I just don't have what it takes to improve my lot in life I thought I did everything right to make the cut to survive I don't have what it takes to struggle for years for a small chance of success in the distant future I don't have what it takes and it's hard to keep hearing I do from people that mean well but don't see that I'm already drowning I don't have what it takes to hold myself together or muster the mental fortitude to do more there isn't anything left inside to give I don't have what it takes to try harder than I am right now it's embarrassing to try to explain that this is everything I've got
Middle Class Values
Last Friday I went to a training and had the privilege of listening to Amy Jo Hutchison speak. If you aren’t familiar with that name, Amy is an economic justice advocate from West Virginia who has spoken before Congress about poverty and been a guest on Jon Stewart’s podcast, The Problem. Her keynote speech was about working with these struggling, underprivileged, poor communities.
I thoroughly enjoyed everything she had to say. I could have applauded after nearly every sentence. I was overwhelmed with gratitude to finally here someone stand up and say the things I have been saying to others in my field since I entered it six years ago. It never ceases to amaze me how many social workers disrespect, belittle, and even despise the very populations we are supposed to be serving. More coworkers of mine have voted against the wellbeing of our clients than vote to continue providing them with the social safety nets that they currently have, which are not nearly adequate.
During Amy Jo Hutchison’s keynote speech, she touched on stereotypes about poor people, the atrociously low minimum wage in America, and even the fact that we are not paying for “poor people to do nothing” with our taxes. We are paying for corporations to continue to not pay their employees fair wages. She had excellent real life examples of the impossible burden of trying to “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” in this country. I was deeply touched by her words, and was more than grateful to be in attendance to hear her speak.
However, there was one phrase that Amy said two different times throughout her talk that left a sour taste in my mouth. That phrase was “middle class values.” I couldn’t help but frown as these words left her lips. What are “middle class values”? Your values have nothing to do with your social or economic status. Middle class people do not have better values than people in poverty. Yet this is what she seemed to imply as she explained a scenario with a woman she knew who was complaining, as so many do, about people taking advantage of the system.
When this woman talked about mom’s getting food stamps and SSI that don’t have a job, Amy would speak up and say that she was one of those mom’s. The woman would quickly dismiss this and assure her that she “wasn’t talking about her.” Amy explained this disconnect as having to do with her having “middle class values.” She was able to blend in with people who were more financially well off than herself because she was privileged enough to spend time in their circles. I’m paraphrasing, but this is roughly what she was saying.
Now don’t get me wrong, Amy didn’t seem to be trying to put herself in a category above those who didn’t have “middle class values.” She wasn’t blaming people for the circumstances they were in, but she was making a statement that I felt showed remnants of unconscious, internalized classism. She didn’t even seem to realize how bad this part of her speech sounded. I wish I would have had the opportunity to speak to her privately and explain how I viewed that situation she described differently.
I would have told Amy that, from my perspective, “middle class values” was not what made this woman distinguish Amy from these other “lazy” poor mothers. The one and only difference was that this woman knew Amy. That’s it. That is the only distinction. I guarantee she wouldn’t be able to maintain her stereotypes toward anyone that she actually had the opportunity to know. It’s so much easier to demonize and disregard a person or group of people when they are just a caricature. Once you meet a person, it becomes apparent that they are in fact trying their best. That they have reasons for the decisions they’ve made. That they have struggles and intricate, complex lives which you have no right to judge them for.
I highly doubt Amy Jo Hutchison will ever come across this blog post. But if she ever did, I hope that she would appreciate what I’ve said here. I respect and admire her deeply. She is doing the world a great service by speaking about these important issues on the national stage. However, we all maintain insidious, unconscious biases that manage to slip by us. Despite all the speaking Amy has done to combat negative stereotypes about poor people, she still missed this one bit of classism in her speech. There is no such thing as “middle class values.” Middle class people do not have higher values, better manners, more intelligence, etc. than lower class people. I’m sure Amy would agree with this statement, and I hope she makes just that one little change in her future speaking engagements.
