Shame on Those Poor People


The nadir of lazy journalism these days is the by-now-well-traveled-all-expenses-paid trip from the offices of the New York Times or the Washington Post to interview “Trump voters,” somewhere in the midwest or the Appalachian foothills, and discover that, low and behold, people who voted to see the world burn are still amused to see the world burning.  It’s funny how no reporter ever seems interview, say, African American women living and working in a large city.  There are actually quite a few of them, you know,  They voted for Hillary Clinton.  But their views certainly matter far less than white men living in the Rust Belt.  We can measure how much less in column inches.

Another variation on the Trump-voters-still-like-Trump story is a visit to poor white people so destitute that they don’t seem to have even voted.  This week, the Washington Post treated us to its (at least) second story in several months about poor white people living on disability payments and how their white, rural neighbors look down on them.  Since this trope is becoming so familiar, I want to make several points about it.

First, yes, this article is written to shame the people on disability.  Here’s a little taste:

GRUNDY, Va. — Five days earlier, his mother had spent the last of her disability check on bologna, cheese, bread and Pepsi. Two days earlier, he had gone outside and looked at the train tracks that wind between the coal mines and said, “I don’t know how I’m going to get out of this.” One day earlier, the family dog had collapsed from an unnamed illness, and, without money for a veterinarian, he had watched her die on the porch. And now it was Monday morning, and Tyler McGlothlin, 19, had a plan.

“About time to go,” said his mother, Sheila McGlothlin, 57, stamping out a cigarette.

“I’m ready,” Tyler said, walking across a small, decaying house wedged against a mountain and strewn with dirty dishes, soda cans and ashtrays. They went outside, stepping past bottles of vodka his father had discarded before disappearing into another jail cell, and climbed a dirt path toward a housemate’s car.

Those dirty, lazy slobs.  (And, I get it.  I am the queen of “at least clean up the mess,” because a messy house will literally (and I am a woman who understands the literal meaning of literally) make me break out in hives, and, if you’re depressed and upset, cleaning up will (my grandma guaranteed) make you feel better, but that doesn’t change the way the author picks certain details to shame.  We never get such details about the sanctimonious neighbors.  Pray tell:  are their houses tidy and clean?  How do their gardens grow?)

The article goes on to recount how Mr. McGlothin’s father once worked in a local coal mine but, after being injured on the job, begged for handouts at the side of the road.  (Now, Mr. McGlothin is planning to do the same.)  A local small businessman saw the father standing by the road, offered him a job, and, when the father declined, the businessman made himself a sign and stood next to the father alongside the road, letting everyone know that he’d offered the man a job and that the man had declined.  The shaming was painful, but not as painful as not eating, so the family has continued the practice.

Second, I can’t be the only person to understand that, as the reporter fails to explain, for many people on disability, a meager job is worse than no job at all.  Making a small amount of money can disqualify them from all of their benefits, including medical benefits, and can often put them deeper into the hole than they already are.  And if they lose the job, it can be months before their disability benefits are re-instated.  (We could fix that, but it might mean a few people earning money and getting medical benefits and that’s apparently too horrible to contemplate.  Better to force people to stay on disability.  And then shame them.)  There’s no discussion of what kind of job the local businessman offered — what it paid, if it had benefits, whether it was the kind of job a man with a disabled arm could do.  Those would be good things to know before we start getting angry about people who “just don’t want to work.”

