Yesterday, I wrote about workers at UPMC who were trying to unionize because of the low wages. UPMC responded by starting a food bank. And I talked about how poor people have just as much self-respect and dignity as the rich. I explicitly put myself in that category of poor person. But there are various things that distinguish me from most poor people. One is options. My poverty is to some extent self-inflicted and reversible if I wanted to live someone else’s life. (Although even that would be hard until the economy recovers.)
But the biggest thing that differentiates me from most poor people is related to options: hope. I am working toward something other than just being able to pay my bills. The context of my life is far greater than survival. And that makes all the difference.
People (conservatives mostly) often note the way that poor people are so dependent upon status symbols. I don’t know how true this observation is. But certainly, high priced tennis shoes and cell phones have gotten a lot of attention. It is the same way in prison where very small things can be major status symbols. Status symbols provide some sense of individuality and thus power in a world where everyone is similarly powerless.
I think hopelessness is the ultimate tragedy of poverty. In most cases there are few options, none of which are good. So there is no hope for the future, except that you can meet the rent this month and buy enough food. And if you are very lucky, you’ll be able to buy a used iPod that no one with a decent income wants any more.