Journal of the Plague Year 2020: Being Poor Is a Full-Time Job

It felt uncomfortable to write and publish the following words last night:

I work hard. We all do, the poor more than the rich, immigrants more than citizens, brown and black more than white, women more than men.

Look, I said it: There’s such a thing as privilege. That’s a divisive statement, even an offensive one. Let me see if I can explain, and thereby make the dose palatable.

The great Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope recognized that being poor is a full-time job — a humiliating and degrading one. He ended his life wealthy, but grew up poor. He writes of the experience eloquently in novels like The Way We Live Now and Framley Parsonage. In the former, he portrays the wretched flirtations and sexual compromises of a widow in late middle age struggling to house herself and her daughter. In the latter, he writes about the sickening moral and psychological weight of debt. The comic masterpiece Barchester Towers describes the misery of a poor curate’s family with real pathos and grace.

If you’ve owed a debt you couldn’t pay, or worked a full-time job that doesn’t cover your bills, you know that calculation, worry and compromise become your unpaid second shift. I lived most of my life in that condition. The shame alone can kill you.

Fair enough, says the reader in my head. But how can you say black and brown people work harder than white people, and women work harder than men?

I’m white, so the bit about race is extrapolated from my experiences with sex. I get asked a lot what it’s like to be a woman in engineering, and I always say, It sucks ass. It’s so shitty I can’t stand to think about it most days. About 60% of people will treat you as an equal, but the 40% can ruin a day, a project — even your whole career. A handful of people — some of them powerful — will talk down to you, give you less challenging assignments and dismiss your accomplishments. Some women make a point of doing it to other women.

Occasionally a male coworker will see this happening, and will express disbelief and outrage. Except in very rare cases, they will not use their power to stop it, and they won’t make up for it by mentoring you or ensuring that you get assignments commensurate with your ability.

I’m always the only woman in the lab or conference room or team, and by now I’m often in charge. Every time I walk onto a flight line, I have to prove myself to an asshole or two who just can’t believe that he has to work with me or for me. My male coworkers are accepted until they fuck up; I’m an object of suspicion, scorn or wonder.

Don’t get me wrong. I love my coworkers. I worship pilots precisely because they actually are gods. I revel in every aspect of male culture. I’m lucky to be out there wearing steel-toed boots, hands black with anti-seize. But it’s hard. Every day I pay a tax for my sex, and some days it feels like too much to bear.

So, yeah. I’ll say it: In an important sense, I work harder than the guys do. They don’t fully grasp this, just like I don’t get what it’s like to be black.

There’s a contradiction at the heart of this pandemic. It’s true that no one is really safe. It’s also true that it attacks the vulnerable: The old, the ill, prisoners, immigrants, people who are homeless or crowded into tiny apartments. Black and Hispanic people are more likely to get sick and die. Women make up the vast majority of critical, front-line workers.

I say this, not to be divisive, but to pose a challenge to myself, and to you, the reader. I’m painfully aware of how secure my life is compared to the Hispanic women who clean my house, or the guy who humps my laundry in and out of a delivery van. I work hard. They work harder.

A lot of middle-class people are going to food banks or applying for unemployment for the first time. This pandemic is a chance to see what really unites us — to get a visceral lesson in the fact that we all need food and shelter and love and meaningful work and transcendence. We’re all children of God, and we should all get a living wage and paid sick leave, and know that we won’t be financially ruined if we catch this wretched virus and wind up in an ICU.

A nice sentiment, right? As an individual, I can’t guarantee that for everyone around me through charitable giving. It takes government — an army of civil servants and politicians. That’s the exhausting and exasperating truth. There’s no easy, clean way, free of unintended consequences and occasional inefficiency.

Lecture, lecture, lecture. Clearly I was born to write didactic novels in the style of Trollope or Tolstoy, but with sexy elves who smoke and chase tail.

Know that I love you, Reader. You’re in my heart, along with the cops and paramedics and nurses and grocery store clerks and house cleaners and teachers (my poor sister, teaching orchestra on Zoom!); the prisoners and sailors, the bus drivers and plumbers, and guys who fix drywall; retirees (my mom, who’s having sharp pains that feel like her last bout of deep vein thrombosis). My dad, who worked his whole life in the state unemployment office, helping people to find jobs in a low-wage town.


J.A. Thompson

Arizona’s stats have’t been updated on since Sunday night. So, still 5,064 cases and 187 deaths.

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