The Myth of the “Undeserving Poor”: A Conversation with Pat LaMarche
By Eleanor J. BaderNovember 21, 2020
This and other jolting details lie at the heart of two books LaMarche has published this year, one for children, Priscilla the Princess of the Park, and the other for adults, Still Left Out in America: The State of Homelessness in the United States. Both provide an insightful and sometimes gut-churning window into the lives of those who are undomiciled. LaMarche’s writing is evocative, richly detailed, and highly descriptive. It’s also angry.
LaMarche recently spoke to LARB about her writing and activism.
ELEANOR J. BADER: Let’s start with Priscilla the Princess of the Park. What led you to write a children’s book about homelessness?
PAT LAMARCHE: When my grandson Ronan was about to turn six, we were talking about homelessness — I talk about it constantly because it’s my life — and he turned to me and told me I should write a chapter book about homelessness for kids like him. I thought it was a great idea, a way for me to soft-pedal the issue by introducing some of the endearing characters I’ve come to know.
Priscilla the Princess of the Park is the first book in a four-part series, sort of like Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie. (The second installment was released in mid-November and the next two will come out in 2021.) I see the Priscilla books as a way to tell the story of homelessness differently. The subject is introduced in a way that is sweet, fanciful. It introduces the subject so that it’s not scary. The action unfolds through a diverse group of kids who develop a meaningful relationship with a charming woman named Priscilla, who happens to be homeless.
I’ve also worked family homelessness into the narrative so that this aspect of the issue is covered. All told, there is a lot of information in the book about what it means to be without a permanent home. My hope is that adults as well as children will read the series, feel compassion, and then do something to promote housing justice.
Are there misconceptions about being homeless that you are trying to dispel in the Priscilla books?
Yes. Unfortunately, many people cling to the idea that homelessness and falling into poverty can’t happen to them, that because they work hard, they can’t lose their homes. The poor constantly beat themselves up for this and then society joins in.
There are other delusions as well, but if rags to riches is rare, riches to rags is even less common. The poor come from the poor. Things conspire to make life difficult. For example, someone has a home but then something happens, and their 19-year-old daughter has to come home for a few months because things did not turn out as she expected. Now the landlord wants to put them out because of increased occupancy. This happens a lot.
Society should provide a safety net, but it doesn’t. During the War on Poverty which ran from 1964 until 1981, legislation was passed creating the food stamp program, Medicaid, Medicare, and the Job Corps. Predictably, poverty in the US fell to 10 percent, the lowest it had been in decades. Then Ronald Reagan was elected president. He identified white people’s prejudices and ramped them up. He introduced the Black “welfare queen” who drives a Cadillac. I don’t know that Reagan knew he was racist, but racism worked well for him. He used racism — and the commonplace assumption that most poor people were Black and Brown — to malign the poor, neglecting to mention that the majority of poor folks are white.
It’s even more dastardly. Reagan and other representatives of the wealth class have somehow succeeded in making working-class and middle-class people worry about the crumbs their neighbors are allegedly getting. It’s the promotion and stoking of horizontal hostility.
When I ran for governor of Maine in 1998 as the candidate of the Green Party, I was immediately bashed as a tree hugger. I decided to embrace the title and said, “Yes, I’m a tree hugger, but I hug the family tree. Jobs are one branch, the environment, housing, education, food, and health care are other branches.” When you have a healthy family, you make sure everyone has these things.
When Trump ran for re-election this fall, he took a page from Reagan and told white people in suburban enclaves that unless he remained in office, poor people of color would move into their towns.
Why have these anti-poor and racist tropes remained so potent?
There is a long history in the United States of handing benefits to people who want to make wealth. Government policies tend to support the infrastructure for the wealth class to increase their holdings. In the past, low-cost workforce housing — housing for those who work in the factories, fast-food joints, diners, and retail — was built near work sites, so that workers could get to their low-wage jobs fairly easily. Wages were kept low, but because rents were never more than one-third of a household’s income, it was workable. During times of responsible government, this workforce housing was publicly owned. These are the buildings commonly called the projects.
