Are Poor Laws in our Future? I think so.

There are two types of poor people,
those who are poor together
and those who are poor alone.
The first are the true poor,
the others are rich people out of luck.
Jean-Paul Sartre

My grandparents lived their entire lives in something I like to call genteel poverty. They worked steadily until they retired owing no one but only able to afford modest cruises and a few months during the coldest months at a trailer park in Florida. They lived in a town where the majority of the folks survived just above the poverty line but no one seemed to envy those who had more or mock those who had less. 

They lived through times of fear that the little they’d saved through thrift unimaginable would not nearly be enough to keep debtors from their door and I’m sure at those times family members sacrificed what little they could to help out. But I’m also sure that if they’d had calamitous misfortune – such as a work-related injury for which there was no insurance at that time or a child crippled by birth defect or accident, they could have easily been pulled under. 

According to Wikipedia, genteel poverty refers to people once a part of America’s royalty who are now living in squalor with their gems and furs and “dignity.”  Most emigrants came to country trying to get away from shit like royalty but apparently after some of them became bloated like ticks with money and power, they decided being a king was a pretty cool thing. And besides, they deserved it. They knew how to bugger the other guy and weren’t too chicken shit to do it.  

 Picture this scene from Gray Gardens: a middle aged woman and her elderly mother (aunt of Queen Jackie of Camelot) living in a decaying mansion where they eat cat food on china from the Ming Dynasty.

Do you notice the difference between the two houses? One is modest but well kept and the other looks like a scene from a Hitchcock movie. I don’t agree with Wikipedia. What does eating cat food from Ming era china have to do with refinement? 

    This a photo of my grandfather before he shipped out to the Great War.  It’s in a cheap plastic frame with a yarn cord for hanging because he was the son of a preacher with five other siblings.  Indeed, his name is handwritten on the back so he would not be forgotten in case he did not return.  He did; but gaunt and hollow-eyed. 

From American Heritage Dictionary:  gen-teel: 1. Refined in manner.  2. Free from vulgarity or rudeness.  If taken too far: 3. Marked by affected and somewhat prudish refinement.

I think his picture speaks of gentility. It is refined. It is free from vulgarity or rudeness as was the grandfather I remember, sitting quietly on the screened patio as crickets chirped wildly after an evening thunderstorm, knowing he’d never cheated anyone to get ahead or made an excuse for an unpaid debt.   

This is a photo of my grandmother upon her graduation from nursing school.

She was not as refined as her husband.  Containing her opinions on any subject involving a hint of impropriety made her face twitch and her eyes flutter like a trapped butterfly. And, if you didn’t really want an honest answer you didn’t ask her. 

I know wealthy people who consider themselves genteel and practice noblesse oblige towards those not as fortunate as they are. But they cheat on their taxes and and brag when they’ve managed to game the system. Their children and grandchildren will never go to war or change bedpans of that I’m sure. If I asked them what would happen if they lost everything tomorrow, they would insist that they would still hold onto their dignity and gladly eat cat food off a Ming plate rather than take public assistance of any sort. And I believe them. I just don’t think that qualifies as gentility. How about you? 

Of course they honestly believe it could never happen to them because, like many wealthy people, they believe in one or all of the following:

  • Life really isn’t so bad for the working poor. People who espouse this opinion generally follow it up with “They could be living back in Dickensian London where debtors were thrown into prison and their children sent to work houses. (This argument is almost as stupid as being told if you don’t eat all your food, people in China will starve.)
  • Or they believe the poor are poor because they don’t work hard enough. Gina Rinehart, an Australian mining tycoon and the world’s wealthiest woman: “If you’re jealous of those with more money, don’t just sit there and complain,” she wrote in Australian Resources and Investment magazine.  “Spend less time drinking or smoking and socializing, and more time working.”
  • Or, that the children of the poor should be put in workhouses as young as possible to contain the virus that causes poverty: “Really poor children in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working and have nobody around them who works. So they literally have no habit of showing up on Monday. They have no habit of staying all day. They have no habit of ‘I do this and you give me cash’ unless it’s illegal.”– Newt Gingrich, Former House Speaker who said that laws preventing child labor in America were “truly stupid” and that schools should hire working class students to be janitors.

With so many right wing millionaires now in positions of power, I wonder how long it will take them to take a page from the Victorians and pass Poor Laws which force people needing help into prisons called “workhouses.”  Of course they could use the same rationalization as the Victorians did:  workhouses will act as a deterrent and fewer people will claim welfare, bringing the poverty rate down to its “correct” level. The Poor Laws  were eventually struck down, in a large because authors like Charles Dickens railed against them.  However our leaders have already proven they don’t study history.

 So how long do you think it will be until the current head of HUD, Ben Carson, comes up with the bright idea to suggest a Poor Law Amendment to the Constitution? Just wondering.