Jeff Dietrich embodies the vow of poverty. Since the early 1970s, he has been the driving force of the Catholic Worker organization here in Los Angeles. His work follows in the tradition of Catholic Worker founders Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin. Currently, he and his band of volunteers live in a communal house with homeless and terminally ill invited guests while running the Catholic Worker Hospitality Kitchen on Skid Row and participating in protests against a variety of sociological and political sins of the city, state, and country. He publishes a newspaper, The Catholic Agitator, and serves as both editor and columnist. His recent book, Broken and Shared: Food, Dignity, and the Poor on Los Angeles’Skid Row (Tsehai/Marymount Institute Press, 2011) collects forty years of The Catholic Agitator columns, letters, and journal entries composed by Dietrich.
His book is equal parts memoir, political analysis, and scriptural teaching documenting Dietrich’s practice of poverty. He explodes the conservative label of “culture of poverty” and that the poor are to blame for their situation, while clearly outlining how current social thinking and the global economy further victimize the poor and the destitute. He addresses the role of alcohol and drugs in the dire circumstances of the poor, and he dares to attack his own Catholic Church for its political ambitions and for its disregard for the poor in building a multi-million dollar cathedral. The Los Angeles political establishment, the mainstream media outlets, and the police department all suffer under Dietrich’s relentless attack.
In his introduction, Dietrich draws connections between Christian faith and the narrative art. His are biblical stories, specifically the gospels from which the Catholic Worker takes its mission. A true Christian, he writes, must be “willing to risk everything: our comfort, our security, even our very lives,” for these stories.
Dietrich believes that poverty brings with it the need for humility and includes the process of stripping down a person to his essence, leaving him vulnerable and exposed. This mirrors the lives of those who live and sleep on the streets of the city who become victims of law enforcement, criminals, purveyors of drugs and alcohol, and the “thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to,” as Shakespeare famously called them. It also means incarceration, court appearances, and putting oneself in harm’s way. The goal is to change society, change the system, and change people. “Change does not come from the barrel of a gun,” he writes, “or the decrees of the legislature. It comes out of the suffering and sacrifice.” Living in solidarity with the poor is necessary, because, “It’s not often that people in our culture have the opportunity to immerse themselves totally in an experience,” he says. “In fact, our way of life is designed specifically to prevent us from having…an authentic experience.”
If the book is strong on history, the gospel teachings, the current sociological and political impact of poverty (and it is), the question must be asked how practice has led to change. The problem is that the poor have always been with us, as we have heard from the gospels, and this is the case with the testimony of Dietrich’s writing. For forty years, he has lived with, fed, and observed the poor on Skid Row. Things have not changed much. The denizens of that fifty square block hell still line up for food and care every day. The change has happened within Dietrich and his fellow workers. They have deepened, reasserted, and reaffirmed their commitment to living with the poor. The practice did not change the world, but it did change people. This one-to-one transformation must occur first before the world can follow. Yes, the poor will always be with us, but the need to eliminate institutionalized poverty must be secondary to changing individuals. This is why one chooses to live with, and serve the poor.
Jeff Dietrich has practiced, and continues to practice poverty. But how many people can permanently leave their lives behind to take on Dietrich’s level of commitment? Catholic social teaching, Christianity, indeed, many religions teach that a lived experience of poverty is necessary. There is a scriptural component where Jesus teaches this practice, harkening back to the Old Testament Deuteronomists, the priestly tradition of Leviticus, and the prophetic literature. Concern for the other, the widow, the orphan and the alien, is embedded in the creation story. “God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them” (Gn. 1:27). But could there be a secular approach to living with the poor? Is there a way to understand and practice solidarity with the poor without making the transformation Dietrich details in his book?
Two secular writers attempt to tell the story of the poor through the practice of a kind of short term poverty. Dietrich believes “storytelling is the essential human activity.” Therefore, these journalists’ books fulfill the need to get the story out of what it means to be poor. The writers went out into the world and lived with the poor. Of course, to write about their experiences, they also chose to leave their poverty experiment, a choice few truly impoverished people have.
