Barbara Ehrenreich has a three-part series of editorials on NYTimes.com right now: June 13th's "Too Poor to Make the News," July 11th's "A Homespun Safety Net," and August 8th's "Is It Now a Crime to be Poor?" Hat tip to king_felix for the link to the 3rd one, but it's the second one that hit me hard, near the end:
And suddenly I couldn't breathe, because of a flashback to Ronald Reagan's first term, when I first realized that life in Britain and here in America had become a survival horror cliché, when I first began using the metaphor of "human sacrifice" to describe what we, as English-speaking people, have become, and it is this:
I’ve never encountered the kind of “culture of poverty” imagined by the framers of welfare reform, but there is a tradition among the American working class of mutual aid, no questions asked. My father, a former miner, advised me as a child that if I ever needed money to “go to a poor man.” He liked to tell the story of my great-grandfather, John Howes, who worked in the mines long enough to accumulate a small sum with which to purchase a plot of farmland. But as he was driving out of Butte, Mont., in a horse-drawn wagon, he picked up an Indian woman and her child, and their hard-luck story moved him to give her all his money, turn his horse around and go back to the darkness and danger of the mines.
In her classic study of an African-American community in the late ’60s, the anthropologist Carol Stack found rich networks of reciprocal giving and support, and when I worked at low-wage jobs in the 1990s, I was amazed by the generosity of my co-workers, who offered me food, help with my work and even once a place to stay. Such informal networks — and random acts of kindness — put the official welfare state, with its relentless suspicions and grudging outlays, to shame. ...
At least one influential theory of poverty contends that the poor are too mutually dependent, and that this is one of their problems. This perspective is outlined in the book “Bridges Out of Poverty,” co-written by Ruby K. Payne, a motivational speaker who regularly addresses school teachers, social service workers and members of low-income communities. She argues that the poor need to abandon their dysfunctional culture and emulate the more goal-oriented middle class. Getting out of poverty, according to Ms. Payne, is much like overcoming drug addiction, and often requires cutting off contact with those who choose to remain behind: “In order to move from poverty to middle class ... an individual must give up relationships for achievement (at least for some period of time).” The message from the affluent to the down-and-out: Neither we nor the government is going to do much to help you — and you better not help one another either. It’s every man (or woman or child) for himself.
Take a good look at your family members and the people in your neighborhood. A third to half of them are dead. And that's if you're from a middle class or upper-middle class neighborhood; if you're from a working class neighborhood, call it three quarters, if you're from a poor neighborhood, 90%. Write them off. Let the dead bury their dead. You must escape, and claw your way into a good job. Once you get into that good job, take a good look around you: one third of your fellow life-boat members are dead. They will be gone, cast over the side, within a year or two. Write them off. Let the dead bury their dead.
If you are to both succeed and to live with yourself, you must, must, must learn to never grieve. You must, must, must convince yourself that if you succeeded, and anybody else didn't, that there was nothing you could possibly have done to save them. You must also convince yourself that it was because of your innate superiority and your superior hard work that you succeeded and they didn't; if you can't find evidence that you were superior to them, that they had flaws that you don't, that you worked harder for it than they did, make that evidence up ... and then, having settled the matter, forget that they ever existed. You are the saved, in Heaven; the damned are your former co-workers and partners and friends and loved ones and family, in Hell; Heaven can never be Heaven so long as you remember that you ever liked or loved them.
And if you fail, either fail to make the cut or fail to destroy any last shred of the empathy or compassion that is your birthright as a vertebrate, let alone as a human being, do not fear for the comfort or happiness of those who succeed. They, too, have learned to blame, learned to claim credit, learned to feel no compassion. They, like you, have learned well: they will not grieve.