change anytime soon. But I am a poor person who was raised middle-class, poor due to what one would categorize as ‘circumstance’ as opposed to birth, and despite my poverty I retain all the advantages that a middle-class upbringing entails. This middle-class façade grants me an indescribable amount of entrances, exceptions, clearances, and privileges that those who appear as poor do not have. My everyday life experiences and ability to survive are hinged upon and rooted in the fact that the gatekeepers to the worlds I inhabit instinctively assume that I am one of them. I “pass” as middle-class and, therefore, I am largely exempt from most of the harsh words, cruel judgments, and discriminatory treatment that the average poor person faces; treatment that’s even worse if one is deemed ‘unworthy’ poor.
My appearance, my mannerisms, my speech, my cultural references and sense of humor act as signifiers, broadcasting a subconscious suggestion to those in my presence that I am other than poor. I appear to be a person of means, one who earns a wage, one who creates value through production, one who has worth within the context of the capitalist system. Yet, none of those things are true. I pass without effort based solely on factors that I had no part in and did not ‘choose’ or ‘earn’.
Class privilege is a matter of culture as much as a matter of economics, and it’s a misleading oversimplification to define class differences by wealth and wealth alone. Our society is deeply coded along class lines, lines that have existed for hundreds of years between rich and poor, lines which have become blurry due to the advent of the modern ‘middle-class’ and yet reveal themselves much more fixed in the face of a change of fortune. Similarly to white privilege, class privilege is hard to see while one is protected within its embrace; just as fish can’t see water, one often cannot see the boundaries of the bubble in which they live until they are unexpectedly yanked outside of it.
I grew up in a low-crime, affluent suburb, was raised by educated parents, went to top-rated public schools, always had access to quality medical and dental care, and was shielded from nearly all of the brute realities of poverty. It was always assumed that I would go to college and end up living a similar middle-class suburban life as that in which I was raised.
I rebelled against that expectation – I ran off to live in the city in my late teens, forgoing the idea of college with the idea that I could ‘make it’ on my own. I learned quickly what it meant to work for a living, that ‘making it’ meant forever selling one’s time in exchange for money, and that time/money equation varied greatly depending on the task. Selling my time to a retail store earned me $7 an hour. Dogwalking earned me $10. Cleaning houses; $12. Waiting tables; $15. Art modeling; $25. Bartending. I could pull in around $30 an hour on a decent night.
I knew from the very beginning that the game was rigged, and I learned pretty quickly the myth that ‘hard work equals success’ was greatly dependent on what kind of ‘work’ one could find. But it took me a bit longer to see my own advantages in the game; to figure out that I was able to score many jobs that others could not simply by virtue of my being white, able-bodied, and middle-class. Over time, it became more apparent to me that what I was “worth” was not being measured by what I actually knew or could accomplish, but by arbitrary standards that had more to do with perception and class signifiers than anything else. I also knew that I worked much harder cleaning houses for $12 an hour than I did sitting still in a room full of art students for $25, and that most of the women whom I cleaned houses with would never be considered for the art modeling gig.
I worked a varied assortment of those jobs throughout my late teens and early twenties, while painting on the side and making plans to attend college. Then, fate intervened without warning – an accidental event that left me with permanent physical and neurocognitive injuries. Practically overnight, I went from identifying as a self-sufficient ‘worker’ whose time had always been worth money on the open market to having to learn to navigate life as a person with various ‘invisible disabilities’ which largely precluded me from holding down even the most basic of jobs. As a person who had neither health insurance nor a safety net of any kind, I had to quickly accept that I was being relegated to a life of poverty from that point forward.
With that realization came a sudden torrent of denial, shame, and feelings of worthlessness. It also gave me a newly critical eye toward an economic system that arbitrarily determines the worth and value of a human being by their ability to earn money and/or create surplus value. Not until I found myself removed from the worker pool did I understand that disability in our society is defined by how much one can produce, by one’s worth as a worker under the capitalist system.
(This, by the way, is why any disability claim hinges on being able to ‘prove’ one’s worthlessness in terms of one’s ability to earn an income. It is also why those who cannot meet that burden of proof yet cannot earn an income to support themselves are simply left to suffer, discarded from our society, ‘othered’ as the ‘unworthy poor,’ and left on street corners holding signs.)
The loss of self-sufficiency, the loss of economic freedom that I suddenly faced, combined with the physical and cognitive challenges I had not yet accepted or learned to handle, sent me into a downward spiral that took several years to emerge from. It took a cross-country move, a fresh start from scratch, and an eventual confrontation with my own unseen privilege before I was able to come to terms with my feelings of worthlessness and recognize that I was actually in a limited position of power.
