“You may be poor, but the one thing nobody can take away from you is the freedom to fuck up your life”. – from The Unwinding, by George Packer
Some time ago I wrote something to the effect that while I love the working class, it drives me crazy to see them make bad choices, spending their scarce money on cigarettes, tattoos and lottery tickets.
It drives me crazy, but I understand each of these choices, not least because of reading this post by a woman who explains the logic in many of the supposed dumb decisions made by poor people. As an aside, someone googled around and decided that this woman isn’t actually poor, as she had a somewhat privileged childhood. Well, I know a man who was raised not just privileged but rich -vacations in Greece, that sort of thing- but who is today quite poor. His father was a gambler and a womanizer, and the inheritance went to the “new family” his dad started with a mistress. My friend got nothing, and though he is educated and a professional, since the collapse of 2008 work has been scarce and underpaid. His family receives food stamps and Medicaid, and he himself is uninsured.
But to explain the perceived bad choices:
No, this is never a good choice in the long run, but most of the choices the working poor make are not farsighted; what is the point? In the immediate here and now, cigarettes offer a relief from stress, as well as energy for the present (nicotine is a stimulant). I realize that the experts say that nicotine doesn’t really relieve stress but contributes to it, and that much of the relief consists of satisfying the craving that addiction brings. But it sure feels like relief. It is like the “expert” telling me that a shot of brandy or schnapps when I have been out all day in the cold and am chilled doesn’t “really” warm me because alcohol actually narrows blood vessels. But if I am cold, and brandy makes me feel warm -and it does- you are hard-pressed to convince me to ignore my senses.
Add to the mix the fact that nicotine is one of the most addicting substances out there, something I know from personal experience, and you can see that smoking for the poor is hard to shake. Heck, I know very good priests who cannot shake the habit. They are too stressed to quit, and however real their stress is I doubt that it compares to the stress of poverty. The poor, once hooked, are in no shape to kick the habit.
Spending money on tattoos seems incredibly stupid; they are not cheap. But if you ask yourself why this seems so important to people, it isn’t hard to see that markings on the skin, long traditional in tribal life, acquire an identifying role in their lives.
Think of the kinds of tattoos that people get. Most common, perhaps, is a tattoo with the names of one’s children.
The family is, of course, the first casualty of poverty. I know that for people on the right it is common to point to the breakdown of the family and blame the poor, with their wanton ways, for their situation. They point to statistics that show poverty more common in lives lived without traditional families, and suppose that there is a cause-and-effect connection there. But of course the connection may well run the other way: economic hopelessness is a horrible strain on relationships, and it is hard to maintain a family without resources. Lack of jobs that pay a living wage is not unconnected to the sorry state of family life among the poor and disinherited working class.
I am not conspiracy minded, but it seems like there was some sort of dark synchronicity at work concerning the timing of the sexual revolution, which coincided with the opening salvos of the war on the working classes. Never mind that that revolution was sold, as much as something promoting unbridled desire needs selling to humans, by rich people in the entertainment industry. I am not saying that it was coordinated on any but the spiritual level, but if you wanted to create a dispirited low paid working class undermining the taboos of conventional morality is a pretty brilliant place to start. That, and undermining labor unions.
So, in a world marked by uncertainty, where family life is precarious, having the names of your kids embedded in your flesh may have deep meaning. Maybe your ex will not let you see them. Maybe their dad hasn’t been seen since he learned you were pregnant. But there they are, inscribed on your very self.
In other ways tattoos can help a disjointed modern find some identity. I know I have several relatives with Celtic designs on their skin, though we were raised with only the vaguest intimations of our ancestry. Moderns of every class are disconnected; ink in the skin, with a tribal mark, may alleviate this to some degree. Ditto for Harley logos, or whatever symbol connects to something larger than the self.
But ask a heavily tattooed person to tell you of their marks and you will get a personal history, with pivotal events sketched in the skin. This is their testament, their identity. Every tattoo has meaning to the person carrying it, every one is the scar of a rite of passage.
While the lottery has been called a “tax for the mathematically challenged” it isn’t hard to see the logic here: however small the chance of winning, everyone who wins faced similar great odds. Someone has to win; hey, it could be me.
For someone facing little in the way of hope, little in the way of opportunity, a shot in the dark is better than no shot at all. For the man or woman struggling in a low wage job it is a hope against hope.
I could add a fourth to this list, but I hope I don’t have to explain the reason that oxycontin and other opiates are the drugs of choice for the poor, many of whom, especially in Ohio, where I live, and Michigan, where I was raised, are the children or grandchildren of prosperous working class people: for those in pain, whose world has been destroyed, taking painkillers is not an unreasonable response.
Or are their critics stoics, enduring their own pains?