Voices of America series 2: the poor

The Scotsman, November 1 1988

Denice Speed is one of the night people. Every evening, soon after darkness has driven the office workers away, she and some 6,000 other men and women are bused into the plate-glass and chrome splendour of downtown Washington DC, where they split up and swarm like termites through the buildings that the day people have left behind.

Denice heads for the glowing yellow light of the World Bank, an imposing slab just off Pennsylvania Avenue, where the Cadillacs cruise. She pads down into the basement, where the supervisor punches her time card; she loads plastic trash bags, a dusting cloth, a vacuum cleaner, a bucket and a broom into her little dust cart; she takes the lift up to the fourth floor to start work.

She and 250 other night people clean the World Bank. Its President, Mr Barber Conable, has proudly announced his determination “to maintain and strengthen the Bank as a central force in the struggle against poverty”. Denice does not think much of Barber Conable. “Barber the Barbarian,” she calls him. Denice likes to speak her mind.

For cleaning his offices five nights a week, Denice is paid $4.75 cents an hour – the lowest possible wage permitted by law in Washington DC. Working five hours a night, she earns a little less than $120 a week – $6,175 a year. That income puts her and the other night people firmly below the US poverty line, along with 32.5 million other Americans.

Denice does not like being poor. “I look at all these middle class white kids. I see them driving Porsches and Audis. And I’m older than them. They’re about 18 or 19. Mom and Dad and everybody is helping them out. They might have a little cheesy job on the side, but they’re not really struggling. They might have to worry about their grades in school. That’s all. As long as they follow Mom and Dad’s rules, they are going to go through college and get a car and be OK. A lot of us fall through the cracks, you know. It doesn’t work. I was always trying to do the best I could with myself.”

Fifty years ago, American politicians and academics would have traced Denice’s disadvantage to racial prejudice. But her story, though tainted by racism, reflects a wider problem and one which is now seen by economists and progressive American politicians as much more significant – the entrapment of the poor by their own poverty. Or, in Denice’s words: “As fate would have it, my life didn’t turn out the way I wanted it.”

Her story is simple enough. She was born 24 years ago in one of the black neighbourhoods which make up three quarters of Washington DC. Her father drove trucks. Her mother looked after her and her two older brothers, and worked for the Post Office. They had enough money to get by and that was all. “We lived in a cheap house, but it was pretty decent.”

The changing times reached into their lives. When she was four, rioters who were enraged at the murder of Martin Luther King, torched and traumatised the Washington ghettos, and Denice’s family moved to the suburbs, to another black area. She was bused to school in a white part of town. “Things were going so damn crazy then. People were fighting and knocking each other out. I just wanted to get home alright.”

At home, though, things were hardly better. “My mother was ill with multiple sclerosis. She was going through such strain with the doctors. She was drinking and she used to beat me and put me out the house. My brothers were getting her down, taking the car and so on. If she wasn’t cussing me out and throwing me out of the house, she was calling the cops to pick me up. She was real close to a mental break down. It was real hard.” The family had no health insurance to help them cope.

Denice’s Aunt Mildred used to take her to Church but that did not mean much. “She used to take me to Church all the time – morning, afternoon, evening service. We’d go home and eat and go straight back to Church. I think once or twice a day is enough. But that woman was a real fanatic.”

Denice thought maybe she would leave school and be a disc jockey on the radio. “My ear was always glued to the radio. Anything connected with music, I loved. I was in the school chorus and the church choirs.” But she never really had a plan. “I just wanted to be alive. I didn’t figure out options.” The main thing was just to get through school.

She was 18 when she graduated from High School. She had passed through her classes with ease, naturally bright. She had done particularly well at music and social studies. Yet, her first job was wiping tables at Roy Rogers’ hamburger bar. It was all that was expected of her. It was the kind of job that all her friends went to. It was easy money to pay for a shared room so that she could leave home. “There wasn’t that much encouragement going on. I was just making money trying to keep myself afloat.”

A middle-class family might have urged her into a better paying job, or found some spare cash to send her to college, but Denice and her friends were left wiping up hamburgers. Then she got bored and went to serve ice cream in a department store. Then she worked on the till in a drug store, then as a nursing assistant in an old people’s home, then as a waitress on Capitol Hill, then as a courier at the airport.

By the time she became a janitor in March 1987, a subtle change had taken place: instead of being a school-leaver temporarily working for bad money, she was a poor person with no alternative. No college degree to lever her into white-collar work. No family money to find her a home or a car. No family firm to offer her a job. No connections. No safety net.

Sharing a room with a girl friend was no longer her idea of a home. Last year, she ran out of rooms and money and ended up staying in a shelter for the homeless. “My mother had died. My father had remarried and I had become estranged from my step-mother. I didn’t know where to go. I was getting serious about my situation. Things weren’t getting any better. Matter of fact, they were beginning to look a bit bleak.  I heard they were supposed to help people at this shelter so I thought I’d let them help me.”

The shelter only made her feel worse. It was mostly inhabited by mentally ill women who had been prematurely discharged from hospitals whose budgets had been cut. In order to escape, Denice took the final step into poverty: she went official and applied for welfare.

Now, a year later, public money lifts her above the poverty to which her $120 a week income condemns her. “My job should support me for all my needs, but it doesn’t. Other people spend what I earn on car insurance or just on a little piece of their mortgage. I need federal aid to help me to eat, you know.”

Each week, she gets $50 in food stamps. “It doesn’t cover everything you need. Like dish washing liquid. That’s not cheap and it’s just gone up again. It can be embarrassing using stamps from time to time. If I’m in a store with a lot ot wealthy people, all looking at you like you’ve got lice jumping off you, I might get a bit edgy. But where I live, everyone uses food stamps so it don’t matter.”

She lives in a third floor flat up the hill from an open air drug market in grimy south east Washington. She is supposed to pay $110 a week in rent, rising to $120 in December – ie her entire salary. But the city government picks up the bill for her and leaves her to pay only $40 a week. “Thanks to Jesus for my apartment.”

She has no bank account, no savings, no health insurance, no credit card. “Damn. Do you know how much money you have to make to get an American Express Card? But I know someone who’s got one.” This summer she took a week’s holiday: “I stayed home and watched cable on the TV and hung out in the street. On one day, I went on a trip to an amusement park, which was OK.”

In the small hours of the morning, Denice and the other night people shuffle out of the warmth of the World Bank and the other office blocks and stand blowing into their hands and throwing their arms round their ribs in the cold, waiting for their buses to come.

Denice is trying to educate herself: she reads the New York Times, the Washington Post, Time, Life, anything that is legible when she pulls it out of the trash cans. She dreams of one day going to college, getting a leg up on life. “But I need funds and I don’t have them. What do they care in the damn World Bank? Or anywhere else? They make $100,000 and more. What do they care as long as they don’t get no ash in their ash tray. What do they care if I get home at night or whether I have money to pay the bills?”

Denice and the other cleaners and janitors have joined the Service Employees Union and started a campaign, Justice for Janitors. The World Bank and its downtown neighbours have refused to recognise them. The union says Barber Conable has just flown to China and back on World Bank business in a first class seat costing just under $6,000. “That’s what I earn in a year. Barber the Barbarian. Barber the Buzzard. These yuppies and these older businessmen, they are made for life.

“What do they really care? They got all kinds of stocks and bonds and certificates of deposit and stuff I never even heard of. I mean, what do they really give a damn? I am nothing to them. My life doesn’t make one tenth of one difference to them. If I keel over and die with their name on my breath, they wouldn’t even care. This may be the greatest country on Earth, but there’s some two-faced people in it.”