You Got a Cigarette?
Written by Winter Trabex.
Once I decided to pursue writing as a full-time career, I knew from the beginning that I would have to live in a low-rent district. I would have to learn to live with less. Writing rarely pays so well that people can use it as a full-time career. This meant moving to an area where the supply of apartments was far greater than the demand thereof: the state capital of Pennsylvania. I’ve written before about the city of Harrisburg, its potholes, its financial instability, its lack of good grocery stores (or any kind of business at all). I haven’t yet written about the lives and experiences of poor people on welfare. I didn’t know enough about that, having never lived through it myself.
Now, with several neighbors in my apartment complex, all of whom appear to be on some form of disability or social security, I’ve begun to engage in what I can only call observational anthropology. The world that poor people live in is completely different from the world I had been accustomed to. There aren’t many businesses around; those that manage to survive do so by attracting customers out of the city. This is the case with the Mid-Town Scholar, a bookstore of excellent quality. Because there aren’t many businesses- due to a combination of high taxation and numerous restrictive regulations- there aren’t many jobs to be had. The highest calling to which a person in a poor neighborhood can aspire is to work at a dollar store, or a fast food restaurant. Though there are high-paying jobs centered around government, the competition is so strong for those jobs that poor people- who lack both experience and education- are excluded from the process.
Nor do they easily recognize changing paradigms, one of which is a shift to online work. Out of desperation, some of them turn to theft. Some of them turn to drug dealing, a business which is fraught with danger both from other dealers and police officers. Some of them turn to pawning off their possessions, which leads to pawn shops and thrift stores. To put it simply, the economy in Harrisburg is a preview on a small scale of what is to come on a national level resulting from continual government overreach.
Through a unique combination of circumstances, I find myself excluded from this cycle. Next door to my apartment is a doctor’s office which offers free wifi. With the internet and my computer, I can write novels for money. Given enough time, I can save up enough investment capital to buy the tools and/or classes I need for a more lucrative career.
The case is quite different for poor people who believe themselves to be good for nothing. Life has taught them that asking for help provides them with help. They soon come to believe that it is easier to do very little with their lives other than sit around and talk to each other, listening to music or watching television. Because they don’t have income of their own, many of them don’t have cars, or even bicycles. They are unable to extend their economic influence beyond the city’s bus routes. The city’s bus service, subsidized in large part by the government, takes no notice of consumer concerns. Poor people in the city of Harrisburg are trapped their whole lives in a system designed to provide them with as a little as possible. They soon come to the conclusion that they must move out of the area. This is the primary causal factor of the high supply of unrented apartments in city.
The government, both local and state, feels compelled to give out welfare through the social pressures of activist groups, even though a rough estimate by state congressmen reveals that the state will run out of welfare money in three years (by 2018). Additionally, there is a hidden, almost never spoken of, fear that the economy will collapse and the welfare money will suddenly dry up. The welfare money that they do get can be taken away at any time; the government regularly re-evaluates whether a person is eligible to receive subsidies or not. The way this is determined is by the same rule that every other socialist society in history has used: among people who aren’t bribing their way into influence by proxy, those who need the most receive the most. Those who need the least receive the least. It is therefore in a person’s best interest to let medical conditions go unresolved, to overdose on medicine- perhaps purposefully, to do the opposite of everything a doctor says. The goal is to create or let problems remain so they can remain on a government income.
Among the people I’ve met, it transpires that this is exactly what transpires. Whether they are conscious of not, welfare recipients deliberately act towards the incentives that government provides rather than of improving their own lives through their own work. They dread the transitional period in which they might have to be homeless if they dare to strike out on their own. They don’t wish to work at a job where their labor isn’t valued (for there are so many unemployed people in the city that most businesses can deal with high turnover rates). On all sides, personal incentives are the reverse of what one might expect. Rather than striving for high income through delayed gratification, they want everything instantly as soon as they can get it. Rather than being attracted to the highest quality of product, they are instead attracted to the lowest price regardless of quality. Rather than thinking about the long-term consequences of their decisions, they think only of the immediate present, making of their life a series of improvisational decisions that may or may not work out.
