Friday, April 20, 2007

One More Reason It Sucks To Be Poor

For nearly twenty years now, I've been lucky enough to mostly have work that I love, but it hasn't always been that way. I've landscaped and I've dug ditches in clay with jackhammer, pick, and shovel. I've worked in a potato chip factory and in an auto parts warehouse. I started food service work when I was fourteen and worked in three different restaurants washing dishes or busing tables. I've shined shoes and delivered papers. I've done farm work. I've performed data entry and I've been a telemarketer. I've worked in a factory building mobile home rafters. All of these paid around minimum wage or less.

But worst of all was a 3 month temp assignment at Boston's University Hospital. Pallets of supplies would come in and I'd put them away. I'd fill orders and stock supply carts. It was independent work and no one bothered me much. I'd certainly worked harder in other jobs, and gotten much dirtier. But for pure humiliation, being on the bottom of the food chain at a hospital is tough to beat.

Once the supply carts were stocked, part of my job was to deliver them around the facility. That's when I'd become the lowest of the low. My invisibility was my superpower. I had a new BA in Social Thought and Political Economy, and thought that this somehow made me worthy of respect. I was alone in this assessment. No one else knew or cared.

It's interesting that other low-status work didn't really bother me. Everyone else was low-status as well, so I had company. But not there. I was beneath the notice of pretty much everyone.

I thought about this again half a dozen years later, when I spoke to a group of SEIU members at Boston City Hospital.

I'd been hired to help stop the privatization of the hospital by uniting the three unions there with the low-income communities the hospital served in Dorchester and Roxbury. The SEIU workers were on the bottom of the hierarchy and pushed the carts, made the beds, and cleaned the messes. I'd come off of a number of years of homeless organizing, and as I looked at the room, I saw poor people. The faces in that SEIU meeting, lined by work and trouble, looked just like any room of homeless folks I'd ever seen.

In that moment, I understood that the line between the working poor and the homeless is largely in our imaginations. It's a revolving door of hard times and vulnerability. People who work hard for their money deserve better.


Anonymous said...

The working poor can and do become homeless, but rarely long term unless it's combined with drug, alcohol or mental problems. I know this doesn't fit your political agenda, but it's true. Ask some working poor if they consider themselves similar to homeless people and I think other than the politicized ones you'll hear "no!"

Tim Harris said...

Most homelessness is short term, and yes, illness and addiction make it harder to get back on one's feet. Poor people simply have a much smaller margin for error than the rest of us.

Working people think of homeless people in the same stereotypical, somewhat dehumanized, terms as everyone else. Being closer to that reality doesn't exempt them from absorbing the same propaganda as everyone else. People who live in public housing, I've noticed, are just as or even more likely to succumb to homeless victim-blaming as others. I've always considered this a by-product of fear and denial.