restricted access Introduction: Social Ties among the Poor in an Era of Unprecedented Inequality
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1 Introduction Social Ties among the Poor in an Era of Unprecedented Inequality The only solution is not a Rambo, Superman, or Bionic Woman solution. It’s not an individual solution. The only solution is a collective solution. We should unite together, and figure out creatively how we should survive, survive today, and how we can fight for tomorrow, where we’re not simply surviving, but we’re thriving. . . . Our strength is in our unity, is in our coming together, and not in some kind of exaggerated , individual effort to try to deal with it. I mean, you’ve got to do the best you can, but as an individual you should seek to unite with others. —Walter, 55, Kensington Welfare Rights Union member A married thirty-one-year-old Latina mother of one young child, struggling to get by, Betty is intensely alone. Long dark hair pulled back into a loose ponytail, large pink-tinted glasses frame her sad eyes during our interview; she lifts her glasses to wipe away tears as she tells me in a quiet voice how overwhelmed she is with managing household responsibilities and her perceptions of what she might be doing wrong as a wife and mother. Betty speaks freely and openly with me, although she is soft-spoken and at times seems self-conscious. She is friendly and outwardly positive even in the face of her palpable sadness. A high school graduate and a current welfare recipient, Betty has extensive work experience in retail customer service. She is currently enrolled in a welfare-mandated customer service job training program. Her two-year-old daughter attends a day care paid for with a child care subsidy, but Betty finds it substandard and feels her daughter doesn’t like it there. She yearns for a job and wants to be a better wife and mother 2 | Introduction than she feels she is. In our interview, she seems to blame herself for every problem in her life. She sees herself as inadequate. Betty grew up with her mother, father, and four younger brothers in New York, just outside the city. Her father had other children from a prior relationship as well; all her siblings and half-siblings were boys. She’s been married for two and a half years. Betty’s family members do not form a private safety net for her—instead they are a source of stress. As a child, she was a victim of sexual abuse by an older male relative, and when she told her parents about it, they didn’t believe her. Her mother didn’t approve of Betty’s husband; for an entire year she and her daughter lived with Betty’s mother while her husband, not permitted in the house, slept in his van outside their home; they could not afford a home of their own at the time. Meanwhile, her relationship with her motherin -law was no better, and they fled New York for Philadelphia in part to get away from these relatives. She and her husband argue frequently: He doesn’t understand her depression, and he spends his earnings as a construction worker on food and entertainment for himself without including his wife and daughter in his expenditures. She pays the rent out of her welfare check, which she gets by telling the welfare office she and her husband are separated, and in some ways they are: he sleeps downstairs and she upstairs. They are having problems and likely would be physically separated if their financial situation allowed, but she tells me, “Right now he’s staying in the house because I don’t want him sleeping in the car.” She takes care of their daughter alone, and she doesn’t always have enough food to eat. Betty rarely speaks to her neighbors. She tells me, “I don’t get into that.” She seems not to have friends in Philadelphia, and while she has some extended family in the city, she can’t count on family for help. “They stay to themselves,” she says. She feels they do not to want to associate with her. In our interview, she focuses on what she as an individual can do to better her situation. She holds out hope that the job training she’s enrolled in will lead to stable employment with adequate pay, and she clings to the notion of an imagined future as an art gallery owner, but with no clear notion of how she might achieve...


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