Third, if we’re going to pass out blame, let’s talk about who isn’t mentioned here.  Mining is dangerous work, but it’s made some hefty profits for mining companies over the years.  Just as we now mostly all understand that the WalMart heirs got rich by paying their workers so little that the rest of us have to  step up and make up the difference, we should understand that the mining companies got rich by externalizing onto the rest of us the inherent dangers of mining.  In a truly rational market, the mining companies should have been required to pay into a government fund the actual amount of money required to fully support miners who were, quite predictably, injured in the course of their dangerous jobs.  That would give the companies a motivation to do everything they could to make the job safer and it would mean that people’s neighbors wouldn’t have to grouse about how their tax dollars were going to support a disabled miner.  The mining companies could pay into the fund by charging more for their coal, or they could make a smaller profit, or they could engage in some combination of those two strategies.  If, even with those strategies, they couldn’t make enough money to earn a profit without externalizing the cost of their business onto the rest of us, then they should shut down.  If it turned out, for instance, that workers maintaining wind turbines were less likely to be injured, then wind power would be cheaper and coal mines would shut down.  That’s the rational, market response.

So, sure, it’s easy to blame these people for their situation and there’s no denying that they have made a number of poor decisions, but blaming them exclusively, because they’re visible, standing there by the side of the road, and ignoring the role of the mining companies, because their externalization of their costs onto the rest of us is invisible, is a great way to fail to solve the problem.

Fourth, to focus on the family for a moment — and this is going to make people mad at me — when you are struggling on the edge of survival, as these people are, you should not have pets.  (As a woman on the cusp of retirement who just got two kittens, I’ve given this matter some thought.)  First, as the article makes clear, you can’t afford to care for them and, second, as the article fails to make clear, you can’t afford to care for them.  By that I mean that, first, you can’t afford a vet to even put the animal down when it’s sick.  You watch, as the young man in this article does, the animal die in pain on your porch.  (Who knows how much that dog suffered from fleas, heart worm, etc.?  It costs money to address those issues, even if they aren’t life threatening.)  And, second, you can’t really afford the pet food, etc.  What this family spends on dog food should be going to buy staples such as rice, dried beans, powdered milk, peanut butter, toilet paper, etc.  It should be going for job training and medical care for the depression that they are obviously suffering.  It should be going to build up a six-month savings fund.  I understand. People love their pets and pets can provide a lot of companionship, comfort, joy.  But if you can’t afford to feed yourself, you can’t afford a pet.  (I also understand that it’s one thing to go out and get a pet when you’re already struggling and it’s quite another to figure out what to do if you have a pet and then, for example, become disabled and unable to afford to care for the pet.  The second instance is, obviously, much more difficult emotionally.)  Love animals?  Find the local pet shelter and volunteer.  Go offer to walk a neighbor’s dog.  Enjoy watching the local birds.   I’m sorry to sound heartless, but it’s as unfair to the animals as it is to the people.  Flame away.

Fifth, simply because I hate the idea of people going hungry, I’m going to talk a little bit about feeding yourself on a very tight budget.  The matriarch in this family is obviously trying, spending her disability payment to feed herself, her son, and some housemates.  The article says that she spent the last of her money on bologna, cheese, bread, and Pepsi.  The cost of living here in DC is likely a bit higher than it is in Grundy, and Peapod delivery is likely pricer than going to the local grocery store, but let’s assume that Mrs. McGlothin used Peapod and bought a pound of bologna, a pound of American cheese, a loaf of white bread, and a 12-pack of Pepsi.  Besides the soda, that’s approximately 15 servings of food.  Peapod shows that a pound of bologna is $3.19; a pound of American cheese is $3.99; a loaf of white bread is .99; and a 12-pack of Pepsi is $5.99.  So let’s say that, with taxes, she spent her last $15 for Pepsi and 15 servings of food.  What else could she have done?

