Do middle-class people have to play poor to make poverty newsworthy?

May 2, 2007

To prove how absurdly low $3/day is for food, a rabbi and his family in Portland, Oregon took on the challenge of eating on this budget for Shabbat. (I believe that $3 a day is what eligible Oregonians receive in foodstamps.). Rabbi Daniel Isaak was inspired by Governor Kulongoski’s Hunger Awareness Week challenge (p.s. Kulongoski’s challenge, and his shopping list, made it into the NYTimes last week). I think it’s a great lesson that this rabbi was trying to teach his congregants, and perhaps this is a lesson for all middle-class folks to learn. It might have even reached legislators. Beyond that, it’s kind of insulting that poor people in this country deal with these issues every day, without taking it on as a choice or an experiment, and their stories are not news- or blog-worthy.

This reminds me of the Oprah I caught a few months ago about Morgan Spurlock (of Super Size Me fame) and his fiancee’s challenge to live making minimum wage for 30 days. Spurlock went all woe is me on Oprah and I was thinking, couldn’t we get some people who actually make this amount of money as guests on this show? Why are their stories not newsworthy? The story makes some important points, though I would venture that they are points that poor people who don’t have a choice in the matter have thought about many times.

The Jewish piece of this also makes me uneasy. The article swallows whole the assumption that all Jews are middle- and upper-class when we know that this is far from the truth.

Thank you, Governor Kulongoski. I think your challenge is a very Jewish exercise. Many reasons are given as to why we fast on Yom Kippur. Among them is to remind us as we stand before God on this most solemn day in the Jewish calendar of those who have nothing to eat. And then when our stomachs begin to growl just after noon on Yom Kippur we read the words of Isaiah that I quoted two weeks ago calling on us to “Share your bread with the hungry, Take the wretched poor into your home, When you see the naked, clothe him, And not ignore your own kin.” Similarly we sit in the Sukkah in order to remind us of the innumerable people who do not have proper shelter and are exposed to the elements. On Passover we begin the Seder with an invitation to those who are hungry to join us in our celebration.

I shudder at the distance created between “we Jews” and “those poor people out there.”

I am committed to the notion that blogs and web 2.0 can be used as a tool for social change. But as I’ve learned in my community organizing, social change cannot happen unless, in this story, folks getting $3/day in foodstamps or working poor making minimum wage unite and speak out in their own voices, telling their own stories. Telling the world that their stories are what matter. I just wonder what good it actually does to tell stories about middle-class people “slumming” to learn (and subsequently teach) a lesson. It creates an incredible distance between people. Whose stories are worth telling and whose voices are silenced? Aren’t we just continuing a cycle that we think we’re breaking?

Via JSpot and Jewschool



  1. I’m coming late to this one, but my first reaction to this is that the reason more poor Jews aren’t using their voices is that they often don’t have this kind of forum, or any forum, in which to express their lives. Yes, public computers are available at the libraries, but only at certain times, and only with an appointment. Those of us with the cultural capital to get online or get published could go out and gather these stories, but you’re right, not as many people will care about a family that gets $3 per day in food stamps every day – it’s only “horrifying” if we can imagine that kind of poverty happening to “one of us.”

    I wonder if it would help to do outreach to teach about internet access and how to create a free blog, or whether it would just be ignored by the general population.

  2. […] Quench Zine likes the food stamp challenge (of which I am not such a fan). […]

  3. First, thank you to the poster acknowledging those of us who are Jewish and very, very poor instead being the archetypical economically successful Jew.

    Being unemployable because of being a plain-looking, overweight middle-aged Jewish woman in an image-oriented, appearance-obsessed society that worships youth and thinness, I am VERY poor – because no one would give me a chance for a job (despite having an education). I was also orphaned at 13, so I didn’t have the family support network that so many people take for granted. I never got to have a bat mitzvah, never mind make aliyah. And private college with a degree beyond a Bachelor’s; forget it. Not even within my reach.

    Instead, I had to “make do” with incurring unaffordable student loan debt after reaching a certain age where my “Expected Family Contribution” would be based solely on my own resources – just to go to a state college..graduating at the age of 34 in May of 2001 and then having to compete with 22 year olds for jobs in addition to IT workers my age who not only had Masters degrees, but also had experience in the field (whereas I never got the chance to get any). I was a disabled woman trying to re-enter the workforce and had a 10 year gap in my work history (no recent references, nothing) and that gap is now 17 years. But I’m not “disabled enough” to get the meager $600/mo in SSI benefits, yet am too disabled for any employers to accommodate me – even for a sub-poverty level minimum wage job as a clerk in a video store.

