The Atlantic has a punch-to-the-gut story today about a Minneapolis woman who has collected hundreds of oral histories from homeless people. Margaret Miles takes and shares pictures of the homeless as well, and the reactions she gets to them can be startling:
Miles says that the typical response she hears when viewers look at a portrait is, “They don’t look homeless.”
“We need to ask ourselves what that means,” she says. “Somebody said, ‘Gosh, that actually looks like the guy who drives my kids’ school bus.’ Well in fact it could be, and he could not be making enough money, or could have had a health crisis, or a divorce, or some other reason, and he’s driving your kids and loving your kids and caring for your kids during his day job, and then having to sleep at night in a shelter.”
One thing she learned as the project progressed was how having photographs of ourselves and our families is a privilege that many don’t have. “If I think of myself, I have hundreds of pictures of my child, starting with his birth,” she told me. But she found that in some cases, families with small children told her, “We don’t have any pictures of our babies yet.”
Homeless people: they’re just like us, except they often don’t have smartphones or cameras with which to take ten thousand daily FB pictures of their babies. Take a moment to look at the pictures and listen to a few of the oral histories yourself at the Atlantic.
As a followup to Meaghan’s post about the American man who traveled to Canada and was struck by the existence of a “vast and comfortable middle class,” the Upshot talked to some middle-class Canadians who said they had plenty to worry about but thought they were better off than Americans:
“When you have a family to raise and you are middle class, you are on a treadmill,” said Deborrah Mustachi, a 52-year-old educational assistant for the Catholic school board in Markham, a Toronto suburb. “It’s very difficult to save when you have to live for today.”
Yet, Ms. Mustachi added, “I think people in the U.S. seem to struggle more.”
Canadians have little doubt that they face less financial stress about medical costs than Americans. Many also credit their labor unions for the size of their paychecks; union membership rates are higher in Canada. Canadians also know that the American housing bubble and bust were more severe than their version.
“We got to keep our houses,” said Gregory Thomas, 39, an actor and house painter who lives with his wife and two young children in Toronto. “As an outsider, it seems like the aspirational section of the middle class — those who are constantly trying to get a little bit higher — they really got decimated in the States.”
And I can’t get over this kicker:
Or as Mr. Thomas said, Americans “may get more on their plate when they go to Denny’s, but they don’t have more when they go home.”
Photo: Alex Indigo
Middle class is as much a matter of perception as statistics—the number of Americans describing themselves as middle class has remained essentially unchanged in recent years even as their incomes and spending power have eroded. When the same term is used to describe an American household bringing in up to $100,000 per year (according to a recent poll; $250,000 if you’re Mitt Romney) and Laotians living on $2 per day (according to the Asian Development Bank), it may not be a very useful term.
It’s relative, in other words, dependent on context. It means you’re less well-off than the well-off and not as poor as the poor.
Sometimes it means that you’re a white girl in 1990s Oakland whose radical parents could live elsewhere but don’t. In that situation, you identify in key ways with your non-white classmates, neighbors, and fellow members of the local swim team — especially when it comes to trying to finally depose the fancy-pants country club team that shows up with their matching swim suits and their hubcap-size muffins and wins everything. In that case, you want what your team wants: to wrench victory from the soft hands of the enemy, even if only this once. But you also occasionally, guiltily yearn for the pop culture version of white adolescence, where everything is safe and clean, cute and funny:
Over at The Atlantic, Stephen Lurie wonders whether Congress can sensibly legislate on poverty when its members are increasingly economically distant from the rest of us:
For the first time, more than half of the members of Congress are millionaires. Nearly 200 are multimillionaires. One hundred are worth more than $5 million; the top-10 deal in nine digits. The annual congressional salary alone—$174,000 a year—qualifies every member as the top 6 percent of earners. None of them are close to experiencing the poverty-reduction programs—affordable housing, food assistance, Medicaid—that they help control. Though some came from poverty, a recent analysis by Nicholas Carnes, in his book White Collar Government: The Hidden Role of Class in Economic Policymaking, found that only 13 out of 783 members of Congress from 1999 to 2008 came from a “blue-collar” upbringing. None of them have experienced that poverty in decades; those who did did so under vastly different public-policy circumstances.
Is first-hand experience absolutely necessary for thorough understanding? On the one hand, I’m personally inclined to say no: I do a lot of thinking and writing about race and racism, and I’d like to think that I have some good ideas and insights, notwithstanding my whiteness. On the other hand, Lurie suggests that members of Congress who voluntarily undertake some experience of poverty, like living on a food stamp budget, tend to show greater understanding of issues surrounding poverty and hunger. That lines up with the idea that subconscious bias might be overcome by increased familiarity.
What do you think? Can a person fully understand the constant psychological strain of poverty without living it? Is living among the poor or undertaking aspects of poverty enough?
Photo: Jacob Riis