Thinking About the Poor   /   Fall 2014   /    Thinking About The Poor


William McPherson

The Art of Falling #3, 2007, by Nathalie Labaki; courtesy of the artist.

I noticed that the truly poor often look weary.

The rich are all alike, to revise Tolstoy’s famous words, but the poor are poor in their own particular ways.

Any reasonably intelligent reader could blow that generalization apart in the time it takes to write it. But as with most generalizations, a truth lies behind it. Ultimately, what binds the rich together is that they have more money, lots more. For one reason or another, the poor don’t have enough of it. But poverty doesn’t bind the poor together as much as wealth and the need to protect it bind the rich. If it did, we would hear the rattle of tumbrels in the streets. One hears mutterings, but the chains have not yet been shed.

I have some personal experience here. Like a lot of other people, I started life comfortably middle-class, maybe upper-middle class; now, like a lot of other people walking the streets of America today, I am poor. To put it directly, I have no money. Does this embarrass me? Of course, it embarrasses me—and a lot of other things as well. It’s humiliating to be poor, to be dependent on the kindness of family and friends and government subsidies. But it sure is an education.

Social classes are relative and definitions vary, but if money defines class, the sociologists would say I was not among the wretched of the earth but probably at the higher end of the lower classes. I’m not working class because I don’t have what most people consider a job. I’m a writer, although I don’t grind out the words the way I once did. Which is one reason I’m poor.

My income consists of a Social Security check and a miserable pension from the Washington Post, where I worked intermittently for a total of about twenty-five years, interrupted by a stint at a publishing house in New York just before my profit-sharing would have taken effect. I returned to the Post, won a Pulitzer Prize, continued working for another eight years, with a leave of absence now and then. As the last leave rolled on, the Post suggested I come back to work or, alternatively, the company would allow me to take an early retirement. I was fifty-three at the time. I chose retirement because I was under the illusion—perhaps delusion is the more accurate word—that I could make a living as a writer and the Post offered to keep me on their medical insurance program, which at the time was very good and very cheap.

The pension would start twelve years later when I was sixty-five. What cost a dollar at the time I accepted the offer, would cost $1.44 when the checks began. Today, what cost a dollar in 1986 costs $2.10. The cumulative rate of inflation is 109.7 percent. The pension remains the same. It is not adjusted for inflation. In the meantime, medical insurance costs have soared. Today, I pay more than twice as much for a month of medical insurance as I paid in 1987 for a year of better coverage. My pension is worth half what it was. And I’m one of the lucky ones.

I was never remotely rich by what counts for rich today. (That requires a lot of zeroes after the first two or three digits.) But I look through my checkbooks from twenty-five and thirty years ago and I think, Wow! What happened? It was a long, slowly accelerating slide but the answer is simple. I was foolish, careless, and sometimes stupid. As my older brother, who to keep me off the streets invited me to live with him after his wife died, said, shaking his head in warning, “Don’t spend your capital.” His advice was right, but his timing was wrong. I’d already spent it. He sounded like the ghost of my father. Capital produces income. If you want to have an income, don’t dip into your capital. I’d always been a bit of a contrarian, even as a child.

My money wasn’t working hard enough to finance my adventures, which did, after all, come with a price. I wanted to explore and write about eastern Europe after the fall of the Wall, which I did for several years. It was truly a great adventure, it changed my life, and it was a lot more interesting than thinking about what it cost, which was a lot. There’d always been enough money. I assumed there always would be. (I think this is called denial.) So another dip into the well. In my checkbook, I listed these deposits as draws. That sounded very businesslike, almost as if I knew what I was doing. Sometimes I did. (It’s hard to resist a little self-justification.)

Against the advice of people who thought they knew better, I bought shares in AOL before it really took off and in Apple when it was near its bottom. I figured Apple’s real estate must be worth more than the value the market gave the company. I was right. Shares in both companies soared. If I’d shut up and stayed home…but I didn’t. On the advice of these same people who advised me against AOL and Apple, I turned my brokerage account into a margin account for someone else to handle, and I left the country again. A few more dips into the well, a few turns in the market, a few margin calls, and when I went back for another dip, the well was empty. The old proverb drifts back to me on a wisp of memory. A fool and his money are soon parted. My adventures were over.

