The Weakness in Our Power

Saying people in poverty have no power, writes the author, is like saying Superman has no power because of kryptonite. And yet, how tightly the rest of us hold firm to that weapon and shield.

Author: Colleen Shaddox

The Port of Providence is an object lesson in how the United States of America went wrong. The name conjures for me an image of blue water and white sails; tide thumping like the heart of the world; sharp New England air.

It could be that way. It should be that way. But it is not.

Instead, the landscape is concrete. The sound, mechanical and ugly. The air is some of the most dangerous to breathe in Rhode Island, because the port is a center for asphalt and cement processing and many other dirty uses. A history of redlining has made it home to communities of color, who suffer from asthma and other respiratory illnesses at far higher rates than their fellow Rhode Islanders. Nearby, Interstate 95, part of the national system that facilitated the migration of white Americans to the suburbs, contributes to the pollution — and therefore to the suffering.

Several years ago, I spoke to Monica Huertas, an organizer for No Liquefied Natural Gas in Providence, a local nonprofit. The group’s mission was to stop a multinational power company from building a liquefaction facility at the port. The group argued that the danger of explosion was too great for a community already burdened by high-risk commercial activity.

As a reporter, I have covered affluent suburban communities that turned out en masse and full of moral indignation to oppose plans for things they did not believe should be in their neighborhoods: a movie theater, senior apartments, a farming cooperative, student housing. None of these things were in danger of exploding and taking the neighborhood with them. Yet Huertas had difficulty getting her community to come to meetings about the gas facility — a prospective neighbor that should be far more alarming. “When people are dealing with food insecurity, they’re not going to mobilize over something that’s a ‘maybe,’” she told me.

Huertas was right: When you’re hungry, you don’t have much energy to focus on anything else — certainly not on a civic process that seems disconnected from your life. Oppressed people do not tend to be politically active. They are less likely to vote or to engage in things like contacting an elected official or participating in a rally than middle-class or affluent people are. This does not mean that people living with financial hardship have no political power. Before the pandemic, nearly 40 percent of Americans did not have enough resources to meet their basic needs. That’s a huge potential voting bloc — “potential” being the operative word.

Oppressed people are often perceived as powerless. This is not true. They are held back from civic participation by low-wage jobs that don’t allow paid time off for anything, certainly not to stand in line for three hours at an understaffed polling place. They are held back by bus and train schedules that will not take them to evening meetings; by illnesses they suffer at much higher rates because of bad air, bad food, bad working conditions. They are held back by criminal records that limit voting rights long after sentences have been served.

On top of all that is the overwhelming stress of poverty, which takes up considerable cognitive bandwidth. Think of the hardest times in your life: dealing with a broken relationship; a child bullied at school; an unreasonable supervisor. Now imagine if those sources of suffering never relented. That’s what it’s like to live in poverty. Saying people in poverty have no power is like saying Superman has no power because he’s been downed by a hunk of kryptonite. Superman is still immensely powerful. He just needs to get rid of the kryptonite.

Traveling across the country reporting on poverty and ways to end it, I encountered some mighty weapons against the various forms of kryptonite produced by economic and racial injustice. Many of these weapons are simple: Hold meetings at a transportation hub; feed people; supply babysitting; print documents for people who lack internet access.

The most inspiring organization I found was the Newark Think Tank on Poverty in Newark, Ohio. The group did all these things, its facilitators also functioning as an informal crisis assistance team. The night before a major community teach-in on transportation access, they were looking for a place where a vulnerable core member could spend the night. He’d been sleeping in his truck while saving up for an apartment. In fact, he had asked someone in the group to hold his security deposit fund so he would not be tempted to start using again. The day of the teach-in, he was 100 percent on, his eloquence and passion made possible by a community that surrounded him and protected him from his personal kryptonite.

The organization has had policy victories, including getting the Newark city council to pass an ordinance banning a criminal-record check box on municipal job applications. Action priorities come directly from people living in poverty, who are referred to as experts because that is what they are. The organization, which now has sister groups in other cities, broke down the wall between activist and oppressed person. One can be both.

The people I write about are sometimes perceived as “other” because of their oppression. They can become defined by their oppression. Abused. Addicted. Incarcerated. Undocumented. Poor. Disabled. Uneducated. Homeless. Their experiences have long set them apart from the typical American life in which people expect to have job security, freedom of movement, the material goods they need to thrive, and some sense of safety. Then came COVID-19, when the residents of four-bath McMansions were as likely to go without toilet paper as were those of a homeless shelter. Shelves in my supermarket still have empty spaces. Projects and checks are still held up because colleagues are out sick with COVID. At Mass, we still don’t shake hands during the sign of peace, recognizing that we are not yet, and may never again be, safe.

