By Alexandra Iosub
I feel like there’s a powerful social taboo in place that makes it difficult for Americans to talk about money in a productive way. At the root of this taboo is the stigma of poverty that is still reinforced by casual political discourse. While the Washington, D.C., circus is mesmerizing us all, stimulating us with a spectrum of emotional responses, the language used goes unquestioned at a very personal level, and unwittingly repeated in circles that should know better.
I’ll go first. I’m poor. Strictly speaking, my income is around or below the poverty line. In my state, Medicaid expansion has been voted into law but is being attacked in the courts, so I write to you from the proverbial crack, where I am not allowed to earn less than the poverty line lest I lose my eligibility for ACA credits. Suffice it to say that I voted for Medicaid expansion, which would enable me to stop struggling to earn a certain income, and would allow me to do the work I think is valuable.
I have been surprised to find just how many skills I have that are unmonetizable, because the financial culture we are steeped in is led strictly by pure profit instead of ethical profit. I define ethical profit as the profit a company achieves after paying its employees a living wage, using sustainable business practices, and non-toxic, biodegradable materials in the product they provide (which preferable makes the world a better place). In addition, the economy in Sandpoint just so happens to be built around tourism and the service industry, and led by a small number of thriving businesses, that can’t possibly provide meaningful jobs for every employable person in town.
The reason I qualify the type of job as meaningful is because my generation is currently experiencing an overwhelming epidemic of job-hate, which deeply affects the quality of life of every employed individual. When you spend two thirds of your life being in a place you don’t want to be and doing something that brings on depression, no amount of money can make up for the massive of loss of opportunity to do that very American thing: the pursuit of happiness. I’m quoting the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America, which is the essence of the American dream. In contrast, the constitution is a vague set of directions on how to get there. I daresay, we are nowhere near there yet, and I would humbly recommend reading the Declaration of Independence as a reminder to everyone of what it means to be American.
You might say, “Suck it up, buttercup, life is hard!” I agree with that statement. Life has historically been very hard for 99% of people, for 99% of the time, and relatively carefree for the people who profited from the masses, for those who went to war, built walls, and wrote the rules. But the world is changing. Technology is making life very easy for a lot of people, and there is no logical reason for poverty to still exist, especially in such a rich country (this one). “Utopia for Realists” by Rutger Bergman brings a convincing number of arguments in support of this statement. I recommend that book, too, even if to gather ammunition against the idea. The debate is valuable. The conversation is needed. If only so we can sincerely say we addressed this pressing issue.
But before we can even have that conversation, the stigma of poverty needs to be addressed first. I am poor because I am an idealist who thinks my time on this planet is better spent enriching people’s imagination through the visual art I make. I have spent my entire life educating myself in the arts, doing research, teaching and writing, constantly learning new skills to understand how the creative mind works. My efforts are contributing, in a small way, to documenting this micro-stage of humanity, and alongside the work of my peers, it will provide an accurate description of the world for future generations, just like past generations left us museum-fulls of non-verbal evidence about their world as they experienced it.
My poverty is strictly financial. I could do much better moving to a larger community, where I could find better-paying (but still not fairly-paying) jobs, where I would have to spend the extra money I earn on higher rent, longer transportation and more expensive social life, with a sparser community (if at all present). Along with it, I’d experience social poverty, intellectual poverty and mental poverty as well, also known as loneliness, busyness and depression.
We are finally living in an era marked by the specific recognition that mental pain is a real source of trauma and breakdown, that affects the capacity of humans to function and thrive. So why are we still reinforcing the stigmas related to health, be it mental, physical or financial? Because we are social, tribal creatures, and status is important. But we are also creatures capable of self-awareness and self-discipline. All we have to do is choose.
Choose to be vulnerable and feel empathy. Choose to hope for better because it is at our fingertips, all it takes is to reach. Choose to believe that we can be better and we can do better. Choose to look at ourselves critically, and think for ourselves instead of regurgitating the poison in the media. Choose to participate. Choose kindness and generosity. Choose to be the change we want to see.
So I am poor. It is both a choice and a function of circumstance. I am well educated, both choice and circumstance. I am an artist, for the same reasons. I am one of so many citizens of this country that could contribute so much more if poverty wasn’t pulling us back. Poverty isn’t a personality trait. It is something happening to us, that we can change if we all work together. But that is the problem right now, isn’t it?! D.C. has us at each other’s throats, so we can’t work together. Perhaps that’s the first step we need to make. Find a way towards togetherness.
The factors that brought us here are human nature. The solutions that can take us forward to a better future are also human nature.
Which will you choose?
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