In Nickel and Dimed: On (Not)Getting By in America (Henry Holt and Company, 2001), Barbara Ehrenreich gives up her home, her family, and her financial security to travel the country and work for minimum wage to see if, with available housing and resources, she could sustain her life. She set up rules for herself. First, she could not use her writing skills or reveal her Ph.D. in biology. Second, she had to take the highest paying job offered and keep it as long as possible. Third, she would take the cheapest housing she found. Is this poverty? As the subtitle reveals, it most definitely is. However, she writes, “there was no way I was going to ‘experience poverty’ or find out how it really feels to be a long-term low-wage worker. My aim here was much more straightforward and objective—just to see whether I could match income to expenses, as the truly poor attempt to do every day.”
What follows is a desperate story, one that plays out daily for millions of Americans. Ehrenreich discovers that poverty offers incredibly high levels of frustration. People do not return calls, housing is nearly impossible to find on a minimum wage budget, and an injury can derail the whole structure of one’s life.
In Florida, she files more than twenty applications without an interview. With no job, she struggles to find housing. Almost immediately, she loses self-esteem and self-confidence. She discovers that no one can survive on six to ten dollars an hour. “There are no secret economies that nourish the poor; on the contrary, there are a host of special costs,” she writes. Some costs are monetary; others are physical and mental. Workers are often stretched thin and forced, under penalty of termination, to produce more, leading to “management stress.” The experience leaves her traumatized.
Job applicants are given batteries of tests that try to confuse them into admitting some moral, ethical or legal weakness. Meal breaks bear witness to why the poor in America are often obese: fast food, chips, and junk food are all consumed instead of healthy meals. Healthy food costs more, and the cheaper alternatives offer a chance to stretch the dollar. Often, the work is extremely physical—house cleaning, polishing, lifting, vacuuming, scrubbing—and the calories are inadequate to support such heavy manual labor leading to a variety of health problems. Workers are exposed to harsh chemicals and cleaning solvents. The pregnant workers clearly suffer the most in Ehrenreich’s story, along with those already afflicted with disease and injury. All are told to work through their pain, including a woman who suffers a severely sprained ankle while on the job.
In one moment of desperation, Ehrenreich attempts to get help from a variety of community service organizations. These food banks and assistance centers are open only during the middle of the work day and often only on certain days of the week. I found this to be true in my own research. “What is this assumption that the hungry are free all day to drive around visiting ‘community action centers’ and charitable agencies?” Ehrenreich writes.
Ehrenreich comes to some very potent conclusions in her book. “Work is supposed to save you from being an ‘outcast,’” she tells us. “But what we do is an outcast’s work, invisible and even disgusting. Janitors, cleaning ladies, ditchdiggers, changers of adult diapers—these are the untouchables of a supposedly caste-free and democratic society.” And these outcasts work in jobs, and in circumstances and conditions that breed illness, injury and crippling stress. One of her fellow workers did not realize she had cancer until a tumor the size of a quarter pushed through the right nipple of her breast. Pain, torn muscles, hacking coughs—without decent medical care and affordable drugs, the poor workers must simply push through and keep going. Many use alcohol and drugs to quell the pain, but this also causes problems during random drug screening. Alcohol, which does not show up in test results, is safe, but this encourages alcoholism and is apparent in other ways, such as in absenteeism, tardiness, and quality of work. The stress also leads to spousal abuse and domestic violence. Ehrenreich points out that even to get a job is costly. The candidate must travel to submit the application, return for the interview, go to the prescribed clinic for drug screening, and often endure the embarrassment of having the lab technician stand in the bathroom while the applicant urinates to verify that the sample is from the person applying for the position.
Women especially suffer in low wage jobs. Child care is expensive, so often they must arrange their work day so they can pick up children. They are more susceptible to spousal violence and inappropriate advances in the work place. Safety and security issues become frightening realities for poor women.
