I should say that I don’t know hunger. Hungry, yes, I know that. Hungry like a missed meal; hungry that’s unpleasant, but whose edge is always cut by the knowledge that it won’t last. But hunger as a state of being or as a mindset, in which the next meal is defined not by its contents, but by its uncertainty — no, I don’t know anything about that.
Really though, I just don’t know poor. My life hasn’t seen unfilled prescriptions or food pantry lines. I can attest to days when the cost of a broken bone might have been a bit too much for my family to handle. Those would be the days when you wouldn’t mention a hole in the sole of a shoe or a particularly expensive field trip. In this strange sense of filial duty, you feel an obligation to shield them from having to say no to something they could not afford. So then the thought of money would hang like humid air, making it just a little more difficult to move.
But that’s not poor. It was money as a persistent reality, something that mattered on a week-to-week basis, but I largely lived my life blanketed in middle class comforts. True, my experience is not quite as universal as I believed it to be prior to migrating to Cornell, a place where “Hoverboard Safety” applies to a wide enough population to merit sending instructions to that effect to the entire student body. But that’s just to say that as a population, Cornell doesn’t really know poor either.
According to the U.S. Census, there are around 47 million Americans who do know. The Department of Agriculture says that 17 million people know hunger, although they describe it as “food insecurity,” an oddly dispassionate and academic term to use when describing a human in need of food. Poverty is not a uniform experience and the populations that experience it are highly varied and impossible to characterize with any meaningful degree of accuracy. I hope it doesn’t seem like I’m trying to do so. But this is a remarkably large number of people in a country of such unbelievable means. It is a massive population of people whose lives are bounded and constricted by a financial reality that is constantly building and rebuilding walls around the realm of what is personally possible.
So this particular presidential campaign is intensely confusing. The rhetoric used to discuss nearly every issue has been heightened to the point of National Emergency. Yet one would be hard-pressed to find a mainstream presidential candidate willing to build their campaign on combating what constitutes a constant emergency for 15 percent of the country. Nor would one find a president in the last 30 years who was willing to stake the legitimacy of their term on such a fight.
In this respect, poverty as a problem doesn’t much exist in political discourse. It exists as an inevitable, yet intensely regrettable reality. President Barack Obama made his a middle class fight. He often makes his case for universal health insurance with the claim that for many families living just above the poverty line, a medical emergency would send them below. Here, poverty exists as an abyss, an inescapable black hole that good people fall into. When it is discussed, poverty and those who experience it are objects. Poor Americans are objects of pity or derision, but never agents in their own lives. They are rarely granted the benefit of this sort of humanity.
We are a country politically defined by a middle-class aspiration. Individually, we love to self-identify in that middle 50 percent. For the most part, our sense of belonging is largely tied up with our membership in this cohort. It conjures ideals of self-sufficiency and hard work, the idea that one can care for oneself and is therefore deserving of respect, but also isn’t a member of the opulent other. So just as politicians would rather not talk about poor, so too would we rather not listen.
This is why I started with my own experience of not knowing. It is hard for most Americans to truly know what it is to live an impoverished life for any period of time. We have our own experiences with financial constraint, all of which we can only approach relative to our own level of privilege (see: hoverboard safety concerns). But when it comes to an experience like hunger, or honest to God, to your core, cold at night, there isn’t much we can do but offer a sympathetic imagination. It’s the not knowing that saps what impetus there may be to act, and makes the policy we do have paternalistic and restrictive.
It takes an exercise in self-reflection, an honest look at one’s own experiences, in order to choose to genuinely help or feel compelled at all to do so. It’s saying, I think, that we don’t know hunger or cold. It’s seeing the wide gulf between our daily experience and those of millions whose lives are often shaped by the things that aren’t there. This clearly is not a solution, but it might help.
Rubin Danberg Biggs is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at [email protected]. The Common Table appears alternate Mondays this semester.