JB: ‘How extremely expensive it is to be poor’

JB: ‘How extremely expensive it is to be poor’ December 6, 2013

Here’s a bit from James Baldwin’s essay “Fifth Avenue, Uptown,” (collected in his 1961 book of essays, Nobody Knows My Name). If you want to understand what’s wrong with Dave Ramsey’s victim-blaming ideology of poverty, Baldwin is a good place to start.

And the others, who have avoided all these deaths, get up in the morning and go downtown to meet “the man.” They work in the white man’s world all day and come home in the evening to this fetid block. They struggle to instill in their children some private sense of honor or dignity which will help the child to survive. This means, of course, that they must struggle, stolidly, incessantly, to keep this sense alive in themselves, in spite of the insults, the indifference, and the cruelty they are certain to encounter in their working day. They patiently browbeat the landlord into fixing the heat, the plaster, the plumbing; this demands prodigious patience; nor is patience usually enough. In trying to make their hovels habitable, they are perpetually throwing good money after bad. Such frustration, so long endured, is driving many strong, admirable men and women whose only crime is color to the very gates of paranoia.

… Now I am perfectly aware that there are other slums in which white men are fighting for their lives, and mainly losing. I know that blood is also flowing through those streets and that the human damage there is incalculable. People are continually pointing out to me the wretchedness of white people in order to console me for the wretchedness of blacks. But an itemized account of the American failure does not console me and it should not console anyone else. That hundreds of thousands of white people are living, in effect, no better than the “n—-s” is not a fact to be regarded with complacency. The social and moral bankruptcy suggested by this fact is of the bitterest, most terrifying kind.

The people, however, who believe that this democratic anguish has some consoling value are always pointing out that So-and-So, white, and So-and-So, black, rose from the slums into the big time. The existence — the public existence — of, say, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. proves to them that America is still the land of opportunity and that inequalities vanish before the determined will. It proves nothing of the sort. The determined will is rare — at the moment, in this country, it is unspeakably rare — and the inequalities suffered by the many are in no way justified by the rise of a few. A few have always risen — in every country, every era, and in the teeth of regimes which can by no stretch of the imagination be thought of as free. Not all of these people, it is worth remembering, left the world better than they found it. The determined will is rare, but it is not invariably benevolent. Furthermore, the American equation of success with the big time reveals an awful disrespect for human life and human achievement. This equation has placed our cities among the most dangerous in the world and has placed our youth among the most empty and most bewildered. The situation of our youth is not mysterious. Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them. They must, they have no other models. That is exactly what our children are doing. They are imitating our immorality, our disrespect for the pain of others.

All other slum dwellers, when the bank account permits it, can move out of the slum and vanish altogether from the eye of persecution. No Negro in this country has ever made that much money and it will be a long time before any Negro does. The Negroes in Harlem, who have no money, spend what they have on such gimcracks as they are sold. These include “wider” TV screens, more “faithful” hi-fi sets, more “powerful” cars, all of which, of course, are obsolete long before they are paid for. Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor; and if one is a member of a captive population, economically speaking, one’s feet have simply been placed on the treadmill forever. One is victimized, economically, in a thousand ways — rent, for example, or car insurance. Go shopping one day in Harlem — for anything — and compare Harlem prices and quality with those downtown.

The people who have managed to get off this block have only got as far as a more respectable ghetto. This respectable ghetto does not even have the advantages of the disreputable one — friends, neighbors, a familiar church, and friendly tradesmen; and it is not, moreover, in the nature of any ghetto to remain respectable long. Every Sunday, people who have left the block take the lonely ride back, dragging their increasingly discontented children with them. They spend the day talking, not always with words, about the trouble they’ve seen and the trouble — one must watch their eyes as they watch their children — they are only too likely to see. For children do not like ghettos. It takes them nearly no time to discover exactly why they are there.

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  • train_star

    There is also the issue that being a factory worker in that place and time was to be somewhat privileged.

  • dongisselbeck

    If the good Mr Ramsey works as hard as his gardener, he should make as much.

  • chgo_liz

    I’ll bet you’re talking about Catholic Workers (founded by Dorothy Day).

    I’m not a Christian at all, but when I go visit one of my oldest friends and his wife, I join them in volunteering there. That’s how ethical and non-proselytizing the group is. If only all religious service organizations could be like them.

  • chgo_liz

    “With its hierarchy, the Catholic church gets more publicity”

    With its hierarchy, the Catholic church has more ability to aid and abet its violent offenders and shield them from taking responsibility for their actions.

  • chgo_liz

    There was an enlightening PBS documentary a few years back that worked through the long term effects of the GI Bill being applied differently to returning black vs. white veterans. Especially thanks to redlining, black vets were basically not allowed to get VA-backed (i.e., affordable) mortgages for homes in “good” neighborhoods or suburbs (where the property values grew over time *because* no blacks lived there….great example of circular logic). Thus, they didn’t have equity to get loans to send their children to college or start businesses, and their children didn’t inherit a nest egg. Several generations later, we have a fully entrenched white middle class suburbia which has no awareness that their comfortable life was made possible by discrimination favoring white WWII vets.