The story is, of course, more complicated than that—whose story isn’t?—but these are the essentials. It’s unlikely, and it’s not intended, to evoke sympathy. I’d acted like one of those people who win the lottery and squander it on houses, cars, family, and Caribbean cruises. But I hadn’t won the lottery; I’d fallen under the spell of magical thinking. In my opinion, I didn’t squander the money, either; I just spent it a little too enthusiastically—not on Caribbean cruises but on exploring the aftermath of the fall of Communism in eastern Europe. I don’t regret it. When my writing was bringing in a little money I had a Keogh plan, and when I was at the Post a 401(k) account. I’d made a little money in real estate and received a couple of modest but nice inheritances, which together, and with Social Security and the pension, would have given me enough income to live on, had I not felt I’d lost the ability to continue writing and had I forgone, or at least spent more modestly on, my work in Europe and related activities, avoided the margin account, and so on. The “so on,” I should add, included a major heart attack that led to congestive heart failure, a condition that greatly reduced my physical resilience and taxed my already-limited income.

There are a lot of people like me, exiles from the middle class who suddenly find themselves on Grub Street. Unless something truly awful has happened, they are not standing at the corner with a cup like my friend Kenny, whom I pass every Wednesday afternoon when I’m entering the farmers’ market at Foggy Bottom. We chat. He’s bent over a cane but always clean and nicely dressed. He tells me not to stay long, that it’s too hot. Kenny is a genuinely compassionate man. I tell him I am writing an article on poverty, my own poverty, but I’d like to know about how he got where he is. Would he talk to me? Yes, he would, but our conversation hasn’t happened yet. I feel guilty that I am shopping at this upscale market when I am wondering which medical bill I can postpone this month and, which, if any, I can pay. Meanwhile, Kenny stands at the corner with his cup. On my way out, I bring him a gelato. It’s too hot to stand and talk.

Kenny looks poor. He looks weary. After it had been pointed out to me by a friend who has a brain in his head but once had no money in his pocket, I noticed that the truly poor often look weary. Dealing with the system—“the Man”—is frustrating, exhausting, and takes many hours of waiting for bus and subway, of shuffling back and forth from one office to the next, one building to the next, one bureau to the next, filling out forms and generating a growing stream of paper along the way. Fortunately, I haven’t had to deal with government agencies very often, but once I took an addict, who was in dire straits, to an agency that might give him a referral for psychiatric treatment at a much reduced rate or even to a well-regarded clinic in another part of the city for free.

He’d need Medicaid, of course. It took the entire day, from eight in the morning to five at night. The waiting room was jammed. There must have been seventy-five people there, and for most of them it was not their first visit. When my friend was called to see a member of the staff who could pass him to another, and so on, I was the only white person in the room. But I was not the only poor person in the room. The only people who weren’t were the two women behind the desk, probably hanging on by their teeth to the lowest rung on the middle-class ladder. Nice women, actually, patient and polite.

Poverty is a great leveler. There was camaraderie among those men and women in the waiting room. My awkwardness soon slipped away and I, too, became part of the group. I heard stories, I laughed, and we talked. It was interesting, an experience, as they say, like working on a freighter, which I did for a time. Only my experience as an able-bodied seaman in my youth was one of my attempts to try on a new identity and escape the world around me. This waiting room in a part of the District government most middle-class people never see was not an escape from the “real world”; it was the real world. All of us there had two things in common: None of us had any money, and all of us had time. That was good because, as I said, I was there all day. It’s a common assumption that poor people don’t have much need for time, but for rich people time is money. They have important things to do.

Poverty, my mother used to say, is a state of mind. She never stood in line to apply for welfare, or Medicaid, or food stamps. Then she would have learned, as I did, that it may be a state of mind—and to some degree I believe it is—but it is also a harsh daily reality for millions of her fellow citizens of this country and on this planet. And now for her son.

I am not trying to exaggerate my own particular plight. I’ve never had to apply for welfare, or Medicaid, or food stamps. I have asked the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to subsidize my rent and a District office to subsidize my medical insurance payments. That involved a lot of paperwork but not a lot of lines, and I am very glad to live in subsidized housing with a number of people who really run the gamut. One of them is the great-grandson of Leo Tolstoy. Another fled Bulgaria as the Communists were taking over, eventually came to the United States, speaks several languages, and worked for the Library of Congress. There are refugees from one regime or another, from all parts of the world. They come in all colors. Some were trained as lawyers, some have doctoral degrees, some were teachers. There are journalists and writers. What we have in common is we are all older, we are all poor, and each of us has, to a greater or lesser degree, the ailments that come with age. As everybody knows, if you don’t have good insurance, medical bills can be catastrophic and have been for some of us here. But I think all of us would agree that living here beats living in a homeless shelter.

