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On Poor-Shaming

I’m back home in rural New York for a brief visit with my parents while Representative Jason Chaffetz is shaming poor people for spending too much on luxury items and not “investing in their healthcare.” 

I grew up squarely in the middle class. Mom was a teacher, Dad was a real estate broker in a fairly crappy place to be one. Mom was alway the solid breadwinner but Dad made some good investments. There were people outside of our circles who were way better off; there were other people inside and outside of our circles who were way worse off. I’m aware there were times when things were tight for us but I was never hungry, uncomfortable, or made to worry. Getting a first teenage job was something that was encouraged but not necessary for survival. On the other hand, I remember getting Basic brand food at the Grand Union (kinda like the Ralph’s “BEER” and “COLA” containers in Repo Man). I remember the angst of really wanting Reeboks but having to settle for the JC Penney knockoffs. Though, thanks to my parents’ friendship with the local ski shop owners, I got a full Gore-Tex ski outfit once, and still have the Patagonia long johns and sweater that I got when I was about 16. Oh and I got to go skiing, which back then was fairly affordable. 

I said things to and about other kids in my school, the ones Chris Arnade calls “back row kids,” that I really, really regret. I still remember in 5th grade, when I became aware of socio-economic status, that I broke off a friendship with a boy named Charles because he was poor, and hung out with other poor kids. These were kids whose parents may have been seasonally employed, maybe they were school bus drivers, maybe they were janitors. Maybe they were on “welfare.” What’s crazy is the fact that we both had jeans with those worn hems that showed after Mom let them out a little more when we grew, but I couldn’t see our common ground, only the differences. Later on, I fell into the common trope of wondering why someone who lives in a single wide trailer has a satellite dish and a four-wheeler. 

Those of use who were A students (the “front row kids”) if not overtly at least subtly mocked the poor kids who didn’t get as good grades. It was good-natured ribbing to make fun of the jock who didn’t get geometry, at least he had football to fall back on. These other kids probably didn’t eat well, probably had to work for their family, probably had abusive or broken home lives. And let’s not sugar coat it: these kids that I belittled had their own “others” and were not reluctant to throw epithets around.  I can’t figure out if this need to belittle someone, anyone, is inherent or learned.

I’m no genius for pointing out that the current administration is where it is because it is adept at using this tendency to punch down as a wedge to drive us apart rather than find common ground. I can’t say I’ve fully overcome it, but somehow a strong sense of empathy and wanting to cheer for the underdog developed in me and I’m thankful that it’s the dominant driver now.