* * *
The aforementioned confrontation took place on a beautiful spring morning in downtown Eugene, Oregon, a day in which I was riding my bike from my house to the library as I had done nearly every day. I was riding on the sidewalk, as I always did. As I approached an intersection, I noticed that the officer who usually waved at me on my bike every morning was writing a ticket to a homeless-looking man also on a bicycle. I stopped and observed the interaction from a few feet away, and when it was obvious that the officer was finished I asked him what had happened.
“He was riding his bike on the sidewalk,” the officer told me. “This is at least the third time I caught him doing that.”
“But I ride on that sidewalk every day,” I replied. “And you’ve seen me many more than three times.”
He looked me up and down, and paused before carefully replying. “I suppose that’s true, but you aren’t causing any problems. You’re just on your way to work. He’s just a bum who hangs out downtown all day.”
I repeated his words in my head, a knot forming in my stomach as I took in what he had said. You’re just on your way to work. He’s just a bum who hangs out downtown all day. Looking at myself up and down as the officer had just done, I realized I looked exactly like the type of person who was off to work, unlike the man on his bike. Thoughts raced through my head. He thinks I have a job. He thinks I’m one of them. He doesn’t realize that I hang out downtown all day as well. He thinks I have money, he thinks I ‘pay my way’. He thinks that I have ‘worth’ and the man he just ticketed does not. I get a ‘pass’ and he does not. He looks poor and I do not.
I stared at the officer, eventually nodding, trying as hard as I could not to show my anger and disgust at what I had just witnessed. It had been years since I’d ever considered myself to be middle-class, but I realized then and there that I still had middle-class privilege and that such privilege was a potential source of power. I learned at that moment what it truly meant to not look poor, and realized the only way I could reconcile the feelings of nausea and rage was to shine light on what I had just experienced. I would have to expose those biases, both for their inhumanity as well as their arbitrary nature. I suddenly realized my privilege was a shield, and my perceived lack of ‘worth’ under capitalism quickly faded once I discovered an entirely different kind of ‘worth’ and ‘value’: I would use my time to point out and fight the biases that both myself and the man on the bike just experienced.
I spent the next three years viewing the downtown as my ‘workplace,’ positioning myself as the proverbial thorn-in-the-side of local government – specifically the police department’s pattern of biased policing against the visibly poor and homeless. I didn’t do so out of guilt or charity, but rather out of obligation and empathy. I did so as someone who struggled as a member of the ‘other’ while regularly passing as one of the worthy ones. I was determined to use that assumption against those in power who arbitrated and enforced those standards.
Throughout that time I was regarded as an equal by middle and upper-class folks alike; few suspected or could even conceive that I was anything other than how I appeared. Nobody ever asked me if I went to college, they asked me where I went to college. Very few asked or even wondered why I was able to devote myself full-time to obviously unpaid volunteer work. It was simply assumed that I had money, and it was evident that it did not matter where that money came from, nor whether I had ‘earned’ it or not. I fit the image so well, in fact, that I often was party to discussions and debates in which “those people” were brought up, where the ‘unworthy poor’ were demonized and dehumanized to my face. Supposedly well-meaning businessmen would take me aside in confidence, first to thank me for my work but then to talk to me privately about ‘those people.’
I can remember several times where, in a moment of bravery, I interrupted the conversation to inform them that I was one of the very people they were talking about. Each time, the conversation went like this:
“Oh, please don’t take that personally. I’m not talking about you. I’m talking about real poor people, the ones that you look at and you just know they can get a job, but they choose not to work and they just want to live off the system.”
“The ones you look at and just know can get a job?” I countered. “You mean the ones who look like me?”
“Again, I’m not talking about you. I’m talking about those other people.”
They were so eager and insistent on distinguishing me as the exception to further elaborate their stereotype that they completely missed the point that I had attempted to make each time: “those other people” inscribed in their minds were manipulated abstractions, and despite being well-spoken and well-dressed I was not the exception at all.
* * *
It’s liberating and also an obligation to throw of my facade to illustrate this point. I am a poor, disabled, uneducated member of the American underclass, who was able to build a reputation for initiating a public discourse around the myths and realities of being poor and homeless in America. It was and is a reputation that relied on my audience believing they were listening to a middle-class, able-bodied, college-educated person. Very few ever figured out who they were actually interacting with: a member of that same ‘undeserving,’ ‘lazy,’ ‘entitled’ underclass that they demonized on a daily basis, a member of that underclass speaking from personal experience. Though I’m not trying to downplay my ability to speak truth to power, nor my skills in the public arena, I can say with confidence that I’d never have been able to do so based only on my own merits.
