A Quick Question

It never fails: Every time I see a discussion of SNAP on my news feed, I jump into the fray. The discussions are always the same–it’s always about the people who abuse the program. As if it’s rampant. As if the SNAP program doesn’t have one of the lowest rates of abuse of all the the myriad social assistant programs.

There is always at least one person talking about this person that they know that is abusing the program, usually by selling their benefits to buy drugs.

My question is, why do these stories never end with “…so I reported them for it, and the person got their SNAP card taken away. They’re now in rehab, and the person that kept buying their food stamps got hit with a nice, big fine.”?



Mix Racism, Classism, and Vigilantism and Get the “Ho Patrol.”

There is so much utter FAIL about this story I’m not sure where to begin.

These women reference the recession and the resultant budget cuts as the reason why their local police force has been cut, but they utterly fail to recognize that the woman they’re so intent on persecuting are suffering from the recession as well.

Desperate times call for desperate measures–and when millions are unable to find jobs–sex work is one thing many women turn to, to provide for themselves and their families.

Instead, these nosy vigilantes believe that the recession is the only reason they’re not in jail, rather than the recession being what put these women on the street in the first place.

Rather than handing out condoms, pamphlets from local centers that offer job assistance, low-cost health care, rather than founding a group for local women to pull together resources and do something, rather than anything else, they choose the Ho Patrol.

I wonder if they realize the influx of sex workers being arrested will take even more from their city’s coffers?

Or that legalizing prostitution would not only get the women off the street, but function as another source of revenue for the city?

Of course, because this is the blogosphere, the obvious must always be stated: by all means, call the police when violence occurs. I’m not defending violence, or railing against self-defense. But I’m not talking about the violence. They’re not really, either–they don’t fancy themselves “the assault patrol.” Rather, they center their focus on sex work, and the people who engage in it. Ergo, that is the centerpiece of this post.

Take this quote:

“But sometimes confrontations between the Watch Owls and the prostitutes get dicey. One prostitute, who asked not to be named, told ABC News that she had already made $200 the night we spoke to her and wanted to make more that night. She added that other women on the street are not pleased with the Watch Owls’ efforts.”

How, exactly, is it “dicey” that the women are not pleased that these busybodies are snapping photos and following them around? For one, this is piss poor writing. This paragraph makes no sense. But it is obvious what the writer is attempting to do: frame the sex workers as threatening figures, and the “ho patrol” as not only do-gooders, but do-gooders that are under attack.

Take this quote, thrown in as an aside:

“To date, there have been no violent confrontations. In fact, the Watch Owls said they have tried to connect hookers with social assistance programs.”

“In fact.” In fact, the nosy neighbors, after stalking women, they tried to play White Knight! I’m assuming that they failed, since the writer says they “tried” to help, rather than “they did and do help.” But their “help” was rejected. Gee, I wonder why?

The photo gallery on this article just makes me sick. It shows, among other things, their “proof” and their “techniques” for “repelling” prostitutes. Their “proof” which are photos, consist mostly of photographs of women of color dressed up and walking down the street. Because WOC in sexy clothing have to be sex workers, right?

These do-gooders pour cooking grease around their homes to “repel” sex workers. Like they’re fucking pests, rather than human beings.

And really, COOKING GREASE?! What the ever-loving FUCK?!

The racism and dehumanization of poor women of color and sex workers is just disgusting.

*note: The article I took the quotes from has disappeared. Here is that link, and here is the search results that pop up when I looked for it. It is the first result that shows up in the search. I apologize for any confusion.

Nickel and Dimed: Introduction, Part Two

This is the second half of my breakdown of the Introductory chapter of Nickel and Dimed: on Not Getting by in America, by Barbara Ehrenreich. The first part is here.

The next paragraph is her “cred,” the litany of others lives near to her, who were poor, to demonstrate that “the low-wage way of life had never been many degrees of separation away.” You know—the class version of “I have a black friend.” Twitch. Also, way of life? What? She makes it sound like a lifestyle choice.

