It Sucks to Be Poor

Illus. from Alexie's "Part-Time Indian"

I suppose it was only a matter of time before Rightwing pundits started blaming the poor for the current recession. No doubt you thought that our money problems can be traced back to a housing bubble brought about by irresponsible banks and unscrupulous hedge fund managers or to unpaid-for wars and tax cuts that ran up the deficit.  But no, Republican candidates for president are blaming the deficit on those lower income Americans who don’t pay income tax.  And then there is this passage from a National Review Online article that the Daily Dish alerted me to:.

It is simply a fact that our social problems are increasingly connected to the depravity of the poor. If an American works hard, completes their education, gets married, and stays married, then they will rarely — very rarely — be poor. At the same time, poverty is the handmaiden of illegitimacy, divorce, ignorance, and addiction. As we have poured money into welfare, we’ve done nothing to address the behaviors that lead to poverty while doing all we can to make that poverty more comfortable and sustainable.

The insensitivity of this remark, especially in an country that is currently experiencing over 16 percent unemployment (officially 9 percent), is exposed by others quoted by the Daily Dish.

But reasoned refutations sometimes lack the force of a good novel.

Last October I wrote a post on one such novel, Charles Dickens’ Hard Times. Dickens exposes, in blistering fashion, a factory owner’s bootstrap fallacy, which is the mistaken notion that all one’s success is due to one’s own efforts. In bootstrapism, one has the illusion that one has pulled oneself up by one’s own bootstraps as one castigates those who don’t come from a life of privilege.

Today I turn to another effective depiction of poverty, this one from The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie, a young Native American author raised on the Spokane Indian Reservation.

His thoroughly  engaging narrator at one point is explaining why “it sucks to be poor.” It this instance, it means that your dad shoots your dog rather than taking it to a vet.  Here’s the narrator:

I was hot mad. Volcano mad. Tsunami mad.

Dad just looked down at me with the saddest look in his eyes. He was crying. He looked weak.

I wanted to hate Dad and Mom for our poverty.

I wanted to blame them for my sick dog and for all the other sickness in the world.

But I can’t blame my parents for our poverty because my mother and father were born into wealth. It’s not like they gambled away their family fortunes. My parents came from poor people who came from poor people who came from poor people, all the way back to the very first poor people.

Adam and Eve covered their privates with fig leaves; the first Indians covered their privates with their tiny hands.

Seriously, I know my mother and father had their dreams when they were kids. They dreamed about being something other than poor, but they never got the chance to be anything because nobody paid attention to their dreams.

Junior, an aspiring cartoonist (see image above), describes the dreams he imagines his parents achieving.  Note how circumscribed the dreams are: his mother he imagines as Teacher of the Year for six years in a row at Spokane Falls Community College, his father as “fifth-best jazz sax player west of the Mississippi.” And then this:

It sucks to be poor, and it sucks to feel that you somehow deserve to be poor. You start believing that you’re poor because you’re stupid and ugly. And then you start believing that you’re stupid and ugly because you’re Indian. And because you’re Indian you start believing you’re destined to be poor. It’s an ugly circle and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Poverty doesn’t give you strength or teach you lessons about perseverance. No, poverty only teaches you how to be poor.

A good novel guards against social stereotyping. Simple ideological characterizations don’t begin to address how complex people actually are. In our current mean-spirited environment, novelists like Sherman Alexie help us hold on to our humanity.


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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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