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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  • Another great post, Robin.

    But It is not so hard to believe what is going on in Republican Presidential circles these days. In every election cycle they just get more and more repugnant. They are not to be reasoned with, Robin, because I know in my gut they don’t really believe the swill they are spilling. They KNOW it’s nonsense. But apparently it’s nonsense that sells. It’s all just a cynical ploy to attract the dumbest and/or the most cynical to the voting booth.

    I think there is a great fatalism in this country right now. I wish that President Obama had seen fit to tinker with his own legacy and done something BIG and OUTLANDISH to get the country moving forward again, but he can’t seem to get beyond the idea that as the first African American President he can’t shake the rafters loose. I kind of understand, but I’m still not happy about it.

    Maybe in a second term he’ll take more chances.

    At any rate, ‘blaming the poor’ for their condition and the conditiion of the country sounds just like the same old crapola churned up from the mud and slime of Republican party headquarters.

  • Robin Bates

    As I see it, Yvette, a lot of people saw the stimulus and Obamacare as big and outlandish (these are measures that helped and will help America’s poor) and punished Obama and the Democrats for it in the 2010 elections. So maybe he’s been bigger than we liberals are giving him credit for. I have to say that my expectations have always been modest. I came into the Obama presidency thinking that if he did nothing more than pass universal health care (or something close) and pulled us out of the two wars, I’d be happy. He’s done two of those and seems on his way to doing the third. While some would see your “tinkering” and “big and outlandish” as contradictory, I actually think that’s a good description of how Obama works. He is subtle and, as a result, has done far more with a resistant Congress than seemed possible given that the Republicans have had effective veto power from the very beginning (given Senate filibuster and supermajority rules).

  • I hope you’re right in your assessment, Robin. I wish to be wrong. 🙂 I know the President has done some significant things but will it be enough to get him re-elected. The country simply cannot afford a Republican in the White House these next few years.

  • Robin Bates

    If Obama is feeling discouraged these days and wants to withdraw, I hope there is someone who is saying to him, as Beowulf says to King Hrothgar, “Endure your troubles today. Bear up and be the man I expect you to be.” In fact, I need to say this to myself when I find myself getting down. Grendel’s Mother feeds off of our despair, and we need to grasp the sword of justice to keep from becoming permanently trapped in her underwater lair, a good symbol for depression.

    I read an article recently about a meeting early in the Obama presidency where Republican leaders figured that, if they rendered Congress dysfunctional, ultimately it would take Obama down and they would win the next presidential election. Mitch McConnell candidly admitted that the primary Republican goal was to beat Obama. This helps explain the lockstep voting in the Senate pretty much from the beginning, no matter what accommodations Obama tried to make. It was a policy intended to induce despair.

    The question is, will Obama supporters, like Hrothgar, just feel like giving up, their illusions shattered. Surely our dreams can take a few reversals without our throwing up our hands. When Hrothgar laments, “Rest, what is rest, sorrow has returned,” Beowulf replies, “Wise sir, do not grieve. It is always better to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning.” It’s better to take action than feel sorry for ourselves.

    We don’t know have any guarantees about the next election. I’m trying to bolster myself so that I don’t give up prematurely.


  • 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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