When people talk about the poor, especially people who haven’t experienced poverty, it’s often without context or compassion.
President Trump’s budget, which thankfully faces steep resistance from Congress, says a lot about what he thinks of struggling Americans.
The poor don’t work hard enough.
The poor don’t need federally funded employment programs. They just need to get a job.
The poor should learn to feed themselves. Food programs only enable them to rely on government handouts.
Out of context, the statements seem reasonable to many people. I know, because I’ve heard from them. After recent columns in which I discussed Medicaid, I was particularly astounded by the comments from readers who came from poor backgrounds themselves and can’t fathom why others haven’t followed their footpath to self-sustainability.
I pulled myself up, their refrain goes, so why can’t other poor Americans do the same?
But in the debate about how to help the poor, context matters.
You can’t judge our country’s response to the needy by looking only at how you overcame obstacles. This reasoning ignores so many things, such as the pounding effects of abuse, the fallibility of being human and the crushing bad luck of a major health crisis.
For this month’s Color of Money Book Club selection, I’ve chosen an essay that explains how, under different circumstances and choices, the face of poverty could be your face. “Falling,” written by novelist and former Washington Post journalist William McPherson, was printed in 2014 in The Hedgehog Review and can be found on the journal’s website, at http://ow.ly/aGMH30apvCM.
McPherson, who died last week at 84, was an American success story. After dropping out of college and serving as a Merchant Marine, he eventually got a job at The Post writing literary criticism, for which he was later awarded the Pulitzer Prize. His two novels also earned him wide acclaim.
But McPherson’s life is literally the tale of rich man, poor man. As the essay details, his professional accomplishments were followed by a descent into poverty that was just as profound.
“The rich are all alike, to revise Tolstoy’s famous words, but the poor are poor in their own particular ways,” he writes. “I started life comfortably middle-class, maybe upper-middle class; now, like a lot of other people walking the streets of America today, I am poor. To put it directly, I have no money. Does this embarrass me? Of course. . . . It’s humiliating to be poor, to be dependent on the kindness of family and friends and government subsidies.”
I read McPherson’s obituary and was captivated by the context of his life. It’s how I found my way to the essay.
How could someone so successful sink so low?
McPherson says he miscalculated his money and financial skills. In 1987, at 53, he decided to leave The Post and write about Eastern Europe as a freelance journalist.
“I chose retirement because I was under the illusion — perhaps delusion is the more accurate word — that I could make a living as a writer and The Post offered to keep me on their medical insurance program, which at the time was very good and very cheap,” he writes. “The pension would start 12 years later when I was 65. What cost a dollar at the time I accepted the offer, would cost $1.44 when the checks began.”
He had investments — a 401(k), a Keogh — money from some real estate ventures, and even some inheritances. It would all have been enough.
Except, it wasn’t.
He spent more than he should have in Europe, and the cost of recovering from a major heart attack further drained his finances.
“Poverty, my mother used to say, is a state of mind,” McPherson wrote. “She never stood in line to apply for welfare, or Medicaid, or food stamps. Then she would have learned, as I did, that it may be a state of mind — and to some degree I believe it is — but it is also a harsh daily reality for millions of her fellow citizens of this country and on this planet. And now for her son.”
To make do, he needed subsidies to pay his rent and medical insurance payments.
McPherson, a man of privilege, met poverty. And he found himself an insider in a world that outsiders often misunderstand. His essay should be mandatory reading for anyone who questions how people end up in poverty. It really could happen to anyone.
I’ll be hosting a chat on “Falling” at noon Eastern time on April 27 at washingtonpost.com/discussions. I hope you’ll join me.
Write Singletary at The Washington Post, 1301 K St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To read more, go to http://wapo.st/michelle-singletary.