I've never admired those who have more than me my lip curls with contempt at the American obsession with wealth and power and fame I don't want to watch documentaries about the painfully overprivileged few and how they rationalize their "success" I'll stick to reading Charles Dickens and doting on David Copperfield Nothing is more inspiring than learning to celebrate what you have especially when it may not seem like much my sentimental heart aspires toward Beth March in Little Women Even in imagination wanting nothing but the pleasant company of loving family and just enough to keep from struggling too much just enough money to eat and enjoy one another the softest pleasures that dollar bills can never buy Excessive good fortune can be a distraction my old soul has always seen through the illusion that big business and the finer things are prerequisites to a fully satisfying and worthwhile existence I have no desire for sparkling falsity I know the diamond of my happiness cannot be obtained it is within me, buried behind solid, black rock my tedious task, to lovingly uncover it's brilliance bit by bit to teach my longing heart that we've always had enough to settle into the glistening pools of gratitude already open to me Within all the small pleasures that I take for granted are housed the beauty and boundless joy of life I have no interest in material fortune and wealth what I am seeking is much more complicated, ambiguous, and tricky to obtain Mansions, cars, and golden rings hold no value to me I'm not impressed by yachts and private islands instead, I bow before the gentle, simple, silent things my spirit has always been a flightless bird that cannot help but sing when its feathers are ruffled by the strong breeze
Capitalism slinks through filthy city streets with bloodied paws and heaving breath snarling at the huddled masses it had once offered hope There are plenty of those who still believe the lie we were all promised of possibility and upward mobility productivity and endless progress Hungry eyes follow trim and tailored suits down the avenue of ivory towers chapped lips mouth the words "if only I was good enough" from sallow faces with sunken cheeks The flurry of chaos a flock of flapping pigeons fighting over forgotten french fries idolizing the eagles they were told they might someday be The sickening inward momentum spurred onward by imagined sins stealing the joy out of simple pleasures productivity and profit replaced purpose long ago Corruption and greed infiltrate everything every soul a commodity to be exploited and consumed egregious inequality passed off as objective justice sour, scornful faces point fingers at the people who are suffering It's your fault if you fail the mantra of Manhattan sowing self hatred within misfortune the cruel optimism of the elite blame handed out as bread Don't fall for the fiction that this system is fair the land of the free is stained with red blood, green bills, and the rusty metallic taste of coins
No one deserves to suffer I thought this was something we could all agree on someone working full-time should not have to live in poverty this too, I assumed was an opinion we would all share with pride oh, how horrified I am to know the truth that these thoughts are controversial that so many actually disagree there are really people that think suffering is right and just when it's others, that is, never in regard to themselves because they know the intricate details of why they made their worst decisions while looking outward, they assume steps are taken for shameful reasons selfishness, laziness, carelessness, and malice are explanations for other's actions even though the same acts are certainly due to different motivations by those who lay these heavy accusations against their fellow men for some people its very important to know that someone else is below them fuel for the fire of their delusion that despite it all, circumstance, genetics, environment it was their indominable spirit that overcame that they are special, strong, resilient that others simply don't have the will power or desire to make a better life for themselves and that they should suffer for their shortcomings if only as a reminder that life is fair by some warped definition of the word it's more important to believe they earned their good fortune than to acknowledge the random, cruel hand of fate and use their blessings to lift others up into the light
The History of Humans
I am easily frustrated by the many ways in which corporations and governments take advantage of average people. Advertisements sicken me. The stagnant low wages fill me with rage and resentment. The broken healthcare system in the United States is an abomination. Racism, sexism, and bigotry seem to be everywhere I look. Hypocrisy, idiocy, selfishness, etc. No matter what I shift my focus toward, I can find something unjust about the systems that support it. It can become overwhelming to be confronted by such obvious inequality and corruption every day.
While I’m not suggesting we merely accept these injustices, I am starting to realize that while things are not perfect by any means, they are a hell of a lot better than they have been in the majority of human history. I’ve been reading A Tale of Two Cities for the first time, and it is really highlighting this fact for me. Set in the 1700s the story is filled with tragic images of starving peasants and monstrous upper class tyrants. In one scene there is even a child that is run over in the street by a wealthy man’s carriage. While the father of the child is hysterical, no one seems surprised or even outraged. This is simply the treatment they’ve come to expect. The rich man feels no remorse and is actually irritated that he had to stop his carriage at all. He callously throws a coin at the dead boy’s father as if that is any type of compensation for the life of his son.
While I know this is a fictional story, I also know that it is an accurate reflection of the way things used to be. It’s a delicate line to walk between gratitude and the passionate urge to do better as a society. Of course, I’m not saying that the suffering of the lower and middle classes today don’t matter. There are real, egregious issues with our current system, but comparatively the most unfortunate among us still have it better than the majority of the population throughout history. And while that doesn’t erase our current problems, it is still something to reflect on and be grateful for.