For all her cred, Ehrenreich admits she has little knowledge of the ways that the poor survive. As she prepares to begin her experiment, she writes,

“Maybe when I got into this project, I would discover some hidden economies in the world of the low-wage worker. After all, if almost thirty percent of the workforce toils for eight dollars an hour or less, as the Washington-based Economic Policy Institute reported in 1998, they may have found some tricks as yet unknown to me. Maybe I would even be able to detect in myself the bracing psychological effects of getting out of the house, as promised by the wonks who brought us welfare reform. On the other hand, maybe there would be unexpected costs—physical, financial, emotional—to throw off all my calculations. The only way to find out was to get out there and get my hands dirty.”

Here, she treats it as a world completely separate from the world she knows. Her turn of phrase, “hidden economies,” indicates her impression of some kind of black market or underworld economy that the poor use—because it seems impossible to survive in the world she sees on such low pay. But that’s the kick—there’s no secret. We all inhabit the same world, we all use the same economy. Though she names them “wonks” she gives legitimacy to their bigoted claims about the poor—wondering if perhaps she will feel the motivation-turned-profit that those bootstraps are supposed to provide.

She goes on to say “I am, of course, very different from the people who normally fill America’s least attractive jobs, and in way that both helped and limited me.” Different, of course. Inherently. Because she is unique and “the poor” are a completely homogenous group? Let’s go on: “Most obviously, I was only visiting a world that others inhabit full-time, often for most of their lives.” There goes that “world” thing again. “With all the real-life assets I’ve built up in middle age…[list of all her awesome assets here]…waiting indulgently in the background, there was no way I was going to “experience poverty” or find out how it “really feels…”  No, she wouldn’t, would she? She’s set herself up believing that living in poverty is a different world from the one she inhabits, not a different position, experience, not a lower rung in the same ladder as the one she stands on. She’s set herself up as the awkwardly-dressed tourist gawking at the strange foreigners, trying to mimic the “customs” but doomed to only make of herself a fool.

She acknowledges to some degree her privileges of being a native English speaker and white. She tells us of how those privileges affected her in Key West, where she “originally sought what [she] assumed would be a relatively easy job in hotel housekeeping and found [her]self steered instead into waitressing, no doubt because of [her] ethnicity and [her] English skills.”

Next comes a weak half-acknowledgement of her abled-body privilege:

“In addition to being mobile and unencumbered, I am probably in a lot better health than most members of the long term low-wage workforce.”

Indeed—her class privilege gives her access to healthy food and health care, and her being able-bodied doesn’t restrict her ability to choose her place of employment, nor does it mean she’s more likely to be a part of the “low-wage workforce” because of an ailment or being differently abled.

Next, the awkward, gawky tourist tries to figure out how to blend in with these strange, foreign exotics:

“There was also the problem of how to present myself to potential employers…When, on one occasion, an exceptionally chatty interviewer asked about hobbies, I said “writing” and she seemed to find nothing strange about this, although the job she was offering could have been performed perfectly well by an illiterate.”

Hmm. Why did she say this? Does she assume that the “low-wage worker” has no interest in books, reading, or writing? That she thinks they’re all there because they’re uneducated, ignorant, and illiterate? Has she elevated writing back to the status of the past, where only the upper classes of society wrote “good” things? She muses more about why her coworkers weren’t stunned that she was a writer:

“In each setting, toward the end of my stay and after much anxious forethought, I “came out” to a few chosen coworkers. The result was always stunningly anticlimactic, my favorite response being, “Does this mean you’re not going to be back on the evening shift next week?” I’ve wondered a lot about why there wasn’t more astonishment or even indignation, and part of the answer probably lies in people’s notion of “writing.” Years ago, when I married my second husband, he proudly told his uncle, who was a valet parker at the time, that I was a writer. The uncle’s response: “Who isn’t?” Everyone literate “writes” and some low-wage workers I have known or met through this project write journals and poems—even, in one case, a lengthy science fiction novel.”

She seems surprised that writing isn’t put on this elevated level of the aristocracy, that the poor write—they just don’t get published. Initially, I assumed she wondered at the lack of indignation for her impersonating and appropriating the experience of the economically disadvantage for her own advantage. But since it’s sandwiched between these musings that the supposed lack of appropriate reverence for writers that exists in the working class, I have to wonder. As a “writer” myself, I can only roll my eyes at her arrogance, privilege, and self-importance. She’s really not setting herself up to be a sympathetic character here.

