When I was a kid, and I learned about the concept of class, I asked my dad what class we were in? He asked what I meant, and I asked whether we were upper-class or middle-class or lower-class. He laughed humorlessly and said “Son, we’re what you call the working poor.” There was a lifetime of nuance wrapped up in that statement, a kind of hollow desperation, a sense that there was some non-working-poor that we were better than and that we could feel secure in that, at least.
The feeling of being poor was present but vague, growing up. We usually had food, and we always had beer and cigarettes. I was expected to finish every bite of my meals, no exceptions. There was no aspect of the entertainment budget which could be bent to the things I wanted – there were my parents’ books, and anything I checked out of my weekly library visits, and the computer in the family room with its 26.6kbps dial-up internet, but anything that required a debit card was right out. When once a month the Bookmobile came to our school and offered books to purchase, I could choose one book, no more than $10.
I didn’t really understand being poor except by contrast. I had a console and some games from birthdays and Christmas – this was back when you could rent games from the grocery store, next to the movies – but they were always a generation or two behind. The small town I spent the first half of my childhood in was a vacation town, and the wealth disparities were noticeable. The rich kids, as I thought of them, went boating and tubing every other weekend and came back to school every August talking about the cruise they went on that year. I caught occasional glimpses of this through their conversations, through a friend and classmate who had modeled in commercials through his family’s connections and hoped to become an actor, through birthday parties and the like.
I’ve had some hardships in my life, mostly not due to poverty, or related indirectly at best. When I’ve talked to people who have also gone through hardships, I’m always struck by how frankly and openly people can compare scars, like reciting a resume.
The rationalist community is the first community I’ve spent a lot of time interacting with that is substantially higher in income and wealth and I’ve been struck by how many of those experiences and assumptions are not common ground. Many of them outright consider the poor to be a separate, subhuman section of humanity, incapable of knowing when they’ve been sold a raw deal, notable in their minds primarily for sucking up net-taxpayer money and voting for their least-preferred political candidates. It’s a bit disconcerting to talk with people who passionately feel that people like my parents should have been prevented from breeding or at the very least heavily incentivized not to.
The last thing that I want to do is to make my life story a narrative about struggling against oppression. I’ve always tried to keep my identity small, and identifying as a poor person seems unlikely to be worth the space it takes up in my identity, but still, there seems something wrong about pretending I’m a temporarily embarrassed millionaire and joining the ranks of those people. It seems in some way a betrayal of my history, of the people and places and events that made me who I am today. I haven’t yet resolved this tension.