  • chgo_liz

    Real life factoid you might appreciate: I sing in a chorus, and this weekend is our annual Handel’s Messiah concerts. All four of our soloists (paid opera professionals) are African-Americans. Four black opera singers, on one stage. Maybe not on every stage yet, but soon.

  • I’ve read the same thing, but from a teacher, not a group. It was a rather excellent blog post about systemic disadvantage and how toxic the “success story” narrative can be, and now I can’t track it down. I think I originally saw it linked from here, though, so perhaps another regular can find it.


  • Kirala

    So that was lucky? I first became interested in Discworld reading the cover of Night Watch, but decided that was too far in the middle to start (especially since a time-travel book set in the middle of a series could be expected to have multiple references to previous books). A couple years later, I finally picked up Guards, Guards! and never looked back. And while I didn’t read strictly in order even within the Guards series, I was glad I’d held off. First, because I felt I’d been right; second, because Night Watch is arguably the very best Discworld book, and I’d’ve hated to be disappointed by declining quality after reading that. Well, apart from Thud!, which I liked even better. But how does one follow those!

  • Kirala

    Yet another reason to hate American suburbia. Growing up, I always hated it for being betwixt and between – neither good experience of human community nor good experience of nature. Well, that’s my current definition; as a child, I grew tired of lawn after lawn after lawn upon which I ought not to trespass, of endless roads of lawns, of the wasteland of lawns which my bike could barely escape (and that merely to the nearest supermarket/strip mall, not to a proper destination).

  • Kirala

    I find this example amusing, as my father once knew a wealthy judge who was his own gardener. And the reason I know this is that my father likes to tell the story of this wealthy judge in a wealthy part of town working in his yard when a lady driving by asked whether he did the gardens. When he said he did, she asked how much he charged.

    After a moment’s consideration, he answered, “Well, the lady here lets me sleep with her.”

    The car was gone with alacrity.

    Heaven forbid that the uppity types be familiar with dirty work.

  • Jenny Islander

    Reminds me of an article in (IIRC) People about a middle-class couple who won some Brobdingnagian lottery prize. They moved to Swellville, but they insisted on doing their own gardening–within sight of the street, even. They said the neighbors thought they were both weird for voluntarily touching actual dirt.

  • Jenny Islander

    And the same person can be an evil abusive monster at home and a fine upstanding citizen in public. The man who sexually abused me for years was also a founding member of the local Lutheran congregation, in which children were treated strictly Biblically–that is, gently, patiently, and with an eye toward teaching them what they needed to know in order to be good people.

  • Monala

    That story is an urban legend attributed to many people, often with a variety of twists – for example, a wealthy African-American or Latino man who lives in a predominantly white neighborhood making that assertion, which shocks the passerby even more.


  • A waning tide grounds all boats.

  • dpolicar

    For every boat, there exist waning tides that ground it, and waning tides that don’t.

    For most waning tides, there exist boats that it grounds, and boats that it doesn’t.

    There exist some waning tides that ground all boats.

  • Assume a spherical boat…

  • On the flip side, some things become much less expensive when you’re rich. I had a millionaire friend who always dressed well, and express surprise at my purchase of an inferior blazer. I explained that my old one had worn out, and I needed to have one for travel coming up. He wondered why I didn’t pull a new one out of the closet.

    Long discussion. Turns out he had at least two of every essential clothing item. He waited until they came on sale, and often purchased at the end of a season or when small companies went out of business. He always had additional cash to make such purchases, and he had a large closet to store those purchases away until they were needed. If he found some shoes he liked, at the end of the season he’d buy two more pair at clearance prices.

    So one of the advantages of being wealthy was being able to time purchases, and wait for deep discount sales. His car was an ugly color, but he got it at about half price after a dealer had held it for far too long. His recreational equipment cost half mine — he found a sporting goods store going out of business, while he was on a business trip, stocked up and had the stuff shipped home.

    A worn-out blazer? No crisis for him. A new one in the closet, at half the price of the poorer-quality one I had to purchase. Worn out shoes? His good ones, which last 20 times as long (Vimes), cost much less — and had back ups in the closet waiting . . .

    When I lived in Washington, D.C., I usually drove to the suburbs for groceries. Stores were larger and better stocked. A gallon of milk was about $1.00 then.

    At the corner store near my apartment, where the local people got their groceries from a much-reduced selection, milk was $1.50/quart, or six times what I paid. I had a car, and no kids to feed.

    At every turn, it’s more expensive to be poor, than rich.

  • A person I know just bought a 65 inch 3D TV for less than $1500. They sell to the rest of us for about $6000. He also bought a PS4 the day it came out for $300. Amazing the opportunities wealth can unlock…

  • ohiolibrarian

    This was the whole point of the athletic scholarship. Good athletes get the ability to see if they can make it professionally in their sport; if not, they still get a degree which they might not be able to afford otherwise. Keep in mind that the vast majority of scholarships are given to athletes in minor sports such as lacrosse and gymnastics–even chess. The idea is a sound mind in a sound body.

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    Except for the very rich, who have moved on to airships.