Wednesday, February 1, 2012

American Poverty

Last weekend, I met a woman who was in the process of selling off her house and many of her possessions. After losing her job over a year ago, she had scraped by on unemployment benefits for a while until she fell so far behind on her mortgage that she had no choice but to sell up. And that was how, in her mid-50s, not only a mother but also a grandmother, she found herself moving back in with her own 84-year-old mom.

It’s the story of our era, I think- at least it is if the newspapers and government statistics are to be believed. Indeed, I read in The New York Times not so long ago that 100 million people in America are either living in poverty or “near poverty.” Apparently the last census deployed a new system of wealth assessment, only to reveal the astonishing fact that one-third of Americans are either really poor or on the verge of destitution. 

Now times are rough, and there are plenty of people in my town living in trailers and subsisting on food stamps. But even so I was immediately skeptical, especially when I read that “near poverty” does not exclude ownership of a) a $230,000 house, b) two cars, c) a big plasma screen TV (hooked up to cable), d) a blackberry or iPhone e) an xbox and f) many other items that would be considered inconceivable luxuries in most of the world.

I do not mean to be facetious. Poverty is a terrible thing, and I loathe those who romanticize it. As a freelancer, I dance perilously close to the abyss myself. But having spent years living in a genuinely impoverished country, surrounded by horrific amounts of squalor and human suffering, I would never dream of claiming that I am “poor.” How could I, when I can still see in my mind’s eye a solitary pensioner wrapped in rags hawking her old family photograph albums for the price of a loaf of bread? (Reader, I was the one who purchased them). Or the colony of hungry, filthy street urchins that once occupied the tunnels surrounding Moscow’s Kurksaya train station? Or what about the time I toured Turkmenistan, and spent a night under the roof of a goat herder living in a mud hut in the desert without electricity or access to the medicine that would have cured the condition threatening his eyesight? My guide expected me to be charmed by the “authenticity” of it all; rather, I was appalled. 

Even when I think back to the life my own grandmother lived in Clydebank, Scotland, I realize how little she possessed: she ended her days in a miserable council flat in a building without an elevator. Most of the other tenants were junkies who had been dumped there by the local authorities. But compare the apartment at least to the conditions in which she had grown up, and even this was (almost) luxury.

But still, whatever I might think of the dubious definitions of “poverty” deployed for whatever reasons by activists, census men and politicians, I would never disagree that times are hard, or that the fate of the woman I met is anything less than catastrophic. Very soon she will be old. Even if the economy does pick up, how will she find the time to regain what she has lost?

And yet, poverty is not the worst of her problems. This I discovered in an aside she tossed out unthinkingly, while searching for a light bulb in the garage that would soon be hers no longer:

“I can’t find any light bulbs,” she said. “You know that if your light bulbs go missing it means somebody’s been smoking crack out of them.”

At first I thought she was joking. She wasn’t. On the wall was a picture of her daughter who I knew was living with her own daughter in a woman’s shelter in Austin. Until a week earlier the garage had also contained a bag of counterfeit money that had belonged to her daughter’s last boyfriend, a recidivist criminal possessed of neither wit nor charm. The couple had spent some time living in the house, consuming lots of drugs, attempting various scams and generally tormenting each other and everyone around them.

And thus for a brief moment, a window opened on the quiet horror of another person’s life. And I’ll confess that I don’t really want to be writing about this the week of Thanksgiving, which is an American holiday I usually enjoy. But I can’t help it: I’ve been thinking about this woman and her unhappy fate all week.

Is there a moral to this tale? I don’t know. I doubt it. But it can get worse, friends. It can always get worse.