Dinner or Dignity: Expecting the Poor to Remain Moral

A few days ago my son and I went grocery shopping. As a general rule, I do not take my baby with me to grocery shop because as any mother of young children – my son turns seven next month – will tell you, a trip for groceries with the children turns into an event laden with begging, tantrums and running through the aisles. This day, however, I wanted to be close to my boy for no other reason than the fact that I adore him, so I let him tag along.

Standing in aisle 5 as my son grabbed oatmeal, an older black woman approached selecting a box of oatmeal, then looking at the price, and finally replacing it. She walked away turning back to advise me, “If you have a car, you need to go to Walmart. Their prices are way cheaper.” I started to say, “I know, but I don’t shop there because they exploit their employees and the thing with Tracy Morgan made it worse,” but stopped short. I don’t know if I held my tongue because I didn’t want her to counter, obligating me to engage in conversation, or because she walked off so hastily. In any event, not speaking my mind (for once) afforded me the opportunity to reflect on my potential contributions to the exchange. I realized that I would’ve been doing the same thing society always does to poor people: expect them to choose morality over survival.

Poverty is at its core a man-made disease with social, mental and psychological side effects. And though morality and survival are not inherently mutually exclusive, poverty’s entry into the equation makes them so. Poverty is pervasive, a pathogen consuming every part of its victim’s life. It oozes from the pores leaking its puss as a constant reminder of its existence.

As such, expecting the poor to remain moral is at least unrealistic, and at most torturous. Poverty produces the most unimaginable dilemmas. While I have the option of paying a little more to stand by my convictions, for the poorest among us, Walmart doesn’t represent the wickedness of capitalism, it represents cereal for $2.79 instead $4.19, $1.40 more disposable income. That Walmart is paying employees as little as possible, forcing those employees to make the same kinds of decisions as the poor people who shop there, is an abstract concept. The $60 saved on food monthly is concrete. It means gas money or bus fare. It’s just enough to put on the electricity bill to keep the lights on. It’s a new pair of shoes for the son who’s been too ashamed to play at recess because he doesn’t want the kids to notice the holes in his shoes when he runs. Ignoring Walmart’s ethics is worth it right now. And right now is all that counts.

Survival means a mother accepting the diagnosis of ADHD for her daughter without question or challenge because it comes with an SSI check that means the difference in sleeping couch to couch and being able to afford a one-bedroom apartment that’s not the nicest but is a stable place to stay. It means she’s willing to try whatever medication prescribed to mellow her daughter’s behavior so the teacher doesn’t call her job daily. And those phone calls must stop because the mother’s boss has warned her that the calls have become excessive and a hindrance to her performance. Shitty as the pay may be, she needs that job to make ends meet. So she pushes the concerns for her daughter’s long-term mental health out of her mind because she’s gotta have food to eat, clothes to wear and a roof over her head. The SSI check and Vyvanse are worth it right now. And right now is all that matters.

Then the newest Jordans come out, so of course the daughter diagnosed with ADHD and the son with the holes in his shoes want them. They’ve never had a pair because their mother could never afford them. Consequently, they’ve been teased relentlessly for wearing Payless sneakers. Now with the $60 saved on food by shopping at Walmart and the extra income from the SSI check, their mother can just barely afford a pair for each of them if she pays $45 on the gas bill instead of $90 and if she picks up an extra shift over the weekend. Sure the $300 it’ll cost her for the shoes would be better spent on rent. It would be much more financially responsible to put the money in a savings account, invest it or open a 529 plan for the kids, but for once, the kids are gonna have what they want. Superficial as it may seem to spend that kind of money on shoes when she can’t afford the bills she already has, it’s still about survival. It means her children don’t have to embarassed. It means they can fit in with the other kids. It means they won’t get depressed feeling like they’re not worth a nice pair of sneakers. It means that while they’re home alone because their mother has to pick up a few more shifts to make up the money she spent, her son won’t be tempted to run a package to get the money for the shoes and her daughter won’t be tempted by a predator who promises to buy her the Jordans if she just takes a ride with him. Right now, being late on the gas bill and possibly being short on rent are worth it. And right now is all that matters.

Stressed yet pleased with herself, she hands each of her two children the sneakers they so desperately craved. Their excitement makes the sacrifice worth it. They throw on their new kicks for school the next day and bask in the exclamations of “Damn, y’all fresh!” The compliments are heroine. Their bodies need them everyday now lest they become ill with depression and humiliation. So the little boy goes to the neighborhood dope boy and tells him he’s ready to get down. He’s nauseated at the thought and petrified of being caught, but he needs to stay fresh to maintain the approval of his peers. And the money he’ll make running a few packages after school will be enough to keep him and his sister fresh. He doesn’t know his sister loves him as much as he loves her, though, so she’s taken that ride with the 30-year-old and given him and a couple of his buddies head because a few blow jobs mean she and her brother can pop tags. Running dope and sucking dick are worth it right now. And right now is all that matters.

Ironically, we hold poor people more responsible for patronizing Walmart than we hold the Waltons for low pay and no benefits. The rich look down from their high horses declaring the poor amoral as they construct and perfect the systems that make nobility impossible. They hoard resources and label anyone wanting their fair share “greedy.” They donate a few bucks to save the whales and host charity events calling themselves philanthropists pretending they aren’t the very reason we need charity.

Righteousness is easy when it doesn’t exclude existence. Most of us would never imagine killing someone unless that someone had a gun pointed to our head or a knife in our gut. Surely there’s no choice between what’s right and what’s necessary when you have adequate resources. The picture gets fuzzy, t

hough, when resources are scarce and the devil is offering a better deal. Suddenly you’re faced with being a good person and being alive to be any kind of person. You’ve got to decide whether you want to be able to sleep at night or have somewhere to sleep at night. Then the choice becomes clear because it’s worth it right now, and right now is all that matters.

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