The Inner Life of the Poor

The Inner Life of the Poor

The poor are pretty much absent from public and political discourse, except as an abstraction—an income category low on the Index of Socioeconomic Status—or as a generalization: people dependent on the government, the “takers,” a problem. Neither abstraction nor generalization gives us actual people waking up exhausted, getting kids off to school; trying to make a buck; or, in some cases, past the point of trying. And if we lack images of living, breathing people, we doubly lack any sense of the inner lives of the poor. There are occasional journalistic profiles and some powerful urban ethnographies and fictional portrayals, but in general, the poor are invisible and silent. Because of the various layers of segregation in our society—from work to schools to places of worship—few of us reading this have opportunities to live and work closely with people who are at the bottom of the income ladder. We don’t know them. And because we don’t know their values and aspirations, the particulars of their daily decisions, and the economic and psychological boundaries within which those decisions are made, they easily become psychologically one-dimensional: intellectually, emotionally, and volitionally simplified, not quite like us. This fact has huge implications for public policy, education and work, and civic life.

There are, of course, times when the poor burst into public life more fully formed: trapped miners are interviewed, a farm hand or day laborer rescues a child, a Fannie Lou Hamer or Cesar Chavez has had enough. “I am sick and tired,” Hamer famously said, “of being sick and tired.”

I’ve been interested in the psychological diminishment of poor people for a long time. My personal history as the son of working-class immigrant parents sensitizes me to it, and my teaching in low-income communities and my writing about education and social class has me thinking and thinking about it. Let me offer a portrait to get us closer inside this issue.

Joanie (not her real name) tended to my stepfather when he was in a board and care facility. He was cognitively impaired and could barely talk, but Joanie comprehended him and communicated with him. She had a really good way with him, fussed over him, and watched out for his safety with a hawk eye. But you might not get to see those qualities outside the facility. Joanie, a thirty-seven-year-old Mexican American, is a tough woman, walks with authority, dresses in loose sweats, T-shirts, windbreakers, and running shoes. She is wary and quick with invective if she feels wronged.

Ten years ago, she was taking classes at a community college and got a certificate in early childhood development, but soon found that she preferred working with the elderly. She enrolled in a for-profit occupational college and got a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) certificate, which put her in debt she’s still paying off.

Around the time she was finishing ...