I am no more “deserving” than the man on the street corner begging with a sign. I have done no more to “earn” the respect I am given nor the power that I wield than any of the folks who spend their days at the library and their nights sleeping on the riverbank. Yet, not only is it immediately assumed I’m a person deserving of respect and an audience, even when I fully disclose my situation I am distinguished as the exception. I am arbitrarily deemed ‘worthy’ rather than a throwaway, based only on aesthetic and cultural factors. Meanwhile those who cannot pass are thrown under the bus by the same people who have invited me to the table.
IV. The Tower and The Mirror
“Poverty is the parent of revolution and crime.” – Aristotle
Whether the American Dream is clinically dead or still technically gasping for air may be up for debate, but the belief that ‘anyone can make it’ and that ‘hard work equals success’ has a very tenuous grip as of late. The inability of much of the middle-class to recover from the last recession may be the final nail in the coffin of the belief that anyone can make it in America if they simply work hard enough.
If anything, it can be argued that the rise of the middle-class in medieval Europe shattered the façade of the ‘divine right of kings,’ similar to how the crumbling of the middle-class in America has shattered the façade of the American Dream. The ‘work ethic’ that serves as a bridge between these two moments in time still stands firm, the ideological ghosts of John Calvin and Martin Luther still hovering close, just as they have haunted Western society for half a millenia. Even as the masses become more aware that the game is rigged, those deeply ingrained attitudes around work, worth, and poverty are clung to more strongly than ever by politician and citizen alike.
The poor in America are invisible for many reasons. They are hidden away, shamed into submission, their existence is minimized, simply not talked about, and outright denied by so many. But they are also invisible to you because they are hiding amongst you, especially those who have experienced downward social mobility within their lifetimes, having found the ability through class-based signifiers to shapeshift between the world in which they were raised and the world in which they are forced to inhabit.
The poor as “other”, as stereotype, as abstraction, these are the methods and tools that the ruling class uses to manipulate us into erecting physical and psychological barriers between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ So much time and effort goes into demonizing an abstract stereotype, that most fail to recognize that many who are poor and struggle with little hope are not reflecting that stereotype but a striking similarity to themselves, their poverty hidden within the familiarity of that reflection.
And as the poor are invisible, their anger is invisible to most as well. But their anger and desperation is growing and nearing a breaking point. The welfare system, which has always acted in tandem with the criminalization and dehumanization of the poor, was never intended to truly ‘help’ the poor or pull them out of poverty. It is and has always been a stopgap measure, designed to prevent revolts like the Peasant Wars that spread throughout Germany in 1524. And now, with ever-rising socioeconomic inequality–combined with assaults on welfare benefits for the poor – it is only a matter of time before the oppressed classes once again are pushed to revolt.
The ultra-wealthy know this full well, and have already started planning their escape routes, and yet the upper-middle, middle, and working-classes are still blinded by the fog, the same ideological fog that has convinced them that they poor are lazy and worthless and that hard work leads to success.
It is only in seeing through that fog that one can catch a glimpse of the Tower that looms.
My own experiences thankfully lifted that fog for me long ago, and I survive on the periphery, ever vulnerable and yet blessed with clarity, haunted by the constant reminder that behind my façade I have very little to stand on. Regardless of what I may signify to the world, regardless of what people may assume based on my clothes or my mannerisms, that edge always looms, and no matter how much I may distract or deceive myself, I am at risk of slipping over at any moment. Which is why every single time I walk past someone on the street who has obviously been pegged as a throwaway by society, I remember that they are a mirror, reflecting my own possibilities and potentials. But for privilege, but for luck, but for perception, but for the grace of the Gods goes I.
Not a moment goes by where I am not sharply aware that I am only one life event away from having to stand on that street corner myself, and despite the assumptions that others may harbor regarding my abilities and worth, the harsh reality is that I would not be dancing with a sign for money on behalf of a corporation, I would be begging with one for my very survival.
And if you ever saw me out there, Gods forbid? You would not be staring at a familiar stereotype, you would be staring at a reflection of yourself, for none of us are exempt from the potential fate of the throwaway. No matter your level of privilege, no matter the strength of your denial or the firmness of your bubble, it only takes a single life event, a single moment in time, to suddenly find yourself on the other side.
This column was made possible by the generous underwriting donation from Hecate Demeter, writer, ecofeminist, witch and Priestess of the Great Mother Earth.