Today, families in Detroit, living under an emergency manager imposed by a governor committed to privatizing every inch of the state, are having their water shut off. A few days ago, the United Nations, at the behest of local activists, issued a statement on the shutoffs.
This is what it’s come to – appealing to an international body to uphold the basic human right to water.
The situation in Detroit is, of course, a result of systemic injustices deeply rooted in racism, injustices that have been analyzed by minds far better than mine.
No, the question I ask is not academic.
I am honestly trying to understand the hatred that is reserved for the poor in this country, hatred as deep and noxious as a tar sands trail.
How to explain the downtown waiters I spoke with yesterday who snorted, “If they can’t pay their bills, too bad.” Or the mean-spirited letters to the editor penned by folks who seem oblivious to the outsourced jobs and the predatory lending schemes that have ravaged this city. Or the vitriol of self-righteous people who don’t understand that Detroit is the canary in the proverbial coal mine – a harbinger of the structural adjustment plan that is coming to a suburb near them.
Yup, just get an education at one of the abysmal state-controlled schools in Detroit, take out a college loan at exorbitant interest rates, and then ride the downtown People Mover to nowhere to find a job in a town with an unemployment rate double the national average. Oh yeah, and eat your soup by candlelight after paying your water bill with the money set aside for electricity. If your boots are still salvageable after the coldest winter in history, grab hold of those fraying straps and, like any good American, pull yourself up and live the dream!
Although today I am privileged to have a job and modest home, it wasn’t always that way.
We were newly married, going to school, having babies, and working minimum-wage jobs during the Reagan years. Having been raised in working-class, cash-carrying families, neither of us fully understood the interest game, and when a major bank dangled a line of credit before our young eyes we, foolishly, bit the bait. For years, this single loan of a few thousand dollars hovered over our lives like a drone.
Unexpected medical expenses, broken-down cars, and rising utility rates culminated in our falling into a deep hole that seemed to reach all the way to China, an ironic thought given the globalization that was taking hold at that time. We wore hand-me-downs, lived on cheap carbs, and cut our own hair.
Despite our best efforts, we always seemed to come up short.
Eventually, we turned to the cash advance “service centers” that were popping up in our west side neighborhood at that time like boils on an old man’s back. Taking out a $100 loan on Wednesday in order to pay a utility bill due on Thursday only to owe $130 the following Wednesday led to unrelenting stress which led to illness which led to medical bills which led to a soul-crushing vicious cycle.
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Ultimately, we filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy in order to pay off our debts. The humiliating experience of standing in a crowded courtroom before a dour judge who demanded an accounting of the most minute expenditures related to childrearing was an exercise in solidarity with others in that grim room.
For the next several years we did penance by squeezing our large family into a minuscule rental home that had no shower, garage, or privacy. While we found a way to make it work, we lived under the scornful gaze of our landlords, a suburban couple who ruled over their dynasty of shoddy homes with all the arrogance of third-world despots.
When we arranged to see the home for the first time, I was pregnant with our fourth child. I will never forget the shame I felt as I donned a dress the size of Texas in order to disguise my pregnancy. My shame deepened when Mrs. Landlord haughtily raised a plucked eyebrow and said she couldn’t imagine how we could raise three children there.
After we moved in, we were model renters, only once asking for a ten-day reprieve because of a family funeral. In a great show of benevolence, our landlords granted the extension with the caveat that we pay a ridiculously high penalty fee. The resentment I felt on that occasion and others when we had to acquiesce to the demands of extortionists has never left me.
Although my experience does not even scratch the surface of what it means to be poor, it’s allowed me to understand the complex and terrible choices people must often make in order to survive.
When a Detroit water board commissioner trumpets the fact that a big chunk of people pay their water bills within 24 hours of shutoff, he misses the real story. The story of families choosing water over rent, water over electricity, water over food.
There are always choices to be made when one is poor.
Today, those with money gather before fountains that splay bursts of blue water against the skyline of a city that is turning off the water of its citizens. When asked about the shutoffs, they stir their iced drinks and use words like “responsibility” and “laziness” and recite racist tropes about Bridge cards and steaks.
Their words are parroted by those hanging on to their own jobs, homes, and water by a tenuous thread. By those who deny their own precariousness by projecting hatred onto those who languish only a deck below on this sinking ship.
Today, we’ve reached the point where a child with an empty cup is an object of contempt.
Why do we hate the poor?
Perhaps we hate the poor because they are the prophets of a future that awaits us all. A future of water shutoffs for the many and splaying fountains for the few.