Here Comes Trouble: Stories from My Life

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Donna Smith

Donna Smith, American SiCKO, is executive director of the Health Care for All Colorado Foundation

January 13th, 2012 1:31 PM

Who knew? The poor did, that’s who.

Last evening, Tavis Smiley hosted a program that was broadcast live on C-SPAN live and that focused for two-and-a-half hours on the issue of poverty in America.  It was terrific.  The energy and commitment of the experts assembled to investigate and help alleviate poverty made the conversation rich beyond anything I’ve seen in ages.  Each panelist came at the topic from a different perspective.  That added to the richness of the discussion about being poor in America. 

Good stuff, Michael Moore, Cornell West, Barbara Ehrenreich, Suze Orman,  Majora Carter, Roger A. Clay, Jr, and all who participated as panelists or who helped pull this together.  If you didn’t see this show, Remaking America, from Poverty to Prosperity, you can watch it in C-SPAN’s archives.  And you can find out more at Smiley’s website.

Even though I’ve been through the slide from middle-income to poor and now am fighting the unwinnable fight to climb back out, I still need the affirmation these sorts of discussions can give to remember that it still isn’t my fault.  The system crushed me, and the system will crush me again unless I stay intensely vigilant -- and maybe it will crush me again even if I do.  But I do not want to stay vigilant about the wrong things. 

I want a life without the terror of poverty.  I hate fearing what I cannot control.  It’s worse than any horror movie could ever be.  I do not want a lot of stuff.  I do want some peace.

I especially appreciated Michael Moore and Barbara Ehrenreich last night as both have given much of their life work to telling the realities for people like me – because very few people let me tell my own story.  We don’t suffer fools in this nation, and we still often see as fools those who do not achieve financial success.  Last night I didn’t feel like a fool during most of that program.

I also adored Cornell West’s call to moral action by all of us to show the empathy and compassion for the poor that most of us were raised to show instead of admiring the greedy for their accomplishments.  The poverty of spirit in our nation has reached crisis proportions too.  The stain of shame should not be on me.  Yet we’ve spent a generation celebrating cruelty as if it were the calling of those strong enough to achieve wealth and flaunt their superiority over people like me.

The showed uplifted me.  The only thing I thought might have made it stronger was to include one more expert on poverty on the panel – a poor person.  It would have been interesting to hear someone challenge the notion that the poor simply bought into what the rich dished out – easy mortgages, credit cards with high interest rates, payday loans, etc.  Most of the poor folks I know – including me – bought into survival.  And the only way to survive was often to use the terrible and abusive financial instruments offered to poor people.  The alternative was sometimes to just die.

Instead of just dying when the for-profit healthcare system stripped from me every thing and most of the good intentions I had for my own economic health, I borrowed in whatever way I could to keep myself and my husband alive.  I knew it was not the best financial practice, but when death is the alternative, a payday loan can be a lot more attractive and a high-interest credit card can seem like a gift.  Until the day when we have a progressively financed, single standard of high quality care for all without financial barrier, people like me will likely keep doing whatever it takes to stay alive.

“Poor people have poor ways” because that is often the only way to hang on to anything.  No one on the panel was exactly or directly blaming the poor at all, but in listening to Orman say that we ought to have debit cards contribute to our credit ratings and do away with most credit cards, payday loans, and other high interest financial products all together, I wondered a bit.  There was an inference that people make poor choices when in fact there may be no other choice out there sometimes.  Is she thinking that parents without the cash up front to buy a child’s medicine, go to the doctor, buy food, or other needs should either pay cash, rely on the kindness of strangers to offer help, or let their children go without?  She missed the reason many families get into trouble.  And it really wouldn’t have fit in well to the program, but no one on the panel really challenged her position too much.

Until we let poor people be the experts on being poor, we are going to continue to see the issue as something the intellectually worthy people know about while the people experiencing the problem sit in the audience or watch on TV.  A poor person could have asked her straight up what should be done when the paycheck is gone and someone needs medicine or care. 

This is part of why I like organic movements so much, like the Occupy movement.  Mic check.  Reality check.  Let’s keep talking with each other about poverty and learn as much as we can from those who have lived it and are still living it.  And let’s try to make sure a poor person’s voice is heard as loudly as Suze Orman’s.  Then we’ll have the revolution the panel was imagining in our society and our thinking.  Poor people have some pretty great ways too.  They are often strong and imaginative and forgiving.  What’s so wrong with that?

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