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2012 was the year when people started freely telling casual friends they were broke—or living in their car. It was the year that contract-thumping moralists lost their voice. It was the year that sleeping on a friend's couch became acceptable and accepted.

No, you don't reveal these things at job interviews—in fact you still park your beat-up car around the corner. And a few people with secure $100K/year jobs might still sneer at you.

But in 2012, among most 99-percenters, couch-surfing became socially acceptable—including long-term stays. It's been acceptable forever among the congenitally poor. Now it has become a reality of life in wealthy areas such as Marin County or Silicon Valley, or wealthy suburbs of NYC or DC. Couch-surfers no longer have to cringe at dinner-time; they are equals at the dinner table.

It's a new breed. They kick their food stamps into the household budget. They cook dinner, clean the bathroom and tend the garden. They pull their weight. And they get respect in the household.

Benjamin Franklin famously observed that "Fish and guests begin to smell after three days." Not in the Great Recession, though. A couch is a small tradeoff for a cheerful share-the-work roommate.

Kick in their food stamps? Of course. With over 40 million Americans on food stamps, most couch-surfers have something to kick into the stew pot—and that goes over very well with the people whose couches they are sleeping on.

Why is it working?

As social and economic analyst Dmitry Orlov wrote,

... Americans make better Communists than Russians ever did, or cared to try. They excel at communal living, with plenty of good, stable roommate situations, which compensate for their weak, alienated, or nonexistent families.... Where any Russian would cringe at such an idea, because it stirs the still fresh memories of the failed Soviet experiment at collectivization and forced communal living, many Americans are adept at making fast friends and getting along, and generally seem to posses an untapped reserve of gregariousness, community spirit, and civic-minded idealism.
I can't speak for Russians, but I will say that Americans make better commune-ists than French or Italians. Those are both intensely family-oriented cultures, whereas Americans have a 200-year-history of putting up strangers based on a quick look-and-feel—embodied in the wild, wild West, where sacking out in a ranch's bunkhouse for the winter meant you pulled your weight by doing chores and helping herd cattle, even if you were not on the payroll.

That formula is working again today—with dignity for all concerned—and I believe it's creating a better breed of American.


I initially titled this "The Shame of Poverty," but was correctly reminded that poverty is a state of mind, whereas being broke is a condition ... preferably a temporary condition.

Source information: a lot of recent trips to Silicon Valley and Marin County, where I was startled to find people couch-surfing everywhere—confirmed by phone calls to other parts of the U.S.

Nicholas Carroll is the author of Walk Away From Debt for a Better Future.

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Comment Preferences

  •  That's a very interesting perspective, and (8+ / 0-)

    certainly a twist. I'm an expat who has taught intercultural awareness, and this kind of information is fascinating to me, plus it just makes sense - I had something of a light-bulb moment when I read Orlov's quote.


    „Wer kämpft, kann verlieren. Wer nicht kämpft, hat schon verloren.“ - Bertolt Brecht

    by translatorpro on Tue Jan 15, 2013 at 09:47:48 AM PST

  •  Poverty isn't a state of mind. That's pure B.S. (3+ / 0-)


    Poverty and Income Inequality isn't Democratic, Justice or American. It is Tyranny.

    by Wendys Wink on Tue Jan 15, 2013 at 09:48:20 AM PST

  •  Poverty is more than a state of mind ... (10+ / 0-)

    ...poverty is an institution based on racism, sexism, classism,disabilities and ageism.  Institutions remain in place because in spite of the devastation they cause, they benefit someone.  Poverty is far from a burden in society, the upper classes depend on the poor for their own wellbeing.  I can name some of these benefits, but at the risk of tooting my own horn, I have to tell you I have documented this in many diaries.  

    I could care less about tooting that horn, what I do care about is getting the message out that poverty is firmly ensconced in our culture.  I want to say that until the people who live off the backs of the poor admit their own addictions to the institution of poverty, and/or become horrified (or at the very least shamed) out of their comfy tax-free yachts and jets, this institution will never die.  

    My 2 cents

    Cat in Seattle

    First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they hurt you, then you win ~ Mahatma Gandhi

    by mntleo2 on Tue Jan 15, 2013 at 09:58:09 AM PST

    •  Well, you know, poverty used to be considered (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      mntleo2, Chitown Kev, bumbi, blueoasis

      a virtue. As with obedience, virtue depends to a large extent on whether it is freely adopted or coerced. Coerced poverty, backed up by the dictum that there is "no free lunch" and those who expect to eat had better behave themselves and do what they are told, is not a virtue; it's abuse.  Ditto for the culture of obedience, which demands compliance with orders as a condition of gaining the sustenance necessary to live. When the right to life ends at birth, it's not worth much.

