Tuesday, June 16, 2009

In Pursuit

Warning: No politically correct laws apply.

Too Poor to Make the News - Barbara Ehrenreich. This spring, I tracked down a couple of the people I had met while working on my 2001 book, “Nickel and Dimed,” in which I worked in low-wage jobs like waitressing and housecleaning, and I found them no more gripped by the recession than by “American Idol”; things were pretty much “same old.” The woman I called Melissa in the book was still working at Wal-Mart, though in nine years, her wages had risen to $10 an hour from $7.

“Caroline,” who is increasingly disabled by diabetes and heart disease, now lives with a grown son and subsists on occasional cleaning and catering jobs. We chatted about grandchildren and church, without any mention of exceptional hardship.

But then, at least if you inhabit a large, multiclass extended family like my own, there comes that e-mail message with the subject line “Need your help,” and you realize that bad is often just the stage before worse. The note was from one of my nephews, and it reported that his mother-in-law, Peg, was, like several million other Americans, about to lose her home to foreclosure.

It was the back story that got to me: Peg, who is 55 and lives in rural Missouri, had been working three part-time jobs to support her disabled daughter and two grandchildren, who had moved in with her. Then, last winter, she had a heart attack, missed work and fell behind in her mortgage payments. If I couldn’t help, all four would have to move into the cramped apartment in Minneapolis already occupied by my nephew and his wife.

Only after I’d sent the money did I learn that the mortgage was not a subprime one and the home was not a house but a dilapidated single-wide trailer that, as a “used vehicle,” commands a 12-percent mortgage interest rate. You could argue, without any shortage of compassion, that “Low-Wage Worker Loses Job, Home” is nobody’s idea of news.

----- God, I feel little compassion for the above cases Ms. Ehrenreich writes about. For one reason, I know too many Wal-mart Melissas, Carolines, and Pegs. Mine too are "increasingly disabled" by diabetes, heart disease, etc. of their own making, usually 100 pounds overweight and their only exercise is a part-time job. Does Melissa's "grown son" work? Usually not, or at least not often and most of that goes to alcohol, cigarettes or dope, or paying fines and restitution and child support.

I too have "multiclass" relatives, and some like Peg, working to support a disabled daughter and grandchildren. Although my Peg's disabled daughter gets a sizable monthly disability check and a check on each of her dependents, plus Medicaid/Medicare, foodstamps, yet they struggle to make their $300 a month trailer payment, and they have trashed the thing to the point that even they no longer want to live in it.

But my Pegs and Melissas struggle because they will spend $200 a month on cable TV and DSL which for them is a priority over the rent and utilities, although they know they need a roof for the TV. And their kids, no daddy around, must have name brand clothing and spending money, to make momma look like she can support a pack of kids 'cause she "don't need no man around" (although she always seems to have a new man around). And in her words, her "kids ain't wearing no Wal-Mart shit."

I too, here in rural Podunk, see the same gentrification with folks moving in together.

We have two sections, one called Hillbilly Heaven (mostly white) and one called Sunset (mostly black). Hillbilly Heaven was originally small homes built by WWII GIs - now mostly poor white trash and meth heads. Sunset is on the westside of town and years ago you had to be back here by sunset. My daughter made mention of this Jim Crowism at a city council meeting and the section has now been officially renamed to - drum role - Horizon.

But, here's how hope and change came about in Podunk: Integration saw the inhabitants of Horizon creeping across town. The whites kept selling and moving north and east as the blacks moved in from the west. For 3 decades most of the rentals in this section of town have been owned by local slum lords - taking what were once nice homes in good neighborhoods and creating a Section 8 Heaven. (There is some truth to "there goes the neighborhood.")

Over the years as one single momma after another (black and white) moved in and out, trashing the house and the lot it sits on, no one seemed to mind - upper class folks continued to build newer homes east and north, the landlords got their inflated rents paid by BigDaddy Government, putting little back into the house, and kept them continually rented. Every 3 bedroom on this side of town became a 4 bedroom home because landlords walled off the dining room to get a 4th bedroom - 4 bedroom being a bigger section 8 check from the government. And momma didn't mind, with 4 or 5 kids she needed another bedroom more than a dining room, and everyone eats from a sack and wrapper in front of the TV in the living room anyway, dining rooms are for fancy folks.

