Sunday, August 9, 2009

Being poor: call it a crime, call it a sickness, anything but what it is - Part One

Barbara Ehrenreich has an editorial in the New York Times today about the criminalization of poverty. Much of the essay is what I've been saying publicly for some years but it can't be said often enough. I did appreciate the reminder that sometimes creditors have the court issue a summons for you to appear, which you ignore at your peril, so I'd better go pick up the certified letter from Baystate Health that the letter carrier apparently tried to deliver to me.

One paragraph in particular rang a bell. Twenty-five years ago, at the end of a very bad day, my mother called to tell me she'd been denied fuel assistance-- $8 over the annual allowed income. She was a recent widow, dying from a chronic disease, whose children still at home worked low-wage jobs, and I knew she struggled every day to pay rent and meet other basic necessities. When we hung up, words came to me that became a line of poetry, and then the next line, and the structure of a poem quickly took shape. When I finished writing that poem, I was ready to go something, ready to fight against the systems and prejudices that oppressed people, although my knowledge about these things at the time was perhaps more intuitive than intellectual. A few months later, I found the other women with whom we would form Arise for Social Justice.

Here's the paragraph and the poem.
"The pattern is to curtail financing for services that might help the poor while ramping up law enforcement: starve school and public transportation budgets, then make truancy illegal. Shut down public housing, then make it a crime to be homeless. Be sure to harass street vendors when there are few other opportunities for employment. The experience of the poor, and especially poor minorities, comes to resemble that of a rat in a cage scrambling to avoid erratically administered electric shocks."


Here’s how to drive the poor crazy;
tell us it’s not charity,
make us beg for it.
Don’t be available by phone.
Make us wait in the office
until we discover
you’re gone for the day.
Put us in lines in the cold
where we’re ashamed to complain to each other.
Close the factories, open the soup kitchens.

Tell us there’s nothing you can do.
Bury us in forms and file numbers.
Lose our paperwork.
Teach us to work in obsolete fields.
Offer us plastic for unheated apartments.
Shame our children for having bad teeth
and for wearing sneakers in January.
Underpay the parents
and give the kids free lunch.
Close the schools, open the training centers.

Make sure the checks are late,
especially before Christmas.
Refuse to cash our checks
for lack of sufficient balance.
Jack up the prices in our neighborhood.
Give us medicine
medicaid won’t pay for.
Give us vouchers
no one will accept.
Take out the pay phones.
Make the buslines end nowhere.
Raise the rents and open the shelters.

Here’s how to bring on your own downfall:
get us together in the same waiting room
once too often.
Make the size of the lie greater
so our last illusions are destroyed.
Put more of us in jail.
Keep eliminating options.
Send our children home smaller
one more time.

Look away for a moment.

Lithograph by Blanche Grambs

1 comment:

AdamH said... an awesome poem, and too true.