Oct 28 2010

George Orwell on the poor and unemployed

My ideas about what being poor and unemployed must be like were shaped by two books by George Orwell that I read at an impressionable age in my late teens that eloquently recounted his own direct experiences of that condition. One is Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), a semi-autobiographical account of a period in his life when he was really poor and at times homeless. The other is The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), where he recounts his experiences after he was sent on assignment to the north of England for an extended period, and lived in the homes of coal mining families at a time when there was widespread unemployment.

Both books can be read online for free by clicking on the links and hold up remarkably well with time. Orwell’s obvious sympathy with the people he was writing about, coupled with his ability to write eloquently but honestly, brings the experience of the people he lived and moved with to vivid life.

What those books taught me is to be much more conscious of my own deeply ingrained class prejudices and not be too quick to judge what poor and unemployed people are like, and that many of my middle-class assumptions about them are not to be trusted. I learned that it was not a case of how different they were from people like me but how similar. I know that I still have plenty of class prejudices but at least I am aware that I have them, which makes me much more careful about making generalizations about the poor. Very few things infuriate me more than to hear well-to-do people (like Ben Stein in the previous post) smugly speak of the working poor and unemployed as if they are somehow and in some mysterious way inferior human beings lacking in the basic virtues.

Orwell writes in chapter 5 of The Road to Wigan Pier about how his own prejudices were confounded by the actual experience of getting to know people up close:

When I first saw unemployed men at close quarters, the thing that horrified and amazed me was to find that many of them were ashamed of being unemployed. I was very ignorant, but not so ignorant as to imagine that when the loss of foreign markets pushes two million men out of work, those two million are any more to blame than the people who draw blanks in the Calcutta Sweep. But at that time nobody cared to admit that unemployment was inevitable, because this meant admitting that it would probably continue. The middle classes were still talking about ‘lazy idle loafers on the dole’ and saying that ‘these men could all find work if they wanted to’, and naturally these opinions percolated to the working class themselves. I remember the shock of astonishment it gave me, when I first mingled with tramps and beggars, to find that a fair proportion, perhaps a quarter, of these beings whom I had been taught to regard as cynical parasites, were decent young miners and cotton-workers gazing at their destiny with the same sort of dumb amazement as an animal in a trap. They simply could not understand what was happening to them.

What Orwell’s books also taught me is to appreciate the great desire of people to maintain their dignity and self-respect even under conditions of extreme poverty and hardship, and that this feeling becomes even stronger as they slide down the socioeconomic ladder. This is why poor people often dress and otherwise behave in seemingly more extravagant ways than those who are much better off. They feel a greater need to hide their poverty. The fashion industry’s success depends on making people desire to distinguish themselves from the less well-off by showing that they can afford to buy new and expensive clothes even when they don’t need to. And poor people who want to keep up appearances of gentility get caught in this consumption trap.

For example, I myself am frugal and wear clothes until they are so worn that they become frayed, and sometimes have actual holes in them. I wear shoes until they are so scuffed and beaten up that my feet get wet even in slight rain. My shabby appearance does not bother me. No one has as yet mistaken me for a panhandler and offered me money but if it happened I would not be offended. It would be merely an amusing anecdote that I could share with friends.

So one might wonder why poor people take so much care to look good and even spend money on clothes that they really cannot afford. The difference is that I know that I am not poor and if people think that I am, it is their error and does not impinge on my self-image. But poor people often desperately want to hide the fact of their poverty because they are not sure if they will ever stop being poor and they feel that looking obviously so by not taking care of their appearance is the first step to acknowledging permanent poverty, that they actually belong in the despised underclass and are not merely temporary sojourners there. In Down and Out in Paris and London, Orwell describes the highly complicated extremes he went through to maintain a genteel fa├žade while being homeless, just so that no one would suspect the truth.

In purely practical terms, it is obviously not a good idea to spend money one cannot afford to buy nice clothes or make-up or get one’s hair done, and whoever does that is being objectively foolish. But spending money in order to disguise one’s poverty springs from a different motivation from that due to vanity or self-indulgence, which is why we should not be so quick to judge the character of people simply by their visible state and actions. People who try to maintain a good appearance, even if they cannot afford it, are more likely to seek work to improve their situation than those who become resigned to their poverty and give up trying, sinking further into apathy and despair.

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