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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 8/28/10

What It's Like to Be Down and Out In America

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Paul Evans
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What It's Like to Be Down and Out In America

Inherent Worth and Dignity?

Commentary and Editorial by Evans Liberal Politics owner Paul Evans: In my opinion the "semi-rich" Chamber of Commerce businessmen are the worst in their arrogance about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. They really believe in this two-tier society where people are born equal, but then you have to be born into wealth or somehow distinguish yourself to be equal later on in life. They have a name for this idea. It is part and parcel of the whole "family values" framework, but, even more, it is part of the Doctrine of "American exceptionalism." Various expressions which permeate American society today come to mind: "Rugged Individualism." "Pull yourselves up by your bootstraps." "Root hog or die." And the whole debate about welfare and cutting Social Security benefits or Medicare and the mess about extending unemployment benefits. It's all part of the whole right wing framing which has successfully captured the hearts and minds of America, especially for conservatives.

Prigs like George Will especially reek of this. For these people, privilege and a blind belief in the goodness of capitalism have blinded them to the ideals I grew up with as a child, that we are all equal before God and also among men. These people truly feel that some of us are more equal than others.

In the Unitarian-Universalist church I used to go to I go to a United Church of Christ these days we used to have a set of Principles we really try to live by. The First Principle is the "inherent worth and dignity of every person." That has always seemed to me to be my favorite idea and is one of the main things I keep in mind as I live my life. But when you're down and out for real in this world, it's amazing how your friends don't want to know you anymore. I'm not ashamed to say I've "been down and out", and that I know what it's like to actually be hungry. I don't think rich businessmen can possibly understand this. People who have money simply don't know what the experience of not "having ANY money" in our society is like. Maybe, as comedian George Carlin said, the time (seriously) has come for the government to take open land like golf courses and build some low-income, subsidized housing there. I don't have that problem, I have a place to live, thank God, but I personally know people who have lived in homeless shelters, and I know what it's like to have absolutely zero dollars that I can put my hands on.

Damn, sometimes I don't know where people's compassion goes. You have friends, and they see that you have nothing, and that you are in need, but they may see that you don't have any apparent way out of your situation. So somehow this justifies in their minds not helping you -- even when they are "good friends," longstanding friends, and they have plenty of money, and could easily help. I don't get it. Why do your friends melt away and disown you when you are down and out?

To me, in such a situation, compassion Christian compassion or even common decency -- should trump any logic, and I know that I would give a person I knew not well at all, enough money to get by for a while if I had it. I know because I have done that. With friends, relative strangers and complete strangers I know not at all. No questions asked. Am I missing something here? Does a penniless person have no inherent worth and dignity? Are they rubbish to be avoided and discarded? Are we even a Christian society or do we live by moral and ethical principles as a nation, if we can permit such a thing as homelessness in our backyard, or in our nation?

I'm interviewing for jobs like crazy, and so are my two housemates. The American Dream can sometimes come down to a question of just finding some way to survive for many of us. And I don't think well off people can understand that experience -- at all. People who work minimum wage jobs come close to getting it. Wal*Mart workers. Burger King workers. But in all honesty -- and having really "been there" -- (down and out I mean), I don't think that even most of my own friends really understand what it's like. With a few exceptions. I don't think you can "get it" until you've been there.

Do you understand what it's like to go months with zero money after the tenth or fifteenth of the month -- or not at all? No money for basic necessities like soap and food for your dog, not to mention yourself? Do you really? I don't think even my liberal friends get this at all. Certainly the "root hog or die" mentality of American capitalists and businessmen (and right wingers) would kind of fall apart if they knew what it was like to not have money to buy any gas for your car. Maybe they'd "get it" then.

Maybe if they had to live hand to mouth for a few months, selling off their possessions to get just a little gas money and a little food to eat -- or to buy some soap and laundry detergent and some food for your dog. Maybe then they'd "get it". Getting a few cents on the dollar for possessions they always enjoyed having but having to sell your best stuff just to exist. Selling prized possessions that you know you are unlikely to ever be able to afford to buy again. And sometimes not being able to sell anything because in this economy everyone who is poor is trying to sell off their stuff and no one is buying the stuff at stores.

I'm not bitter AT ALL and I have a good positive attitude about my life, and about America. For me it basically happened after I had about $3,500 worth of fraud and bogus overdraft fees on my PNC bank account. Plus my father, who is my only living close relative, had to go permanently into a nursing home in January. Medicare only pays for two months of physical therapy, and that therapy is the basis for ALL these health insurance policies paying for a nursing home stay. So be forewarned if you have elderly parents. So my Dad uses up his money and has to go on Medicaid to pay for his stay at the nursing home. Well the law in these United States is that the moment a person applies for Medicaid, all access to that person's funds is completely cut off. Even for family members. So I soon found myself basically penniless, on disability and desperately looking for a job. With a history -- but no current symptoms at all -- of mental illness, my parents had protected me by keeping me at home and out of the whole job/employment situation. They had great intentions, but now my sister and mother are deceased and my father can't help me at all and I am desperately scrambling to get a decent job so that I can just survive. I live in Dad's home, which thankfully has no mortgage, but with all access to his funds cut off, I have to pay for all the upkeep here, the electricity, repairs on the old house, repairs to my car, internet, phone -- you know the drill. Believe me, I am really motivated to find work.

