Image from Effigy Comics.
About a month ago I went to a knitting group in a specialty knitting store in a super gentrified neighbourhood. At the time, I was homeless and squatting at a friend of a friend’s vacant, small studio apartment in the area. About a year prior I had taken up knitting as a means of creating my own clothing to wear during the winter, since Ottawa, where I live, often holds the record for the coldest capital city on earth.
The majority of the people who were in attendance at this knitting group besides myself were very visibly people who could afford the yarn at the specialty store for projects they work on pretty regularly. The price range of the yarns at this store generally ranged from $10-35 CAD. To give you an idea of my yarn stash, I would say about 50% of it was donated (by community service organizations I’ve been with) or given to me by friends. The other 50%, with a few exceptions, I’ve generally bought at Wal-Mart, where you can get these hugea** balls of yarn for like $4 that could knit up a couple of short-ish scarves, or maybe like 20 hats. It’s an investment, really. On occasion I will treat myself to the $11 yarn at specialty yarn stores, though usually I’ll only be there to get specific lengths of rounded needles, which Wal-Mart generally doesn’t carry.
Point is, I was of a significantly different socio-economic class bracket than the majority of the people at the knitting group.
I overheard some very ignorantly ostentatious statements about their lifestyles, as they spoke them to each other in a way I think they assumed was humble.
“The only really nice car we have is the [?type of vehicle?].” (Are you kidding me.) “It’s my husband’s - I like to invest in yarn. It’s just all about what your interests are and what matters to you when it comes to having nice things.”
At some point, one of them, who was a realtor, turned to me (visibly the youngest there) and said, “we need more millennials buying property. If you know anyone who’s looking send them my way!”
Apparently, I look like someone who has anything to do with people who buy property. The class divide was never so visible to me as it was that day.
While they made statements like this, I couldn’t help but wonder (just kidding - I just assumed) that none of those talking like this had ever really realized that not everyone starts out life with the same base stats when it comes to money.
My Financial Base Stats
I grew up in the home of a single mother with two children. My mom was not born into poverty, but rather had given into pressure and initially fulfilled the Nuclear Family Dream, by marrying a man in the military and having two children. She had gone to college, but as she described it, “when I was there, women only went there to get their M-R-S, not their BSc or their BAs.” She always worked hard, and had a pretty high up corporate office job when I was a baby. But she quit, because of the pressure to become a stay-at-home mom.
Unfortunately, the Nuclear Family Dream failed her, and by the time I was 7 years old, they had a messy separation and soon enough my dad moved away for Military Crap. On average, I would see him once a year, sometimes once every two years. At current, I have not seen him since 2013.
My mom, me and my sibling lived in a 2 bedroom apartment and had been on the waitlist for low-income housing for years. We had been told that the average wait in our area was around 7 years. It would have been around 7 years until we could have an affordable place to live. And so we lived in a two bedroom apartment, the three of us, for around $700 per month. (And no: that was not affordable enough for us. My mother had literally no income besides the charity of her parents, child support money, unemployment benefits, and for a short period of time, OSAP. Which is basically student loans, all of which you have to pay back.) Being someone who had been out of the workforce for so long, it was next to impossible for my mom to find employment.
This place we lived in literally had plaster falling down from the ceiling on a somewhat regular basis. Our hot water tank burst at some point. (We had a cat and carpeted floors when that happened, it was actually kind of cute to see her paw prints imprinted on the carpet puddles.) Our power had sometimes gone off because the landlords neglected to pay hydro for our building. It was pretty expected that if there was a storm, you didn’t want to live in the basement, because the sewage system got backed up and the basement would often flood up to about 2 feet high. Living in that place was to literally be living in shit. When these things happened, my mom would sometimes send me and my sibling to our grandparents to stay for about a week until things stopped smelling so bad. We didn’t live in the basement, so unless the ceiling was leaking (which was also normal) our stuff generally didn’t get ruined. That was a privilege, not having our stuff ruined every time there was a storm.
