October 15, 2008

Poverty and the Plight of the Working Poor

Poverty is something that has always commanded my attention and something that I have wanted to write about. It is a complex subject because it means different things to different people and may manifest itself in various forms dependent upon geography and culture. One thing that everyone can agree on, however, is that poverty is a form of misery. And it is an insidious form of suffering that leads to social erosion and war.
Before my husband and I moved to the People’s Republic of China a few decades ago, we were considered poor. We lived in the tiniest of two-rooms at the top of a narrow staircase in an old house in Princeton, New Jersey. I was a minimum-wage clerical worker at the local library and my husband had sporadic work as an adjunct professor - paid by the course instead of a salary.
It was miserable. Add to that the medical debt that hovered over our situation and things felt pretty hopeless. These conditions were what made it necessary for us to leave the country when the opportunity presented itself for full time work elsewhere, ironically reversing the course that our immigrant ancestors took.
The truth is, our situation improved considerably by moving to a communist country. We had free medical care, subsidized housing that had adequate space and we had full time remunerative work. We spent the entire Reagan era outside of the United States.
Initially, our stay in a communist country lifted huge burdens. The uncertainties of being the working poor miraculously evaporated. But as guests, our hosts gave us special privileges that the ordinary Chinese citizens could not have. And although our own circumstances were tolerable albeit at times spartan, we would sometimes hear about and occasionally witness what truly abject poverty was. These were times when the curtain of secrecy was temporarily open and I came to know what was happening in the impoverished areas of the countryside. There were still leper communities. There were people so malnourished that their hair would turn white while they were still in their twenties. And parasitic diseases endemic to the third world were rampant. I will not relate some of the horrors that I witnessed at this time. I will expound upon those in my book-in-progress. But the misery of what I saw confirmed for me how necessary it is for a society to have economic safety nets so that whole segments of that society don’t fall into desperation.
By a fortuitous turn of events, my husband and I were able to return to the United States and improve our circumstances. We are middle class. But my previous experiences are never far from my consciousness. And when I see skyrocketing medical costs with large segments of our society uninsured it sickens me. When I see that our country’s leaders do not attend to the problems of the working poor it outrages me. Unfortunately both of these problems are even worse now than at the time they caused me to leave this country two decades ago.
One book that reveals first hand the plight of the working poor in this country is Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickle and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. I almost could not read this book because I did not want to be reminded of the past or to be fearful of the future. But read it I did and would recommend it highly to anyone who should understand the need for social reform - especially with regard to the minimum wage. For as the author points out through her social experiment as a working class woman, most jobs for the working class do not pay a living wage. As a consequence, survival depends upon acquiring two or more jobs. What this means is that socially as a country, we have moved back to the nineteenth century. We have effectively recreated the circumstances of the industrial revolution - where factory employees worked sixteen hour days six days a week. The difference is that now the work takes place at two to three different locations. We now live in a new gilded age where haves and have nots are even further apart than ever before.
Poverty is a huge subject. One could write volumes on it. I hope that this blog action day on the topic brings attention to the issues and promotes ideas for change. For my small contribution, I made a small painting and a poem to match that was inspired by reading Nickel and Dimed.

White Cigarette Rising over a Ruby Glass

Two companions inhabit a late night room
Tobacco rolled in opaque white paper
and red wine in a translucent glass
sustenance for a second and third shift
and the blessed means of sleep
in an impromptu space called home
Home. A place to temporarily close one’s eyes
shutting out the diaphanous glaze
of a hastily hung drape
street lights peering inquisitively
through the spaces between weakly woven threads
making a shadow puppet of the soul that dwells within
The late late late show, short hours before the dawn
features a puff on a cigarette
and swallows from the red elixir of blinking and nodding
as the little room rattles from passing trucks
and a police siren splits the night air
A belligerents voice howls out
the screech owl of the urban forest;
"Who you lookin at!"
I said "Who you lookin at!"
Sounds of the city, its cries are muffled by alcohol
like a wad of cotton blunting a knife blade
In subdued increments of drowsy exhaustion
her heavy lids meet in the middle of the road
that stops at the smallest fragment of the day.
Fourth shift. Sleep

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