Poor No More! Or That 'Hard-Working Middle Class'

Protest in Wisconsin, 2011
When have you last heard the term "hard-working poor" coming from any politician? Probably not in the past decade. Nobody is a member of the working poor anymore. Everyone is a member of the over-worked, over-taxed, hard-working middle class. That includes those making $25,000 a year as a Wal-Mart store manager, to those making $450,000 as a hedge fund clipper, to those making $12,000 dollars as a part time hospital cleaning woman.

That's what Barack Obama and Sarah Palin have in common. An inability to call it as it is. We are poor no more. To call a man or woman poor is to insult them -- to call them a failure in this land of plenty. Everyone is middle class. Nobody wants to help the undeserving poor -- but ah, the working middle class? They deserve all our compassion and assistance, short of better schools and subsidized college education and decent housing. Of course a look around any inner city will demonstrate the big lie behind this. The poor as Jesus said are always with us, but politicians don't want to know about them until they vote, and our politicos seem to prefer this part of the Jesus message to that part which sees it as a moral duty to relieve their suffering.

Part of the rage we see throughout the world, and here in our country, comes from the unwillingness to face the hard fact that there are so many hanging on to life by their fingernails, often assisted by trade unions, the very unions whom the governor of Wisconsin, supported by the hyper rich, hyper conservative Koch brothers and their minions would crush so that this "middle class" would take a free fall into deepest poverty -- creating a cheaper labor pool. We will not have to export jobs if we can create our own Bangladesh in this country.

What right have I to talk about the working poor? Some might say none since I have never been poor. I am neither proud nor ashamed of that. As a freelance writer, playwright, screenwriter, I have had great times and fallow times in which I have been miserably broke, but never poor. I always knew that I had the education, the talent (judgment mine) and the spirit (which often means enough past success) to turn my fortunes around. And so they have.

I know about the poor because my parents were poor in the old fashioned four kids in one bed, two missed meals a day, school over at twelve years, and dog work until luck or brains lifted them into the middle class. My immigrant grandfather worked as a tailor, a riveter on the Brooklyn Bridge, and a night-watchmen -- my doctor father-in-law worked as a streetcar conductor and whatever else could pay the tuition of med school -- whatever was offered to strong men desperate to rise from poverty. Luck belonged to my mother Lilly -- born with such inordinate beauty that while other young women worked and died in sweat shops she was a fashion model and later a store manager, and able to educate herself into another class. Joan Crawford had nothing on her in those old movies. Brains belonged to my Dad -- sweeping up stables and hardware stores at ten -- ending up as the owner of a modest woolen factory, able to put his children through college before his business dissolved, yet leaving us with the skills to make it in the world. But my parents lived in a non-technological world in which being smart or pretty or lucky could change your fortunes -- and jobs were not exported overseas by those whose religion is the bottom line.

In my parents' world, and in mine, it was no disgrace to be poor. You could work your way into the middle class but you couldn't delude yourself into it. Now this refusal to face the hard facts of widespread poverty in this country (I leave the statistics to others) mocked by the enormous salaries of the non-working gambling class (sometimes called the financiers) has led to a nation-wide delusion. In this form of mass madness "Nobody is poor!"

We have a friend who can only be classified as poor. This woman in her seventies lost all her money in the stock market during the downturn, and her home was foreclosed. She now lives in a subsidized apartment and barely manages to get by on her modest social security and the kindness of strangers. Yet when my wife reminded her that she was eligible for food-stamps and Medicaid, she protested "How can I? I would be so ashamed!" Living on $1200 a month ($900 goes to rent) she considers herself middle class and she would rather miss some meals and her medicine than face the reality of her poverty. Barack and Sarah have convinced her that there is no other class -- she cannot possibly be poor -- why the poor wear shabby clothes, they are homeless, they sit in emergency wards of hospitals with their crying, fever-wracked babies, they smell bad and have missing teeth and they have "failed" in this land of endless opportunity. She cannot accept the fact that she is now a member of that group.

Until we abandon this nationwide delusion that we are all middle class there will be more and more rumblings from within, and not from a future earthquake. The Koch brothers may support those governors and congressmen who try to destroy the one movement (the labor unions) which helped to lift the poor into the middle class, but the poor will only take so much -- even if they continue to call themselves middle class.


Broadway playwright and screenwriter Sherman Yellen was nominated for a Tony Award for his book for the musical, The Rothschilds. Sherman's plays include Intimate Strangers, a biographical drama about Sinclair Lewis which was produced on Broadway, December Fools. His new musical and Josephine Tonight! about Josephine Baker. Yellen's screenwriting has won him two Emmy Awards and a Peabody Award, first for his drama John Adams, Lawyer in the PBS series The Adams Chronicles, and later for An Early Frost, a groundbreaking drama about AIDS in America. His Beauty and the Beast with George C. Scott was nominated for an Emmy and won the Christopher Award. Yellen received a lifetime achievement award in Arts and Letters from Bard College.


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