Opinion: A Stunning Story About Poverty
If you have one that’s similar, we’d like to hear from you
I finally got around to listening to “BUSTED: America’s Poverty Myths,” a five-part podcast series by WNYC’s “On the Media” that examines some of the misperceptions of American poverty and how media can enforce or correct them through their reporting. The last episode is titled “Breaking News Consumer’s Handbook: Poverty In America Edition,” a guide for journalists to avoid common assumptions and talking points that don’t match up with the facts.
Toward the end of the episode (see embed below), host Brooke Gladstone speaks with a woman named Linda Tirado, who gained fame a few years ago by writing a memoir about her life as “working poor.” Tirado speaks about the need for journalists to allow poor people to tell their own stories. “We’re very good communicators,” Tirado says. “We mostly work in the service industry, for God’s sake.”
Gladstone asks Tirado to go right ahead. I was out walking, and her response literally stopped me in my tracks [emphasis mine]:
So when we moved to Cincinnati, we got the cheapest apartment we could find. It was the lowest apartment in the building, and we got hit by a summer storm. So what didn’t get destroyed by water got destroyed by mold. And I was, I think, seven-and-a-half months pregnant, eight months pregnant at the time. So I was calling every charity I could, thinking, “I just need a chair.” For whatever reason in my head, if I could just get a chair, then everything else would be fine. But I needed a place to sit.
I got in touch with one charity who said, “Yeah, you can come and pick up a chair, but we’re gonna need you to go to a resume writing class.” And I said, “For what?,” and they said, “Well, because we need you to be looking for work and trying to better your situation. We don’t just give charity to just anybody. We need to make sure that you’re, you know, invested, you got some skin in the game.”
And I said, “OK, when is the resume-writing class?” And he gave me two different times. And I said, “Well, I have to be at work at both of those times. And they said, “Well, if you want the charity, you have to show up to the class. And I was like, “If I come to the class, I’ll get fired.” And this woman was telling me how I really needed to learn to write my resume so that I could find gainful employment, so that I could get the stupid chair that was probably worth five bucks.
That is what personal responsibility means to somebody on welfare. It means here are these stupid hoops that we’re gonna make you jump through, and then we’re going to give you a solution that absolutely won’t work for you. It’s that kind of just over and over beating your head against these ridiculous regulations and these double-blinds that don’t make any sense. And the whole thing is set up specifically to humiliate you as much as possible because what we need poor people to do in America more than anything else in the world is know their place.
I don’t think I’ve ever heard such a vivid account, drawn from direct experience, that runs against one of America’s hoariest notions—the upward mobility myth, the “bootstraps” canard. It happens, but rarely. By and large, you remain in the economic stratum you’re born into—and the system around you is in many ways designed to keep you there.
By now, a lot of you have probably at least heard about the Harvard study that ranks Charlotte at the bottom of major U.S. cities for economic mobility, the capacity for people to work themselves out of poverty into higher economic classes. (If not, this is a great time to read some of the work this magazine did in its February 2016 issue devoted to that topic.) I’m curious if anyone reading this has direct experience like this, or knows someone who has.
If you do, feel free to comment below, via social media, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d like to follow up on this. There’s something about that phrasing—“the whole thing is set up specifically to humiliate you as much as possible because what we need poor people to do in America more than anything else in the world is know their place”—that for obvious and less obvious reasons seems more important, and terrifying, than ever.