There is, for example, a woman who has a sugar daddy. The woman has taken the attitude of “rather than overcoming my problems, I’m going to let my problems overcome me.” This is a common attitude for those who have become acculturated to proving how bad they have it in order to receive charity via pity. The sugar daddy, who is himself engaged in enterprises of a legally questionable nature, receives calls and texts from the woman day and night. He has reached the point where he will tell her what he wishes to hear if only to get her off the phone. He blocks her number, or doesn’t answer when she calls. This leads her to use other people’s phones in order to try and get in touch with him. She knows that she cannot survive without money, but for her this knowledge has manifested itself into a belief that she can’t survive with the man (who is not even her boyfriend) paying for what she needs. She doesn’t have enough food to eat, so she sneaks around late at night trying to steal what she can. She is forty-three years old.
There is the fat man who wasn’t always fat. He confesses that he enjoys eating pasta, but he also confesses that he has several medical ailments which when combined prevent him from getting enough sleep or breathing properly. He has to take his oxygen tank with him just to walk a single city block. After three months of subsisting off what his friends have been able to give him (it transpires that he has a lot of good friends), he has finally given in and applied for food stamps and disability benefits. Because he doesn’t have a computer, and isn’t able to physically visit the welfare office, much less stand in line for the four to five hours that would be required just to be seen, he is stuck wrangling on the telephone with people who promise him that his assistance will come in the mail. Nothing has yet come. The people who processed his request were required to do an interview with him. This has so far proven impossible.
There is the fat woman who complains about working at McDonald’s. For her, she has reached a pinnacle that many poor people in the city haven’t been able to reach. She has a job. Despite its being part-time, despite her supervisors being disorganized and overworked, despite her schedule constantly changing, despite the fact that she is always being asked to come in while other people always call off, she makes no bones about not wanting to work. She has come to enjoy her ease somewhat too much. The economic consequences of her indolence might not be apparent to her at first, though there is no doubt that she will have to face the reality of her situation sooner or later.
Together with grinding poverty, the city of Harrisburg suffers from what its residents colloquially call urban blight. Urban blight is a condition wherein people throw trash around the city, sometimes in small alleys, sometimes on sidewalks or streets, sometimes in places you’d never expect trash to be. The city government is constantly undertaking clean-up efforts to rid the city of all its misplaced trash. Though the city has a recycling program, poor people do not really understand what recycling is. They do not know what they symbols on recyclable materials mean. They throw trash in recycling bins, even when a trash can is near at hand. For my own part, I collect recyclables in grocery bags with the intention of turning them in to a center myself. This, I have found, is a very uncommon attitude.
For the few college students in the city- those who attend Harrisburg Area Community College- they find that there is “nothing to do” in the city. There are no dance clubs. There are no movie theaters. There are no bowling alleys, or roller blade centers. The only thing that Harrisburg really can boast of is a series of bars all aligned down a strip of road that suffices for the city’s business district. The biggest business in Pennsylvania’s center of government is getting drunk. The two consequences of this are that beer distribution is the only truly lucrative business in the city while many people struggle with alcohol addiction and abuse. Without anything else to occupy their free time other than socializing while drinking, every homeless shelter and halfway house automatically assumes that the residents there have abused alcohol.
No one appears to understand the connection between the difficulty operating a business in a government town and alcohol abuse. Though all the evidence I have found suggests that alcohol addiction will always be a social ill that we will have to contend with, I have observed that in the more capitalist parts of the state, alcohol addiction is not as much of a problem as it is in Harrisburg. People living in capitalist areas are more likely to have jobs, and with jobs comes the incentive not to show up drunk for work. People are thus able to moderate their behavior on working days, no matter how smashed they might get on non-working days. In this way, employment has a way of ameliorating in some small part over-consumption of alcohol.
As if alcoholism was not bad enough, poor people and cigarettes go together perfectly. In one of her many writings, Ayn Rand once wrote that whether people continued to smoke after evidence came forth of the harm cigarettes caused depended on whether they considered their lives of their value. If she got it right, then poor people do not value their singular, unique, irreplaceable lives. And what is there for them to value? A life of filling out forms, standing in line, passing their days in boredom, always being forced to ask for what they cannot or choose not to provide for themselves? Days of misery are perceived to be of less value than days of happiness. For this reason do poor people, no matter how cash-strapped they are, continue to smoke cigarettes. They even ask others for cigarettes to the point of wearing out their welcome.
The simple, though difficult, choice to turn their lives around is nowhere in sight. Repeated failures and repeated negative experiences have caused them to believe that they unable of dealing with the world around them save through the assistance of someone or something else. As regulations and taxation increase, so too do the number of poor people with no hope of improving their lives increase. For them, as George Carlin once said, the American Dream can only be believed while asleep. The government, directly or indirectly, denies them the lives that they wish to live. They are stuck with a stultified life where their only reward is the cessation of suffering through death.
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