People accustomed to material privilege have been given a much greater blessing than simple abundance: the opportunity to empathize with our poor and low-income neighbors. Actually, empathize is too weak a word. This is a chance for real community. As Thich Nhat Hanh once said, “We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness.” Today in the U.S., the alarm clock is blaring.

To be sure, people across classes experienced losses during COVID. Yet many of those with the resources to weather the pandemic also discovered hidden gems as they took forced breaks from their career-driven lives. In my own family, I have seen so much discovery and so much resolve to live differently, especially among the younger members. Lockdown helped some young parents realize they were happiest when together as a family. That recognition made burning the midnight oil to make partner at the firm much less appealing. Couples grew closer with the extra time together. For these families, sitting down around a common table became more important than the food set out on that table. Serving family and community was much more satisfying than serving an employer.

Admittedly, this sort of experience was more common within the professional class — less so among essential and scandalously underpaid workers, who were too often physically and unsafely back at work when the pandemic was at its height and white-collar workers were telecommuting. The disparity may explain why COVID infection rates and deaths were higher in low-income communities. Disruptions for lower-paid workers widened income gaps, a trend the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts will continue unless action is taken.

‘We have a duty to hope.’

Several times during the pandemic, our government gave people cash aid — through stimulus checks, an expanded child tax credit and extended unemployment benefits. The tragedy is that these policies, which especially benefited the lowest-income people, have not continued. But at least at the height of the crisis there was widespread and bipartisan support for these measures. There was actual solidarity as COVID made it clear that business as usual was brutal as usual to the lowest-income workers, though it is hardly kind to folks in the middle, either.

Most people, at all pay grades, give so much to their jobs that their health and their families suffer. Yet many remain one serious illness away from bankruptcy. Why haven’t middle-class Americans demanded more? I think it’s because so many people who look like me have been conned into believing that our way of life is somehow threatened by people who do not share our demographics. We have been tricked into thinking that once they achieve justice, we will somehow be left out.

White people have been trained to perceive our status as fragile, which it is, and as threatened by people who are not white or born in the U.S., which it is not. The latter belief is a highly successful hoax that exploits deeply ingrained biases to divert attention from urgent concerns about economic equality and fairness. Sitting in his family’s modest Cape Cod-style house, facing foreclosure, one man told me about the struggle to keep his mother alive. She relied on electrically powered medical equipment to breathe, so when the power company shut the home off, it was a matter of life and death. He articulated so clearly how blue-collar families like his were being driven into poverty by the high cost of health care, which he thought should be free.

Then he made a sharp rhetorical turn and complained about undocumented immigrants, whom he mistakenly believed received free housing, health care and education from the government. Instead of being mad at a system that left an old woman gasping for breath because she was behind on her bills, he got angry at people even more downtrodden than himself.

Score another victory for the status quo. Americans of low and middle incomes who share common economic and political interests relinquish our power because we are divided. We are divided by lies that spring from the wrongful othering of people who want, need and deserve the same things we all do. That is the American kryptonite.

It has made us weak in a thousand ways. As I write this, western communities are burying their dead after devastation by wildfires fed by our disregard for the planet’s health. Universal free school lunches have ended, here in the richest society in human history, where we can expect a return to days when children are shamed and hungry because they do not have lunch money. Meanwhile hunger around the globe is growing more common and more severe because of climate change and war — evils that we humans perpetrate against our siblings and ourselves.

And yet, my mind keeps returning to something I read recently in the obituary of a friend. Thomas Cornell, a late, great editor of The Catholic Worker, was once asked what Dorothy Day would say about the state of the world today. Tom said his mentor would insist that “we have a duty to hope.”

Duty. Trust Tom to find the precise word. It must ring true for anyone who believes in a loving God. Hope is a recognition that our creator does not intend for the world to be this way. We are capable of — we are designed for — something far better. That is why the state of the world hurts us so much. We are fish out of water. We feel that we need something more. Thank God, we have the power to grasp it.

This is not cheap optimism. This is very expensive optimism. It will cost us. Real solidarity means we will no longer put up with artificially low prices because the people who produce and serve are not paid a living wage. It means that, instead of complaining about clutter, we adopt the mindset of our forebears, for whom nicer clothes, appliances and restaurant meals were things to save for — occasional splurges. It means a reordering of public priorities. For example, I benefit from the largest federal housing subsidy — the mortgage interest tax deduction — which mostly benefits middle- and upper-income households. I would rather pay more tax so our government could instead subsidize people who are housed inadequately, or not at all.