Both the Heavens here are crumbling. In the last 4 or 5 years approximately 160 homes have been bulldozed on this side of town (Horizon). BigDaddy doesn't have as many vouchers as he used to. Broke my heart to see so many old homes demolished. I tried to convince the city to let homeowners salvage some of the grand and original woodwork and brick, doors and windows, etc. but they said no - bulldozed it all. Those of us who own here welcomed the bulldozers - it could potentially mean there's one less threat, one less predator in the neighborhood. Ah, maybe compassion is an affordable luxury when your neighbor wears a suit and tie instead of a pimp hat and gold chains.

But, with a shortage of housing now, some folks are doubling up. Around here that means instead of 3 or 4 kids on the street meandering in front of my house it's 6 or 7 teen boys trying to hold their pants up, while the young pre-momma girls threaten to kick one another's ass, I guess to impress the boys with their toughness. (It's painfully funny watching a guy hold his pants up, run/ jump fences, while trying to dispose of little baggies of crack with an overweight cop puffing right behind him.) And then there are the dogs. Almost every renter here in the 'hood has a dog, usually pit bulls without the mandatory insurance, chained next to the house - not a member of the family or beloved pet - but as an alarm. To bark, when the po-lice might be tipping around because someone inside is a dealer; gives you about 30 seconds after the first bark to see the swat team and flush the dope. Oh, and don't walk the dog, just let him off the chain now and then - he'll come home when he gets hungry.

On the other side of town, the old Hillbilly Heaven section, life isn't much different. I know a 72-year-old woman there who lives with her 4 middle-aged children and a few teen grandchildren and great grandchildren. Half of them are on disability and the other half on crack and meth. She has owned the house for 40 years, but when she's gone it will be bulldozed, and should be as no one has maintained it for 25 years. It has busted sewer pipes and leaking like a sieve. It's not that they never had funds for repairs, they just never spent the funds on something that wasn't entertaining. She has 9 kids and tells me not one of them is worth a damn and her 3 dozen grandkids aren't much better. She goes to church and wonders what went wrong. I would tell her but it's too late. I'm certain her 40-year-old kids will be receiving some sort of Government housing when she dies and they no longer have her house to flop in. The house she and their dad bought when they married and where these kids grew up - means nothing to them.

I grew up in poverty, have watched poverty in the US for at least 5 decades, have seen third world poverty up close - and what Americans are experiencing is not poverty, nor even hardship in comparison to most of the world. Economically the US is not even as miserable as the 1980s indexes, yet. Poverty, Ms. Ehrenreich, is always in the news - especially around election time, or to promote a book or movie, or when Big and Little Nonprofits are fundraising.

What I see is a poverty of minds, a lot of wasted lives. A lack of willingness to delay gratification between what people want and what people need. A generation where getting something for nothing is prized over all else. A generation whose greatest boast is they "are not judgmental" which is the go-ahead to do whatever ya want when ya want and not worry about consequences, after all, no one is going to be judgmental - being "nonjudgmental" is actually appropriate for a large segment of society - they have proven beyond doubt they lack good judgment on anything at all. A generation convinced that being materially poor is the fault of someone or something else; while they piss away money and shit where they eat, as if there is no tomorrow.

Ironically, those who would do the most with a little help are usually not eligible in the Welfare State. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Too many Americans are no longer in pursuit.

Have you watched the movie The Pursuit of Happyness?, based on the life of Chris Gardner who spent a year sleeping in shelters, cheap motels, and subway bathrooms with his young son while interning at Dean Witter in 1981, the company and coworkers never knew. If you haven't seen it I'm going to spoil the ending. This is the ending of the movie; the real Gardner walks by and Will Smith turns to look at him.

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