Thoughts on poverty and homelessness in the U.S.A.

Archive for December, 2010

Lazy, Poor People choosing not to work

This is a response I wrote to David Sirota’s blog, posted on the site InTheseTimes.com

Yep, they’re a lot like homeless people “choosing” to be homeless…

The Lazy-Jobless Myth is a blame-the-victim mindset that enables us to think we’re better than other people and also releases us from any responsibility we might have to help someone else.  After all, it’s the victim’s own fault, he/she made that “choice,” so it would actually be better if I didn’t intervene…

It’s a lot like the woman who is pretty and open with her sexuality who is blamed for being raped–the implication is that women don’t have the right to be sexually assertive, that if a woman is sexual or sexy, a man has a right to attack her. Yet no one blames a man who is suicidal for being murdered, i.e., “He asked for it. He said he wanted to die, so of course someone killed him.”  The notion is ridiculous because we’ve decided that murder is wrong, but also because we have empathy for the victim–as long as the victim is a man or a person with money.

Similarly, blaming the unemployed results from two ideas.  One is that we are better because we have more money than you.  (Just like saying, we are better because we go to the bathroom differently.)  We congratulate ourselves for having worked so hard and earned our success and make ourselves feel even better by comparing ourselves with others who we’ve decide are obviously inferior.  We have empathy for the billionaire who complains he/she (not so many female billionaires, but I’ll be politically correct anyhow) has to pay taxes.  We’re sorry for the corporation that fails, or is required to pay a fine.  We’re worried that wealthy heirs will have to pay taxes on their inheritance.  Perhaps that second villa in Italy won’t have a new tennis court built behind it after all.  And we’re concerned about this, about the monies wealthy people will lose if they pay higher taxes, but we stress and we strain at the thought of a single mom living in a poor, inner city neighborhood perhaps getting an extra $50 in welfare benefits.  The billions of dollars per year we lose by not taxing the rich and by allowing corporations to outsource labor to third world countries doesn’t concern us because just as we think a man can be open about his sexuality we think the rich hoard all the money.  Essentially, we think the rich are superior, and, therefore, should have more freedom.

But also, as with the woman who’s not allowed to be sexual (while men are allowed sexuality), the concept suggests that poor people should not be allowed to choose what type of work they do. Maybe some who are unemployed are reluctant to take on certain jobs because the salary is too low, because they are in need of benefits not provided by the job or because they know they won’t fit into that work environment or that they simply aren’t suited to that type of work.  I’ve certainly turned down jobs because I knew I’d fail, that the work wasn’t right for me and I didn’t want to set myself up for failure or to work at a job that would result in damage to my self-esteem.

Rush Limbaugh, who earns nearly 60 million per year, will never have to work at a fast food restaurant with a micromanaging supervisor standing over his shoulder criticizing his every move and with customers sneering at him and making rude remarks, nor will he find himself coming home after a long day of being told he was stupid, can’t do anything right by customers, managers or coworkers only to view a tiny paycheck that won’t pay the rent.

The fact remains that most of us do not want to work under demoralizing, dangerous or self-damaging conditions, but we’ve allowed big business to be deregulated so that security precautions are not always followed and so that employers can overwork and underpay their employees.  Large corporations are even taking life insurance policies out on their employees (They call it “peasant insurance.”  Yes, that’s right, I said “peasant.”)  So many companies actually benefit from their employees’ deaths.  If that’s not an incentive to work your employees to death and not provide them with health care benefits, then what is?

Most of us do not want to work under poor conditions (just as most men do not want to be prevented from expressing their own sexuality) but we will condemn others to do so when we’ve defined those others as inferior to us.

Ah, but this blog is, once again, all for naught.  Is there anybody out there?  Does anyone care?

I think the answer lies in what we’re seeing happen to this country.

Water Story:..:Sweating the small stuff is just a waste of water

Went to buy a sandwich today and thought I’d do something a little radical.

“May I have a glass of water while I’m waiting?” I asked.  Yep, I asked for a FREE glass of water.  I wasn’t paying for it, not requesting the bottled variety, and I don’t drink soda pop.  I just wanted real water–from the tap.  And I did NOT want to pay for it.

I felt a twinge of apprehension.  Would the cashier cringe, throw me a “look,” glare at me from the bottom up to view my attire and thus determine my socioeconomic status, inform me I must pay 15 cents for the cup, or just attempt to sell me something more expensive?

I waited.

To my surprise, the cashier simply rung up my order for a free cup of water then gave me an empty cup.  No questions were asked.  No intimidating stare.  I felt redeemed. Relieved. Grateful. Thirsty.  I grabbed the cup, filled it up with water, and took a sip of that precious resource that someday will only be available to a wealthy few.  (Lots of political ramifications here.  How hard will any of us be able to fight for our rights, to express our opinions, to participate in the management of this country, to care about anything or anyone greater than ourselves, when we no longer have access to that basic resource–water?  When we are painfully thirsty and all of our time and energy is spent up each day by our efforts to just quench our thirst?)