Unjust political and economic systems excel at placation. Comforts are nice. While I have argued that our humanity suffers when we become 24/7 worker bees, I do have an awfully big television. Who gives up a seat by the fireplace or the last piece of apple pie?

The greatest comfort of all is familiarity, which is why Americans hug their kryptonite tightly, especially in times of turmoil. Populist movements, Trumpism being the current horrifying example, weaponize the barely middle class against the deeply oppressed, like my friend who blames immigrants because medical bills are driving him into poverty. These notions make adversaries out of natural allies or — to put it more spiritually — pit sibling against sibling. They are perverse.

Today, however, the comfortable are becoming increasingly uncomfortable. The president made a primetime address to the nation warning that our democracy is at risk from domestic radicals. Life expectancy has dropped in the country for the second year in a row. More women, especially Black women, are dying during childbirth as our health care delivery system, the priciest on the planet, routinely fails us. It is easy to feel powerless.

Yet may not powerlessness be a hopeful state? “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong,” Paul the Apostle wrote. In hardship, we find each other. If you want to see real solidarity, visit a cancer support group or an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. You will enter a circle of people who know that their race, income and other demographic differences are small in comparison to their shared vulnerability and their power to uplift each other. You will see community. You will see what people can be, minus the kryptonite.

Everyone I know is in pain right now. I cannot be happy about this. But it does lead me to hope that we might recognize ourselves in our neighbors in this vale of tears. Power without solidarity becomes tyranny. But power that springs from community is a creative force. In fact, I think it is what Jesus was incarnated to build. I love a good cathedral, but Christ never seemed as interested in architecture as in open hearts. And a broken heart, too, is an open heart.

I have post-traumatic stress disorder. I’ll spare you the details, but when I was a child an adult abused his power over me, badly. Recently I was talking to a friend who feels shame about her own mental illness. “If I could rewrite my past and become a shiny, happy and unmarred version of me, I would not do it,” I told her. I am better because I understand imbalances of power and because I understand suffering. I believe the U.S. has a collective case of PTSD right now. The question is: What are we going to do with it?

Writing as often as I do about social injustice, I get emails from people who want to know how they can work for change. I love reading that. It would make me hope, even if I did not consider hope a duty. People want to be part of the solution.

This leads me, of course, to voting rights, which are under assault around the country. Defending those rights is certainly part of the solution. People of conscience need to fight against regulations designed to cut off access to the polls. You can work on a policy level, you can deliver water to people in long lines, give rides to the polls, provide childcare. You can give your fellow humans a hand up as they scale the barricades.

As important as voting is, political power needs to be exercised more often than Election Day. If it isn’t, we get candidates who pay little heed to the disenfranchised. If you are engaged in civic activity — through an advocacy group, your faith community, your school — you need to ask: Who is not at this table, and why? Do the people setting the agenda, running the forums, canvassing for candidates all look like you? Do they have comparable jobs? The same level of education? Families structured like yours? If you are answering “yes,” something needs to change.

How might your organization make participation possible and worthwhile for people who are disenfranchised? I don’t want to be involved in any group that is not asking that question. It can change everything, can make the illusions of powerlessness and separation vanish.

That liquified natural gas facility in Providence got built. The company is applying to expand it. It is almost rude of me to bring the matter up after so much rhapsodizing about justice and hope. But I have a reason. There will be many disappointments as we work to get rid of our kryptonite, and it is best to face that from the outset. Hope is not an emotion that waxes and wanes with circumstance. It is a duty, especially when it is hardest to maintain.

I pray a morning offering that begins, “Beloved Lord, thank you for my life.” Lately, I’ve been thinking that I am thankful not only for the gift of being alive, but for my particular life, right now and right here, as the planet burns and democracy teeters. Amid all this, I see more and more people recognizing common cause with the siblings they’ve been taught to fear.

Which is not to say we are home free. Greed, bigotry and deception are sadly alive and well. But my faith tells me that love triumphs in the end — so clearly this is not the end. I pray, I hope, that it is the beginning, the time when we finally claim our collective power.

Colleen Shaddox is a journalist, fiction writer, playwright, activist and co-author, with Joanne Samuel Goldblum, of Broke in America: Seeing, Understanding and Ending U.S. Poverty. She left daily newspapers to work in a soup kitchen when her editor reprimanded her for writing “too many stories about poor people.”