We’re about four weeks into Occupy Wall Street, and one of the common themes we hear is the protestors are dissatisfied with the 1% of Americans who are said to hold “all the wealth”. Well, I will say that they have one point…. it is odd that “fat cats” are getting salary bumps during a recession. I don’t care what side of the political spectrum you fall on, it seems weird that a company would fire thousands of employees and then pay their executives higher salaries. That’s not a partisan observation on my part; it’s an honest one. I’ll give Liberals and Occupy Wall Street Protestors that much, but I wrote this piece to focus on the plight of the 99% of people who “aren’t rich”. Primarily, I want to focus on what it means to be “poor” in 2011. I think some perspective is in order, because many people don’t seem to know what “poor” is. Let’s begin.
When it comes to understanding poverty in America, there are two camps: People who remember the 1970’s and 80’s, and the people who don’t. Allow me to offer perspective.
You can be poor today and still live a comfortable life. You can have internet, heat, air conditioning, 3 meals plus snacks, your own bedroom, medical care, and you can still do recreational activities like going to an amusement park or the movies. As someone who grew up in the 80’s and was “poor” in the early 2000’s, I have some critical perspective that I think many are missing today.
I remember what poverty felt like in the early 80’s. I hear it was worse in the 70’s, but my data banks don’t go back that far. I remember winter mornings in the Midwest. My parents’ car (singular) had plastic seats. The kids at Occupy Wall Street can’t fathom what I’m going to describe next. We lived in the kind of neighborhood where you don’t leave you car running unattended, so we would sit in it as it “warmed up”. Cars had carburetors back then. You couldn’t start them and drive away. You could try, but the engine would keep stalling out, and eventually, you would be so frustrated that you would pull over and let the engine heat up like it wanted to. So I sat there on plastic seats that were so cold that they hurt my bones. I could feel the coldness even through my coat. Not that it was a good coat. See, technology has come a long way today, but in the 80’s, the cheap coat at Kmart was about “worthless”. So I sat there on the cold seats and watched my breath make little clouds in front of my face. That’s another thing… Car heaters back then didn’t really “work” until the car had been driven a certain distance, but we couldn’t drive yet, because the engine was still heating up. So we sat. We didn’t have anything on our iPhone to distract us, because iPhones didn’t exist. And if they did, they would probably cost about $4,000, so it’s not like we would own one anyway. We did have an FM stereo though, but it didn’t have presets. It had big mechanical knobs, and you could feel tension when you turned them. You could feel metal bands winding their way through the rectangular box as you chose your stations. So we sat there looking at our breath while waiting for the car to be warm enough to be driven away. You knew it was warm enough, when it “kicked down”. Yeah, that’s a quirk about carburetors you might not know about. The engine would run (loudly) at a really high RPM until it was ready to “kick down”. You kicked it down by stomping on the gas pedal. It usually took 2-5 minutes before it would go from “VRRRRRrrrrrrrrooooooMMMmmmmm” to “chug, chug, chug, chug, chug, chug, chug, chug”. The engine chugged and sounded like it might want to stall because it was still too cold, and it probably had something to do with the density of the cold air outside. I don’t know. I was 8, and I hadn’t really figured out the internal combustion engine yet, but I remember what it was like.
Other things I remember are that we had one TV. Just one. And 25 inches was “big” for the 80’s. So that’s what we had. A lot of people had smaller TV’s in our neighborhood. So imagine seven people watching a 25 inch box that was almost too heavy to pick up. You know, a lot of you are reading this on an iMac that has a 27 inch screen. Chew on that. Heck, an iPad just about has a 10 inch screen. Anyway…
Most kids I knew didn’t have their own room. They shared one. Sometimes they shared the same bed. The lucky ones had bunk beds. I was in the military before I ever got to sleep in a bunk bed. In case you wondered, it’s really not as fun as it looks, but they are quaint. Most of us brown bagged our lunch or had a lunch box. My mom made me take food to school in a Tupperware container. I really wished I had a lunch box. I don’t know the economics of the 80’s, but apparently, it was cheaper to make your own food than to buy it from the school then. I think it’s cheaper to buy it from the school today. (but again, I haven’t priced out what a “brown bag” would cost)
For most of my childhood, we didn’t have air conditioning, at least not central air. When I was 7, we got a window unit that kept the dining room cold, but our bedrooms still felt like crap. If winter mornings sucked, summer nights might have sucked worse. It was hard trying to sleep when you sweated in your bed. They sold box fans back then, but in all honesty, it felt like they made more noise than they did the circulation of air. So I didn’t sleep much during the summer. It wasn’t uncommon for me to lay awake until 1 in the morning. Central air conditioning would have been nice.
