Between & Beyond: Poor Vs. Poor

I always wanted to be an educator. Among the personal reasons why, the primary one has always been the fact that I didn’t want my job to involve lying to people. I felt like that was the essential role of a sales associate or a politician. Now that I have actually entered the field and stuck with it for a while, I can say that it is indeed as satisfying as I had always hoped. The ways that satisfaction arrives are more than I ever expected though. One of which involves how often I learn from my students. I do mean this in the sense of life lessons and my own personal development, but I also appreciate how often I am just informed of the goings-on of lives outside the scope of my own.

Sometimes the things I learn make me really happy. Sometimes they make me really sad. One of the most shocking and sad attitudes I have discovered is the way my students feel about the institutionalized poor. You must understand that I am talking about a community college in probably one of the poorest counties in the country let alone the region. The attitude in essays I read is one of ire and criticism toward those on various social programs. Many argument essays are against universal healthcare while others demand drug testing for those on welfare.

To some degree, I understand where this comes from. It sure is a lot easier for a suburban upper-middle-class Democrat to champion social programs when he has no actual contact with the individuals who live in poverty. Those at a distance can just analyze the situation cognitively based on principle and take their stance. As Robinson Jeffers once said in a poem about the hindsight of history, “Distance makes clean.” But my angry students are in the thick of it. They are also some of the hardest workers in my classes. Why wouldn’t they be pissed? Here they are doing the right thing, going through the designated avenues of self-improvement, making sacrifices in the name of betterment, and all they have to do is look over their shoulder to find some example of someone cheating the system, fucking up, wasting time, refusing to make sacrifices, operating on self-absorption.

Still, I can’t help but think that there is a larger issue at play here. It seems to me that the prevailing attitude in America is to operate on the assumption, “I will be rich one day.” The problem there really being that, in an ever increasing likelihood, there’s a much better chance that you will be poor someday. I have seen Facebook status updates along the lines of, “When I don’t see my name of the Forbes list, I go to work.” This determination to grab a slice of the American dream is the perfect accompaniment to corporate media’s effort to shape opinions on larger social issues. The ducks seem all in a row. Those who want to work hard and follow in the American tradition of self-reliance and advancement are fed a steady diet of news stories curtailed toward the perpetuation and solidification of this oligarchy hidden in plain sight.

The recent controversy over McDonald’s and their employees makes a great example of this predicament. McDonald’s pays their workers minimum wage, and recently they have developed a website that seeks to reach out and help their workers manage their lives. The website is closed to the public but its content has leaked. It suggests that they take vacations and sing often in order relieve stress (I assume they mean the stress caused by not being able to pay bills). They also suggest that cutting up food into smaller pieces helps stretch meals. Of course, these suggestions are disgusting and patronizing, but the real hidden gem of this issue is the fact that if one adds up all the social benefits that McDonald’s employees accrue in a year (food stamps, Medicare, etc.), we the tax payer are subsidizing McDonald’s to the order of $1.2 billion. McDonald’s and their shitty practices go on just under the radar while politicians stand up and cover their hearts and wag their fingers in firm opposition to “entitlement programs.”

Countless times, as a news story develops, the caveat given is often along the lines of “…but it is estimated that [however many] jobs will be lost,” or even more blatantly “…quarterly earnings will drop.” As if the success of any given company should be the standard by which we judge our public policy. But where does corporate responsibility lie? As the biggest corporations enjoy direct tax subsidies and government bailouts, the picture of the gulf between corporate socialism and the public free market comes into shocking focus. The media is designed to maintain the status quo. They do so very proficiently by masking the poor as “Other.” When dehumanized and vilified, the poor take the spotlight off the true villains. In storybooks, dragons are the ones who horde wealth and keep it from the masses. The poor villagers are the ones to be saved. I think even that guy Jesus had quite a bit to say about this.