At my company’s holiday party in December, a coworker from the East Coast told me of her shock at Seattle’s visible poverty. “You can’t miss it unless you don’t ever go downtown, and even then, in many neighborhoods, you can’t escape it,” she said, marveling at how different that was from her home city.
At the same time, she had no idea of the laws banning or restricting the distribution of food to the homeless sweeping the country.
This perfectly illustrates the necessity of “Invisible in Austin.” America’s poor are less and less invisible. The reasons why remain largely unseen, which could contribute to the general blame-the-victim stance so common in our politics and attitudes about poverty. But, according to the book’s introduction, “from the 1970s till today, income stagnation, growing inequality, increasing economic instability, soaring debt and rising costs [in health care, housing, education, etc.] have steadily ended the well-being of American families. … All are living in times when assistance to the poor has shrunk dramatically, and all are experiencing the consequences of lack of living wages, stable employment, educational access, health insurance, welfare aid, housing and unemployment assistance, etc.”
This book is about Austin, Texas, but it could just as well be about Seattle. And the 11 compelling narratives could be about Santos, Clarissa, Ines, Chip, Raven, Kumar, Ethan, Keith, Xiomara, Ella and Manuel, but they are also about the tangled web of structural inequality, institutional racism, sexism, ableism and more that keep poor people poor.
Their stories tell us to keep in mind that financial struggle, poverty and homelessness are a result of forces far beyond bad luck.
Javier Auyero’s curated collection of accounts written by his sociology students about 11 poor people in a vibrant, rapidly growing city demands that we not blame the victim even as it humanizes the subjects as imperfect players in their own unfolding stories. As they drill down into individual experiences of low-income people in Austin, these 11 stories put our culture more sharply in focus, particularly how we exploit, punish, shut out, ridicule and devalue those whom our instant-gratification, consumer-crazy culture depends on most.
- Santos started working when he was five and has labored his whole life at whatever job was available. He works harder than many successful professionals. “In Mexico, you can grow whatever you want on your land … in the United States, you work for others,” he said.
- Clarissa, who worked 20 years in the restaurant business until a car accident disabled her, said, “When I got the insurance from the lady that hit me, the hospital took it. So basically, they made me homeless. A hospital made me homeless … I don’t want to be taking disability. I probably should [given my ankle injury] but I don’t want to. I want to support myself. I want to work.”
- Inés, “as a low-income, undocumented, single mother with limited resources, is forced to rely on the punitive functions of the state to achieve a sense of safety for [her daughter] Araceli and control over the family’s circumstances” because they do not have access to other resources.
- Chip’s story is exemplary of the kind of economic stagnation common in the U.S. “In the case of low-income earners, like Chip, is maintaining the same lifestyle what a person wants when he or she retires? Most advice about retirement is reserved for those who are financially secure, not for people like Chip. And the retirement advice given to the working class is simply to postpone retirement. But is that an option for Chip [whose knees and eyes are failing]?”
- “Despite her best efforts, Raven is routinely drawn back to stripping and escorting, because of the financial stability it provides. A night of dancing can mean the difference between keeping her apartment in south Austin and being evicted or can enable her to afford gas to get to her administrative assistant job in west Austin. It may also provide her with the interpersonal recognition she has lacked throughout her life.”
- “While Kumar’s adulthood in Nepal was marked by torture because of his belief in democracy, now in the US violence is for him an unresolvable occupational risk [as a cab driver].”
- “Not only do waiters and hotel workers have to be physically and mentally engaged, they also have to manage their feelings according to workplace rules. For example, Ethan couldn’t yell at the angry bride who had reserved a room in the hotel he managed or chastise restaurant patrons who gave stingy tips.”
- Keith, a country musician, has to be tough, as tough as life sometimes is for him. “Indeed, a central part of what it means to be a man in society is to be sturdy and unemotional. Additionally, men are expected to be independent, relying on themselves and their own abilities to ‘make it.’ The feeling is even more acute in a place like Texas, where the myth of the self-made man and a history steeped in frontier masculinities continue to inform the concept of how to be a man in modern Texas’ culture.”
- Xiomara started an eventually successful housecleaning business to support her family when her husband, as is all too common, got injured on the construction job. “Unlike most jobs in the US, domestic work is almost universally excluded from the protection of most federal labor laws … at the same time, domestic work is also intimate and, by nature, intensely personal. Workers labor in close contact with the most private aspects of families’ personal lives – they have keys to their homes and often know their relatives and children, if not in person then by photograph.”
- “To Ella, the city’s policies seemed increasingly arbitrary. ‘The code inspector seems to watch everything we do, but they overlook the yards all junked out. They gonna find someone building something that looks good because you must not be paying your taxes,’ Ella observed wryly. Once, when an inspector came to her property, she remembers telling him, ‘It seems like every time a black person makes a move, you guys [the city of Austin] are right there. Where were you guys when we didn’t have but one faucet of water?”
- “Manuel is very much afraid of waking up one morning to a call informing him that a raid has taken his parents away. This event would not only destroy the family unity forged during his first years in the US, something that he has come to cherish, but it would also leave him unable to do anything about it … Manuel’s fear makes sense: … In the last five years approximately two million people were removed from the country. Cases of detained relatives and painful separations abound.”
It’s not just outsiders who view the poor with fear and disdain. Clarissa, for example, did not want to be associated with “the homeless” and did not want to be seen as “disadvantaged.” Worse, “when the minimal social stability needed to foster mutuality and to buttress solidarity among and across wage-earning households evaporates, the poor cannot but prey on the poor.”
Getting to know 11 of these people and their histories, hardships and hopes serves to heighten the tragedy of such internalized oppression and aggression. I share Auyero’s hopes that it can galvanize folks into action as well.