      Anyway, around the turn of the Century, it was estimated that 10% of U.S. GDP was in the underground or shadow economy.  Since then, some studies have been done of European economies to calculate that Greece's shadow economy is at about 40%, while Italy and Spain are slackers at 25%. Nobody wants to estimate where it is at in the U.S., but it's my guess that it has increased substantially. While food pantries are stretched and organized eleemosynary institutions are complaining of a lack of funds, calculable charity is different from what Occupy practiced and what neighborhood yard sales and kitchen garden accomplish.
      Perhaps we were a bit ahead of the curve, but we took strangers into our household in 2009 and 2010. They've since moved on and acquired a mobile home with the SSI money the oldster didn't spend while he was in residence with us.
      It has long been a national disgrace that we had homeless people even as we had millions of people-less homes and all because what Wall Street didn't hoard, Congress tried to ration away.
      Perhaps one of the most pernicious practices of Bush/Cheney was the termination of significant data gathering. I suppose they figured that what people couldn't find out wouldn't hurt their own powers. Now we're left with over-stressed troops killing themselves at a higher rate than the enemy does, families disrupted by congenital illness, malnourished fat people (like empty houses, a deliberate waste) an unemployed talent.

      There's no excuse for these societal ills, but their etiology is also not hard to identify. They can be linked directly to the effort to manage and manipulate the population, rather than focusing on managing our natural resources and assets well. Propaganda was supposed to take care of everything. After all, that's what the management schools all around the country taught--management as a social science, rather than a material science. And economists, with their fascination for numbers went along, until we ended up with a virtual economy in which read goods and services only exist as long as it takes to haul them to the dump.
      Mountains of trash. Those are the sign posts of a culture that's about to crash. That's as true in the third world as it is in the U.S. If humans can't deal with waste, they don't have a cultural base.

      We organize governments to deliver services and prevent abuse.

      by hannah on Tue Jan 15, 2013 at 10:26:54 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Poverty is many things. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      I have no objection if you want to link to your own writing from a comment in one of my diaries.

      In any case, from your last paragraph, we'd probably agree that one of the elements of poverty is learned helplessness. However since most of my books are self-help, "hope" is an essential part of my writing. Having seen people move out of their cars and into an economically decent life many times, I know that lives can turn for the better with astonishing speed.

      Poverty as a state of mind is not my original observation: I read it years ago in the auto-biography of a man who had clawed his way out of poverty, and he cited one of his inspirations as his mother's advice that "We ain't poor, just broke."

      •  The only "learned helpessness" is with ... (0+ / 0-)

        ...the upper classes.  THEY are the ones who are "helpless" without poor people to lean upon.  The poor themselves are the ones who are depended upon because they are the ones doing the most work ~ and making the greatest sacrifices in tax contribution and family security than any other class in order to maintain the infrastructure for the upper classes.  

        So no, the only way I can agree on who is "helpless" would be in the acknowledgment of this dependence by the upper classes.  The poor themselves are the ones who are maintaining the rest and are far from "helpless", they have to be quite industrious and creative in order to survive. They are doing the work and making the greatest sacrifices for the benefit of the rest.  

        This "learned helplessness" meme is simply not true.  As a matter of fact it is a tortured psychological way of imposing on others what the ruly helpless people are.  It is used to hide the lie that the poor are the ones who are "helpless" instead of themselves  The reason the upper classes refuse to recognize the institution of poverty is because then these elitists would have to admit the immorality and greed behind what perpetuates their own dependence on the poor for their own comforts. Then they would have to admit that they CAUSE poverty in order to keep it going.  

        I am glad you wrote this diary and appreciate your take as the poor need every bit of support they can get since they are hated and maligned by the upper classes (much like fraternal societies hate and fear women even though they depend upon women for their own pleasure). I am just trying to say that the person who said poverty has no clue about what they are talking about and that this idea about "learned helplessness" is wrong, wrong, wrong and just a smoke screen about who is REALLY "learning helplessness".  Believe me it is not the poor who are helpless, it is the upper classes who cannot live without the poor for their own well being.  


        First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they hurt you, then you win ~ Mahatma Gandhi

        by mntleo2 on Tue Jan 15, 2013 at 07:21:10 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  A thoughtful comment. With a note. (0+ / 0-)

          An interesting comment on the one-percenters being the learned helpless. You're quite right in a serious way; without their nannies and drivers and household help, most don't know how to get along, God forbid they should have to sew a button on. And surveys confirm that -- that $250k/year households feel strapped and helpless. Thank you.

