I was not invited to the economic meltdown. I went to work in a field with little prospect for financial advancement and infinite job security. (Teachers and undertakers remained solvent during the Great Depression. I’m the former.)
Even worse: I didn’t invest. My only retirement savings has been through the state pension fund. I own my car, and I rent my apartment.
I’m not throwing this out to brag. It’s just strange that in the eyes of the world, I’ve gone from silly to sagely stable in the last year.
The other strange thing about this economic crisis is that suddenly being poor seems worthy of compassion. I’ve been working with poor people for about eight years. During that time, Oprah has gone from interviewing families who make $100 grand a year and still bury themselves in credit card debt to spotlighting tent cities.
Not so very long ago, the only relief I found from a relentless march of sloppy consumerism was a “Roseanne” rerun, where a character would sometimes dare to say, “We can’t afford it.”
Since Americans believe so passionately in individual opportunity, they can easily fall into an old-fashioned idea of poverty. Before modern times, most people believed the poor were lazy or stupid or immoral. They deserved to be more physically uncomfortable and emotionally drained than the rest of us.
But when jobs fall away and credit dries up, we have to admit that this cannot be the case. Suddenly everyone is too close to poverty to associate it with laziness, stupidity, or immorality. And if we were honest with ourselves, we would admit that we are one serious illness away from bankruptcy, health insurance or no.
Back to Oprah’s homelessness show: what shocked me most about the feature was that many people living in the tent city said they had family they could be living with, but they were too ashamed to ask for help. I have a huge family. I imagine that I am at least 30 couches and basements away from being homeless. I hope I wouldn’t be so wedded to my individualism and pride that I wouldn’t sleep on a perfectly good couch. But I don’t know.
One of my friends recently insisted that we had to change our safety net. This every-man-for-himself thing, she said, has to stop. We have to become more like the Europeans. Individual fates are too fragile, and families are too fractured, to make our society stable.
She insisted we need the government to step in more often, and more reliably. This is not about emotional concern for the poor. It’s about building stable social structures, which benefits the rich as much as the poor.
Although I’m firmly on the left, I still find these idea a little strange. What would that be like? What would it be like to know that your access to health care was not dependent on your job or (bizzare as it is) your health? What would it be like to know that your retirement was not dependent on the stock market?
What if the government prevented loans from being given to people who clearly can’t afford to pay them back? What if the government stopped big corporations from becoming so powerful we had to “save” them to save ourselves? Could we make that happen? I guess we’re about to find out.