A pound of dried navy beans costs $1.50 and will yield 10 servings of cooked beans.  A pound of rice costs $1.69 and will yield 20 servings of cooked rice.  Mix the rice and beans together and you have 30 servings (two times as many as the 15 servings she got with bologna, cheese, and bread) that will be far more filling (and nutritious) than a bologna and cheese sandwich.  There’s more than enough money left over to buy a big can of stewed tomatoes ($1.19 for 7 servings) and an onion ($.99 for 2 servings) to cook with the beans and give them some extra flavor.  (Now, we’re up to almost 40 servings, but let’s be conservative and say we’re at 35 servings, as the rice absorbed some of the tomatoes.)  We’ve also prepared meals that are familiar to people in Appalachia, almost comfort food.  If you can go outside and pick some dandelion leaves, some wild garlic, and/or some nettles, you can add that to the beans for extra flavor, nutrition, and fiber.  Because this family isn’t working long hours at a job, simmering some rice and beans over the stove is doable.  Processed sandwich meats (yes, I know they’re bad for you) may make some sense if you’re working all day and then packing lunches, but they don’t make sense for people who have time to cook.  A jar of peanut butter ($4.59 for 13 servings) and a bag of apples ($5.19 for 9 servings) will add $9.78, for a grand total of $13.65, and there will still be just enough money left over to address what we’ll call The Pepsi Question.

Having spent decades drinking several Diet Cokes every day (it basically got me through law school), I understand something we’re not particularly willing to admit in this society:  soda is addictive.  Pepsi gives you a hit of both sugar and caffeine and is, as a result, doubly addictive.  We all understand how bad soda is — it can rot teeth, lead to diabetes, and, in this case, because it has no nutritional value, is causing the family to spend their limited money on empty calories.  (Please imagine that I just delivered another rant about Pepsi and Coke externalizing costs and internalizing profits.)  But people, especially people under stress, are unlikely to just give up their sugar and caffeine, cold turkey.  (Indeed, it took me a little over year, once I had started my legal job and gotten my sea-legs, to wean myself from Diet Coke, to green tea, to water.  And I still do three or four Diet Cokes a year, usually on days that are more stressful than others.)  But if this family were to switch from Pepsi to another regional favorite, sweet tea, they could buy a box of tea bags ($2.69 for 96 servings) and a pound of sugar (multiple servings for $1.35).  They could drink a LOT of sweet tea for less than the cost of 12 cans of Pepsi.  They’d still get caffeine and sugar, but they’d be spending less of their money on that drug (esp.  as tea and sugar aren’t taxed).  Our matriarch would have gotten at least 35 servings of food, instead of 15, and many more beverage servings for $17.69.

I don’t think the answer is to tell poor people that they can’t use their disability payments or food stamps to ever buy a Pepsi.  I do think education, offered in the grocery stores, especially, could help.  Here’s a helpful, free cookbook if you’re interested in this subject.

I’m not even going to address the cigarettes.  Please imagine that I have delivered yet another rant about externalized costs and internalized profits.

Finally, I’ll simply note that a guaranteed annual income for everyone is really the answer to these issues.  But that’s a discussion for another day.

Picture found here.


18 responses to “Shame on Those Poor People

  1. Many good points here and for the most part I’m in agreement. I’m also dealing with questions about my ability to have a pet in a rather financially lean retirement. But, it seems to me very possible that the dog in question wandered up one day or started sitting outside the yard after it was dumped off by someone or just had just left its prior home. The family probably tried to ignore it and then eventually gave in and started feeding it occasionally and it became theirs. Many areas of the country do not have animal shelters of any kind, nor will any local governmental entity come out and pick up a dog you don’t want, so how could they have handled that? Their situation in some ways reminds me of people in wartime or other very catastrophic circumstances who don’t (according to research) try to knock each other off a Darwinian ladder but, rather, do everything they can to help each other … and companion animals.

    • Meredith, The dog that died may well have wandered up, as you suggest. But if you look at the article, there’s at least one other dog (that looks like a poodle to me). Buchanan County, where Grundy is located, does have an animal shelter. I agree that animals can provide an immense amount of companionship and comfort.

  2. Um… you doing ok? Need a buff? You just started off a deconstruction of a journalist’s underlying bias but halfway through flipped to support his bias like??
    Okay, just lets go with the wildcrafting. You mentioned eg dandelions. This family nowhere is indicated as eating solely what they buy from the grocery, but has wisely allocated their grocery-only money to what they can only buy at the store. I feel like normally you wouldn’t trip over a molehill like that, and I’m not trying to nag I swear and aver so.

