“Being Poor” Excerpted in “The Rich and the Rest of Us”

I completely forgot about this until I saw a Tavis Smiley tweet about it this morning: My Whatever post “Being Poor,” which I wrote in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, is excerpted in his and Cornel West’s new book The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto. Which is, as you might expect, a book about poverty here in the United States.

You might ask, what payment did I get for this reprint? The answer: None at all. I am someone who very strongly believes in getting paid for his work, but in the case of this particular essay, it wasn’t written for pay, and when an opportunity for payment comes to me for it, I like to put my money where my mouth is regarding poverty. I requested that in exchange for the right to reprint the essay, that Mr. Smiley (whose people approached me with the request) donate the reprint sum to a charity dealing with poverty. Mr. Smiley (or his people) chose Feeding America, which helps provide food for those who need. That’s an organization whose goals I support, so well done him.

In any event, if you happen to pick up the book, see “Being Poor” and wonder if I know it is there: Yes, I do. It’s nice to see the essay still getting around and being part of the conversation about poverty here in the US.

38 Comments on ““Being Poor” Excerpted in “The Rich and the Rest of Us””

  1. Also, the first person in the comment thread who makes the argument that there is no poverty in the US compared to the poverty in [insert third-word country here] a) is missing the point, I suspect entirely willfully, b) will get malleted, because I tire of that stupid argument and its derailing qualities. So will the second and subsequent people.

  2. Poverty is poverty, and being hungry probably sucks no matter which country you are poor in. That was a generous gesture on your part and I hope the universe give you a little a good karma somewhere along the line.

  3. Not in *any way* to compare myself to you, but when people ask me IP-law related questions over the Interwebz, and I can be bothered to answer, and they want to pay me, this is what I do. “I do this ‘pro bono publico,’ as we say, but if you really feel the advice was of value to you, please feel free to donate some money to the charity of your choice as a way of saying thank you.” It sounds kind of corny, but it really does feel good.

    However, for me it’s a double win – not only do I get Karma Points, but if they don’t pay *ME,* they’re not my clients, and they can’t sue me for malpractice. :)

    Incidentally, I believe it was linked in the original thread, but this essay:


    is must-reading for people who are considering the plight of the American poor. (Warning: foul language, etc.)

  4. Well done, Mr. Scalzi. It’s nice to see people back up their beliefs with actions.

  5. @Marc Whipple: Don’t be so sure about them not being your clients. You may want to double-check the laws in your state; payment is usually only one of several factors used to determine an attorney-client relationship. Note that this is NOT legal advice and you are NOT my client….:)

  6. Wow, surprised how many of those are familiar. And grateful for the ones that aren’t. Cause somehow handed down underwear for the kids seems better than buying them at the thrift store with all the other clothes we get there . . . anyway, nice job. Thanks.

  7. I missed your “Poor” essay when originally posted.

    I’m just now reading through it but needed to take a break from the tears. So many of those, and more, have been my life too… and knowing that grinding poverty is still out there waiting for one misstep is frightening; as is the continual awareness of how many people are still stuck in it’s vile vicious cycle.

    Thank you for caring.

  8. @ADifferentJohn – Oh, that was a vast oversimplification, yes, I know. :) My actual responses are covered with the standard waivers and so forth. It was just a humorous aside.

  9. Nicely done sir. You really seem to have great instinct for doing the right thing even when it would be easy to justify not doing it. Its almost enough to make me break my pledge to never learn much about people whos work I enjoy. Hopefully Athena will never write a ‘tell-all’ 8-{D

  10. As if I needed a reason to like you more. Stuff like this makes me smile.

  11. Also, if you haven’t seen the Tavis Smiley/Cornel West appearance on the Colbert Report to plug this book, you might want to track it down.

  12. I saw their appearance on Colbert, as well, and had been meaning to pick it up. As someone who could check off plenty of those items off your list from my time growing up, I feel pretty strongly about this issue as well.

