What have you learned about life?
by Larry Schall (Oglethorpe)
Ten years ago, Barbara Ehrenreich wrote a book called Nickel and Dimed. She brought home in stark detail how hard it is for a family to break out of poverty. I recall one story about something as common as gathering the funds needed to put down a security deposit on an apartment while working a minimum wage job. First month, last month and a deposit on a $500 a month apartment while taking home $5 an hour. Do the math. One would have to save every cent you earned for 300 hours of work — seven and one-half weeks of work — to accumulate sufficient funds. Let’s go crazy and suggest your job is paying you twice that rate. It would take only a month of work while you spent absolutely no money on food, clothes or rent. Hallelujah. God forbid any one in your family needs health care, which your employer does not provide. I think Nickel and Dimed is in something like its tenth printing. It’s not a long book and it’s absolutely worth the read.
Today, Ehrenreich writes a piece featured on Huffington Post called Rediscovering Poverty. She notes that fifty years ago, 1963 to be exact, American “discovered” there was poverty in our midst. Michael Harrington’s The Other America revealed that a full quarter of Americans lived below the poverty line: inner city blacks, Appalachian whites, farm workers and our elderly. His book jolted the nation. And he issued a call to action — “we” needed to help “them”. It was clear to him and to many of those who followed with instincts far less charitable that we were different from them. It was not just that we had money and jobs and they didn’t. We had chosen a lifestyle that graced us with resources while they chose a “culture of poverty” governed by impulsive action and weak family structure. They had bad attitudes and a faulty lifestyle and we needed to help them change all this. On the left, the idea was to develop social programs to help. On the right, the thinking was more to put in place penalties for bad behavior as a way to incent better behavior. Before long, the left and the right largely came together to restructure social programs by imposing all sorts of tests to differentiate the worthy poor from the less worthy.
Today, one reads about the resurgence of such ideas. Let’s drug test everyone who applies for unemployment compensation because, after all, people can’t find work these days not because of the structural unemployment our economy is facing, but rather because they are smoking too much pot. Heck, let’s test everyone who applies for any government benefit — 23 states are considering such laws today. Here’s the problem with that argument today: it is harder and harder to believe that the poor are “the other” anymore. They’ve are our suburban neighbors as people we know lose their homes and their jobs. They’ve are laid-off tech-workers and car-makers all across America. The army of the working poor is growing. If we look closely enough, Ehrenreich tells us, we’ll have to conclude that poverty is not, after all, a cultural aberration or a character flaw. Poverty is a shortage of money.
And then there was a chance encounter early this afternoon at the hairdresser at Walmart. I don’t make getting a haircut at Walmart a regular practice. On the other hand, it’s not my first time. For those regular readers of my blog, you’ll remember I got a haircut a few months back in Cuba for a dollar. I like to think my hair is so thick and curly, I can’t get a bad haircut. I know some others who would disagree. Anyway, I was at Walmart for other reasons and saw the barber shop was about to open. Why not? I was first in line (actually, there was no line even when I left 30 minutes later). This lack of customers together with no plans for the afternoon on my end encouraged me to strike up a conversation with my hairdresser. If I had to guess, she was my age, 58. But since she was cutting hair at Walmart on a Sunday, I assumed she had faced more difficulties in her life than I had. After our time together, I still assume that to be the case, but nothing about her attitude revealed an ounce of that. I always told my boys (she has three of them, all grown) that if you were being paid $5 an hour to do a job, you ought to do it like you were being paid $10, no matter what the job and no matter how much you disliked the work. She, herself, had been a supervisor in another profession before she was laid off a few years ago. She collected unemployment for a brief time, went back to school to learn to cut hair, and here she was. “My boys tell me,” she shared, “I ought not to work anymore.” One works for Tyler Perry, one drives the tour bus for Earth, Wind and Fire, and the other is a supervisor at the federal prison here in Atlanta after having served in the Air Force. “My boys say they will take care of me and I know they can, but as long as I can still work, that’s what I will do. They have their own families; they all have wives. I will take care of myself. I don’t have to please anyone anymore, except my supervisor.”
I got a great haircut, by the way. I left with far more than that.
Larry Schall became president of Oglethorpe University in 2005, after serving as Vice-President for Administration at Swarthmore. He practiced law in Philadelphia as a trial attorney, specializing in civil rights litigation. This story was originally published on his blog, March 8, 2012.