Being the introspective person I am, I questioned my apprehension.  Why did I hesitate to ask for the glass of water?  Why the (albeit tiny) spark of worry associated with a request for a mere glass of water?  The cashier would either say ‘yes’ or ‘no.’  So what is my problem?

And I am reminded of previously requested waters.  The waters of times past.  Taco Bell cashiers who told me I would have to pay for the water, even after I’d purchased food.  And efforts of other cashiers to encourage me to pay for water.  “We have bottled water.  Would you like that instead?” The embarrassment of being watched suspiciously by an employee as I filled the see-through cup (made see-through so that staff would notice if you poured soda pop you didn’t pay for into the cup instead of the water you’d claimed you wanted).

Oh yes, and most interesting water gathering experience of all (and this is fodder for a future blog):  the time when I asked for a glass of water and was refused it because the cashier was worried I might give it to a homeless man.  “Are you going to give that glass of water to that homeless man?” she asked critically. Seemed she didn’t want that poor man to have a glass of water–even if I, a customer who had purchased food from her store, wanted to give my own glass of water to him.  (Again, that story will be expanded upon in a future blog…)

Why so much fuss over water?

Is giving a cup of water to a paying customer such a big loss?  What if I weren’t a customer?  What if I swaggered into that fast-food joint and asked for a glass of water just because…just because I was human and thirsty…just because we humans can live longer without food than we can without water…just because I’m one of your brothers or sisters on this planet and I’m just in need of a little refreshment…

Okay, so does giving a free glass of water cost companies a tremendous amount of money?  I mean, seriously, if someone “stole” that little plastic cup and filled it up with soda pop they didn’t pay for would Taco Bell go out of business?  Doesn’t it cost more money to hire an employee to stand by the soda pop machine and watch customers to make sure they are pouring water and not soda pop into their little plastic cups?  Don’t the surveillance cameras hung all over the ceilings of these restaurants cost a pretty penny?  How much is all this security, this fear of being “taken advantage of,” of “being ripped off,” costing us?  Financially?  Socially?  Spiritually?

I’ve seen restaurants charge a fee, yes A FEE, to allow use of their restrooms.  Any of us who lives or works in a major city knows how hard it is to find a public bathroom in a major urban area these days.  Yet we all need to use the bathroom several times a day.  All of us–rich and poor.  And most of us don’t stay home all day.  Most of us go out and while we are out we are going to need, sooner or later, the use of such facilities.  Yet we are creating a society that requires we pay for that, to pay a fee to do what we must do as humans, to fulfill our human needs.  My question is this:

Why?

Are stores and restaurants really losing money by allowing people to use their bathrooms and drink their tap water for free?  At this time, we are seeing the greatest division between the rich and the poor than has ever been seen in the U.S. in recent history.  And the rich are getting richer while the poor are getting poorer.  Yet we are also seeing basic resources and services diminishing as the rich cry poverty, claiming they just can’t afford to give.  They can’t afford to pay taxes (thus giving back to their community), they can’t afford to pay their employees decent living wages, they can’t afford to provide benefits to their employees, and they can’t even afford to give a glass of water or a free trip to a restroom to people who live and work in their communities.  (Then they claim that if we raise their taxes, they’ll stop hiring employees but they’re doing that anyway–outsourcing labor to third-world countries and downsizing by requiring more work from fewer employees and at smaller wages.  So whom do they think they’re kidding?  I’m not so hungry and thirsty right now (not yet) that I’ve lost my ability to think and reason.)

Greed really has broken through the glass ceiling and hit an all-time high.  I never thought I’d see the day when it would become practically illegal to be human, when we’d have to feel shame and embarrassment for asking another human being for anything, even a mere cup of water.  Yes, I am referring to the need for a glass of water and to go to the bathroom–often at inopportune moments–as “human” needs.

It seems that to ask anyone for anything these days is just an inappropriate thing to do.  Heaven forbid you are walking down a busy street and suddenly find that you must need to…uh…well, pee. The condition gets worse as you mosey on down the street and yet you discover that no one–no one!–will allow you to legally pee in their premises unless you have some money to spend.

It’s getting awfully expensive to be a human being these days.  And I just wonder how does this serve us?  I mean, is this really the way we want to conduct business?  Why are we “sweating the small stuff”?  Why are we counting the water cups and monitoring how many free glasses of water were given away in a day when there are more serious matters at hand–like whether or not you are loved and respected by members of your community, or whether or not you are contributing to that community in such a way that makes it a better (not worse) place to be…

Okay, I’m going off on a tangent here.  But you know, we as a people create the society we live in.  Do we really want to get stressed out over little things like water?  Give the guy the water already.  Let the lady use the “non-public” restroom.  Show a  little humanity, America.  You used to back in the 1930s during the Great Depression.

I have faith in you.  I know you can bring back empathy and compassion–even in the United States.  Come on America, let’s start thinking as humans (not robots) again.  And let’s start thinking about giving instead of worrying about what we can get out of every interaction.

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