    • LOL! No, I’m fine. And you’re right, they may be wildcrafting and, if so, that could be a good addition to their diet. My discussion about how to stretch food dollars isn’t mean to be biased, just to show a way to stretch very meager resources.

  3. First, and mainly I want to say thank You! Time someone wrote a piece like this, much needed and long overdue, and Not only in the US!

    Two things I’d like to add, one important point you omitted in your intelligent, accurate observations about accepting a job not always being the wise thing to do financially (however strange that may sound to some) if you are on disability, is that frequently the cost of actually Getting to said job can soak up any difference in the money coming in, and often actually leave you making less a month; plus the loss of other benefits that you somehow now need to find money to cover in your lessened monthly income.

    Secondly, I am not flaming , and I do whole heartedly agree that keeping an animal you truly cannot feed and afford basic care for is wrong. That said if you choose to share your limited budget on feeding both yourself and a pet that is not for anyone else to criticize. Yes an animal is company but when you are so isolated and depressed that dragging yourself out of bed is an effort almost too much to contemplate, when you truly don’t want to wake-up again, what a companion with fur can offer is not something that can be described, or comprehended by anyone who hasn’t been there. Try not to judge, I know from reading your blog you have experienced great difficulties and hard times, but I do not think you have reached that utter rock bottom place, and not with a disability, something you KNOW you are living with now, tomorrow, and forever. I’ve been there and my pets helped me pull through in ways there are not words for, … not that I cannot find words for but that simply cannot ever be expressed in such a limited form as language. This isn’t true for everyone and Anyone should be very cautious and put the animal first when making those choices, but you don’t know unless you have been that person so fewer blanket judgements on this topic would be appreciated. Retirement is NOT a disability! Afraid that is one comparison that doesn’t work.

    In conclusion allow me to say that the distressing lack of education about how to cook whole foods and the nutrition and ability to make a dollar go farther when they are the main stays of your diet are topics I’ve long felt need to be addressed more widely for Everyone’s sake! Not knowing how to cook real food is an increasing problem and effects the financial resources in far better off families. Not to mention what it is doing to people’s health and long term wellbeing! You didn’t even start on a ham bone and split peas to make a heck of a soup! So many affordable options when you get out of the prepared and processed food isles!

  4. Just wondering about “food deserts”” – communities that have very little or no places to buy food. Many folks have a long drive just to get basics for food ….. although community-type gardens might be an idea that would help! Plus schools and families used to teach kids about cooking! Also I remember that in Scotland – there were trucks from local businesses like the butcher, grocer or others that would drive to the mining villages to do business. Plus there was public transportation in cases too!

    Also – in regard to pets – right now – around these suburbs there are thousands of dumped dogs and cats in the brutal crippling heat. So many of these are older pets that folks just can’t afford to treat for diseases – let alone the high cost of putting a beloved pet to sleep. Cost us $495 to put our dear little old cat to sleep – which impacted our carefully monitored expenses.

    • Jan, Agree 100% about food deserts. We definitely need to educate people about how to eat on a budget. Of course, BigAg, Pepsi, etc. have a vested interest in seeing that people don’t know what else to do except buy bologna and bread. And your examples bring home the point about the expense of having pets.

  5. Excellent, thoughtful essay wise lady. I struggle often in dealing with my clients facing foreclosure. (I was a commercial real estate attorney for 17 years and got laid off in 2008 – much to my husband’s relief as I was miserable – and am now a housing counselor at a non-profit). The priorities seem skewed and I *know* it is related to depression etc. But I think about my parents who were raised in the Great Depression and how they raised 7 children on one very small income. Growing food, cooking very cheap but nutritious food etc. It is a very delicate subject though and I don’t offer unsolicited advice. I also agree completely on universal income.

