On Not-Poverty and Trauma
“Promulgating a mythical hierarchal past works to create unreasonable expectations. When these expectations are not met, it feels like victimhood.”
— Jason Stanley. How Fascism Works
I’ve been thinking for a couple of years about something that’s tangentially related to politics. And the best way I can share it is through my own experience, as uncomfortable as that makes me.
Not this year, nor the last, but some year within recent memory, I carried some unreasonable expectations. And consequently felt victimized by the world’s inability to meet them. I’m not proud of this, but I have always believed that I’m not alone in my foibles, and I like to think that by putting words to this, I’m helping another person build empathy.
Not to put a fine point on it, I believed I was poor. In fact, I believed this so strongly that I felt bitter and frustrated that no public assistance program would help my family.
I don’t think anyone disputes that finding affordable housing on the West Coast is difficult - the cost of housing in nearly every sizable city within a day’s drive of here is high. There have been several times in the past decade and more when we - my husband and I, our pets - have made do with a single income. We’ve made some lucky decisions, such as not moving to more private and expensive surroundings at times we could afford to do so - because whether we could afford it depended heavily on having two reliable incomes.
This is the classism that’s part and parcel of being American - I literally could not tell you where and when I learned this -ism, it’s just been part of the air I breathe. That classism told me that needing to budget, having to discern the best uses for our money and being unable to somehow do everything we wanted to do with it, having to choose pasta over healthier meals, that meant that I was poor. Like, needs food stamps- poor. As a result, I spent several years frustrated and tired from having to do the budgeting, and feeling victimized that none of the social net we have would support us. Too much income for food stamps, too much income for Medicaid, too much income for housing assistance, too much income for first-time homebuyer programs, even, if we wanted to move.
I share this with you not to convince you that programs for the well-being of all should be expanded to encompass families like mine; likely, you already have your own opinion in that regard. I share this with you in hopes of sharing my thoughts on the trauma of inconsistent employment, and the kind of thinking it engenders.
This entitlement and sense of victimization stems directly, I believe, from two sources. One, the classism baked into our society, which shows us tons of examples of people with purchasing power, but never shows the back-story, the hard work people do to sit down and decide how much to spend on Christmas this year, or whether to buy groceries now or wait until next week. This classism is the story of being middle-class, having property, and comfort, and in intersectional ways, it interacts with the fact that I am white, grew up in a majority-white region, with both parents still married - being an educated, well-off, property owner is particularly expected for a person with my race and class background.
The second source is the trauma of our economy. Job security has been on the wane for decades. Many employers, particularly big companies, feel no loyalty to their workers. The power of individualism has peaked - each individual worker is presumed to be an actor on their own, in complete control of their future. The ability of workers to band together and negotiate to reinstate the effects of that loyalty - contractual obligations of fair pay, adequate benefits, and appropriate severance pay as needed - has likewise been demolished. I firmly believe that the insecurity created by these labor trends - lack of job security, broken loyalties, and the requirement that each individual be scout, promoter, and strategist on top of their existing obligations - creates a feeling that is not unlike abusive situations, a chronic trauma that’s persistent because every little thing is a reminder that we are not safe in this economy. For all of what’s wrong with Maslow’s theory of needs, he’s not wrong about this: one of our core needs as humans is to belong, to be safe, to know that we have air and water and shelter - and the economy as it is threatens that core need in ways that lead people like me to believe we have fewer resources available to us than reality would suggest.