Survival mode generally does not bring out the best in people. When nearly all of the luxuries of life have been stripped away and all you have left is the choice to survive, those choices are brutal. I’m not a psychologist, so I don’t know the intricacies of survival mode from a professional point-of-view, but I grew up poor enough to know that my parents had to choose between paying the light bill and the water bill, and hoped that the one that didn’t get paid didn’t get “cut off.” My own experience in the grinding poverty of the rural South taught me something about survival mode — lessons I never wanted, but lessons I could not escape.
Our American society has nearly made survival a fetish. There is an interesting connection between all the survivalist television shows and all the apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic entertainment. From The Walking Dead to Naked and Afraid, there is an implicit message: things as we know it are coming to an end — or we are already in the post-apocalypse — we need to know how to survive. I’ll confess that I’m a big fan of The Walking Dead because of the issues that it raises about society, law and humanity. What happens when all the rules do not exist anymore? When left to our own devices and without any external restraints, how will we construct society? If there were no laws governing how we treat each other, what does it mean to be a human being and how do we relate to each other?
All these questions go back to something very basic: how do we survive? Is life a “kill or be killed” existence? Does might make right? The characters on The Walking Dead highlight these questions. What would you do to survive? In survivalist shows, survivalist experts show the audience how to find water, how to construct shelters, and how to hunt other animals. In both scenarios, the options are intense. Survival is about life and death, and the line between these two ontological realities gets down to shelter, water and food.
While most Americans only have to deal with these questions as a matter of entertainment, many others deal with these questions as a matter of reality. I heard so many clichés regarding wealth, poverty, and survival growing up. “You can’t get blood out of a turnip!” This means if we don’t have the money to pay the bills, then we can’t pay the bills — just that simple. “Money don’t grow on trees!” This was always a family favorite that was usually said when somebody wanted something and there wasn’t enough money for it. “They can’t take hard work away from you!” This instilled a work ethic that made my grandmother capable of picking over 300 pounds of cotton a day when she was a young girl — and a work ethic that she demanded of her kids and grandkids.
But the fact remained for my family — no matter how hard my mother and father worked, we could never make enough money to get close to anything considered comfortable. My parents and grandparents were the hardest working people I’ve ever known. My grandparents were poor depression-era sharecroppers. My parents were construction workers and factory laborers. They always worked, and showed us how to work as small children. From helping my grandmother in the huge garden that would feed the family throughout the year, to mowing lawns and working the fields when I got a little older, to my first real hourly wage when I was 14, I was made to work — this was how we survived.
And it was survival! Even as a teenager, when I was going to school, playing sports, and working full time in a grocery store (and building houses in the summer), our family — now with four incomes with my sister’s job — could not pay all the bills at the end of each month. The terrible truth is that we were better off than many people in our town — the vast majority of us were poor. We were surviving by working hard and making terrible decisions about basic things: shelter (we moved all the time), water (the water quality in our town was always among the worst in the country), and food (either grown in the garden or the cheapest store brand available). If we splurged, it was at McDonalds, and even then, we knew we were eating new shoes. Survival is hard and it makes people hard.
This is why I don’t think we should blame the poor for being poor. If you do everything in a system that the system tells you to do, and you still cannot live well, then the system is broken, or the system does not account for you — you are the refuse of the system. Either way, the system is what’s wrong. With this background, it is hard for me to stomach people who say that the poor just need to get a job. Most of the economically poor people in this country have jobs and work very hard. The myth of the “poor as lazy” is an ideology created by those who create the system and benefit from the system the most. This is the way they account for systemic failure — the failure is put squarely on the shoulders of the poor.
What is fascinating is how the general public reacts when the system is changed to benefit the poor — things like the Affordable Care Act. This is just an example and not an endorsement of the ACA. The Affordable Care Act was created to help uninsured people receive health care. For those who systemically favor the wealthy in our society over the poor, this felt like a damaging defeat. This feeling of losing control (and dare I say privilege), while not fully based in reality, is one of the main drivers for the hate and fear permeating our society in general and our politics in particular.
The economic poor have always survived and it is difficult for them — it does not bring out the best in people. When the leaders of the system feel threatened and retreat into self-imposed survival mode, it does not bring out the best in them either. I think this is just one of the causes of the hate and fear running throughout our socio-economic and political system. As a Christian, this makes Matthew 25 ring in my ears.