No one wants to be poor, but seemingly everyone wants to be able to say they have been poor. The US as a nation is in the process of perfecting the art of snatching a good poverty anecdote from the jaws of a yuppie upbringing.
The master artists are politicians. Wendy Davis assuredly knew what she was doing when she was doing when she presented herself as having been a single teenage mother and left out the part where she had been married and got separated from her husband at the very-legal age of 19.
Teenage mothers, of course, don’t wield a lot of power anywhere, but once you’re a graduate of Harvard Law School, it is a crucial distinguishing feature so that others know you aren’t the kind of privileged brat the public assumes your peers are.
Of course, such stories must be told delicately. Hillary Clinton only demonstrated how clueless she is about hardship when she said her family was “dead broke” when leaving the White House and admitted that the basis for her tenuous ties to the working class was “because we pay ordinary income tax, unlike a lot of people who are truly well off”.
The slip speaks to the desperation she and her team must have felt in establishing some from-the-ghetto bona fides.
Don’t mistake this as a politicians-only art form. Everyone can play. The Homeless Valedictorian was “homeless” because he was staying with an aunt and uncle. If the resulting story is good enough, staying with relatives is enough to count as graduating “without a home”.
Don’t be too harsh on that student though. At least he did actually live in a homeless shelter when he was 6, an ordeal it turns out he needn’t have bothered with. Remember the Time Magazine kid guy who wrote about not apologizing for his white privilege? Review his straight-out-of-Compton story:
Perhaps it’s the privilege my grandfather and his brother had to flee their home as teenagers when the Nazis invaded Poland, leaving their mother and five younger siblings behind, running and running until they reached a Displaced Persons camp in Siberia, where they would do years of hard labor in the bitter cold until World War II ended. Maybe it was the privilege my grandfather had of taking on the local Rabbi’s work in that DP camp, telling him that the spiritual leader shouldn’t do hard work, but should save his energy to pass Jewish tradition along to those who might survive. Perhaps it was the privilege my great-grandmother and those five great-aunts and uncles I never knew had of being shot into an open grave outside their hometown. Maybe that’s my privilege.
Or maybe it’s the privilege my grandmother had of spending weeks upon weeks on a death march through Polish forests in subzero temperatures, one of just a handful to survive, only to be put in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp where she would have died but for the Allied forces who liberated her and helped her regain her health when her weight dwindled to barely 80 pounds.
Perhaps my privilege is that those two resilient individuals came to America with no money and no English, obtained citizenship, learned the language and met each other; that my grandfather started a humble wicker basket business with nothing but long hours, an idea, and an iron will—to paraphrase the man I never met: “I escaped Hitler. Some business troubles are going to ruin me?” Maybe my privilege is that they worked hard enough to raise four children, and to send them to Jewish day school and eventually City College
Perhaps it was my privilege that my own father worked hard enough in City College to earn a spot at a top graduate school, got a good job, and for 25 years got up well before the crack of dawn, sacrificing precious time he wanted to spend with those he valued most—his wife and kids—to earn that living. I can say with certainty there was no legacy involved in any of his accomplishments. The wicker business just isn’t that influential. Now would you say that we’ve been really privileged? That our success has been gift-wrapped?
Notice how none of that actually had anything to do with him? He wrote a whole article about his lack of privilege, and all could present were the exhaust fumes of the experiences of his genetic relations. The only hardship he reports as having personally endured is being told to shut up by liberals.
The hardship narrative won’t be denied, even if it means denying personhood to billions. There is a reason that Barack Obama’s website quotes a “Kelly G” as saying “I believe health care is a human right” and not Barack Obama himself. Obama isn’t an idiot. Healthcare-is-a-human-right only works as a rallying cry for the policies it is used to support by denying personhood to non-Americans.
Read this article about longevity inequality wherein the rich receive great treatments and live to 120 and the poor die at 60. Dying at any age is sad, mind you. But such articles studiously avoid mentioning other people dying here and elsewhere at lower ages because that would diminish the perceived hardship of dying at 60. 60 and 120 aren’t figures culled from medical journals. They were concocted to produce a nice 2:1 narrative, and anyone who happens to fall below the 1 gets lopped off because removing the inessential is part of the art of good storytelling.
Similarly, 90% of articles about inequality require the reader to ignore that earning the current US minimum wage at a full time job puts you in the top 8.7% of the world population by income. Maybe the Clintons and fast food workers really are economic bedfellows after all.
Anecdotes are valuable. Whatever is valuable, the rich and powerful will eventually get. If anecdotes about poverty are valuable, the rich will buy them, and they won’t all be as clumsy as Clinton in their attempts.
The Ivies have wised up to kids spending summers building houses in Haiti. It’s now a laugh line and a sure sign of a son of privilege. The parent who wants their kid to get ahead these days will move to the south-facing edge of a trailer park for a summer to form a substantiate a good “I grew up in a trailer park” anecdote for their college admissions essays. Look for adult yuppies to get on food stamps as a way to live out their Barbara Ehrenreich/J.K. Rowling mashup fantasies.
Just watch. It’s coming.