Tuesday, October 26, 2010

More Demoralizing

The American writer Edmund Wilson is noted for saying that "there is nothing more demoralizing than a small but adequate income."

I chuckled when I first read that. We’ve all been there -- right?  One of those times, maybe fresh out of high school, maybe when first starting a new job, maybe now, when you can pay your bills -- just barely, but you can pay them -- but after you do, you can’t afford those new shoes you’re dying for, and you know there is no way you can swing a night out with your friends this weekend unless you limit yourself to ten dollars. All night.

Yes. That is hard. And times like that help bring what’s important to life into focus. 

My dad, another notable figure, at least in my life, used to say, “When you’re dumb, you’ve got to be tough.” Sort of his mantra, in fact, and when he brandished that saying we’ll all let obligatory smiles rise. Not “bad” obligatory, as in a mask for rolled eyes, but obligatory because we knew we were being reminded that when you make mistakes, you often pay for them, and sometimes their price is very high. And yet you get through it, and then you go on, because as a human being, you have no other choice. Despite how bad it sucks, you suck it up.

My aunt died late Sunday night. Very early 50s. Her death was not expected. And she left kids. As one of those kids, or as her eldest sister, as my mother is, you have to be really tough to survive something like that.

Losing someone you love is always damned hard. It is never the right time. You are never ready, and neither are they, despite what everyone wants to believe, and knowing that our loved one felt afraid, terrified even, and would have given anything not to die is not a fact we want to know, much less dwell on. But it’s often true, and if we want to be truth-tellers, we need to acknowledge it. Be tough enough.

And now I’d like you to imagine -- or remember -- how it feels to lose someone who was too young to die, or for whom the time was not right, and whom you know did not want to die, because she repeatedly told you during those last hours, cried and pleaded and anguished and shook with fear – and then – while trying to paddle through that sucking, alligator-infested swamp of misery and grief following that leaving – while trying to garner enough strength to keep your neck stiff and your head above the putrid water – to rise above the remnants of an utterly obscene tragedy  – you learn something even worse: your deceased loved one has no burial insurance, and no one in your family has the money to pay to make final arrangements for the loved one you have just lost.

Just take a moment and think about that. Think about the horror. The shame. The guilt. The pain; the pain. The pain.

Since I can’t afford to bury Mom like she wanted, shall I just try and scrape up enough to cremate her instead, even though I know what she, as a Christian, thinks about that? If I have to, will she ever forgive me? If I have to, does it mean she won’t go to heaven?

In case you didn’t already know it, let me tell you something. Being poor is tough, even tougher than being dumb, because while you might be dumb just every once in a while, you don’t ever, not for one moment, get a reprieve from being poor. And do you know something else? Not having enough money to pay your bills is a lot worse, a hell of a lot more demoralizing, than having just enough to get by. For one, being poor is a life filled with kick after kick in the teeth – a constant shame cycle. Just one fun roller coaster ride after another.

Do I pay the electricity or do I buy meat for the kids? Do I go pick up my toddler’s inhaler at the pharmacy or put gas in the car so I can make it back and forth to work all week? Can I afford cat food and pay to register my car, or should I risk the ticket?

Yeah. One in 34 Americans reported zero income last year. (See, e.g., New Figures Detail Depth Of Unemployment Misery; Lower Earnings For All But Super Wealthy.) That’s a lot of people. A LOT. 9,039,604, to be precise. More than NINE MILLION. And how many more make more than that, earn enough to actually have to pay some taxes, but still live in homes, or apartments, where the money coming in isn’t enough to pay all the overhead? Lots. Lots and lots and lots and lots and lots. Many more millions than nine.

Yeah. And how many of those folks have insurance? Life insurance, I mean, since that’s what we’re talking about here. Since probably – I don’t know – ALL of those folks likely work in low-wage, dead end jobs if they can find work at all, I’m guessing the answer is ZERO. And when a loved one dies in one of those families, guess what?

The top 0.1% of income earners in the United States -- that's one-tenth of one percent -- had more combined pre-tax income than the lowest-paid 120 million people. Put together. You and me and everyone we could ever imagine – all the money we made last year – is less than less than a handful of people made. (See Wealth, Income, and Power, and America's Poor: Where Poverty Is Rising In America – and note that "In 2009, poverty among Americans reached its highest level in 51 years.") 

Think about it.

Are they our ruling class? Our kings and queens? More - most - importantly: What the fuck did they do to deserve that? And when did they ever work harder than I do? Sacrifice more than I do? When have they ever had to be as tough as us?

Seriously. And do they deserve to make that kind of money while family after family after family – millions and millions of Americans – cannot even afford the most basic of services for themselves?

Bottom line: Something is seriously wrong with this country. No one – no one ever, ever, ever, ever, ever – should have to worry about where the body, the remains, the soul of their beloved mother will go because they don’t have the fucking money to bury her.

It’s time to stop being dumb – to stop being demoralized. 

To make some changes.


  1. I agree on all points. My mum died too young and too early. My sister and I were both teenagers. We already had her debts hanging over our heads, no home and no money for the funeral. In the end, that became another part of the debts. It was hell, and I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy.

  2. ((hugs)) to you, Pip, and much <3 <3.

  3. Being poor does suck. Perhaps even more so when you never were poor until you were an adult with a family.

    I'm sorry about your aunt. Truly sorry.

    When Brennie died, the funeral home gave us a huge cost break because he was only 10 months old, we had no money, and we wanted him cremated. They showed us great kindness at a time we so greatly needed kindness.

    I am very sorry about the circumstances. Wish I could help but we're still playing catch up from our times of unemployment.

    HUGS HUGS and extra HUGS