Straight Talk About the Pain of Poverty

New book features 50-plus essays that bring personal experiences with penury into sharp focus.

Eleanor J. Bader Oct 3, 2023

The economic precarity of tens of thousands of U.S. residents is hardly headline news. Nonetheless, Going for Broke, an anthology compiled by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project brings personal experiences with penury into sharp focus. Although most of the 50-plus essays [as well as a smattering of poems, photos, and drawings] were previously published, by pulling them into one collection, EHRP —a journalism nonprofit co-founded by the late Barbara Ehrenreich — has given readers a comprehensive look into poverty’s impact on body and soul. 

It’s powerful and emotionally satisfying.

Although different pieces will undoubtedly resonate differently depending on reader experience and interest, some will likely be eye-opening. Darryl Lorenzo Wellington’s “The Twisted Business of Donating Plasma,” for example, is a personal and political expose about the $4 billion U.S. plasma market that, for a time, enabled Wellington to keep financially afloat. 

“My rent was due,” he writes. “I had insufficient funds in the bank. I was forty-eight years old, a journalist running short on cash from writing assignments and odd jobs. That was when I saw an ad offering $50 per plasma donation.”

More than three million people in the United States are either homeless or housing insecure.

In short order, Wellington was enrolled in the twice weekly process. Side effects — faintness, limb tingling and numbness, muscle contractions, seizures, bruising — were brushed off as he and a cohort of other desperate folks lined up. While the illusion of informed consent was maintained, he writes, it is only the United States that allows twice-weekly “donations.” What’s more, the United States is one of the only countries in the world that does not regulate the industry. And despite a recent increase in pay to $65 a jab, Wellington stresses that the domestic plasma supply is largely provided by the poor while those who profit from it operate with little-to-no government oversight.

It’s maddening.

Not surprisingly, the inability to make rent is at the crux of many people’s stories. Lori Teresa Yearwood’s [1966-2023] account of a mental-health crisis that catapulted her onto the streets of San Francisco addresses this and zeroes in on policies that restrict access to shelter beds during certain hours of the day. In “To Help the Homeless, Offer Shelter that Allows Deep Sleep,” she describes a common frustration. “Sleep deprivation haunts unhoused people,” she writes, “worsening the trauma that sometimes caused their unsheltered situation in the first place.” In Yeareood’s case, she was able to get her life on track only after she was given a safe, stable place to stay. Coupled with the support necessary to find and  keep a job, she was finally able to sleep and feel restored.

Likewise, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s confessional “The Organized Abandonment of Shelter” zeroes in on the more than three million people in the United States that are either homeless or “housing insecure.” Taylor and her mom and grandmother fell into the latter category, and her piece is an angry denunciation of policies that deem housing a commodity for purchase rather than an entitlement. Her conclusion? “Housing should be treated as a human right, along with other things like food and water.”

Absolutely. Yes.

Going for Broke also delves into militarism and why it is the poor who are most often recruited to fight; corporate shifts that eliminate jobs; and the emotional toll that growing up poor exerts even if one later attains financial constancy. It also touches on the underside of being a scholarship student at a private university; the succor provided by drugs and alcohol; reliance on the underground economy; and the intersection of ableism, ageism, homophobia, racism, sexism and transphobia.

Several of the chapters describe the economic free fall that sent numerous authors spiraling downward, from economic stability to the unemployment line. That most were completely blindsided by the descent may strike readers as naive, but these honest accounts are illustrative of the ways that class is shrouded and misrepresented in popular culture.

In fact, the honesty on tap in Going for Broke is refreshing. Indeed, the essays are a potent reminder, should we need one, that despite political speeches about economic prosperity and growth, not everyone has equal access to the bounty that is being celebrated.

Going for Broke: Living on the Edge in the World’s Richest Country
Edited by Alissa Quart and David Wallis
Haymarket Books; Oct. 3, 2023

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