The last few weeks I’ve been working on an essay project that has to do with societal oppression and the Bible. (I’ll post the full text at some point.) Of course throughout the whole thing I find myself ruminating about the families in poverty I work with. Couple this with ongoing political debates about the Affordable Care Act, and I’ve felt like an emotional cocktail for the last month. Of course, emotional cocktail means blog post eventually, because why feel and think about all of this stuff if not to lay it at your ever-patient feet?
The first thing I was thinking about was dish soap. For the average family, dish soap is something you use to wash dishes. You know you’re poor when you realize it also cleans floors, can be used as a body wash in a pinch (but not your privates- that stings), as a laundry detergent, to clean floors, and to bathe puppies. Oh, yes. When I was working at the shelter, we used to have families that didn’t like the Tide detergent we provided for free (for use in a High Efficiency front loading washer) and would use dish soap instead. The first time I had to mop several gallons of soapy water off the floor because the seal started to leak I thought it was mildly amusing. The fifth time, I was spitting angry and already knew to wipe the seal down with baking soda first, then with canola oil, then to run canola oil and baking soda through the dispenser to kill the suds.
The dish soap would leak out from the shower, too.
Dish soap is only the first thing which people in extreme poverty have special knowledge about. The other is knives. Not hunting knives. Kitchen knives. Did you know that if you don’t have kitchen scissors, steak knives work well on cardboard and tearing open freezer bags? They do. And a thin fillet knife is just the thing for opening a can of beans if you don’t have a can opener. I, personally, wouldn’t have realized that a can opener is a luxury. But yet I cannot tell you how many times I was supervising lunch prep and someone went at a can with a fillet knife before I even knew what had happened. It didn’t occur to them that we would have a can opener, they didn’t even know what one looked like.
The normal person is blissfully unaware that there are everyday habits we engage in as members of the middle class that people in poverty do not know because they’ve never had the opportunity to engage with them. Our clothes washers need fussy soap. We have kitchen utensils which only have one purpose. Some people have ten, fifteen things in their kitchen that can only be used for one thing. If you have to pick pennies out of your couch to scrape together the money to ride the bus to work, you do not own single-use utensils unless someone else bought them for you. Garlic crusher? Fuh. No. Juicer? What the…? No. Cappuccino machine? It is to laugh.
It’s interesting to me when people disparage the poor, saying things like they aren’t smart enough to be rich. Sorry, buddy, you ain’t smart enough to be poor. The people who stayed at the shelter had MAD skills. They memorized bus schedules, they knew who gave what away on what day and what thrift stores dependably had what kind of stuff. “Don’t go to Salvation Army for kids clothes, they never have any. This store drops prices towards the end of the month. Go there in the evening, sometimes you catch that store right when they are throwing out the day old bread and it’s still good for a while…” And on, and on. Repositories of knowledge that people with cash in their pockets simply don’t ever need.
And the middle class has it’s own rules. Knowing what is good debt and what is bad. Knowing what the hell a Roth IRA is and why you would want one. Knowing where to get secondhand clothes with good labels and what stores discount what clothes in what season. Learning those skills can be the hardest part of transitioning to a new class. The quiet judgment of the women who wonder why you got your kids clothes there. The panic the first time someone asks you to bring a cold plate for brunch. (Why does the plate have to be cold? What do you put on it? If you go into Kroger and ask for a cold plate will they know what it is?) There are a million things that people take for granted as a part of their lives, as common knowledge, simply because it’s what they grew up with. And asking? Asking is the worst kind of shame because it tells the world that you don’t really belong. If you belonged, you would know.
They say that there is always someone richer. You tell someone who makes $60,000 that they aren’t too bad off and they’ll point to the person who makes $100,000. Tell that person they are doing really well and they’ll point to the person who makes $200,000. Tell that person they are really quite fortunate and they’ll point to the millionaire, who points to the multi-millionaire, who points to Bill Gates, who I’m sure is jealous of someone.
When you’ve got a family of five and you feel lucky to break $30,000, everyone is rich.
When you’re homeless, anyone with a roof of their own is a lucky bastard.
We all have things we take for granted that we shouldn’t.
But the thing that bothers me the most right now? Last week I washed a few loads of laundry in dish soap and baking soda, because I had made buying my kids warm clothes for winter a priority. And in the midst of all the political arguments, I kept wanting to tell people I just couldn’t listen to them because they didn’t know about dish soap and knives.
What they picture as poor doesn’t reflect the effort and knowledge and work that goes into being poor. Food stamps will keep you fed, if you’re smart about how you use them, but they won’t keep you from scrubbing your rump with dish soap when you run out of body wash.
It won’t keep you from opening the can of beans with a knife.
It won’t keep you from shaking out the couch cushions for the money to ride the bus.
It won’t let you take a single thing for granted, like the majority of this country does every day.