For both men and women, Ehrenreich finds low wage work repetitive, monotonous, back-breaking and mind-numbing, fueled by a high sodium, high fat diet that further damages mind and body, and relieved only by alcohol or drugs. “What you don’t necessarily realize when you start selling your time by the hour is that what you’re actually selling is your life,” Ehrenreich writes. In the end, she finds she cannot sustain herself on a minimum wage job anywhere in America. With two minimum wage jobs, both nearly full time, she has successful periods, but the physical toll makes this work nearly impossible to sustain. “What surprised and offended me most about the low-wage workplace,” Ehrenreich writes, “was the extent to which one is required to surrender one’s basic civil rights and…self-respect.”
William T. Vollmann takes a unique approach while living in poverty to capture the misery and suffering of those less fortunate. He does this with all the various subjects he’s addressed in his nonfiction. He wrote a seven volume study of violence, an examination of the hobo life of train-hopping transients in America, and various articles in a variety of magazines and journals. His novel, Europe Central (Viking, 2005) won the National Book Award. He is the quintessential gonzo journalist, who lives his stories while reporting them, and for previous work on prostitution, he paid women for the chance to interview them and smoked crack cocaine in order not to blow his cover while researching drugs in America. Always compelling, it still must be noted that his work often erases the boundary between third person, objective journalism and the stories and people being profiled, which can be incredibly dangerous.
For his book, Poor People (Harper Perennial, 2007), Vollmann travels the world living with those in the most backbreaking, soul-crushing, abject poverty. He walks the streets and bangs on the doors of Russian mobsters, prostitutes, drug dealers and addicts. He brings with him financial resources in order to pay people for their time and try to leave their lives a little better than he found them. He winds up purchasing women and girls from human traffickers, smuggling them across borders and setting them up in schools and communities where they would be safe and have the opportunity for a better life.
He opens the book by saying, “This essay about poor people was written in a different spirit—neither to explicate poverty according to some system, nor to erect a companion movement to Das Kapital in the cemetery of hollowed-out thoughts.” He, instead, wishes to write the nonfiction Grapes of Wrath, the great Dust Bowl novel by John Steinbeck. He does not want to practice Jeff Dietrich’s brand of evangelical poverty, but to tell the story of poor people. Again, we have the emphasis on story, the great tool of human enlightenment.
He asks each subject a basic question: why are you poor? Variations or follow-up questions included, why are poor people poor? Are men and women equally poor? Can you change your destiny? Do the rich have an obligation to the poor? His subjects are surprisingly candid, and in the end, their responses break your heart.
There is the former prostitute-turned-house cleaner in Thailand, Sunee, who struggles to support the youngest of her eight children who is smart and loves school. Sunee is an alcoholic. She tells Vollman that her own mother is her only lifeline. “She’s always told me, Sunee, you try to be strong because I am here and I’ll never throw you away.” Having been abandoned by her father and two husbands, this reassurance means the world to her. When asked what can be done to help poor people, Sunee tells Vollmann to give the poor lots of money, a jaded and crass answer.
There are the Russians, Oksana and the epileptic Natalie, who live in the literal and figurative shadow of Chernobyl. Many in their family suffer blood diseases, cancers, and unexplained and unidentified illnesses. Vollmann asks Oksana why some people are poor and other are rich? “Because there is no justice in the world,” she replies. “It’s the order of things; God must permit it.”
Vollmann jumps back and forth between his subjects, lingering for a chapter and swirling back later to pick up the narrative threads. He breaks down the phenomena of poverty into categories: invisibility, deformity, unwantedness, dependence, accident-prone-ness, pain, numbness, and estrangement. Within these categories, among these characters and their stories, he laces in wisdom. He quotes Montaigne, who said that fear of becoming poor causes greater anguish than actually being poor. This is reflected in those who say that even against all evidence to the contrary, they are not poor. If the poor have nothing, they cannot fear losing everything; conversely, those of us who have things fear the day when all is lost. Montaigne writes that “poverty has nothing to be feared but this, that it delivers us into the hands of pain, by the thirst, hunger, cold, heat and sleepless nights that it makes us endure.”
A disciple of American philosopher and Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau responds to Vollmann’s now typical question of why are some poor and some rich: “I think the love of money has a lot to do with it…I think a lot of people are poor because they want to be poor.” He goes on to say that poverty is a state of mind, especially in America. If only it were that simple.
