Working for those crooked baby teeth

What does a four-year old’s pride look like? It’s a smooth dimpled smile, crooked baby teeth, and a joyous twinkle that must’ve rubbed off from all those Santa stories you’ve told in the last 58 months. It’s the stuff of tears. I doubt my daughter knows exactly what the word ‘pride’ means (she does have a pretty expansive vocabulary), but I don’t care. If Webster’s saw that smile, they’d rewrite it.

“I’m so proud of you Daddy.” That brought it. A thousand-pound slab of guilt shoulder-shrugged by a pre-K’er with a Kal El strength in her voice to make it all go away. After six plus weeks of job searching, applications, feeling lucky that I made it as far as not getting a returned phone call — I had a job.

A part-time, low-wage, service job.

It’s a fairly ubiquitous industry in the central Florida area, mine being in a particular sub-sector of retail trade, with roughly 21,000 employees in the Orlando-Kissimmee region alone (more than total population of my hometown). The average annual wage is $21,580. That’s the full-time equivalent wage, by the way; it assumes a full-time schedule year-round. Most folks don’t work full-time. Those are the coveted spots — the elite of the elite. The front-line of my industry runs on part-timers, and many of those work more than one job.

Anyway, this is what I’ve been doing during the blog-hiatus: learning a new job in an environment where management’s only connection to the outside labor market are the new hires who can’t stop saying “Thank you. Thank you so much.” In these types of jobs informal expectations of performance are just as important as the mission statement, because even at the bottom you have to be the best. It’s the only sensible goal for someone whose lifeblood is literally hours a week.

C’est la vie. Right now it’s greater than zero. Yet it’s still hard to shake that after forty days I started to question myself. My worthiness.

It didn’t matter that I knew better than that. It’s not a personal trouble, but an issue greater than myself. While the economy in Florida, a state particularly hard-hit by the Great Recession (and one that is muy dependent on other’s disposable income), has come a long way, the unemployment rate still sits at 6.2 percent. The historical low was nearly half that in ‘06. Like I said, though, it doesn’t matter. Reason is no shield against those creeping doubts — it just happens. You’re sure the people around you, the ones that love and support you, nevertheless start to wonder why you’re not doing more. Here, in this overwhelmingly service-oriented fantasy land, these are supposed to be the easy jobs to get.

Oy vey, but my family is luckier than many. We have a network of strong ties. We’ll make it. We don’t have a choice. There’s a whole swath of folks that don’t have that feeling, some 3.7 million who’ve been out of the labor force far longer than I was. These people have been given up on by those who could make a difference — by the lawmakers who yanked away the last bit of safety net from underneath, and the forever list of future employers that will discriminate against them.

Some portion of them will simply become a part of the new poor, which to be honest, isn’t that far off from the old poor. That is, mostly thought of as undeserving. Like today, 20 years ago, or nearly 200 years ago certain groups will be pathologized into cultural zombies that don’t realize the same grip that can pull prey down to feast is the same one that could open doors to get more of those juicy brains on the other side.

I can’t do justice to the group whom this phenomenon most-often applies now — for that read the indispensable Ta-Nehisi Coates, or Yoni Applebaum’s comments about a different age and a different people who faced similar out-group tsk-tsking. It’s true, as Matt Bruenig writes, that “anywhere you find poor people…you also find non-poor people theorizing their cultural inferiority and dysfunction.” Widen the critical net enough and I suppose I’m caught up in that category too, but then the whole exercise is moot. People are complicated. Groups are complicated. And neither can be reduced to a crude cultural determinism.

But we’ll still do it ‘cause we just can’t help ourselves. The more conservative-minded will still make them the metaphorical 21st century bogeyman for upper-middle class teens that don’t want to mow on a Saturday morning. The more kind-hearted among them will eventually eulogize their lack of knowledge about the value of work itself, while decrying policy that robs the lucky ones of the kind of dignity you get from tying grease-crusted shoelaces so the people on the other side of the counter can wonder where you went wrong in life.

I just started reading Michael B. Katz on this very subject, about the undeserving poor. What the disciples of a “culture of poverty” viewpoint probably don’t realize is that the originator of that phrase, anthropologist Oscar Lewis, made one rather astute observation in his (often fairly maligned) analysis back in the 60s that gets left out in their critique:

For the quickest and surest way to eliminate the culture of poverty was through the organization of its members. Lewis’s stress on the pivotal role of organized militancy links the culture of poverty to the stress on the “maximum feasible participation” of the poor that characterized the War on Poverty in the early 1960s. For him pride, organization, and class (or racial) consciousness led swiftly away from the culture of poverty. In other words, Lewis understood that poverty resulted in part from a lack of power.

Lewis was worried then that those on the right would intentionally misuse his work, to prevent the kind of “organized militancy” that gets stuff done, and he was fifty-years right. This doesn’t exculpate the left, who seem to spend more energy bloodletting the political politeness of its own identity rather than “empower[ing] people so that the people who aren’t nice no longer matter.” Lewis observed that poverty culture disappeared when folks organized to change the rules of the game; not play by them. In other words, in the history of such movements, the much-maligned culture from poor material conditions wasn’t confronted with a change of personal ethos, or a Sunday bout of hashtag activism, but a naked challenge to the type of power that pathologizes its victims. We should remember that history, for our own sake and for others.

These are the things in the back of my mind — luck and gratitude, poverty, agency and power — as I develop my own new-normal, in this space and others. During the break I spent some number of minutes mulling over what I was doing here. What the point was, you know? I think, in all this purposeful movement, whether typing by day or telling strangers at night that “our southern-style potato salad is on sale this week,” I’m just trying to step away from the misery and closer to the more privileged experience of being ordinarily unhappy. That’s my project. This is me exploring the world so a little girl can see that I never stopped being curious, or giving a damn on an average Tuesday. I want to continue earning the kind of kiddo-pride that beams so easily in the dark. Thank you for being a part of that.


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