    Just this morning I had a conversation with a friend who claimed that the poverty and lack of rights for women in Niger made the encroachments upon women’s rights here pale in comparison, and your reaction in the first comment was exactly what I was trying to say to her and don’t know that I did. Both are problems, and it doesn’t detract from our need to fix the one when we advocate for fixing the other. In fact, perhaps fixing one might help fix the other, given how connected our world is. Making it possible for people in poverty to think about more than the next paycheck, more than the next meal, opens up opportunities for people to make a difference in the world that they might not have been able to otherwise. I know it happened for me.

  13. I’ve seen some news articles that suggests poverty within certain US inner cities, some extreme rural areas, and the homeless communities, is approaching parts of the developing and third world standards. That makes the Being Poor article and the Occupy movements all the more relevant (and I sadly expect to become increasingly relevant) to modern life.

  14. Anyone who says there is no poverty in America has either never been there or managed to pass though without opening their eyes even once. The first time I visited was in 1976 and even then, in a brief few days on the east coast, I was deeply surprised by what I saw. Every visit since then it has been ever more depressing to realise that it is only getting worse.

  15. “Being Poor” was actually how I was first exposed to your writing…I believe I had printed it out from the Chicago Tribune website to read in a class but never did. Years later I was cleaning out papers and found it and now that your name actually meant something to me I was like “Oh hey, it’s THAT John Scalzi that wrote this!”

  16. I may have commented when you first ran your fine Whatever post “Being Poor.” I shall not comment on the gap between rich and poor people in one country, nor the gap between rich and poor countries, as a Mathematical Economist. In a sense, the two most populous nations on Earth are “poor” though with more middle class families than USA has middle class people. But, without a carload of assumptions and equations, it’s tricky to define “middle class” and thus the border between lower class and middle class. The ten countries with the largest population in world are
    China, India, United States, Indonesia, Brazil, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Russia, and Japan. I have done a PhD worth of research on 5 of these (China, India, United States, Brazil, and Russia) to give credible extrapolations to the year 2020 in my 2,000+ pages so far of ALZHEIMER’S WAR. I have no incentive to write a novel about the other 5 (Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, and Japan) even though I have written short fiction about each, and have either friends or Facebook friends in each. Hence I limit my comment to agreeing with the Thorium Mallet-wielder to omit any instantiation of “there is no poverty in the US compared to the poverty in [insert third-word country here]” because such arguments are wrong, ignorant, and pernicious. My position is not based on my peer-reviewed scientific publications, but on having taking a huge pay cut, and sought the “worst” students in the worst schools in greater Los Angeles, and grappled with the horrors of American poverty in my students, their families, and their communities.

  17. I like the charity, but be warned; once you give, you will get 1-2 fundraising mailings per month.
    It seems like when I send a small donation to a charity or a non-profit, they frequently spend an appreciable fraction of the whole amount sending fairly elaborate requests for more money. It tends to support a strategy of sending larger amounts to fewer organizations.

  18. Glad to see that such a wonderful post is still getting new exposure, John. I re-read it the other day and got choked up again. It still amazes me how you were able to keep everything so succint and have each sentence hit like a hammer blow. Posts and articles like this are so important because so many people have misconceptions about what it’s really like to be poor.

    For example: I grew up extremely poor. We were on Welfare and lived in government housing until my father got custody of my brother and I when I was sixteen. Most of the time when someone hears this- which isn’t often because I don’t usually talk about it-they give me a sort of quizzical look and say, “You don’t sound like someone who grew up poor.” A lot of people would get angry but I usually just explain that just because you’re poor doesn’t mean someone won’t loan you a book. :)

  19. Mike, yes, it made me alter my charity giving strategy in that direction as well. And because of the mailings, I no longer give money to Feeding America. In addition to giving more money to fewer people, i’ve shifted somewhat to more local charities.