    • Thank you. I think one problem is that much of the advice that poor people get is either unrealistic or tinged with judgment, so it can be difficult to offer it. Universal income would eliminate so many problems, including the shaming aspect of being on disability or some other form of assistance.

  6. Why do you assume the $5.99 12-pack and not a $1 2-liter?

    • Good question! The article talks about soda cans in the home and describes the matriarch using a soda can as an ashtray in the car, so I used canned soda in my example. But you’re right, she could have bought a liter of soda. If that cost a dollar and, as the article says, she spent her last bit of money on the bologna, cheese, bread, soda, they she had even less to spend than $15. My suggestions would have to be adjusted accordingly, likely leaving off the peanut butter, apples, and onion.

  7. Born and raised in Appalachia, I find this and all articles about the suffering poor there very highly suspicious. A reporter can’t just descend on a family situation and get a nuanced vision of it, nor can we readers at an even further remove. Let me just take a second and analyze this.

    Living as I do just 4 miles from the food desert known as Camden, NJ which is similar in many ways to Appalachia, I know that charities exist to help families who can’t stretch their benefit checks. You don’t have to be a Xtian to go to the food pantry. There are some food pantries in Camden, but there are more in Appalachia, where Xtians believe in helping other local white Xtians to a certain extent. I also see no evidence in this article of the poor helping each other, which certainly happens in Appalachia as it does in Calcutta and in Camden. This article is scanty on details of the avenues this family has used and exhausted when it comes to providing nutrition. My uneducated guess is that the reporter saw a story about the Facebook controversy and decided, “Now, here’s a colorful little (white) family in the pretty mountains. I’ll write all about them.”

    Now that I sit here thinking about the poor people I knew growing up who had pets, I find the Washington Post report even more suspicious. A suffering animal never saw a vet where I grew up. A suffering animal took a quick shot to the head, just another form of euthanasia. The dog dying on the porch at length and in pain? This doesn’t compute with the world where I grew up. As for feeding pets in Appalachia, it’s food scraps and wild roaming in which a savvy dog or cat can do its own form of dumpster diving or begging. Pets can be resourceful too. As for fleas and ticks and such, it’s the reality for a poor person’s pet … and poor people need and deserve pets! From my perspective as an expatriate Appalachian, modern city folks are way way way more solicitous of their pampered pals than they need to be.

    Stories like this perpetuate myths about Appalachia and send us all “tsk tsking” about the plight of poor (white and in the pretty mountains) people. Honestly when it comes to coal country at this point, I would rather read the demographics and the data than isolated accounts like this one. There are just too many suspicious variables here. As a public school teacher working with Camden’s poor children, I see plenty of stories that could be written — but New Jersey doesn’t have pretty mountains and the people aren’t white.

    Sorry. Soapbox. Worked hard yesterday and am sitting in the barcalounger before commencing the Battle.

    • I enjoyed reading your comment, Anne – I also went over to your blog after you mentioned New Jersey and read your post “Perfect Together” about living in NJ. I appreciated it as I still have mixed feelings about being back in Jersey after many, many years of living in the SF Bay Area. Having been surrounded by the exquisite beauty there, my only thought when landing in Newark was, “What have I done?” 🙂

      I’ve been back almost 14 years now and what I’ve rediscovered is that there is quite a bit of beauty here – it’s not the in-your-face, startling, eye popping beauty of California and you might have to travel a bit to see it, but it’s here. It’s a quieter kind of beauty – except in Spring when the flowers and trees bloom or in Autumn when the trees show off their color or in Winter when the snow outline the trees and in Summer with her impossibly green trees and grass. Those deciduous trees with the river running through the woods were the only things I missed when I moved to California…and they still give me solace whenever I’m feeling like I want to pack up and leave this place.

    • anne, Good points all around.

  8. And this is the way forward ……

  9. Another way forward (and growing medical herbs too)

  10. also check out the Food Waste Reduction Alliance website …..

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