There was an article in Salon the other day that I almost blogged about, but it seemed like such as setup: Hipsters on Food Stamps. The article was a profile of out-of-work “hipsters” in the Bay Area, New York, Baltimore and other urban areas who were, thanks to the ongoing recession and the stimulus package, eligible for and using food stamps. Of course, the twist was that they weren’t eating “government cheese” but were using their food stamp money to buy fruits and vegetables at small stores and farmers markets, and were gasp, cooking fairly delicious meals from them. One of those meals was described, rather snarkily, as “Thai yellow curry with coconut milk and lemongrass, Chinese gourd sautéed in hot chile sauce and sweet clementine juice, all of it courtesy of government assistance.” Hmm. Sounds like a healthy cheap vegetarian meal to me.
So anyway, I wasn’t going to write about this because it just seemed so dumb. But today I was cruising past Salon, and found Gerry Mak’s response to the story. He’s one of the so-called “hipsters” profiled in the piece, and while he defended his decisions about food with eloquence, he correctly pointed out that the original article was a smokescreen for a larger and more important issue:
… the core of this discussion is an ideological debate between those that believe private entrepreneurship and simple hard work are the cures for poverty, and those that believe that the the poverty line is permeable in both directions. Among the latter, there is yet a deeper debate about whether we can, in a deep recession with record unemployment rates, make the same old assumptions about class based on race, occupation and education, particularly when increasingly, only poorly paid, unprotected, insecure jobs are available even to people with master’s degrees.
As someone who grew up with many many advantages, especially those of class privilege, but with parents who were usually broke, I have never been unclear on the permeability of the poverty line. I’ve been broke most of my life, with the exception of the ten years I spent at the Big Corporation. I have almost always worked at least two jobs; I have advanced degrees; and yet, in every other job I’ve ever had but that one, I’ve been underpaid, and have worked in environments where benefits weren’t even offered. Until the Big Corp. job, I’d never worked anyplace where I qualified for unemployment benefits when the job ended, and it continues to make me crazy that the majority of the jobs I’ve had in my life don’t even qualify as “real” jobs to the government. So if, for once, unemployed, educated, white-collar information workers are eligible for a little bit of government assistance, and they’re being creative about using it, who are we to mock them?
This is a deep and terrifying recession, and although I’ve been weathering it pretty well so far, let’s face it, there are real dangers out there. People are losing their houses. Kids are getting out of school and looking at the worst employment prospects in decades, but unlike those of us who graduated in the mid-1980s with similar recessionary stats, these kids are carrying tens of thousands of dollars in student loans. And it’s not just kids who are in trouble. There are a lot of people, like the author of this article in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago, “Off The Job, Slouching Toward Social Services” who have good educations, and creative professions they’ve sustained with the sorts of underemployment jobs that those of us who want to write or paint or dance or create theatre have always had — secretarial and translation and waiting tables — and even those jobs are gone now. I’ve been lucky so far — I’ve had enough freelance work to keep my head above water, and it looks like I’ll be able to swing a part-time contracting gig back at the Big Corporation. I’m thrilled that I can survive on a part-time gig as I have some creative projects I really feel it’s time to commit to and I’ve spent the past eight years since I’ve moved here paying things off and trying to get my financial house to the place where I can live on a lot less. However, even though I can do this, and I’m deeply grateful for the job opportunity, I’m still going back to a world of self-employment — no health insurance, no stock options, and should this gig end, no unemployment benefits. I’m going back into that ever-increasing sector of the economy where there is no safety net, and where bankruptcy and ruin are one broken leg or appendicitis or cancer diagnosis away. And that’s NOT the change I voted for, it’s not the United States in which I want to live, and it’s not the nation where I want our kids to grow up. We have the ability to take care of one another better than this. And one way we can start the process is perhaps by rethinking some of the stories we’ve been told about class and race and education and opportunity.