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Down and out in Paris and Utah

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Earlier this afternoon, I put up a post linking to Tom Perkins’ most recent comments, in which the billionaire venture capitalist argues (apparently sincerely) for the principle of one dollar, one vote. I also linked to an essay by Linda Tirado, about the psychological burdens of poverty, and pointed out that last year Perkins may well have paid a lower effective tax rate than Tirado, given the low capital gains tax rate, and the relatively high payroll taxes even the poorest wage earners pay.

I then did a bit more looking around, and discovered that Tirado’s description of her situation at the time she posted her essay was problematic in a number of ways (Short version: Tirado comes from a fairly privileged background, and while she did fall into genuine poverty in her late 20s, she was by last fall in a far less dire situation than she had been in a couple of years earlier, and her essay was misleading on this point. Interested readers can find a sympathetic account of her actions here, and a more critical one here).

Anyway, I deleted my original post a few minutes after I put it up, since I wouldn’t have used Tirado’s narrative as a counterpoint to Perkins’ latest idiocy if I had known more about its origins. Those origins point to a deep-rooted problem when it comes to exploring the world of people who are born into poverty and remain there all of their lives (this is in fact the fate of a very large percentage of poor people in America), which is that for obvious reasons such people almost never write books or craft eloquent essays about their experiences.

The points Tirado makes in her essay about what it’s like to be poor reminded me of some similar observations Orwell made nearly 80 years ago in The Road to Wigan Pier:

The miner’s family spend only tenpence a week on green vegetables and tenpence half-penny on milk (remember that one of them is a child less than three years old), and nothing on fruit; but they spend one and nine on sugar (about eight pounds of sugar, that is) and a shilling on tea. The half-crown spent on meat might represent a small joint and the materials for a stew; probably as often as not it would represent four or five tins of bully beef. The basis of their diet, therefore, is white bread and margarine, corned beef, sugared tea, and potatoes–an appalling diet. Would it not be better if they spent more money on wholesome things like oranges and wholemeal bread or if they even, like the writer of the letter to the New Statesman, saved on fuel and ate their carrots raw? Yes, it would, but the point is that no ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing. The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots. And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food. A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man doesn’t. Here the tendency of which I spoke at the end of the last chapter comes into play. When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit ’tasty’. There is always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you. Let’s have three pennorth of chips! Run out and buy us a twopenny ice-cream! Put the kettle on and we’ll all have a nice cup of tea! That is how your mind works when you are at the P.A.C. level. White bread-and-marg and sugared tea don’t nourish you to any extent, but they are nicer (at least most people think so) than brown bread-and-dripping and cold water. Unemployment is an endless misery that has got to be constantly palliated, and especially with tea, the English-man’s opium. A cup of tea or even an aspirin is much better as a temporary stimulant than a crust of brown bread.

Orwell, at this point in his life, had a biography that was in some ways not too dissimilar from Tirado’s: born into what he famously termed the lower upper-middle class, he was a scholarship boy at Eton, then afterwards spent a few years at first conforming to and then rebelling against the social expectations of his class. He (more intentionally than Tirado it seems) immersed himself in genuine poverty for a year or two, before gradually beginning to live the life of a writer with very little money, but considerable reserves of social capital.

The sorts of backgrounds shared by Orwell and Tirado are much more likely to produce literary glimpses into the lives and psychology of the poor than those of people who have always been poor. It’s unfortunate Tirado gave a misleading impression about her own circumstances, as she is obviously a talented writer, with interesting things to say about downward mobility in America today.

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