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Being Poor Is a Full-Time Job

Poor people sell their blood plasma. Rich people donate it. Like most situations that poor people typically deal with, a lot of work is necessary to earn small amounts of money and selling blood ranks near the top as a serious, time-consuming, ball-busting endeavor. Average pay for a half or full quart-size plastic bottle is $20–30. In most places, they promise to get you in and out in about two hours, but three is the norm. Twice in one week earns $45–55. To be fair, there is a lot that needs to get done. It starts with a check-in that asks a series of questions that must be answered the same way every single time. Have you been pregnant in the last six months? Have you been in jail for more than three days in the last six months? Most donors are brothers. Young, old, addicted, talkative, damaged, brilliant, gentle, mean, dirty, lost, angry, beaten, driven, selfish, strong, sexy, quiet, handsome, sweet, honest, desperate, childless fathers, poor Black men in all shapes, sizes and hues.

By far the longest time is the first time or what could be called the job interview. Most plasma operations have a ponderance of Black women who do the heavy lifting. Just like the men they come in all variations: somebody’s momma, young, old, dyed, over-permed hair, lots of weaves, perms, locks, light skin, dark skin, straight, gay, fat, skinny, church women and more. They do the paperwork, take your picture and you get a physical from a woman you can be pretty sure is not a M.D., maybe not an R.N. but perhaps a L.P.N. ... possibly. Next, there are intake workers who weigh you, take your blood pressure and determine if you have the proper protein level. A little more scary are the techs who “stick you.” Some of ‘em got the touch and some of ‘em don’t. Once one kept re-sticking me and left a bruise the size of Texas. Next time I was in her section, I mentioned my previous experience and homegirl had the nerve to claim that I hurt her feelings. Now, I’m thinking, “My sister, we don’t know how close you got to putting an air bubble in my veins and yo feelings hurt?!” Oh well, hell to the double ‘L’.

It’s the kind of job where one should be open to a client’s constructive criticism, but as most of these folks are themselves only a paycheck away from being on the other side of the needle, they tend not to be that versed in proper corporate rules of engagement. Mostly, they are the overseers given a modicum of power over the sharecroppers. They see themselves as middle-class, but they are the working poor. And that’s the funny thing about being poor in the land of the free and home of the brave is that the whole “American Dream” thing has clearly confused people. During the height of the health reform debate I saw a news segment where an old white man, missing a couple of teeth, and being interviewed outside of his trailer home was angry about how Obama just wanted “to take from the rich and give to the poor.” Now unless he was just slumming in the trailer park, this man was clearly delusional about his economic position. But he proves one of my dearly held theories that I was once forced to defend in a class about Martin Luther King that I was taking with noted author and then-a-professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Michael Eric Dyson. My theory was quite simple—being poor is a state of mind.

Poor people eat a lot of fast food. They drink unfiltered tap water or sweeten, carbonated sodas. They only see ER doctors. Periodically they go without car insurance until DMV figures it out. Poor people are poorly educated which makes them unemployable. They end up incarcerated. They smoke menthols and know someone who is or used to be a crack or meth head. If they could, they voted for Obama and they won’t vote again until he runs for re-election. Or on the other side, if they didn’t vote for Obama, now they’re calling themselves tea baggers and they will be out in force to vote against No. 44 on November 6, 2012.

In the immortal words of a poor sharecropper named Fannie Lou Hamer, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired!” Deep down in the Mississippi Delta, Fannie Lou Hamer was one of Martin Luther King’s hardest workers. Year after year after year, barely able to read, she took a poll test that purported to determine her knowledge of the Constitution. One night, a gang of police officers had her beaten like she was a runaway slave. She was beaten by some Black men who were already jailed and threatened if they did not beat her. All of those men—both the jailers and the jailed—were profoundly poor. Fannie Lou Hamer had no money, but because she understood that her oppression had been orchestrated by the American government she was rich in more ways than could be counted. A true activist, Fannie Lou Hamer knew that advocating for the poor was a full-time job with no benefits and less thanks. Like Harriet Tubman who once she experienced freedom was compelled to go back and help others, Fannie Lou Hamer and unsung heroes like her are everyday doing the work of helping poor people understand that they too have a right to the American Dream.