I have already broken my reading system proclaimed last week (surprise! surprise!) but I also anticipated that things might intrude--such as books that arrive from the library and must be back. So it is with Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in American.
A short time ago I provoked a correspondent by asserting that everything that was inexpensive was, in fact, quite expensive--we just didn't really pay the price--the poor did. He responded cogently with a clear indication that I had failed to say what I intended. And reading this book, I feel the need to make the point again.
As we enter the season of political debate, the question of who addresses the needs of the poor is, in fact, critical to the determination of how we will vote. But before we can address the question, we should ask ourselves, "Who really sees the poor at all?" The answer is that we all do, though we may not recognize the fact.
People who are working minimum wage jobs and attempting to support a family fall easily into this category. This encompasses many of the people who wait on us at restaurants, who clean the rooms we stay in when we are away from home, who help us when we shop at Wal-Mart or any number of other retailers.
Think about where you live. Now stop for a moment and consider a paycheck that consists of six dollars an hour for forty hours a week--two hundred-forty dollars a week--just shy of $1000.00 dollars a month. Where does one live on $1000/month. How do you pay rent, utilities, food, gas, clothing, etc. on that amount of money. And what if you are not single, what if you have a family?
I know that I am guilty of not seeing the poor and not realizing the implications of these low wages. Ehrenreich's book spells them out clearly. No health care, poor meals, failing health. Some of the people that she speaks of in the book lived in their vans and "borrowed" the showers of others who lived in cheap hotels. I don't know that this is exemplary of the life of all--for example, being a college student is a kind of training in poverty that most of us go through. But most of us are really only in "mock-poverty." If something dreadful were to happen, most have recourse to returning home. The truly poor work without a net. There is no wealthier home for most of them to go to.
I recommend the book as an insight into the world of poverty. Most of us know that it exists, and most of us figure, as Barbara does in the book, that the poor have some mechanism, some means of coping that is beyond our view. Her conclusion--most of them do not.
And so, who offers a preferential option for the poor? I think we're foolish to think that any political party can do so. The best they can do is throw money at the problem through a massive bureaucratic system that tends to eat up the funds before they arrive at their intended goal. With all good will and good intent, the government can only help so much.
Now think about the last time you were in the DMV or had to deal with any part of the local or national government. If your child were ill, is that what you would like to go through to see to it that he was cared for? If you were hungry, would you want to jump through the hoops necessary to put food on the table?
I say, don't look to the government to make the world of poverty disappear. We, each and every single one of us, offer the preferential option for the poor. We do so through our work and through our donations. We also do it through our consideration. I'm sure most of St. Blog's consists of people who understand the necessity of tipping when one eats out. However, bear in mind that the average server gets less than one-half of minimum wage. (At the time of writing, Ehrenreich says that the law required payment of $2.13 an hour with the proviso that tips brought the wage up to minimum wage. If not, the employer was responsible for the entire bill.) The next time you get service that isn't everything you think it should be, consider the circumstances that you may not be seeing.
The poor are not asking for our help. According to the book, many are not expecting a hand-out and don't feel particularly oppressed. But, just because people are resilient enough to adapt themselves to horrendous circumstances, that does not mean we should perpetuate the circumstances. The first step in abolishing poverty is to face it squarely and to be willing to take upon ourselves some share of the burden--even a small share. Perhaps we leave a slightly larger tip for the waitress. Perhaps we treat people who assist us in shopping, who check us out at grocery stores in a somewhat better and friendlier way. Perhaps we bring more food to the pantry and we work with our local Church to expand our services to the poor. We each have within us the capacity to help make the world just a little bit better for others. We need to seize each opportunity. We need to revise our opinions of those who are less well off. (Ehrenreich noticed that when she was dressed as a maid or cleaning person, she could not even get waited on at the restaurant without obvious contempt.)
In short, WE are the preferential option for the poor. The government can go only so far, it is up to us to bridge the gap that makes life livable for those less fortunate. Surely it is part of our duty to consider which government plans are worthwhile and to support them. And indeed, when all other factors are equal, this is one of the issues that should dominate the consideration for whom we elect to office.
The poor are always with us--then and now. They are a direct challenge to us and they are an image of Christ among us. It is up to us to choose whether to help lift them up from poverty or to once again crucify Jesus by leaving them where we find them. We cannot solve all the issues of the world, but we can embrace those issues that come into our lives and in so doing attempt to make life better for everyone. Poverty is a weight upon us all and the responsibility of all. I know that I do not do enough and Ms. Ehrenreich's book brings it home for me. I hope that I can extend what I learned here into a constant practice of alms-giving and genuine concern.