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‘Going For Broke’: Life on the Edge By Those Who Live It

Going for Broke: Living on the Edge in the World’s Richest Country turns to the real experts on economic hardship in America: those who live it.

Going for Broke: Living on the Edge in the World’s Richest Country
Alissa Quart and David Wallis, Eds.
October 2023

Most of what we see and hear about economic hardship and inequity in America falls into two kinds of stories, regardless of whether the subject is approached from a point of view of reactionary disdain or liberal sympathy. The top-down overview blames the survivors, minimizes their agency, and flattens them into a single undifferentiated mass. Then there are the sensationalistic representations known these days as “poverty porn” that shoehorn individuals’ stories into melodramatic morality plays about suffering people who are either saved by their innate goodness or damned by their essential flaws. While both methods have strengths and weaknesses—few would deny the influence of cultures of poverty or the necessity of fortitude to survive poverty’s vicissitudes. Seldom do these familiar storytelling methods take into account the impossible choices or the structural pressures that form the myriad individual experiences within the worlds of economic hardship.

What might alternate forms of understanding poverty and inequity look like? Going for Broke: Living on the Edge in the World’s Richest Country, a compendium of previously published journalism, memoir, artwork, photography, and poetry from the Chicago-based, left-wing, non-profit, independent Haymarket Books, argues that we need to relearn how to see the low-wage workers and marginalized communities that remain “stubbornly invisibl[e]” within “the current landscape of postindustrial service” despite the daily contact anyone living on the grid of the modern world has with so many of them, whether physical or virtual. As scholar Kathi Weeks argues, there’s a kind of ideological blindness that allows those not performing this labor to see through or “disavow” their human subjects.

The strategy of Going for Broke is disarmingly simple, almost dishearteningly commonsensical, and increasingly present in contemporary engagements with economic hardship and inequity: create space for and amplify the stories of those who know firsthand how hardship works. Most of the contributors to Going for Broke are writing from the other side, as it were, from the direct experience of growing up in poverty; being evicted; working low-wage service jobs; struggling to survive in an economy in which they have no guaranteed place and no human identity. Many of the contributors are also creating their stories from additionally marginalized racial, ethnic, or gender identities. Along with striving to establish empathy across the poverty line, they also make it abundantly clear that there is no firm line dividing the haves and the have-nots, and no one is immune from economic and other catastrophes.

This does not mean that our social world is not rigidly and systemically structured by lines created through racism, classism, sexism, and every other way in which inequality is sustained across the globe and especially in the United States. But what the informative, insightful, nuanced, and gut-wrenching stories in Going for Broke show, over and over, is that the only difference between the haves and the have-nots is opportunity. Going Broke is an eloquent plea for readers to recognize that both halves, if you will, live in the same world, go to the same schools, experience the same life events, and want the same things, even as that other world feels irreducibly different when experienced from the other side of the line.

The working poor need not be told what life is like for those living above the poverty line; it’s inescapable as the dominant culture – on the billboards touting private schools and in the expensive housing posted to real estate office windows. From that perspective, there’s a need constantly to code-switch between those of means – the one staying at the hotel – and those in one’s own class – who work beside you to clean the hotel rooms. The working poor must be conversant in two cultures (and concurrently, often in two languages); theirs and that of the dominant culture they serve, should they have employment. If the culture of poverty describes anything useful as a concept, it’s this double consciousness: of what one needs to do to survive and what others don’t need to do.

The editors of Going for Broke—Alissa Quart, Executive Director of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project (EHRP), and David Wallis, EHRP’s former Managing Director—evidence the breadth of the problem and also the many areas in which action can potentially be taken, by dividing the book into five parts: The Body, Home, Family, Work, and Class. The division reminds the reader how profoundly the experience of poverty affects every aspect of life, from the most intimate to the most collective. As with any taxonomy, it’s not always fully evident why certain pieces are slotted where they are.

Contributor Lori Teresa Yearwood’s thoughtful argument – that what unhoused persons need most is sleep – could just as easily have been in the section on “Home” as in “The Body”; Wallis’ essay on being detained at the border because Customs and Border Protection can’t be bothered to identify suspects accurately seems less about “Home” than about a sixth category the book does not include, perhaps that would be called Outside the Line. But mostly, the groupings work to emphasize the ways systems interact with highly personal experiences and the ways in which broad imaginaries like “The Body” or “Family” are not so much fixed categories as loosely defined containers of all manner of messy and oftentimes incoherent social forces.

