The Vision-lmpaired Rich
by Barbara Ehrenreich
The Progressive magazine, May 2000
"Where have the poor disappeared to?" the occasional
journalist of conscience wonders. Officially, they amount to 13
percent of the population, although-since this number derives
from an almost-forty-year-old definition of poverty (before rents
went through the roof)-it may be a serious undercount. Yet we
seldom see the poor in the media-unless they've managed to commit
a particularly flamboyant crime-or hear them mentioned in the
political rhetoric of either party. If any other comparably sized
chunk of the population-college students, for example-were to
vanish from public view, their faces would be appearing on milk
The disappearance of the poor from the media is easy to explain:
The advertisers who support most corporate media outlets are interested
only in reaching the affluent, and media decisionmakers oblige
them. I learned this several years ago when I attempted to pitch
a story on women in poverty to the editor of a glossy national
magazine (which, in the interests of my future career, will remain
unnamed). We were at lunch, always a high point in the life of
an impecunious freelancer, and I made my case through the mesclun
with parmesan shavings and polentacrusted salmon while the editor
yawned between bites. Finally, over the espresso and death-by-chocolate
dessert, he rolled his eyes and said, "OK, do your thing
on poverty. Only make it upscale."
I never could figure out how to do that, but now a cleverer
journalist has. The title of James Fallows's article in the March
19 New York Times Magazine is "The Invisible Poor"-surprising
fare, I thought, for a magazine that routinely brings us four-figure
fashions and great recipes for artichokes and fennel. But the
only humans we meet in this piece are members of the all-too-visible
cyber-elite, a set which has little or no acquaintance with those
unfortunates for whom, as Fallows puts it, "a million dollars
would be a fortune." He finds his interview subjects wrapped
snugly in their stock options, incapable of imagining anyone who
might pause before breaking a twenty, or even several thousand
times that much. Well, actually, he does encounter one representative
of the poor-an elderly officecleaner in the software firm where
Fallows does his interviewing, a woman with broken English and
a painful-looking limp. But this solitary representative of the
poor discomfits him so much, with her evident suffering, that
he takes to leaving the building for the night as soon as he hears
her shuffling down the corridor.
Even as I wince for the journalistic profession-which, in
its finer moments, seeks out the poor and is not afraid to approach
them-there's something to be said for Fallows's approach. To a
notable extent, the problem isn't the "invisible poor";
it's the vision-impaired rich, including the sizable upper middle
class. As many before Fallows have noted, these fortunates inhabit
an increasingly insular world of their own, far from the customary
venues of the poor or even the working class. They live in fortress-like
apartment buildings, gated communities, or inaccessible exurbs.
They do not use public transportation and are unlikely to send
their children to public schools. And when they are forced to
be in the presence of a sub-millionaire-a haircutter, a driver,
or a masseur-their cell phones keep them safely sheltered from
all but the most minimal verbal contact.
I once endured a few minutes of chit-chat with the CEO of
a major multinational corporation. Where do I get my ideas? he
wanted to know. I muttered something lame about everyday life-raising
kids, paying bills, going to the supermarket. At this last, his
eyes lit up. "I've been to a supermarket," he confided,
beaming with populist pride.
But enough beating up on the rich! What could be more tedious
and predictable than a column in this magazine excoriating the
rich for the plight of the poor? Time for a little "victim-blaming"
here: If the poor have become invisible, it is, to be perfectly
even-handed about this, partly their own damn fault.
Once an obstreperous political force, the poor have been unnaturally
silent in recent years, no matter how many insults are visited
upon them. Take welfare reform. Yes, I blame Clinton and all the
liberals who stuck by him despite it. But where were the welfare
recipients themselves? In the sixties, welfare rights activists
disrupted the streets to win higher benefits. In the nineties,
many welfare recipients sat on their hands while Congress ruled
that all benefits would effectively end. The New York Times's
Jason DeParle, one of the few mainstream journalists to take a
persistent interest in the post-welfare poor, reports a 50 percent
increase in hunger among them, but always manages to find at least
one former recipient to testify as to the improvement in her self-esteem
since she started getting up at four in the morning, dumping her
children with some dubious child care provider, and heading off
to wrap packages in a warehouse.
Then there's the curious persistence of insultingly low wages
despite the tightest labor market in forty years. The New York
Times quotes the CEO of H&R Block saying, "We have not
been pressured to raise wages because of the labor shortage."
Well, why in the name of Marx not? With companies so desperate
for employees that they're recruiting retirees, stay-at-home moms,
and citizens of countries as far away as Vietnam, there's no excuse
for not demanding a living wage for every job. Anyone who accepts
$8 or less for an hour of his or her precious time is either a
masochist or a Lotto addict.
All right, just to end on the traditional upbeat note, there
are still scattered welfare rights groups around, as well as dozens
of union organizing drives reaching low wage workers, and I was
fortunate enough to witness one edifying exception to the current
passivity myself. In the summer of 1998, ACORN organized a demonstration
at a fundraising event for Michigan governor and welfare hawk
John Engler. It was a glorious moment. As the Republican donors,
clad in tuxedos and gowns, arrived in their limos, they encountered
a multiracial crowd of 2,000 poor people chanting, "The people
united will never be defeated" and similarly inspiring stuff.
For once, the poor were not invisible; they were where they should
be at all times-right in the faces of the rich.
Barbara Ehrenreich is a columnist for The Progressive.