Sunday September 1st was a beautiful day. A friend came over and together we went to an area golf driving range, my first opportunity to leave my home for a reason other than grocery shopping or job interviews in over six months. After a full year of not practicing, my hits were off, but I enjoyed the practice, never thinking anything was wrong with using the natural grass section to learn how to hit a golf ball off an actual tee.
Monday, September 2nd, the first bites came. I changed my bedding and started the arduous process of trying to hand wash my sheets, still clueless fleas hitched a ride in my things and on me while golfing. Until, that is, around one am on Wednesday morning when twelve bites woke me. Using a flashlight I found the culprits: fleas! At dawn, I stripped the bed and started washing, the other set of sheets barely dry. At as soon the management office for my public housing community opened, I phoned the manager and asked for help with the bugs, spending all of the day washing as best I could from a bucket and leaving 90% of my blankets unwashed for the lack of access to washing machines.
Thursday September 5th, the exterminator came. When I spoke to him, he chided me for vacuuming my bed, one of the well-established techniques advocated in a multi-pronged approach to eliminate fleas. Instead, he insisted it had to be bed bugs, despite my descriptions of what I found each day and despite my solid research (which included his company’s own website). When he found my bed clean of bed bugs, he seemed almost mad at me, especially as I asserted myself and asked him politely to please please spray for fleas. Even showing him my dozens of bites did no good. It never entered this man’s mind that I could be intelligent, educated, and pro-active about my life — just because of where I live right now. Just because I am poor and still unemployed.
Poverty and unemployment does not signal a lack of intelligence. It does not mean a person dropped out of school. It does not make a person a drug addict, drug dealer, or even an unwed parent creating child after child to collect government benefits. Poverty doesn’t make a person mentally or even physically deficient in any way.
Poverty only means a person lacks money sufficient to provide food, healthcare, proper housing, and so forth. Unemployment simply means you are looking for work and have not found it yet. No more!
Are there people who are unemployed or are poor because of some sort of “deficit” such as just described. Yes, of course. But any connection between the aforementioned and poverty/unemployment remains limited. That is some poor people deal drugs. Some poor people have different fathers/mothers for each of their children. Some poor people have some sort of mental or physical challenge.
The problem socially is the bad habit of generalizing to the overwhelming majority of the poor, unemployed, and working poor who do none of those things.
These are the people who work for minimum wage. These are the moderately disabled like me who have physical limits due to accident, injury, and/or illness — but do not meet the Federal definitions for “permanently disabled.” These are the huge numbers of people laid off by the Great Recession from industries and in geography still waiting for the recovery to start.
We number in the millions.
So why are we less than human?
Less than human because we need nutritional assistance. This means struggling to feed our families on the meager allowances from food stamp programs constantly assaulted by politicians who feel “entitlements” such as food are not deserved by those receiving them. This means our children failing in school because school-based nutritional help reaches too few children on too few days of the year. This means obesity created by a lack of whole, fresh food availability.
Less than human because we cannot afford pristine houses with big yards. Instead, large numbers of us live in sub-standard apartments, public housing, and subsidized housing. These homes tend to be cold in the winter and hot in the summer. They amplify and transmit low frequency noise from neighbors. They distribute toxic air from neighbors, traffic, and beyond. Inadequate, infrequent vermin prevention and treatment leads to disease and misery such as mine.
Less than human because employers assume internal defects, not the recession, create long term unemployment, compounding the problem and ignoring the talents and professional backgrounds of the long term unemployed. Recent job gains in low-paying sectors mean most of those previously laid off and now in new jobs now work too few hours for too little pay to afford the most basic of human dignities.
Those of us lucky enough to earn enough money to avoid all this squalor complacently respond to these conditions with condemnation of those afflicted, seeing those suffering from poverty as little more than “surplus population” to quote Charles Dickens rather than as humans living under inhumane conditions.
Let me declare in no uncertain terms: poverty does not make you less human.
Every person is born with the inalienable right to breathe healthy, clean air free of toxins. We are born with the inalienable right to whole, nutritious, healthy, quality food. We are born needing and deserving to live in safe, sturdy, healthy homes devoid of hazards such as second/third hand smoke, toxic noise, vermin, and disease. As Americans, we are born deserving the opportunity to better ourselves through hard work and education. All people who work and apply themselves need to be able to live independently and securely — regardless of physical abilities or challenges.
Whatever you want to think of me personally, I am worthy of all these things. Unemployment does not strip me of my humanity, nor does poverty. Today I live in squalor and misery under the most unhealthy and inhumane of conditions.
But I am human. I am bright. I am educated, I am talented. I deserve better than this. I am better than this. I am not the sum of my present environment. Somehow I will persevere through this — and so will you.
We can and must do better. It is time we stop looking down our noses at people and come together to make our world better. For every blessing in our lives is a gift given for but a time. Each decision each of us makes changes both our blessings and our challenges. Even the greatest wealth may disappear in the blink of an eye.
Poverty is not someone else’s problem, someone else’s pain. It is everyone’s problem, everyone’s pain. it is time to stop treating the poor as if they deserve the conditions they (we) live in, an inconvenience to our pride.
All people are human. It is time we treat each other that way.