I don't want anyone to get the wrong idea here. I'm not trying to sound a negative tone at all with this story. I'm Very thankful for my life, all my many friends, and all the blessings I have enjoyed. I've lived a very good life, I've been blessed with a wonderful, caring and relatively well off family, most of my life, and my life is still great. I have nothing but great memories plus kindness and caring in my heart, and I'm a happy person. But I need a job! I set out to explain to people what it's like to be down and out in America today, and that was my main goal in this article. But please don't get the idea that I'm not grateful, happy or even content. I love people, and I love our wonderful country and all its many blessings. My life has been very good to me and I feel very lucky to have known many wonderful people, to have had such great parents, to have known many good times, to have been blessed with a great education, and I am a very loving happy person. But if the spirit moves you, please send this article to an employer who needs a skilled, educated and motivated worker, won't you?

Don't forget that unemployment is running at an official 31 percent for those making $20,000 a year or less. That doesn't count the underemployed, those who want to work full time but are working part time, and those who have given up and quit looking. Thirty-one percent. Five job seekers for every job, and new jobs for the less skilled almost impossible to get unless you are young, and you have a job now. And try getting a job if you are disabled or have been out of the work force for a while or have a criminal conviction. It's almost impossible right now. (I guess you heard that a lot of companies right now are not hiring you if you are unemployed. That's one of their declared criteria -- you have to have a job to get a job with them.) But it's really amazing how your friends don't want to have anything to do with you and some of them won't return your calls, when they are aware you are going to ask them for help. It's really true -- "Nobody wants to know you when you're down and out."

I think everyone under the age of 35 in America should have to serve in some kind of mandatory service that would teach them how to appreciate the experience of living with very little -- I know Obama is trying to do that with his AmeriCorps. and other programs. But poverty is really hard for the rich, or anyone, to understand unless you've been there. Maybe if everyone had to "do" a year of service, living in extremely modest circumstances, no exceptions, then they'd understand, and maybe then a little progressive legislation could make its way through Congress. And God, wouldn't it be great if even well intentioned legislation were actually progressive? You savvy, white man?

It would be easy for people to miss the main point that I am really trying to make with this article. I am not just pouring my heart out, oh poor sad me, telling my tale of woe. I wrote a lot of detail about what it's like to be down and out in America, not for any sympathy, although I do have some hopes that someone might pass this on to just the right employer. No, I wanted people who are relatively well off to really get, deep down, what it's like to be down and out. But why? Certainly not to make my friends feel bad, or for sympathy, or even primarily in hopes of getting a job.

It is because I wanted us to realize that ALL OF US have this "inherent worth and dignity," that everyone is a worthwhile person. Everyone. Every one. I perhaps hoped that we might approach those less fortunate than we are with a more caring, and also generous heart. Not just materially. Just don't avoid really poor people. Treat them like they're just as good as you, just as valuable, and just as good of a potential friend.

I believe that we must be a CARING society, and I think that crucial attribute has been falling away from the American culture, and that as a people we are too focused on material possessions and "the good life." We are supposed to be a Christian nation, but we avoid the poor, and we avoid really caring for them as a nation in the way we should. I believe we must be our brother's keeper if we are to lead moral and ethical -- or Christian -- lives.

Before he ascended into heaven, Jesus asked Peter if he loved him. Peter replied, "Lord, you know I love you." And Jesus' response was, " Feed my sheep." This was repeated a few times, and it is the last thing Jesus had to say to us.... You know what a caring life Jesus led, and that his whole life represented the essence of caring and compassion. I ask you, in your heart of hearts, do you really think Jesus is talking her only about our spiritual needs when he said, almost as a dare or a command to Peter, "feed my sheep?" You know, in your heart, that Jesus meant this both spiritually and materially. Jesus wasn't a hypocrite. Are we as a nation going to be a truly caring society? Or are we going to concentrate on wealth and power as our focus? I feel that we need to concentrate a LOT more on being a caring society....as Jesus wished. That's the reason I wrote this article. I don't make any money off of Evans Liberal Politics. The only reason I spend hours and hours working on this site is in hopes that, in some small way, I might influence even a few people to live more caring, compassionate lives. ~ Paul Evans

May God Bless You, each and every one of you.
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Paul Evans is a 54 year old website designer and book editor who lives in Wooster, Ohio. He owns and runs Evans Politics, a non-comprehensive news aggregation and commentary website with a lot of features including original content, streaming rock (more...)
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