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IN MY OPINION

A contemplation on what it’s like to be part of the working poor

By KEVIN MCCABE | JUN 04 2015

There are not many things in A.D. 2015 which can make an adult blush. Certainly, no one seems to be embarrassed these days by the proverbial “embarrassment of riches.” In fact, the one constant in our society is that nearly everybody would be most embarrassed by a shortage of funds, whether culpable or not.

My own situation for many years involved working as a teaching assistant at a small university, earning a little above minimum wage. Since I had a family to support, funds were usually exhausted before payday, leading to pecuniary embarrassment. I remember meeting an effusive acquaintance at the mall who suggested that we catch up on news at the nearby coffee shop.

“I don’t mind,” I replied, “if you are willing to pay for coffee.” He was staggered by this remark and began a rapid cross-examination.

“You don’t have cash?’

“Well, sixteen cents.”

“What about credit cards?”

“Right now we’re in a debt-management program.”

“Can you write a cheque?”

“Well, my bank balance is pretty much on a par with cash on hand.”

Processing the situation, my acquaintance suddenly decided that coffee was not a good idea.

In the same way, a failure to “dress for success” can lead to potentially embarrassing situations. One day while waiting for someone, I was reading announcements on the university noticeboard. I observed a small phalanx of professors and staffers coming my way. Among them was a tall fellow in a suit and tie who looked like a new hire. He immediately made a bee-line for me, and asked, in an officious tone, “Is there anything I can do for you?” Sensing that he was showing off to his superiors, I replied, “Why, yes. I’m a little short of money. Do you have any spare coins?” With that, his officious demeanour changed to discomfort, and he began fumbling in his pocket for change. It was only with some difficulty that I was able to persuade him that I was joking.

When I mentioned this incident to an “old head,” a professor of business, all he said was, “Perhaps you should start to dress better…” In fact, whenever I spoke of either incident to family or friends, they were unanimous in thinking that I had embarrassed myself, and shouldn’t have said anything about not having money.

In today’s culture, people generally, including the very poor, are expected to present an “all’s right with the world” front. Even minimum-wage workers in business and retail are supposed to dress well, sometimes even expensively, on their own coin. The standard Canadian answer to “How are you doing?” must always be “Just fine, thank you.” One professor described to me her strategy as “never letting the seams show.” One is always at one’s best, as far as the world knows.

Yet, joking aside, this approach works to conceal poverty and social problems, and to discourage public discussion of pressing issues. We know that over the past 25 years, real incomes across the board have declined by 25 percent while work done by employees (in terms of assigned work and hours required to do it) has increased by 25 percent. The rise of unpaid internships in the last decade also shows that employers want to curtail employee costs. Perhaps because these developments are spread over time, they are rarely picked up by the media or by public figures as news or as matters of importance.

Recently I wrote an article describing how a major media conglomerate had abused its editorial power to run a campaign of invective and harassment against a community high school. No one who saw my article commented on the amount of mischief perpetrated, or the lies and half-truths that the editors had employed. The only feedback I got was that the piece sounded “too angry.”  Well, yes. It was angry. And why not? I felt there was a general consensus that a “keep-the-lid-on” approach to social abuses was best.

One might well conclude that no one is prepared to do anything about today’s social abuses like the inequality of wealth, and that most people are therefore unwilling to think about the issue. Some years ago, I saw a poster advertising a meeting to address high unemployment rates in our region. The notice drew four people to a table at a local bar, three of us university employees. The other two university staff were Marxist-oriented and quickly decided that this was a good opportunity to agitate for 100-percent employment to embarrass the government. This decision was followed by adjournment in favour of beer fellowship.

But even if people were interested, would there be individuals or institutions in a position to do anything about our society’s huge financial inequities? Multinational corporations have no interest in addressing local or national problems. The profit motive generally works against paying even minimum wage in Canada, as corporations can hire a productive worker in Bangladesh for a dollar an hour. Meanwhile, those most concerned about the situation may be among the poorest and least noticed of the population.

This winter, I got talking to a rough-looking guy who had dark patches on his face, which he told me were skin cancer spots. He had been recently diagnosed with throat cancer as well. A few days earlier he had come down from Timmins to avoid the extremities of a sub-arctic winter. He was still living outdoors using a sleeping bag, and was just coming into the mall to warm up. He had a few choice things to say about the lack of leadership in a country that allows tens of thousands of people to remain homeless and without basic necessities. (One could hardly avoid the ironies, widely broadcast in the Toronto media, that the homeless could receive help if the temperature dropped below -15 Celsius this winter, but immediately lost this help if the thermometer rose to -14.)

At the moment, I am looking at a booklet called The Christian and Unemployment: A Parish Study. This was published in England in 1982 by Wendy Green for use in British churches. The U.K. was hit earlier and harder than Canada by economic downturns and its churches felt compelled to respond to the crisis. In Canada, we still lack a full awareness of the endemic effects of a faltering economy and its social impact.

Two generations ago, not only churches but also other social institutions began to get out of the “good works” business as an increasingly socialistic state took on the womb-to-tomb care for its citizens. Now the state is rapidly divesting itself of non-revenue-producing programs and washing its hands of the social fallout from the shrinking economy. It looks like it’s time once again for various institutions to address these serious concerns. Perhaps we could call this “Beyond the Out-of-the-Cold Program.”

Kevin McCabe has taught as a part-time instructor at several small universities in Canada. He currently lives in St. Catharines, Ontario.

 

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  1. Alison Acheson / June 10, 2015 at 13:59

    Well said. And not easy to say. I am too familiar with this. You say that those most concerned are the poorest and least noticed, and I would add to that, the busiest…which renders them unable to so much as write such a piece! I have worked long hours, as has my spouse, to make our life possible. I too have surprised a friend by suggesting that she pay for a coffee. She did, but she also laughed, did not take it seriously, and never offered of her own volition after that point. On my site, in my blog, you’ll find a post about our family dog, and how he was a perfect “poor people” pet; you might appreciate the read. I appreciate that you have written this piece; it takes courage! Wishing you the best–
    Alison

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