There is standout writing on a compelling range of topics in each section. Among others, in “The Body”, Karie Fugett’s poignant account of her relationship with her deceased husband’s prosthetic leg, Katie Prout’s dismantling of Medicaid’s reluctance to fund mental health care, and David Lorenzo Wellington’s carefully researched personal essay on the big business of plasma donation. There’s Moore’s clear-eyed diagnosis about how she inadvertently took possession of someone else’s house, Joseph Williams’ description of the passage from middle-class stability to being evicted, and Alex Miller’s report on the reality of being a homeless veteran in “Home”.

Annabelle Gurwitch challenges readers with humor and compassion in “I Took in a Homeless Couple: Would You?” while Elizabeth Kadetsky unpacks the impossible choices raised by a sister who’s a recovering heroin addict, and Julie Poole documents “The Underground Economy of Unpaid Care” in “Family”. In “Work”, Anne Larson explains how it feels to be an invisible grocery store worker during the pandemic. Molly Crabapple and Haley Hamilton explore the power of taxi and waitressing unions, respectively. In “Class”, Erynn Brook delves into the difference between being “poor” and being “broke” – a distinction that runs through Going for Broke. Jane Thunderstorm challenges the class assumptions in anti-smoking regulations, and Alison Stine remembers how class privilege structured life at college. Seldom has the experience of economic marginalization been depicted in such astonishing and depressing variety.

The pieces included in Going for Broke were all previously published, some as long as ten years prior to publication. A few have been unevenly revised to account for the time passed since original publication; a number of them have welcome “Codas” that bring circumstances more or less up to date. Given the personal and time-sensitive data and arguments in many of the entries, these codas feel especially necessary. Several authors are represented by more than one article, which is perfectly fine since each entry has something different to contribute to the whole. But it would have been judicious, in a collection as capacious as Going for Broke (over 350 pages), to edit out repeated details that recur in these selections.

A good portion of the material dates from the Trump administration and the first year of the Covid pandemic. This editorial choice has the paradoxical effect of heightening the sense of urgency since the pandemic made painfully visible the myriad inequities that underpin the US economy and exacerbated the effects of those inequities on members of its marginalized populations. This choice risks permitting the easy conclusion that the hardships and inequities documented are the result of, and limited to, that time period.

It’s not as if the issues or topics explored in Going for Broke are bound by the periods of the Trump administration or the pandemic years; however, the parts that are most effective combine vividly recounted first-hand experience with longitudinal and latitudinal research, with the historical context around, say, shelter policy or union organizing along with their effects on individuals around the author’s own life. More generally, the personal grounding of nearly every article helps to push back against the mainstream disavowal of the individual lives that perform so much of the labor that runs this country, the cost of that labor on those lives, and the myriad short-term and long-term challenges posed by a life lived in economic hardship. This grounding gives texture and understanding, for example, to one journalist’s conclusion about smoking that, “It is not a good decision, but it is the only one that I have access to.” And it helps to grasp the stubborn resistance in author Elizabeth Catte’s characterization of one of the poorest counties in her home state that, “This West Virginia looks like a place where, instead of running out, life goes on.”

Despite—and because—of who’s telling these stories, there is a persistent note of both action and hope within the main theme of inequity and hardship. Some examples include the activist, post-Dobbs coda to an anonymous account of a self-administered abortion; city-based reparations programs like the one towards restitutive housing in Detroit described by Moore; and the #CareCan’tWait initiative cited by Poole. It’s seen in Larson’s call for “a real redistribution of labor”. Then there’s the “ferocious solidarity” pushback Crabapple witnessed in the New York Taxi Workers Alliance’s successful protest against taxi medallion debt. It’s also visible in several other accounts of new labor movements and unionization.    

Good intentions can do as much harm as overt oppression. As artist and journalist Anne Elizabeth Moore explains in her own story in Going for Broke, “Writers can be complicit in structures that benefit them while silencing the voices of their subjects.” The moments of action, protest, and actual or potential change recounted here don’t mitigate the struggles and unfairness that suffuse these pages. Rather, they’re part of the shift Going for Broke advocates for throughout: from flattening, distorting, and hopeless policies and representations towards the empathy and understanding that these authors hope will lead to practical and effective action. For starters, as both EHRP and Going for Broke argue, policy and reporting will only be effective when informed by – if not actually driven by – the people that know what they’re talking about.