Compared with most poor people, I am fortunate. If you’ve got to be poor, finding yourself at the upper edge of poverty with a roof over your head and a wardrobe that doesn’t look as if it came from the Salvation Army is as good as it gets. It also helps to be white.

An African-American trainer at a gym I used to go to before the well went dry had a lot of clients and must have made decent money, enough to support himself and his son, anyway. He was walking down Connecticut Avenue one day when he saw one of his female clients approaching.

“I don’t have any,” she exclaimed and turned abruptly away as he was opening his mouth to greet her. “I don’t have any money!”

She didn’t see my friend Jeff; she saw a black man in trainers about to ask her for a handout on one of the busier avenues in the city. Jeff doesn’t look like a hustler. He doesn’t look poor. I don’t look poor, either, but I am white. So I never suffered that kind of demeaning slight.

By federal government standards, I’m not poor, but by any rational standard, I am. My income is above $11,670 annually, which, in 2014, puts me above the poverty line for a single person. My Social Security comes to more than that. The federal minimum wage in 2014 is $7.25 an hour, or $15,080 annually. When FICA taxes of 7.65 percent for Social Security and Medicare are deducted, that brings the income of a full time minimum-wage worker to $13,949. For a family of three, the poverty line is $19,790. This is not a joke. It doesn’t leave much extra for an ice cream cone.

I have a roof over my head, thanks to the aforementioned HUD subsidy, which required hours of paperwork, signed affidavits from doctors, many duplicate copies, and a lot of running around. (The Paperwork Reduction Act was passed in 1980. How many trees, I wonder, has it saved?) The management of the building where I live used to deal directly with HUD. Now a company based in Alabama has been hired as a distant intermediary of sorts between the very capable management and HUD. I don’t believe this was done in an attempt to reduce paperwork.

If you’re poor, what might have been a minor annoyance, or even a major inconvenience, becomes something of a disaster. Your hard drive crashes? Who’s going to pay for the recovery of its data, not to mention the new computer? I’m not playing solitaire on this machine; the hard drive holds my work, virtually my life. It is not a luxury for me but a necessity. I need dental work. Anybody got $10,000? Dentists are not a luxury. Dental disease can make you seriously ill. Lose your cellphone? What may be a luxury to some is a necessity to me. Without that telephone and that computer, my life as I have known it would cease to exist. Not long after, so would I. I am not eager for that to happen. Need to go to a funeral hundreds of miles away? Who pays for the plane ticket? In the case of the funeral, my nephew paid for the plane ticket. My daughter and son-in-law paid for the dental work. Sometimes, I find it deeply humiliating that I am dependent on such kindnesses when I would prefer that the kindnesses flow the other way. Most of the time, though, I am just extremely grateful for the help of family and friends. It’s not so much humiliating as it is humbling, which is a good thing.

I am ashamed to have gotten myself into this situation. Unlike many who are born, live, and die in poverty, I got where I am today through my own efforts. I can’t blame anyone else. Perhaps, it should be humiliating to reveal myself like this to the eyes of any passing stranger or friend; more humiliating to friends, actually, some of whom knew me in another life. Most of my friends probably don’t realize or would rather not realize just how parlous my situation is. Just as well. We’d both be embarrassed.

Although I am embarrassed by my condition, and ashamed of myself for putting myself there, I feel grateful to have had some of these experiences and even more grateful to have survived them.

I am glad that none of my friends has ever found himself sitting on a bench in a park with a quarter in his pocket, as I once did, and nothing in the bank; in fact, no bank account. It’s a very lonely feeling. It gives new meaning to the sense of loneliness and despair.

I wallowed in that slough for a bit. It was not, after all, a happy situation and I am not a dim-witted optimist. But I had two choices, die in the slough or move on. I thought of the last two lines of Milton’s Lycidas,

At last he rose, and twitch’d his mantle blue:
To-morrow to fresh woods, and pastures new.

So I got up, forever grateful to Mr. Barrows, my college English instructor, for teaching me to study Lycidas seriously and realize what a great poem it is and why that matters.