Next she tells us of her aristocratic, ahem, I mean, professional friends’ assumptions about their supposed superiority being obvious enough to “out” her:

“Several times since completing this project I have been asked by acquaintances whether the people I worked with couldn’t, uh, tell—the supposition being that an educated people is ineradicably different, and in a superior direction, from your workday drones. I wish I could say that some supervisor or coworker told me once that I was special in some enviable way—more intelligent, for example, or clearly better educated than most. But this never happened, I suspect because the only thing that really made me “special” was my inexperience. To state the proposition in reverse, low-wage workers are no more homogenous in personality or ability than people who write for a living, and no less likely to be funny or bright. Anyone in the educated classes who thinks otherwise ought to broaden their circle of friends.”

How nice of her to recognize the individuality of the poor sods, even as she admits she hoped that her education did make her obviously superior. Honestly, I can’t tell if she’s seriously trying to be aware of her privilege and failing painfully at it while being insufferable about the Writer Pedestal she’s set herself and other aristocratic professional writers on, or if she’s just a plain old privileged journalist, playing with an “experiment” for kudos that exploits and silences the poor.

Meanwhile, she closes the Introduction chapter with this:

“Just bear in mind, when I stumble, that this is in fact the best-case scenario: a person with every advantage that ethnicity and education, health and motivation can confer attempting, in a time of exuberant prosperity, to survive in the economy’s lowest depths.”


Nickel and Dimed: Introduction, Part One

Today, I started reading Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich’s book on her experiment on living in poverty. As I read, I’ll write, sharing my thoughts and reactions to her experience.

Introduction: Getting Ready

In this chapter, Barbara shares what inspired her to undergo this experiment, her apprehensions, and her parameters, or “rules” that she will follow throughout the experiment.

It all started with a lunch with the editor of Harper’s—she was discussing ideas for her next work with Lewis Lapham, and she “drifted to one of [her] more favorite themes—poverty.” Themes. You know, I didn’t have a good reaction to that word. “Issues” would have been my natural choice, or “problems.” Using themes makes it sound like she’s talking about creative writing or literature, not one of the most enduring dark sides of human society since the beginning of time. At the time, of course, all I did was squint and read on. The pair wondered how people managed to live off of minimum wage, and how the women being booted off of “welfare” (this was published in 2001) would be able to manage. Barbara said that someone should do some good-old-fashioned journalism and “try it themselves.” Not her. Someone who had time on their hands. Of course, the evil editor suggested she do it.

The next paragraph is thus:

“The last time anyone had urged me to forsake my normal life for a run-of-the-mill low-paid job had been in the seventies, when dozens, perhaps hundreds, of sixties radicals started going into the factories to ‘proletarianize’ themselves and organize the working class in the process. Not this girl. I felt sorry for the parents who had paid college tuition for these blue collar wannabes and sorry, too, for the people they intended to uplift.”

Not this girl. She wasn’t going to do anything like that. The irony being, of course, that excluding the save the poor part, she was about to undertake the exact same thing.

Let me break from my analysis from a moment. I didn’t buy this book with the intention of writing about it. But after reading this chapter (and the introduction is as far as I’ve read as I’m writing) I realized that I had to write about it. While she recognized and acknowledged some of her privilege from the beginning (or at least acknowledges it at the beginning of the book), she doesn’t get the extent of it. Of course, that’s the privilege of being privileged—you don’t see exactly how much of an advantage you have. Her privilege started showing with “themes” on the very first page, and the paragraph quoted above is on the second page. I have no doubt it will continue to show itself.

Ehrenreich wrote this book with the intention of showing the masses exactly what poverty is like—as a reasonably well-off, straight, white, abled-bodied, cis-gendered woman experiences it as an experiment. She does acknowledge that she’s only experiencing it temporarily, as an experiment. She doesn’t recognize, at least at this point, that for poverty to be written about—and published—that someone from “outside” that sphere must swoop in and get a taste. The poor don’t get to tell this story for themselves, to have it published, to sell more than 1.5 million copies. It’s the rich benefactor tale all over again. And this bothers me.