Sunday, 26 June 2011

On Poverty

I’ve been thinking about poverty lately. It’s something that’s a problem for me, and indeed for many on the spectrum, for one reason or another. But I don’t want to analyse why so much as to explore what it feels like to be poor - something not usually mentioned.

I’ll tell you what poverty feels like – it feels like being boxed in. Walled inside your own private ‘ghetto’, behind walls too high and slippery to climb, and too solid to simply break down with a few strong blows. Sometimes these walls are like brick or stone, for you to bang your head against. At other times, they seem see-through from your side but opaque to those on the outside, like one of those two-way mirrors in old spy movies. You can see others living the kind of life you want, but when they look at you, they see only the reflection of their own prejudices and assumptions about the poor.

And you feel cut off, even if you know you’re not the only poor person in the world. It’s as if outside your walls there’s this free flow and abundancy of the energy that’s represented by money – but to you, in your little ghetto, comes only a trickle of this. You thirst for more, you hunger, you tear at the walls trying to widen the flow, but it stays a trickle. You try to find a gate, a way out, but there’s nothing. If you have a major health problem, then you’re even more cut off, as you can’t participate in so many things, or do any of the unskilled physical jobs that help to widen the trickle for some. And if you’re autistic as well, your isolation is almost total.

Over time you learn how to exist on this trickle. You go without. You give up a whole heap of things you once thought were necessary. You wear clothes until they’re fit only for the rag-bag, and then go and find yourself another set of someone else’s hand-me-downs, half-rags, to wear them out in turn. You become resigned to that aching hip you can’t afford the Osteo to fix, the cough it’s ‘not worth’ going to the doctor’s for, and the sore feet from cheap shoes. You get used to being looked down on, to having everybody from shopkeepers to Social Welfare staff talking to you with disrespect. (You never like it, but you get used to it.)

You huddle. You withdraw. You don’t even bother to look what’s on at the movies or what shows are in town, you walk past ‘luxury’ items in the supermarket without a second glance, and those nice new clothes in the shop windows get only a wistful, fleeting look. Petrol is hoarded, you don’t go anywhere much, or accept many invitations – unless it’s to other people’s places for dinner. Gyms and beauty salons? What are they? You get used to being badly dressed, un-manicured, and un-buffed. You stop looking at yourself in the mirror. Oh, and playing sports? Forget it. They all cost money up front. Even jogging requires shoes.

And unless you’re very lucky or haven’t been poor long, your home will likely be too small, with inadequate furniture, possibly substandard, cheap and crappy, or with ancient grime no amount of scrubbing will remove. Or all of the above. You know it will never appear in House and Garden – unless it’s as the ‘before’ shot in someone else’s renovation project. Not that it matters, as you don’t invite many people over anyway. You can’t afford to feed them. Your social life goes to pot.

And then you find that some regard you as lazy or stupid, saying, for instance, that you ‘make wrong food choices’, and that’s why your health is bad. The obvious never seems to occur to them – that you fill up on cheap carbs and eat budget cuts of meat because you have to, not because you don’t want to buy better. (A nutritionist once told me I shouldn’t eat mince, because of what goes into it. Well mince is cheap, so guess what I still eat.) Even vegetables can be expensive, and many of the poor don’t have the room to grow their own. And if your health is bad, it’s either because of those ‘wrong’ food choices, or because you can’t afford to see the doctor for every little thing. Or even the Big Things.

Then there’s the little matter of ‘treats’ and indulgences. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not condoning addictions of any kind, or the spending of money on pokies, drink or drugs that should have gone for rent or food to put in kids’ mouths. And I know junk food is not good for your health. But I really don’t get it when one moment people are implying you’re lazy, stupid and good-for-nothing, and in the next they demand you should be a saint, and never let a bar of chocolate, a packet of chips or a glass of beer pass your lips, just because you’re poor. When sometimes you need those treats all the more, and scrape up the money for them, just to make your restricted, drab life a little more bearable.