Things are far from perfect, but I’m quite surprised and pleased by how far we’ve managed to come as a society. It really puts into perspective just how lucky I am that my biggest irritation from day to day is something as frivolous as advertisements on billboards along the highway. Oh, how the characters in that story would envy me, would quite literally kill to be in my shoes.
I’m working on finding that middle ground between gratitude and fighting for further social justice. Allowing my anger and indignation to obstruct my perspective isn’t serving anyone, least of all myself. Instead of coming from the hateful, entitled space I’m used to, I want to fight for what I believe in while also being thankful for what I do have. I want to make my voice heard, but within the context of hope and the belief that we truly can do better for ourselves and our community, rather than from a context of disgust and disappointment.
There are a lot of similarities between the elites of the past and the present, but as for the peasants and paupers (the group I would have found myself in) we have made monumental improvements. As with most things, I hold extremely high standards for my fellow humans. But placing today’s society in developed countries within the context of the societies of the past, shows that while humans are not what I hope for them to be, they could certainly be a hell of a lot worse.
What an absolute miracle it is that someone like me even has the opportunity to make a difference and have my voice heard. Some may have it better than I do, but to just imagine the luxuries I am able to take for granted is staggering. Glancing back at where we’ve come from, it’s honestly surprising we were ever able to improve things so much. There is a certain beauty and hope in that realization.
Despite my near constant complaining, at the end of the day, I am overwhelmingly grateful for the life that I have been given. Even with all the issues we are faced with today, I wouldn’t trade my experience for anything. I am so fortunate. And I’d like to spend more of my energy enjoying and appreciating that fact even as I advocate for us to do even better for the many, many people who are less fortunate.
Portraits From Social Work – Part 2: Paul
Even since I lost my last job doing social work with high risk, low income adults out in the community, I have missed the clients I used to see everyday. While I’m not sure if these people ever knew it themselves, the time I spent with them was much more meaningful to me than just trying to get a paycheck. This was the first time in my life that I was really able to get to know some interesting characters and bond with people older than me, with totally different and unique life experiences. Even though I was supposed to keep a professional distance, I simply couldn’t help holding a space for each of my clients in my heart. I believe these people are interesting to learn about in general, but I am also writing about them today to ensure that I can keep them with me even if they eventually fade from my memory. (I obviously won’t use their real names for confidentiality reasons.)
Part 2: Paul
Where do I even start with describing this man? Paul was a gruff 60-year-old man (although he looked much older) with a skeletally thin frame, long peppery grey hair, a handlebar mustache, one hand and one leg. The leg he lost a long time ago in an accident when he used to ride a motorcycle. The hand, well that’s a mystery to all of us. When I first met Paul, his left hand was curled into a permanent fist. The way Paul tells it, he woke up in the middle of the night a few years ago feeling as though his forearm, wrist, and hand were on fire. He traced a ghostly, zigzagging, white scar on his skin to show me the path the “flames” took. His hand clenched shut and hasn’t opened since. We went to many doctors and specialists, but none of them had a definitive answer. Their best guest seemed to be that it has something to do with his excessive drinking, and I’m inclined to believe it. Paul, however, would never take complications from years of drinking as an answer to any of his health problems, of which he had many.
Paul was one of the most sever alcoholics I’ve even known. He was never a violent or angry drunk. He never caused any problems that I knew of except for himself. Paul’s favorite drink was vodka. And he drank about a pint of it a day, despite only receiving around $700 a month from social security. There were a few instances where he ran out of money at the end of the month and actually had to be hospitalized due to DTs or alcohol withdrawal. Once he even called me to his hospital room to ask me to bring him vodka and cigarettes. (I felt bad for him so I actually did agree to bring cigarettes, knowing he wouldn’t be able to smoke them anyway. The nurse promptly took them away.) He actually reminded me a bit of Frank Gallagher from Shameless, although Paul was a bit more irritable.
Paul was definitely a character. In addition to drinking and smoking cigarettes, he also loved to smoke weed. He even had a marijuana leaf on his wallet. As soon as medical marijuana became legal in the state he demanded a prescription from every doctor we went to. Of course he didn’t get it, even though he was eligible. The system was not yet ready to dispense actual medical cards, and there were no dispensaries even if they could have. There was no telling Paul that though. He was hard-headed to put it mildly. He was often angry and impatient, but honestly, could you blame him? His life was a constant battle with pain and poverty.
