I was eighteen. Watched a tv report on President Johnson’s “War on Poverty.” The only image
that sticks in my mind is of a rural white woman with small children. Three or four. A social worker asked what would the children have for lunch. “Gravy,” the mother said, spooned a white substance into bowls for her children. What was for dinner, the social worker asked. “Gravy,” the woman said. And what was breakfast?
Stupid questions. Or else rhetorical. Just get it on record. Some people didn’t/don’t have three meals a day. When hunger becomes too intense, they scrounge. “Let’s see. Flour. Salt. Lard. I’ll make gravy.” With water, not milk. Shit. If they’re lucky to have flour, or anything else. In ’68, this woman had a roof over her head. A raggedy one, but a roof.
Johnson was concerned about hunger in America. In those years, the president wanted to make it possible for economically disadvantaged high school graduates to go to college. There were grant programs. I guess loans too. But plenty of grants. (I didn’t go to college till much later.)
Then came Reagan. And it’s been downhill ever since. Even the Dems are like Repubs. I’ve never seen so many homeless people. Ever. Except in pictures of the Great Depression. It’s as if the Depression returned, and gelled.
In the fifties, minimum wage was a livable wage. A very modest living, but a living. But now, minimum wage is merely survival. Not livable, but survival. You might live in an SRO, a whole family, in a hotel converted into a single room occupancy. A whole family! Or maybe live in a car, or a tent. Or a camp under an overpass. So I gather, from what I read. Even adjunct professors, like the one in San Jose, who was interviewed for an article on poverty, who lives in a car with her disabled husband. Can’t afford rent.
College costs more than ever. And they hire adjuncts. Part-timers. They have no benefits. Poverty wages. Chancellors are paid in the millions. The tenured and full-timers look down their noses at adjuncts. Those positions used to be grad student assignments. I remember when grad students went on strike, in the early 90’s, at Berkeley, demanding benefits, better pay, better treatment. I saw J, a post-grad I knew, waving his fist in the air, and shouting, “Yeah!” as cars passing by honked in support. He was job seeking last I spoke to him. Years ago. I presume he’s a tenured English professor somewhere now. He was brilliant and handsome. I had a secret crush on him.
They should cap maximum wage. Geezus, rich is rich. The uber rich will still have more money the average Joe Blow, let alone minimum wagers. But, no, they want it all. What sort of heartless shit is that? Well, yeah. Heartless. Arrogant. Greedy. Corrupted. Soulless.
Nothing poetic about it.
I’m all for social democracy. Not socialism. Not communism. But social programs, in a capitalist society. Pure capitalism is as bad as pure socialism. IMO. From what I observe. We need public schools. Public assistance for those in need. (Shit, financial institutions get it. Mega corporations get bail outs with our tax money. That’s Welfare.) Public transportation. Public spaces. Public lands. And a livable wage. Not survival, but livable. As in the fifties. Public schools had cafeterias, where food was prepared daily, not packaged or frozen junk. Frozen pizza? Please. We didn’t buy our school supplies when I was a kid. Schools provided pencils, pen, paper. At least, in grammar school. Through sixth grade, as I recall.
The late sixties, early seventies. The cultural revolutions. There was promise. Even change. I was a fool. I believed. (Well, “we.” I wasn’t the only one.)
I didn’t participate in all that 60’s and 70’s action. I was a married. “Buried” from age sixteen to thirty. (Had to leave a messy home life. Mother. Father. Drama. So much unhealthy drama.)
Divorced at thirty. 1980. It’s a miracle all I did, really. Clueless. On my own. Full of phobias not yet identified. Mid-eighties (my mid-thirties), I transferred to the University. Early oughts, (fifty) I “crashed.” All the psycho-damage. And then the meno-change. Whoo. Rough years, man. Rough years.
And all I wanted, goddmanit, was to be a poet.
Poverty is easier than ever. You can work and still live in poverty. You can have a middle class life, and then, bam! homeless. How the hell can it be legal to double a person’s rent? DOUBLE! Or kick ’em out so you can rent to higher paying renters!
I have a poetry reading in October. I should’ve been doing this forty-five years ago. But my life didn’t go that way.
This is my life. I’m lucky I don’t live in an SRO, or a tent, or a car, or under an overpass. Shit. At the very least.