Working one’s way out of poverty, once an attainable ambition for the working-class, has now become a practical impossibility. In this week’s Working-Class Perspectives, Jack Metzgar details the story of Becky, a working-class single mother who struggled to do all she could just to not fall deeper into poverty, and the complex social dynamics of a family trying to support her.
Becky’s aunt had given her $300 to catch up on her electric bill so the power would not be turned off in her apartment. But when Aunt Millie checked with the electric company, the outstanding bills had not been paid. Becky had spent the $300 on something else, maybe something more important than electric power, but probably not. Regardless, Becky had lied to Aunt Millie and, thus, had crossed a moral Rubicon that raised doubts about whether her extended family would provide any future financial assistance, which she often needed. Worse, it was a huge lapse in her usually fierce self-respect and familial reliability. As aunts and uncles talked it over, they debated “cutting her off” vs. “how to get her turned around.”
Now in her late thirties, Becky had grown up poor and had struggled since she got pregnant in high school, but for most of her life she had been exemplary in turning her lemons into lemonade. In better times and in a better place, her exertions and street-wise savvy would have been enough to get her a better life. She had finished high school while raising her daughter and working a variety of low-wage jobs, some requiring a 90-minute commute on a string of buses. Her daughter, now in college on a scholarship and loans, had been the center of her life, and she had been a mother we all admired for her grit and determination – her gutsy interventions in schools and the various bullshit jobs she endured. Her latest job, however, had been as an off-the-books home care worker for an elderly man to whom she got very attached; when he died recently, she had to do her grieving while being unemployed and ineligible for unemployment compensation. Worse, she had injured her shoulder lifting the old man from bed to chairs and back again, and now she needed an operation that Medicaid would pay for, but she wouldn’t be able to work for months while she recovered.
Becky’s own mother and father, now separated, were both too poor to be much help financially, though they tried to help out in various ways when they could. Collectively the extended family had the means to help Becky fill some of the gaps for a while, but they might not do that if they couldn’t count on her to keep her word and do what she had promised. The aunts and uncles had seen others of Becky’s generation fall under the weight of the daily grind of working dead-end jobs that didn’t pay enough to reliably put food on the table and a roof over their heads. One wrong move and you could fall into a downward spiral of cascading personal and financial problems. Just the threat of living on that edge was stressful enough to drive many into alcohol and drugs for temporary relief – which, of course, always made things worse, making multiple wrong moves more likely, if not inevitable. Becky’s brother, for example, had pretty much succumbed to the grind a few years after high school, and how he gets by now nobody wants to know.
Becky’s generation had grown up in a deindustrializing place where, with very minor ebbs and flows, things got worse each decade of their lives. The jobs kept leaving, as did the people, those who could. Most of the bad jobs got worse, and what new jobs there were at the Dollar stores were oppressively monitored to prevent employee theft – “worse than being in jail,” said one of the nephews who knows whereof he speaks. If they were the cardboard rational economic actors of Economics 101, Becky’s generation should all leave town to find better jobs in more auspicious economic climates. But where exactly would that be for people without college degrees? And even if having a socially rich network of families and friends were as unimportant as Economics 101 suggests, would a rational actor actually benefit economically by moving away? Is there a study that shows that, or is it just the rational-man logic that works out nicely in mathematical formulas?
The aunts and uncles, now mostly retired on modest pensions and Social Security, came up in better times when steady work in factories, offices, and stores was not so rare, but they too have lived with some grind. They know how the grind works on you over time, grinding you down inside as well as out. Through bitter experience, they also know that sometimes helping out those in danger of giving up actually assists them in giving in to their cascading spiral of defeat.
Might Becky have used that $300 to make a wild bet on the lottery or to buy drugs to sell or use? Or might she have used it to help out her boyfriend’s children? She spends more and more time at his place, and maybe she is half-consciously abandoning her apartment one bill at a time and preparing to move in with him? Like many single mothers with daughters, she and her daughter Dory were as close as twin sisters, at least when Becky didn’t have to be the stern parent. Now that Dory is gone and hopefully headed for a better place, has Becky begun to lose her way, abandoned and confused? Or is she once more working with new lemons to see if lemonade can be made of them?
The aunts and uncles need to know. For every one of Becky’s generation who has been beaten down by the relentless grinding of the grind, two or three are persisting against the odds, constantly uprooted by lost jobs, pay cuts, sadistic supervisors, and just plain hard work on weakening bodies. Becky has been one of these. To give up on her now would be a defeat for the family and its own tenuous morale. But if she has already given up on herself, it would be worse than a waste of scarce resources to help her out again – it would dishonor and insult those who are still, against the odds, pulling their own weight, or at least trying to.
Aunt Millie, the family welfare manager, will eventually find out where that $300 went. She thinks Becky may be capable of a boldface lie, as Becky has always been able to present a bold face to bad circumstances. The aunts and uncles trust that Millie will be able to tell, but who knows for sure (in the short term). Millie herself seems to be growing weary of managing small amounts of money as her siblings bicker about who does or does not have the moral rectitude to deserve their help. Nobody doubts that Becky is responsible for her own life, regardless of the circumstances she has had to face, nor that they are responsible to help her if they can.
As a peripheral observer of this extended family dilemma, I marvel at the practical moral complexity of the family conversation and can’t help comparing it to the superficiality of educated middle-class pundits’ palaver about low-information voters and the white working class. Or, worse, the simplistic judgments about moral and cultural rot of the conservative authors of Coming Apart: The State of White America: 1960-2010 and Hillbilly Elegy. Why is it so difficult for people with college educations (especially elite ones) to see how fucking heroic Becky has been for 37 years and how it may now all be for naught if the grind turns out to be stronger than she is? Why is it so hard to see that if we want to reduce opioid addiction, suicides, and other moral failures, we need to reduce the grind – with dramatically steadier jobs and higher wages? $300, for Christ’s sake! There are lobbyists in Washington, D.C., tonight spending that to buy politicians a bottle of wine for dinner.
The Working-Class Perspectives blog is brought to you by our Visiting Scholar for the 2015-18 academic years, John Russo, and English Professor and Director of the American Studies Program at Georgetown University, Sherry Linkon. It features several regular and guest contributors. Last year, the blog published 43 posts that were read over 131,000 times by readers in 178 countries. The blog is cited by journalists from around the world, and discussed in courses in high schools and colleges worldwide.