In the end, Paul’s life was evenly split between drinking in front of the TV and traveling all over the state for medical appointments. When I last saw him, I knew his time was limited. He was bleeding internally. It was clearly caused by his drinking. Still he refused to stop. I’m honestly not sure if it would have made a difference at that point anyway. As I sat down to write about him today, I decided to check the local obituaries. I held my breath, hoping I’d find nothing. Instead I discovered that Paul passed away in the summer of 2019. The obituary listed so many surviving family members, children and siblings. I new he had family, but seeing just how much and how close by they lived really broke my heart. They had all left him in the hands of the state to whither in darkness and die alone. I’m sure Paul wasn’t the best father or brother, but he certainly wasn’t deserving of that sentence. At least he got to spend his final days in the warm, sunny atmosphere of summer. That was one thing we both shared, an infatuation with summer, and a deep hatred of winter.
I wish I could have been there for him in the end. Or that I had at least gotten the chance to say goodbye, the chance to tell him that he was truly my friend, not just my client. Sure, he gave me a lot of anxiety over the years by giving this people pleaser so many unethical requests, but I am thankful for the time we spent together. Despite all his flaws, he was a good man. It saddens me deeply to know he’s gone. At least I know his pain has finally ceased. I hope he has found peace. The next time I drink vodka, I’ll pour some out for him.
What Is Government
Up until I was around 20 years old, maybe even older, I didn’t really know very much about politics. I honestly wish I could go back to those simpler times. It feels like I had a lot less to worry about back then. It’s always easier not to know. My entire family are democrates, so that is about as far as my political awareness went. I was taught vaguely that poor/low-income people were democrates, rich people were republicans. A very simplified explanation of the two parties in America, but I still believe it holds up. At least that’s what you would expect.
As I got older I came to find that there are tons of poor people voting passionately against their own interests. A good portion of the republican base in fact. I was astounded even more when I became a social worker and got to listen to clients who could hardly survive on the small amount of government assistance they received simultaneously complain about “lazy, good-for-nothing” people taking advantage of the system and voting to cut social security benefits. They seemed totally disconnected from the fact that they were the people their beloved Fox News hosts were referring to when they condemn these societal moochers.
I guess they thought it couldn’t have been in reference to them, because they were good people. They hadn’t done anything wrong. They weren’t worthless, scheming, monsters taking advantage of other people. Yet they were still quick to jump on the bandwagon of hate, directing it at some imaginary, caricatures of people that were making it harder for people like them who really do need that help to be taken seriously. It always broke my heart to meet clients that continuously tried to justify their need and convince me that they weren’t just “some drug addict” or something.
What has been reminding me of all of this lately, is the controversy over the unemployment income many Americans have been relying on since this pandemic began over a year ago. Everyone is able to see the absurdity of going out to find work, when you would receive more money by staying on unemployment instead. It is the perception of this absurdity that varies. Conservatives cry: You can’t give everyone so much money or else they’ll never go back to work! While liberals and progressives insist: If these people were paid a living wage to begin with, this wouldn’t be a problem. We must raise the minimum wage so that these people have an incentive to return to work.
Obviously I agree with the latter. The government didn’t just arbitrarily decide on an amount to pay, they based it roughly on how much these people would need to survive. If working full-time isn’t allowing you to earn that measly amount, clearly THAT is the problem. Not that the government is giving you enough to live on. This seems so simple to me, but I know that nearly half of the country would disagree. These types of disheartening conflicts are the reason that after passionately throwing myself into politics for a few years, I’ve begun trying to ignore it all together again. It is just to painful. It seems so hopeless. I’m tired of fighting.
One of the main things I don’t understand though, is what other people think the government’s purpose is. I’m starting to think my idea of it has been misguided and idealistic. It seems like throughout school I was taught that the government, at least in America, was established “for the people, by the people.” I was under the impression that it’s only purpose was to organize our collective resources as a nation so that we could best serve the entire population. In my mind, government was just a way to work together as a society so that we could accomplish things we wouldn’t be able to as individual citizens. Not only that, I thought it’s purpose was to provide a safety net for the most vulnerable among us, to help people. Not only for moral reasons, but to the ultimate benefit of the whole. Having a system to take care of the less fortunate gives those people the opportunity to some day give back to society again. At the very least it would deter them from criminal activity, because they wouldn’t need to engage in that to survive.
I hear all the time that “it’s not the government’s job to support you.” But isn’t it though? Isn’t that why we have a government in the first place? To take care of our citizens? I’m often tempted to ask these people what they think the government’s job is, if not to protect us and support us. I’m trying to stay curious and not let the unsettling mindsets of so many people get to me too much. It’s just not worth the grief it causes me. And I’ve accepted that fighting about it won’t make a difference. All I can do is watch is stunned silence, or turn away.