I had a bizarre and frustrating experience recently talking to an agent at a writing conference. My main interest was to pitch a novel, but when she said she wasn’t looking for fiction, I threw out a few nonfiction ideas, among them a book on what people don’t know about poverty.
“What qualifies you to write about poverty?” she asked (a very reasonable question).
I mentioned besides my personal background and connection to many poor people, that I had been studying and writing about poverty for a long time and taught at a community college.
She saw no connection between poverty and community colleges; in fact, she suggested that those who really knew poverty had a Ph.D. in poverty studies (which I agree is a fine qualification though it’s not a guarantee that people will recognize poverty’s emotional reality) or volunteered at homeless shelters. My own connection to poverty was merely a hobby. And thus ended our conversation.
Quite apart from the sting of personal rejection, I mulled over the implications of her comments. How many journalists, generalists almost by definition, think that the only poverty around us or the only poverty that counts is people who go to homeless shelters (one can’t say they “live” there; getting kicked out at 6:00 AM and having no place to store your possessions hardly represents “living”) or who are falling down dead in rags on the sidewalk? Apparently, there are no working poor. Valuable though volunteering at a homeless shelter is, what a limited perspective! What a tiny and atypical cross-section of poverty. I almost laughed out loud, a bitter laugh to be sure, at her belief that community colleges don’t involve poor people.
Later in the conference, a speaker mentioned that one of the prerequisites for writing a book was “financial security,” enough to allow you a year off to promote your book. Ironically, this was a conference specifically devoted to “writing for change” (and overall, a commendable conference, I hasten to add, with some wonderful speakers, scholarships for needy attendees, and a truckload of valuable information, but a few sharp thorns of classism poked out here and there.)
When those thorns poked, I thought,” what if a whole industry— publishing, agents, publicists— is comprised mostly of middle and upper middle class people? How many other knowledge industries (universities? filmmaking?) unwittingly suppress real knowledge about poverty because they have predefined poverty in a way that doesn’t match reality? Whether with Hurricane Katrina or unemployment, I have read in papers and heard on TV ad nauseum the untruth that “The poorest don’t have to worry because government programs take care of them. It’s the middle class that’s hurt the worst.” The middle class has indeed taken a hit, but it doesn’t compare to the body blow the poor have taken, because now the poor are competing with the injured middle class for services once designated for the needy—community colleges, clinics, job training—and they’re losing.
Occasionally miracles happen in the knowledge world: once-poor people like Francisco Jimenez and Richard Wright manage to get their voices heard. I’m so grateful for sites like classism.org, and for in-depth writers like Barbara Ehrenreich and Katherine Boo. I wish more poor people knew about them. I wish more political decision-makers did too.
I’d love to hear from anyone reading this who your favorite writers on poverty are, especially people writing today.