What’s more, some people will blame you for your plight, the ‘if they had any gumption they wouldn’t have gotten poor in the first place’, kind of attitude. But not all our life events are under our control. For me, I would credit firstly my health problems and secondly my Aspergers, for being poor. For some, they were born into it and never had a chance to escape. And yet others simply made wrong choices. Are they to be seen as worthless, for making mistakes? (Not that it matters why you’re poor, in the end, it only matters how the hell you get out of it.) To be poor and then to be blamed for it, is a cruel double whammy.

Oh, and I’ve read all the books, I’ve heard all the self-help messages - ‘Pull yourself up by your bootlaces’ type of thing. But what if you don’t have any shoes? Not everyone is entrepreneur or investor material. A lot of those ‘rags to riches’ fortunes seem to be based on the ability to manage not just money but people, and to bounce back from disasters, to relish challenges, uncertainties and the unknown. Not skills given to many, and certainly not ones those on the spectrum are famous for having. For sure I don’t have them.

I’ve even read some books and heard some ‘New Age’ types hint or even proclaim outright that wealth is a reward and a result of those souls being ‘spiritually advanced’. In other words, if you’re rich, it’s because you’re somehow better than others, but if you’re poor, you’ve got bad karma. What a lot of rot. The rich are no better as people, in my experience, than the poor. They’ve simply got more money to be whatever they are – nasty or nice - with. (It’s also a distorted understanding of spiritual advancement and karma, but that’s a whole ‘nother issue.) I’ve met some truly spiritually enlightened people, wonderful people, who’ve never had much money. On the other hand, however, many years ago my daughter had a part time job as a security guard at a racecourse. She often worked at functions there attended by many wealthy types, and was disgusted by their behaviour. In her words – “drunken vomit looks just as disgusting down a two-thousand-dollar suit as it does down a two-hundred-dollar one.” Unquote. So I’m not buying that I’m poor because of a supposed ‘lack’ of spiritual ‘advancement’. That’s bullshit of the worst kind – the ‘blame the victim’ kind.

Now I’m sure if I had plenty of money already, that I could handle it wisely. But I don’t have it, and it’s possible I never will. Past fifty, with minimal skills and qualifications, a patchy-to-non-existent work history and experience due to chronic illness, and two major disabilities (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Aspergers)… well, even when times were good, the only job I could find was a short-term contract subsidised by a government scheme. When the subsidy expired, so did my job. And if that was all I could get in a good economy, what chance do I have in a bad one? If I was 20 or 30 years younger, or with more qualifications and experience, or simply good health… maybe. Maybe. I’m still looking, but I’m not holding my breath.

I don’t mean this to be a pity fest by the way – I’ve never wanted pity, I find it demeaning. All I’ve ever wanted is simple respect, and understanding. But I’m also realistic. Times are hard, jobs are few, and while I know that autistics aren’t the only poor in the world, it is a fact that of just about any group, we are more likely to be poor. It’s skills, yes, but it’s also prejudice, and lack of understanding. We don’t come across well in job interviews, and we have trouble working in certain environments and interacting with co-workers. Many of those on the spectrum who do have jobs are clinging to them with all their might right now, even harder than others are, because they know they are even more vulnerable. Some choose not to ‘come out’ as aspie or autie because of it. Given the circumstances, I think that’s probably wise.

Because, let’s be really realistic here - the world doesn’t care that much about the poor, for the most part, and it cares even less about adult autistics, poor or otherwise. It would be just as happy if we didn’t exist at all. It prefers to ignore us, and if it can’t it denigrates us. Some seem even to hate us, and call us all sorts of names. And if you are poor as well, that’s a double load of shit on your shoulders. Yes, in the long term we’re going to have to force the world to sit up and take notice, to ‘move over and make room’ for us, but in the short term, we have simply to survive. I don’t have any answers, just truckloads of questions. And the biggest one has to be, how do we go on from here? How do we survive, let alone flourish, in such a world?

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