Right now, there is no construction of new workforce housing. None has been built since the 1980s, so low-wage workers who can’t get an apartment in public housing because there’s a 10-or-more-year waitlist, but who also can’t afford market-rate rents, are in trouble. They end up living doubled-up, or in shelters, on park benches, or in the woods.
But let me get back to racism and classism. The wealth class has been masterful in constructing a villain who is not them. They deflect attention from the fact that they are paying workers too little and are sucking away people’s retirement savings. They use smoke and mirrors to get us to believe that the fault is in us, that we’re to blame for our poverty, lack of savings, or inability to find and keep affordable shelter.
Yes, and there’s also the persistent idea that some poor people are deserving while others are not.
In my first book, Left Out in America: The State of Homelessness in the United States, which came out in 2006, I wrote about Dignity Village, a program in Oregon for formerly homeless people. There was a sign at the entrance: “The Sturdy Beggars Protect the Deserving Poor.” These concepts — the sturdy beggar, the deserving poor — have given way to the idea of the freeloader. All I can say is that the wealthy are lucky that the poor are not lazy; the poor have built the wealth of thousands, but they have usually not benefited. Worse, there is often a profound lack of respect for people who are poor. It is crazy-making, especially since, even among the poor, there is a caste system.
But if COVID-19 has taught us anything, it should be this: that the people who stock our shelves, teach our children, work in nursing homes and hospitals, and grow and pick our food, are as important to the running of the country as government officials and the military. Of course, people in the military get subsidized housing and health care. Shouldn’t the guy or gal flipping our cheeseburgers get the same benefits?
Let’s switch gears a bit and talk about the number of people who do not have homes in the United States. You use the figure of seven million. HUD says the total is less than one million. Why is there such a discrepancy?
Every January, HUD does what is called a Point in Time survey, where volunteers go out and on one night literally count the number of people they see living on the streets. They ask these people five questions that support stereotypes about who is homeless. They ignore the people in hotels, living doubled-up or tripled-up, or who are not visible to them on this particular evening. So many people are uncounted, including the thousands of women who stay with men in exchange for a place for themselves and their children.
Dickinson College, near where I currently live in Pennsylvania, did a study of homeless people in order to learn about them. The homeless were followed for 48 hours straight and what the researchers found was pretty intense. They learned that the average homeless person spends two to two-and-a-half hours a day walking from place to place; two hours waiting in line for food, or for a hot shower or a medical appointment, or to do their laundry. They also spend time helping kids with homework, as well as working at low-wage jobs. People who’ve become homeless due to natural disasters — floods, fires, hurricanes — also spent countless hours a day dealing with FEMA and other agencies.
Poor people are always the hardest hit when disaster strikes. They’re likely to live in areas vulnerable to environmental calamity and reside in housing that is not structurally sound. Residents of Puerto Rico and New Orleans are obvious examples.
What role can the Priscilla books and Still Left Out play in organizing campaigns to end hunger, homelessness, and poverty?
My hope is that both sets of stories will fall into the hands of someone in power who can help make the changes that are necessary. After the horrible fires in Paradise, California, and other towns along the West Coast, filmmaker Ron Howard made a movie about the catastrophe. It ended on a happy note by reporting that 1,000 building permits had been issued to those with the means to rebuild. The film did not mention that more than 20,000 others lacked the financial resources to start over. Worse, if these people don’t pay their current water bills, even though they can no longer live in Paradise, they won’t ever be able to move back because they won’t have access to running water.
I sent Priscilla the Princess of the Park and Still Left Out to many people who have power and the influence to change things. They can end poverty and make sure no one is unhoused. I don’t know any other way to deal with homelessness and poverty but to continue talking and writing about it. I simply can’t stop. I know that if the right people read these books, they can make macro-level change.
Meanwhile, in the last year, I’ve helped two people find permanent housing. Two. There are at least seven million homeless people, but as my husband reminds me, it would have been seven million and two had I done nothing.
Eleanor J. Bader is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer who focuses on domestic social issues, including homelessness and housing policy, public education, health-care access, and movements for social change. She also writes about socially conscious art, book, and theater. In addition to LARB, her work appears regularly at Truthout,org, progressive.org, Lilith Magazine and blog, Fiction Writers Review, and The Indypendent.
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