COVID-19 Political Economy
A Rant with Substance about Nouveau Poverty
Would we be happier if we were richer? That is the question I’m asking while my kids and I appear to have various degrees of depression. Our COVID-19 situation is common. Under employment coupled with boredom and uncertainty are keeping us down.
In terms of essentials, we don't lack for anything. We have a roof over our heads and food and clothes and Internet and a cat who brings us endless entertainment. Since COVID-19, my expenses have actually gone down. I haven’t had one of those fraught working single mother weeks of choosing between milk and medicine since January.
Still, the question of poverty and unhappiness is there, along with experiences that only poor people have. I grew up without income stability, but my parents owned their house and their shop and that came with other kinds of stability. As a friend of mine once put it, "the only thing you had in common with poor people was that you had no money."
That is no longer true. It is true that I have an awesome education. I have proximity to more well-off people and experiences that proximity offers. I have highly-specialized skills that, when I can't sell them, I can use to further the goals of my community and society as a volunteer. I also know what it is to live in a place where there are active threats to our safety thanks to drugs. I know what it is to feel the threat of other vulnerabilities -- like bad wiring and plumbing -- that could cause us hardship through no fault of our own. I've been carrying one debt too many for far, far too long because I chose braces for my kid. I didn’t want him to look poor as an adult. Having access to credit to avoid that kind of shame is my greatest luxury, I guess.
To give the free market champions their due, it must be stated that I chose poverty by legal fees. A long international custody battle became my long-term mortgage. Except, without a tangible asset at the end. If I had been a free market champion myself, I would have given up the fight and given up my children as unaffordable. I could have, but where would any of us be now if I had done that?
Would our situation be any less depressing if my kids and I lived where heating and cooling were more effective, where there was storage for clutter and if we had a real yard instead of a balcony? Would my kids feel more secure if they knew there were accounts full of cash for university? Would we have more energy to focus on our work if we did not dread the landlord selling the building out from under us? Is there anything to be said for comfort and space, a place for a sharing and a place for concentration?
It is amazing to me, though, how strong the conditioning to emphatically answer my own question about the link between wealth and happiness with "no, of course not!"
"We are rich in love," my grandma, who knew Depression-era hunger, used to say. She was right, of course. Beloved grandmothers, especially when they are dead, have always, always, always been completely right. She was also of a generation whose unrest was kept down by one story after another of the poor little rich girls and boys neglected and unloved by adults focused on money. Gloria Vanderbilt, then the son of Hetty Green who lost his leg because his millionaire mother was too cheap to pay for a doctor, and Joan Crawford’s daughter are just three examples my grandma knew as well as we do today. There are recent examples too. Think of The Crown and how it pulls at our heart strings to make us feel sorry for four generations of the royal family and their inability to love each other without complication. We are trained to believe that because rich people have problems, money is not a solution.
How is money not a solution when it comes to solving the problems of air conditioning, tuition fees, home exercise equipment, kitchen appliances and dedicated home offices? It is, of course, the solution.
What should I do about it? Well, I believe all work has dignity and that there is no shame in working at anything. However, accepting all offers for work has brought me to exactly this apartment with all its attractions. I do draw the line at enterprises that degrade the minimum wage and drive working people even deeper into poverty. Delivering groceries or pizza for below minimum wage is only a stop gap solution until you have a car accident and insurance refuses to pay because you were using your vehicle for commercial purposes not covered. The owners of those services are free of all risks their contractors accept.
COVID-19 has taught us much about poverty and its connection to the availability of space, physical comfort and the constant dance between family sharing and family member privacy. I am not sure that I regret focusing so much of my pre-COVID energies on community service and parenting instead of personal income generation. The word is not regret when I look at how I provide for my teen agers. It might be guilt. Yes, we would be happier together here and now if we were richer. It’s my fault that I did not focus on wealth. Let the free market champions adjust their bow ties with joy.