HOW CAN YOU BE HUNGRY, WHEN I JUST ATE?”
That comment came from a fellow elevator operator when I was a college student and working on my summer job. I was mentioning how difficult it was to run across Broadway to a crowded Automat, eat, and get back all within 30 minutes which was the time allowed us. My fellow worker lamented that our bosses (who didn’t limit themselves to a 30 minute lunch break) were indifferent to our needs. That attitude sums up well the difference between the lives of the poor and the lives of the middle class and rich. I grew up poor. Partly it was the Depression and partly it was the rare but occasional fate of middle class people sliding back into poverty. My mother was 12 when she was forced to quit school to raise her younger siblings after their mother died in a flood in Bound Brook, New Jersey. My father was an undisciplined child who joined the merchant marine to get away from his mother after being raised in genteel poverty when his father died when my father was 10 years old. I knew that poverty meant not having a checkbook and not having a telephone. When one of my teachers wanted me to join his family for a weekend he asked me to pack a tote bag with a change of clothes and swim suit. I didn’t have a tote bag, a change of clothes, or a swimsuit. There was one week when my brother and I shared one pair of pants, I going to high school in the day and he at night.
I learned that the poor have a network of ignorance. For years I believed my neighbors who feared going to a hospital if sick because they would be done away with by “the black bottle’ (the term euthanasia unknown to the poor). I did not have a full physical examination until I was a college freshman. I escaped from poverty because my teachers cared about their students and I quickly became a teacher’s pet. I benefited from the generosity of a person who gave a bequest for a scholarship I was awarded to NYU. I benefited from the teaching assistantships and federal fellowships that got me through my PhD. Now that I am comfortably middle class I have a network of specialists unknown to the poor and I can plug my relatives and friends to able physicians and other professionals. I was able to steer students to the right administrators to address their problems. I was able to point out the weaknesses in essays written by premedical students. The poor don’t have that privilege. They were for nearly fifty years in our own country more likely to be seen as lazy, morally or intellectually degenerate, and worthy of involuntary sterilization to prevent their kind from reproducing. At one time they were called the “unfit.”
Does it surprise me that the victims of Hurricane Katrina were largely the poor? No. Does it surprise me that they stayed behind because they had no means to leave and trusted their fate to God or luck? No Does it surprise me that the middle class are as ignorant of the needs of the poor as the poor are ignorant of the networks of privilege that the middle class have available for them? No. The history of humanity has not been kind to the poor. Blaming the poor for their misfortune is not unusual. But in the thirteenth century some ninety percent of humanity was poor and almost all of them are our ancestors. Where did all their alleged bad genes go if the poor are victims of their own heredity? If you want to understand poverty, memorize and reflect on the title of this article