    Also, Alzheimer’s Association, if you’re listening,.. calling me for more money less than two weeks after I gave you some money was a very counter-productive approach.

  20. Good on everyone involved for doing the right thing! I sent my Mom (who was born in 1933, the worst year of the Depression) Being Poor when it came out, and she was moved to tears, too.

    However, you said it was an excerpt first, then described it as the essay. I understand it’s wrong if they reprinted the whole thing, but isn’t an attributed excerpt fair use?

  21. John, I don’t know if you allow links in the comment section but Heifer International has a new initiative that targets two areas in the US, Appalachia and the Arkansas Delta. It’s called Seeds Of Change. I won’t go into all the details because folks who are interested can Google Heifer International and go to that program for fuller information, but it is a way to again put our money where our mouths (and hearts) are. https://secure1.heifer.org/fund-a-project/usa-seeds-of-change.html

    Anne R.

  22. I hate to metoo, but good on everyone involved. An important subject to write about and a timely exerpt to use, and good on all involved on the donation.

  23. You’re a class act, John.

    And a pretty good example on how being a class act can get others to act classy, too. That’s important, because that’s how change happens. :)

  24. Eric Bnope @ 5:10 pm: I’m not sure exactly which program you’re talking about, but the top few results in that Google search are for this program, which seems to be a Sunday School curriculum in which the students raise money for the charity. That’s engaging potential donors by appealing to their faith, which seems perfectly reasonable to me.

  25. Wow, My pretend heterosexual boyfriend knows Cornell West. Remind me to brag about that at work.

    {As my actual spousal equivalent often points out, “is there nothing you can’t make about you?”}

  26. Wow. Just tonight, I happen to find your essay on “Being Poor.” Looking at the date posted, I thought to myself, “oh, that was when Nebraska Child “Protective” Services was doing their damnedest to drive me insane: my daughter was taken from me for the woefully (and I’m pretty sure this is how it is) wonderfully generic, umbrella term “neglect,” which you can very safely assume actually means “we don’t think that $ 293 a month is enough to raise a child with.” I tend to agree with that. But when that’s all you have because you’ve spent almost two years waiting on SSI to issue a decision on your case and that’s what the amount of AFDC is, and has been, since it was last set in 1973 (the year I was born), what was I supposed to do?

    They then gave my daughter up to be raised by my sister, who makes $ 20000 a month compared to my $ 698. The big difference between us is the laundry list of problems I have wrong with my lower back. That, and, for whatever reason, my sister doesn’t seem to be able to lose the over 250 pounds of extra weight that keeps her from conceiving.

    Being poor is why I’m sitting here with a mouthful of rotted and rotting teeth that I’d love to have surgically extracted and replaced, but Nebraska Medicaid won’t pay for the surgery because, despite the three ER visits specifically because of the extremely painful abcesses that DIDN’T go away over the past two years, and the abcesses in my jaw that travelled into my ears, infected them and damaged my hearing, they don’t believe it’s a medical problem that’ll eventually kill me.

    My fiance cannot comprehend how I could live with this, but he always had two working parwnts, grandparents, aunts and uncles. I just had Mom.

    I’ve not just been hoping the abcess will got away, I’ve had so many that I can press on the sweeling to hopefully pop it and while it does hurt, least ut’ll hurt less thanks if I DIDN’R manually pop it.

    Being poor means the State decides you don’t get to raise your own child.

    Being poor means I stay more or less at a healthy weight because a lot of the time, my mouth hurts too much for me to eat. I’d love to digg into a big bowl of cup of noodles Ramen right now, but it’ll hurt too much.

    My name is Cathleen Sickler. I live in South Omaha, Nebraska. I just used my really-really name so that if anyone who works for NDHHS sees this, they’ll know who to complain about to their supervisors.

    Thank you for getting people to pay attention to the reality of being poor. Wish ones didn’t have to experience being poor to understand what it. means and what it’s REALLY like.

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