One of the more earthy answers comes from an elderly Japanese man on a bicycle in an impoverished fishing village. Why are some people rich and others poor? “Because some have jobs and some don’t.” Ehrenreich would disagree. In her view, job or no job, one can still be desperately, hopelessly poor.
On a final point, Vollmann includes pictures of his subjects taken with their permission. They are worth as much as the words because we can clearly see the poverty in their eyes and circumstances. They are horrible and beautiful, frightening and illuminating. He captures one subject in a vacant lot that has been turned into a homeless camp. In the background of the shot is the open and overflowing communal toilet. The picture speaks clearly of the humanitarian crisis of poverty.
Upon reflection, it is amazing how even though the journalists took a secular approach to their subjects, religion runs like a thread through the fabric of their nightmares. One would expect a deep vein of Catholic social teaching in Jeff Dietrich’s book, but Ehrenreich and Vollmann, as well as their subjects, also utilize religious ideas and imagery to express the scourge of poverty.
Ehrenreich attends a local prayer meeting in her worker disguise. The preacher celebrates the sacrifice made by Jesus, his death and resurrection, and Ehrenreich questions why no one brings up the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew’s gospel. “Jesus makes his appearance here only as a corpse,” she concludes. Later, she thinks of Jesus’ words that the last shall be first while scrubbing and buffing a fabulously wealthy man’s home. She remembers reading that Simone Weil “once worked in a factory for some metaphysical purpose” she never completely understood. Mistakenly, she thinks that as poor people are not on television, religion, too “seems to have little to say about the plight of the poor.”
In Vollmann’s book, the thread of faith in the stories of the poor turns ghostly and haunting. One subject, Sunee, believes as Jesus died for humans, she would die for her daughter. Another subject, a Buddhist, believes people who are wealthy were rich in a previous life. A Muslim he interviews believes Allah gives each person, including the poor, something special which reminds me again of Genesis where all men and women are created in God’s image and likeness. I remembered too that the Koran requires that the wealth be spread through “Az-Zakab” or “poor-due.” Vollmann alludes to this text as well. When he asks his standard question of the Muslim, the man answers: “It is not for us to answer this question. Allah gives and He takes.” Finally, a Russian woman is asked by Vollmann, “Do you believe in destiny? I believe in God. Therefore, I believe in destiny,” she replies.
By far the most heart-rending quote comes from Vollman’s interview with these same Russian women who have endured so much suffering. “Do you have dreams for your future?” he asks. “Hope dies last,” one of the women replies. The Russian people who seem to have unlimited capacity to endure hardship and sorrow, have the final word on dreams in the valley of the shadow of death: Hope dies last.
Can one completely embrace poverty by choice? Jeff Dietrich did, and continues to do so. He is the exception, and in interviewing him, I’m not sure his anarchist persona is not born out of ego. He enjoys his position as a rebel and iconoclast. When complimented on his grasp of biblical teachings, he was quick to respond: “It doesn’t take much to know what priests know about the gospels.” He argues that for one to be present to the reality of suffering in the world without opening up means to live a life of fear. On this point, William T. Vollmann agrees. “I do not wish to experience poverty, for that would require fear and hopelessness,” writes Vollmann.
What can we learn from poverty, even temporarily living with the poor as experienced by Ehrenreich and Vollmann? We can gain an understanding of what it means to live with gut-wrenching misery. We can know the fear, violence and hopelessness of the poor. We can visualize the enormity of the problem of poverty. And we can understand, as Jesus teaches in the gospels, that the poor will always be with us.
But those who choose poverty will always be at a remove from the source because the choice to live in poverty is just that: a choice. We can be in solidarity with the poor. We can work to alleviate their suffering, but unless we are born into that horrifying world, we can never be truly of that world. And maybe it’s better that way. With a bit of distance and the knowledge that there is something more, we can inspire those who suffer to find a way out of their misery. In that way, hope does not die. Hope lives to light another day.
A companion piece to this post detailing a day in the life of a soup kitchen on Los Angeles’ Skid Row will be published this weekend on the blog, On The Street Where I Live: Searching for the Soul of Los Angeles.