adventures in poverty

hardcover copy of Studs Terkel's Hard Times, with tea*

In early 2009, towards the end of my marriage, I picked up a Book Club edition of Studs Terkel's 1970 collection of interviews on the Great Depression, Hard Times, at the Old Lahaina Book Emporium in Maui. Sadly, per Yelp, the used bookstore seems to have closed this year, with Barnes and Noble scooping up stray customers. I've only read about fifty pages of Hard Times so far in the last three years because it's 530 pages of hoofing-barefoot-down-to-the-soup-kitchen depressing, with interviewees saying things like, "I think everybody should have a job, and the Government should see that they get a job" (p. 80). But right now, it's the kind of reading I need. For those who haven't heard, yesterday the Fed published the results of a survey claiming median family net worth for Americans has fallen back to what it was in 1992, since middle-class wealth is largely tied up in housing stock and we all know how that bubble popped. The poor are still poor and the very rich have grown richer, but the middle class is still on the downslide.

Here I am talking about money again, when coming out as a poor person in America is worse than farting in church. Poverty in the fabled land of opportunity reflects poorly on the American Dream as well as the failed individual, although as Nobel-Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz says, equality of opportunity, i.e., upward mobility, has become even less true in the U.S. than "in any advanced industrial country for which there are data." (Oh, by the way, did you hear the Nobel Prize committee is giving laureates a pay cut?)

On a phone call with the Oregon unemployment insurance (Metro UI) office yesterday, I found out I make too much to qualify for unemployment, even though it was a WorkSource Employment Center employee who had advised me to file based on underemployment. The phone representative said, "Well, but it's not common to make that much per hour, so he must not have known the details." (She apparently isn't familiar with WorkSource analyst Christian Kaylor's median-wage figures.)

U.S. unemployment insurance, for those who may not know, is calculated based on how much a person earned the previous year. Having worked full-time that prior year means the person will receive a larger UI check than a person working part-time because UI is something an employer pays, and full-time employment means more UI taxes dropped into the state's UI pot. But the unemployment amounts, whether full-time or part-time, are calculated based on minimum wage. I make more per hour than minimum wage as an instructor, hence working even quarter-time per week, I earn more than the allowed part-time employment amount and thus don't qualify for UI. It's mind boggling because the amount I'm making this month barely covers my rent and utilities (and remember, I already have a roommate and our apartment is, shall we say, modest).

The next step, the upbeat woman on the phone said, was to call 211, the number for Oregon Assistance. I'd never heard of it. Tra, la, la. I dialed 211. Here stood the entrance into the dark forest of official poverty, the bare trees that pull up their skirts to follow you creaking on tiptoeing roots. And when you stop and turn, mumbling, "This ain't Kansas and I want to go home," their branched arms cross like swords barring the way behind—or so it felt on that nightmare phone trip.

What I learned firsthand yesterday on the phone, rather than simply knowing it from reading articles as my wont, is that there is no social safety net in America. Maybe there never was much of one, compared to, say, Sweden's, but what was is in shreds now. And if you fall, prepare for a bump on the head. The Department of Human Services will sign you up in person for food stamps via ID, income statements, and preferably your actual SSN card, if you qualify, though according to their online calculator, I do not because I earned too much last year . . . (sorry—I can't stop laughing), and they can also arrange for application to the Oregon Health Plan, but only for pregnant women and children—and there's a waiting list even for the swaddling crowd. But if you need help with anything else, it's all been privatized.

For help paying utilities, St. Vincent de Paul will offer a $100 one-time grant if you show them a cut-off notice. I did a mental double-take on that one because I've never seen a cut-off notice, but I've heard about them and they're bad—they mean the lights and heat get shut off. I told the woman on the phone, between sobs, that I wasn't quite there yet. Wiping away tears, I said, "I don't want assistance. I just want a job. And I have a master's degree!" "I know," she said, "These are hard times." I felt sorry for the woman, having to listen to the likes of me five days a week between the hours of eight and five. For help with rent, there are two private agencies, Transition Projects, which 211 claims takes calls the first three days of the month, and Self Enhancement Inc., a program that, per 211, will accept calls on the first Monday of each month, but only between 9-9:30 AM. Ridiculous, no? I must be joking, exaggerating, only I'm not. I took notes.

Old Lahaina Book Emporium bookmark in inscribed copy of Terkel's Hard Times

Last night at work, I found out the guy who hired me for my current job will be laid off at the end of this term, along with a few other full-time employees, because enrollment at his campus for his program is at zero—and all this while the higher-ups talk of opening a larger, shinier campus in a secret location yet to be announced (though everybody already knows), aiming to compete with the big boys of for-profit education by undercutting prices. If this school survives, they'll just get bought out by bigger fish. I've seen it before. But it may not get that far because heads are already rolling.

So the moral of the grim story is, to quote the current home page of Transition Projects: "[A]t any point in anyone's life[,] they [sic] can become homeless." When you are settling down for bed tonight, brushing your teeth, turning out the lights, climbing under the covers with maybe a warm body beside you (or not), remember to be grateful for what you have. Remember to maintain your social network, and not the Facebook kind but the handful of people who will answer your calls or call right back, who call to check in and check up, who will listen even when you're crying and raging. Be thankful for basics like food, shelter, and love. There's no guarantee they will last. Possessions come and go. Jobs are won and lost. Health fails. Lovers change their minds. Change is the only constant. And we are each only as strong as our network.

*Note: The teacup is vintage thrifted Heath Ceramics, gifted to me as a set of three yesterday by my friend Jeff.

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