Sunday, December 28, 2014

Empathy ("Hand to Mouth" by Linda Tirado)

Over the last two years, there has been a steady but not entirely unprecedented rise in public attacks on Americans who are poor, unemployed, and underprivileged. This is in part due to the 2012 presidential election, in which supporters of Mitt Romney were forced to defend his opinions on the "47% of Americans" who receive government assistance--those on Medicare and Medicaid, food stamps, unemployment insurance, and so on, all of whom Romney's supporters derided as "takers"--but was in retrospect little more than another example of conservative politicians deriding those who they saw as lazy, selfish, and transitively inferior. In fact, ever since Lyndon Johnson proposed and signed legislation intended to foster a Great Society, there has been an undercurrent of resentment where the poor and impoverished are concerned, especially when it comes to government programs. This resentment is often underscored by offensive stereotypes, scapegoating, and a belief that those who aren't on these programs are ethically and morally superior to those who are.* Unfortunately, those who advance these beliefs have the power and influence to diminish such important programs, and they advocate for such changes with abandon.

In writing Hand to Mouth, which builds off a Gawker post published last year, Linda Tirado is attempting to give voice to those who are so frequently maligned, including herself and her family. Much of her book is an explanation of just what those who are poor or live in poverty have to endure on a daily basis as they struggle to work part-time and at-will jobs, both of which are loosely overseen by the federal government, while also dealing with addiction, sending children to school, negligent landlords and abusive bosses, and paying bills on time. In doing she, she explains how the system is structured to work against those who work so hard to make so little:  the inefficiency of raising the minimum wage, the difficulties of moving from one job to another, the winless choices inherent in insurance policies, and so on. In outlining this for unfamiliar readers, she also demonstrates why neither political party is in any way equipped to correct these issues--meaning, unfortunately, that they will continue into the distant future.

She also uses her own life as a way to explain some of the stereotypes associated with those who are poor or impoverished. For instance, after a horrible car accident, Tirado was left with missing and damaged teeth, which made her instantly less employable. In order to fix her dental problems, she would've needed strong insurance--which she did not have--and the ability to pay for an upgrade in dentures years later, which she also did not have. Over time, as her original pair of dentures broke apart, eating became painful, which affected not only her health but also her ability to communicate with friends, family, and even customers. At the same time, in order to stay awake and on her feet through two or three part-time shifts, she took to smoking--a cheap way to get an instant hit of dopamine--which did little to help her overall health and probably scarred her already stained teeth even more. But, as she points out, when a paycheck is on the line, suddenly the Surgeon General's warning on the side of a cigarette pack becomes less of a deterrent.

The reason a book like Tirado's is so important is because, throughout much of the country--at least among the 250 million or so Americans who are not poor or living in poverty--there is a lack of understanding about just what being impoverished means. We talk of the United States as the Land of Opportunity, and yet we've created a system in which that opportunity is becoming less and less available to more and more people. And while some national figures attempt to build grassroots progressive movements to address the growing disparity between rich and poor--movements that, they hope, will also carry them into higher office--there is very little that can be truly done at this place in time, and it's for one simple reason:  a lack of empathy.

When we speak about the plight of those who are struggling, unemployed, or living below the poverty line, we talk in such a way as to convey our sympathy for their struggles--how we understand what they're going through and how unfortunate it is that there isn't more we can do. This is an easy way for those who aren't poor to avoid the discomforts that come with realizing they are part of the problem. This is the unspoken issue with "being sympathetic"--it is a way for those who aren't suffering to make themselves feel better without actually helping those who are suffering. Instead of proffering meaningless sympathies and advocating for self-serving political movements, we need to become a more empathetic society--a society that strives to legitimize the feelings and experiences of others over our own by recognizing their struggles and actually working towards a goal of some kind. Even Tirado admits that it wouldn't take much on our part to correct some of these injustices, but we can't do that until we admit that those who are poor, living in poverty, unemployed, or underprivileged live in a completely different society than we do, not because they've chosen to or are too lazy to find their way out, but because we've allowed our system to become an inhumane machine that chews up those who work so hard to keep it functioning.

*This attitude is typified by recent legislation meant to force those on welfare to undergo random drug screenings, even though men and women on welfare are statistically less likely to take illegal drugs than those who are not on welfare.