My experience with the Nuclear Family Dream is exclusively that of backfire.
When I was growing up, the priorities of myself and my family were to make rent and get fed.
I cannot tell you, or ever be able to convey what it means, to be a nine year old child being told that you aren’t getting dinner, because it just isn’t in the budget. Or to see your mom watching you and your sibling eat small <$4 each Happy Meals and knowing that you are the reason that she is not eating.
When people talk about how financial privilege is about who “works hard” and who “doesn’t work hard”... saying things about how people who are poor “deserve what they get” no one ever seems to mention the fact that there are poor children, until they are yelling at single mothers, telling them they shouldn’t be allowed to breed.
I currently do not have the support of any blood relatives (with maybe... 2 aunts? 1 cousin?) because I am disabled and trans, and dropped out of university because I couldn’t complete a degree at a school which is really infamous for its treatment of people with disabilities.
Interlude for Intersectionality
The following is a TEDx talk by Emma Harrison: The Social Stigma of Mental Illness in Progressive and Academic Communities. While a lot of these critiques go across the board when it comes to ableism in academia, Emma attended the same university I did and so many of this hit really close to home.
The Myth: Working Hard = Power
All those who are in positions of power had some kind of privilege (opportunistic or otherwise) which caused them to have power. If you have power, you may have worked hard, but you are not the only person who works hard. You’re just one of the few who got power out of it.
The ignorance that came with those hobbyist knitters in that knitting group I attended last month did not come without the realization that I was not going to feel safe there to disclose my status as a homeless person. If I wanted to attend again without rumours or questions about my personal life, or judgements to the fact that I sometimes spend money on yarn, I had to keep this a secret. These people will never understand, it’s just a fact that poor people care about others more than rich people do.
They don’t understand, that you can’t just devalue impoverished people, when we are the backbone of society. If all those with awful, dead-end jobs quit their jobs, just up and left, you wouldn’t have anyone to serve you Starbucks or clean up your mess after a drunken night out.
The Only Economic System That Can Help Poor People
is a gift economy. A gift economy, in essence, is an economy in which people give each other things. It is “too each according to their need, to each according to their ability.”
It is not based on reciprocity: the assumption that what goes around comes around.
Systems based on reciprocity assume that everyone has equal ability to provide their labour and/or goods from the start. And frankly, disabled people such as myself exist. I’m just not given the base stats in that regard to be able to survive in a system which requires me to be abled. The system of ableism and exploitation of labour that we live in is disabling.
Every time I have tried school, or tried forms of paid labour, my disabilities have gotten in the way and caused me to either drop out, abandon my commitments, or take breaks so often that others demonize me, or tell me that I do not deserve to be treated with the respect I demand. I never expected or asked for others to worship me or put me at the centre of attention. However, I did expect at least a base level of sympathy for my situations.
There are problems with a gift economy as well, such as that it requires a lack of greed to work out properly. In our current capitalist economy, those who have been handed down power enjoy their own culture of greed, not questioning whether they deserve it or not because all the people around them accept what they own as being deserved. Folks who own things have the ability to remain folks who own things. They have control over economic capital, and that is not fair to those who did not start out with those base stats we’re all talking about, what with finances, disabilities, and so on.
The only way that this can be overcome is if the greed of the upper classes were conquered completely, and gave to those who need it. The upper classes need to realize that poor people are exploited most of our lives, and that needs to come to an end. Upper classes have an excess, more than necessary to live off of. In the United States, there are 24 empty homes for every 1 homeless person. This includes only the unoccupied vacation homes. In other words, the excess homes of rich people who don’t need them.
[Image source ]
If you are someone who lives by more than what you need, do the world a favour and give directly to people who need it.
If you are someone who lives by less than what you need, I want you to know that you are not the only one in this. I hear you. I am here with you. We deserve better.