This post is the second in a series dedicated to raising questions about the role of class in the Third Sector. It was originally published in July of 2009 but feels especially appropriate now in light of Trump’s and the GOP’s savage attacks on working families and the poor. You can find the first article in this series by clicking here.
In an essay titled “Paper Mills,” Heather J. Hicks invites readers to witness her transformation from “rural class” ingénue to career academic. She writes:
I escaped from the working class not when I first read Shakespeare or Foucault but when I first found others to discuss them with, when I took shelter with a class that insulates its financial vulnerability with a rich fabric of shared ideas.*
Her words moved me to reflect on my own experience of class mobility. My mother, a Cuban immigrant, began her life in this country as a member of a class that it’s currently fashionable to call “the working poor.” By the time I was twelve, we were unambiguously in poverty.
Forty years have passsed and now my memory of that time functions less as a mirror than as a lens. Looking at my work in the nonprofit sector through that lens I see reasons for hope and caution—but mostly caution.
I met recently with a group of funders interested in supporting community organizing in the South, and we started discussing the development of a strategy for our work. One very wise woman agreed with the idea of developing a strategy but insisted that it come from the communities we aimed to serve.
I understood her caution. My entire career I’ve struggled with grantmakers who thought they knew better but didn’t—myself included. I confess to having frequently practiced sociology without a license.
On the other hand, let me assure anybody reading this post that the poor do not know how to change their basic condition any better than we do. As I was growing up, no one in my immediate family, no one in our circle of friends, discussed systemic change around the dinner table. I knew my mother was struggling to make ends meet in something between a meritocracy and a bare-knuckled plutocracy, but that’s as far as my analysis went. Then, as now, it was generally well educated, middle class people earning salaries well above the federal poverty level who had a clearer idea of the ways in which power and privilege were brokered and maintained in this country.
Well educated, middle class people like me know how the system works (or at least we should). We participate in it; and some of us, for reasons that are not always self-serving, are invested in its preservation.
Moving from poverty to the middle class was like moving through a series of doorways, each leading to a new room with a new vista. I remember clearly the first time I ordered a meal at a restaurant without feeling a pang of anxiety about its cost. Further along, there was the time my partner and I lit a fire in our first home together. I remember how uneasy I felt as I luxuriated in the warmth of that fireplace, watching the flames reflected in the beautiful oak floor of a house decadent enough to have a spare room.
The greater my net worth, the more insulated I became from the tragedies that visited the people I grew up with. I was not one but many paychecks away from living on the streets. A bad turn of health would set me back, but it wouldn’t force me to choose between buying my medications and paying my rent.
The more I had, the easier it became for me to accumulate even more. This seemed to me the most perverse lesson of my movement from poverty to the middle class.
Money bought me confidence. It bought me good dentition and clearer skin. It bought me eloquence. I was more likely to speak up because I knew the right words to use and in the right order. It bought me an audience that would listen to whatever preposterous thing I had to say.
We tend to focus on the physical condition of the poor. This is not insignificant. But poverty is as much an internal prison as an external one. Those who experience it may sit in their cells long after the doors have been thrown open and the inmates declared free.
I know of a foundation that spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to go on a “listening tour” of the communities it served. After this significant investment of time and money, it concluded that “the poor were just like us”—that they wanted a good education for their children; decent, affordable housing; quality health care; and meaningful, well-paying jobs. This foundation drew one additional conclusion: the poor, it appears, also wanted to participate actively in the decisions that affected their lives. That is, they wanted to join neighborhood councils, serve on commissions, have more time to petition the mayor, and the like.
I never saw the transcripts that supported this last conclusion, but I found it suspect for many reasons.
Thus characterized, these low-income people didn’t seem real to me; they weren’t exhausted after 8, 10, or 12 hours of work. They were instead super-beings able to work two shifts, go home to cook a meal for four hungry people, give quality time to their children, and then lead the charge at their town council meeting.
Like the “noble savages” of eighteenth-century sentimentalism, they had become screens upon which we projected ideal versions of ourselves. Under the influence of our most darling theory of social change, the working poor lost their corporeality altogether.
Who speaks for the poor? We know the poor don’t always speak for themselves. Recently in my city we hosted a conference titled Stepping Up: Creating a New Social Compact. A compact, as we all know, is an agreement between two or more parties. But it will not surprise the reader to learn that the poor, those who most often get the raw deal in these negotiated “agreements,” were nowhere in sight. Ironically they were being represented by people like me who had struggled all their lives to forget what it was like to go without.
I wish there were more people in the nonprofit and foundation sectors who would speak out about their experiences of having grown up in poverty. It would be a good tonic. I and others might be more likely to discard some of our questionable experiments in social engineering. If I were able to see the poor neither as super-beings nor as eternal victims, I might gain a truer picture of how they sometimes participate in perpetuating their own misery. I might spend less time feeding my sentimentalism and my self-righteousness, and more time feeding the hungry.
The next step for us is even harder. It’s to admit that even with our privilege and our education, in spite of all the learned men and women at our beck and call, we typically haven’t the slightest clue about how to transform a system that not only keeps people in poverty but continues to create them in prodigious numbers.
*Appearing in This Fine Place So Far From Home: Voices of Academics From the Working Class, edited by C. L. Barney Dews and Carolyn Leste Law.