Our car didn’t have air conditioning either. You ever hear of the “460 air conditioning” system? A lot of people said that they had that back then. You drive 60 miles an hour with all four windows down. (hence “460 air system”) Air conditioning in our car would have been nice.
Since I’ve talked so much about cars, I may as well throw this out there… By the time I was 15, almost everyone I knew had to have a car’s engine rebuilt by then. You don’t really hear about that very much anymore. Transmissions, sure, but engines, not so much. Today, when people blow an engine, they usually just get a different car. That was a fantasy when I was growing up. I personally rebuilt three by the time I was 18. One of them was mine. The others belonged to family members. I don’t really think many kids at OWS would know how to do that. I’m speculating, and I could be wrong, but this is my hunch.
I mentioned having your own bedroom earlier in the post. I don’t know what getting government assistance was like back then, but I know some things about what it’s like in California today. (not from personal experience, mind you) I’ve talked to some of my neighbors with 4 and 5 bedroom houses and found out that in California, if you have the right mix of boys and girls (and enough of them), then when they assist you with housing they HAVE to give you enough money to rent a house that has “enough” bedrooms. It’s an interesting little clause, because that means these people get to live in nice houses while living on the government dime. Think about it… most apartments don’t have 4-5 bedrooms, and the ones that do are pretty expensive/nice. And most houses that have 4-5 bedrooms are also pretty expensive or nice. So a lot of “poor” people I know live in nicer houses than my friends that work and went to college. That’s another thing you might want to chew on. Food stamps (or EBT)) out here in interesting too. You get “about” $200 per person for food stamps. The people in the 5 bedroom houses are getting close to $1000 a month in food stamps. That’s not bad, especially because food stamps will buy many more things than they did in the 80’s. My dad was out of work and got food stamps for about 2 months when I was growing up. I remember there were many restrictions on what we could buy. Today, you can use an EBT at Taco Bell or a strip club. Times have changed for “poor” people, my friends.
Even on the more reasonable spectrum of things, the “working poor” have it better than my family did growing up. I rented an apartment in 2001 that had air conditioning, a dish washer, a nice patio, a decent community gym, pool, and 24 hour maintenance. It was actually pretty nice. The cost? $420 a month. That was with no government assistance. It was just what a cheap apartment went for in the Midwest in 2001. I live in California now, and affordable apartments are about $800-$1300 a month for everything I described above. In the scheme of things, that’s a lot of comfort for a price that most people with a job can afford. Those options didn’t really exist when I was a kid. The cheap places to live had no air conditioning, dishwashers, gyms, etc. Sometimes they weren’t even what you would call “clean”.
And that’s the thing… There used to be a really big difference between the “haves” and the “have nots”. The “haves” didn’t sit in a frozen car staring at their breath. They had multiple televisions. Their kids got their own bedrooms. They had air conditioning. The had dishwashers. They had the internet. They had computers. (poor people did not have computers… there was no such thing as a $200 netbook… computers were well over $1,000) And minimum wage was less than $5 an hour. Poor people in the past were lucky to have a clean place to live. A lot (or all) of the kids at Occupy Wall Street don’t know these things. They don’t know what poverty feels like. They don’t know what fixing their own car feels like. They didn’t eat peanut butter sandwiches out of a Tupperware container at school. Folks, potato chips were a luxury to me. I was jealous of the kids that got them. Most of these protestors don’t know what “hard” is.
The most beautiful irony of all is this…. “Protestors” at these “occupy” rallies can read this blog and tell me that I’m a “stupid douche bag” from a cell phone that they’re using while they “camp” out. It’s freaking hilarious. In 2002, only the “rich” people had camera phones. Nine years later, these brats can surf the internet and blog about how terrible “rich” people are from a device that fits in their pocket. I love it.
I’m not saying that poverty doesn’t exist, and I’m not saying that inequality doesn’t exist either. I’m not even saying that it’s prudent to raise salaries for executives while firing thousands of employees. I’m not saying any of that. I am saying, however, that most of these protestors aren’t “poor”. They don’t know what poverty is, and a lot of hard working capitalists have created this comfortable world that coddles them. If anything, they should hug a rich person, not hate them. And if any of them wants to hear what being poor is really like, I’m more than happy to show them my photo album. Oh, wait… we couldn’t afford a camera when I was growing up.