    It has been my experience that to be poor, white, and Jewish in America is to be invisible, to be a non-person, to be “white trash”…and even worse, to be not welcome in synagogue; or if welcomed superficially, to be unable to afford to participate in activities commensurate with Jewish community tradition (the Passover community dinners, bar mitzvah luncheons, etc.) and to be made to feel ashamed and humiliated for my conditions of poverty (even though we’re taught about tzedakah and the fact that it is a “nevere” to humiliate someone).

    That said, ALL poor (Jewish and non-Jewish poor alike) are basically not wanted in society. We’re expected to be on hand when needed and to go away and suffer quietly when not.

    When we try to explain that we can’t get jobs because we are walking around missing teeth at a young age from not being able to afford dental care and have to face job interviewers looking like that, we’re dismissed as “complaining”. Middle class people think all poor can get free medical care under Medicaid. But that’s not true and yet, no one wants to hear it.

    The few select poor who CAN get Medicaid can get their teeth fixed. Not true. Medicaid won’t pay for dentures – they’re considered “cosmetic” and not “medically necessary”. I know – I’ve suffered the loss of most of my teeth before age 30 (while struggling to better myself in getting an education).

    When we have to explain to those who’ve never been poor that if we have to do without a home/phone/Internet (is if those are all luxuries we don’t “deserve”), we can’t even register at the local state Career Link Offices – never mind have a venue to tell our stories, we’re told that we’re just “making excuses” and we’re dismissed as persona non grata. No one wants to hear it.

    We’re constantly assumed to be druggies, uneducated, lazy, stupid, and lacking in work ethic. If we have teeth rotting out of our head that we can’t do anything about, middle class and rich people accuse us of being “too stupid/lazy to brush and floss properly.” The fact is that you can do all those things and still have your teeth go bad anyway – especially when you can’t afford to get bi-annual cleanings, check ups, fillings, and root canals and crowns.

    Every day we are silenced and our experiences are invalidated by everyone else. We’re told to “shut up and stop whining” and how far “worse off the poor in 3rd World nations have it” than us.

    We’re told by those who have never done without basic needs that being poor is our own tough luck; that we made all the wrong choices…age/sex/disability/appearance/social class discrimination is never, ever acknowledged; nor is an ever-shrinking pie of job opportunities thanks to globalization which has given us a “No Pea” shell game of a job market in a Serengeti economy – a global rat-race to the bottom.

    I have written a book on classism. I am a self-published author (being a poor “nobody”, no major publishing firms would pick up my manuscript or even look at it). I can’t afford to advertise my works which are sold through online e-tailers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble online (brick and mortar stores won’t carry any inventory of self-pub books, but their online partners don’t have “inventory issues”).

    But when I try using the Internet to do so, something as simple as adding links to my web page w/ info about my books to my blog/message board/email signature, I am berated and begruded the meager $30-$50 a month I earn from book sales because according to the “haves”, people like me are “only out to make a buck shilling our books”. Being poor means that no matter what you try to do, you can never win.

    Being poor is being judged every minute of every day by those who are better-off, because they’ve had opportunities and luck that we didn’t have in our so-called meritocracy. And they’re biggest concern is that if they are forced to understand what being poor really is, that we “undeserving” poor people will demand that they give us some of their resources that they have ZERO intention to share. Everything is always all about them, you know.

    The commonality of being poor is that it is hard to be surrounded by those who are better off who judge you and look down on you for having less. They think that those who might not have to struggle as hard as you do are living off charity of others and that they have absolutely earned everything totally on their own.

    The “haves” know they’ve benefited from unfair advantages in a rigged system; a system of imperialism, sexism, and every other ism imaginable; a system of social class bias and an unfair distribution of opportunity and resources. And they don’t like having to face up to that fact because in doing so, they might have to agree to making some changes in our society that might result in losing some of their privileges – and they don’t want to because they’re selfish and don’t want to share – and they know it, but don’t want to admit it – so instead they blame the victim because that lets them off the hook. Since most middle class and rich people “don’t get it” when they’ve been told what it’s like to be poor, when they’re asked to read our experiences (they balk at doing so), I guess the only way they will “get it” is if they have to slum it temporarily – which does not come close to an accurate rendition.

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