It Is Not a Privilege to Be Poor

Let me use this post to voice my objection about poverty. I have written some things about poverty before, but I have never ventured to make a personal account of it. How does poverty feel like? I can not relate from personal experience how real poverty feels like. I have not spend time in Africa, Asia or Latin America, where the poorest pockets of the world are located in. I have had the privilege to grow up in a relatively wealthy country and to migrate to another wealthy country, albeit with a significantly smaller welfare state.

So I briefly stood in line today to apply for Medicaid and Food Stamps, the so strongly villified government programs among the wealthy and the upper middle class, who think they will never rely on these programs. I don’t find it problematic at all to apply for social benefits. After all, a wealthy society should have enough resources to ensure the needs of the entire population. Yet, we hear this propaganda, which got huge popular attention with the presidency of Ronald Reagan, who warned about the welfare queen, who lived off multiple social security checks and allegedly purchased a Rolls Royce with it (or was it a Cadillac?). All lies. The political right- and the oligarchs which they represent- try to tell us that the moochers, who rely on government benefits have such a good life, and they should not worry about their material plight, because the taxpayers would take care of their needs. How descipable.

Well, from my personal account. The lives of the poor that are supposedly so good thanks to government benefits are not really that great. One can hardly survive with the skimpy government benefits that have huge requirements and screening processes to ensure eligibility. The department of public welfare website lets you know how they are hunting down welfare crooks (which really are not that many). But not only are you made to feel like a criminal before you even apply. You also have to stand in line in order to get your order processed. Wait for four hours in line, because the demand is big, and the supply of case workers is very small. I decided to use the envelope and the dropbox rather than wait for many hours in line. There should be a phone call soon.

And here you see an example of how the life of the poor in this country is not great. The privilege of the rich man is that he never has to wait to get what he wants. In the airport, there is surely a line for the business class, which is short and processes very quickly. For medical treatment, private clinics provide exclusive access to the best doctors and state-of-art technology and treatment options. The really rich people take advantage of concierge, which is essentially a private doctor available to the rich man 24/7. It is different with the poor man. Aristotle knew very well, as do many other social theorists, that the poor are the majority in every society. Access to the majority of resources are usually reserved to a tiny elite. The greater the wealth of a society becomes, the more obscure the extent of inequality becomes. Living standards may be increasing across the board, but many poor people may still be excluded from essential services due to terrible government policies.

As the poor remain in the majority, they are the ones that have to wait in long lines whether in the welfare office, or in the super market, or in the lunch line for homeless people, or in the bus while waiting for it or riding on it. The poor man has to wait, and receive the scarce resources. They will also not be likely to question their fate all that much, unless a real hunger catastrophe hits many poor people, like in the Middle East, triggering the Arab Spring. And how can they question their fate? Joseph Stiglitz describes in his book that poor people can often remember exactly how much money they have spent going grocery shopping, because every penny counts toward their survival. Middle class and rich people don’t know exactly how much they have spent, because they have enough to live on. There is no point in wasting brain space to dedicate toward counting pennies. When it now comes to making long term decisions for the wealth and well-being for people, the poor have a disadvantage, because all of their lives are dedicated to scramble for bargains in the stores if they have some money; if they have no money then they scramble for food in the dumpster, which takes up even more brain capacity. I witness myself on a daily basis the tenacity with which the homeless approach people on the train that I ride everyday. They would make a three sentence statement about their poor, destitute situation and expect personal donations from train passengers. Then, if they saturated the terrain, they move to the next section of the train, and the game continues. In the minds of the poor, there is only survival.

How can this lumpenproletariat, as Marx called them, be organized as a fighting force for a social revolution? Or more moderately, how can these poor people be organized to fight for a better life? How can they be encouraged to remain in school, and get training and a job? How can they learn the tricks of the stock market and make money from it? These are all larger objectives that you can only become focused on if you don’t have to worry about where your next meal is going to come from. It is, therefore, ludicrous to speak of the privilege of being poor. The call for political action of the poor should remain obvious. It is unavoidable for the sake of improving society to alleviate the plight of the poor. It is unfortunate that I currently think that it is the bourgeosie, which has to provide the moral and political resources to take up the fight against poverty. This does not mean that the poor should not take a hand in changing their fate (it is, in fact, prerequisite that they do so), but because of their personally precarious position the necessary leadership does not derive from their own ranks.

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