          As to "This "learned helplessness" meme is simply not true," I beg to differ. The comment alone pretty much assures me that you've never "been there, done that" -- that is, you've never lived in the gutter, or at the edge of it.

          Try to imagine a life in which people stand frozen in the supermarket aisle trying to decide whether to buy one bar of soap, or the more economical 3-pack. (Though it's a moot point if one can't afford the 3-pack.) If you buy the 12-pack, you haven't been there

          •  Thank-you Dear, your observations appreciated .... (0+ / 0-)

            ....I am low income, which is why I am an activist.  As a single parent who worked McJobs and raised 4 kids myself, it has taken me years to understand my own contributions to my community as a low wage worker, a parent who struggled while raising kids and now a low income senior.  

            I have had the privilege of being around activist mentors who have opened my eyes about the nature of poverty, otherwise I would have bought the "helpless" stuff myself, as many low income people do.  This has motivated me to educate others in order to empower them because the burden of poverty is unbearable and so damaging for innocents who cannot understand the web of hatred, the feigned "concern", or the lack of support for their struggles from people who actually live off the backs of the poor.  

            The dependence on the poor is not only about McJobs, it is also about other issues that the upper classes are dependent upon.  Most large non-profits spend lavishly on themselves while enjoying tax dollars and are tax shelters for the rich, yet they spend far less on direct services for their "mission".  The data s out there shows that these mega-non-profits get on the average of $54-67,000 PER CLIENT, yet do only about $2000 in direct services.  I can tell you where the rest goes ~ most of it into the pockets of the rich and middle class employees who are dependent on the poor for their own security, yet who actually hate the poor and treat the poor as if they are the 'leeches".  

            Billions in taxes are given to large businesses who actually use slave labor sanctioned by the government for their own profit (see welfare-to-work that has undermined paid workers by pushing welfare moms to "volunteer" for these businesses, while being treated as "leechers" by these people who actually get huge grants from the government for "being so nice" to use this free labor).  Why hire someone who is PAID when you can get this work for free, as a matter of fact get even ore money to accept this free labor? The cost of privatizing poverty is far more expensive than it would cost for direct services from the government ~ again going to mega-nons and private enterprise who are making money hand over fist for themselves while their "services" are a tiny percentage of what they get (see the link in the previous paragraph).

            Housing is also big business for the upper income.  In NYC a group of homeless folks worked with Hinter College of Urban Development to make a database proving that homelessness was a myth by documenting all the empty housing there was in every borough, which in reality were tax shelters for the owners by keeping their property empty.  Homelessness is Big Business for shelters and other agencies.  These shelters take all the resident's income in exchange for their "help" making it impossible to afford housing for their clients ~ but a huge tax shelter for the rich as well as employment for the middle class dependent on a continuous flow of the poor for their own welfare.  

            I want to say that employing the middle class would not be a bad thing ~ if the middle class workers did not hate the poor so much.  But in my state they are even TRAINED to hate their clients, to denigrate them, to pretend that pushing a women into a low wage job is "success" while these contracted private businesses employ social workers who receive generous bonuses for every job they push these women into that will cause these women poverty for the rest of their lives.  In my state according to our RCW these businesses receive $500.00 per client for each job these clients find.  Clients are routinely denied any training or college access so they have no hope of advancing beyond, "Do you want fries with that?"  

            Because of our hatred for low income parents, our states will actually spend twice as much to pay everyone else in the world to care for children than it would cost to support the parents to care for their own kids themselves.  The cost of a newborn for childcare is around $2000 a month while Mom works that McJob, and the child misses important bonding and breast feeding time they need in the first year of life.  If we supported this mother to remain at home with that baby instead of forcing her out into the workforce when the infant is less than 3 months old, it would cost for food, medical, and housing less than $1200 a month.  We cannot even estimate the cost of the lack of presence this baby will experience for the rest of its life because of the absence of this parent.  And because of the hatred for low income parenting, the Foster Care Industrial Complex is reeking havoc in low income families that takes a whole diary in itself (see my diary: )

            This is because we see the raising of children as "doing nothing" while making some rich man richer by saying,"Do you want fries with that," is the only contribution a parent can make, according to the government.  According to labor statistics, women lose on the average of $275,000 in a paid work lifetime because of care giving.  And this is calculated at the rate of their earning 70¢ for every man's dollar.  This is not only children where they have to make a choice to work for a wage or the 24/7 care, but with their elders and spouses as well.  Yet all this work is called "zero years" according to Social Security.  If we were to create and subsidize businesses to replace this work, it would cost $Billions, yet we cannot see this work as any contribution to our communities at all and we do not support this work.  

            Drug and alcohol dependence is as prevalent if not more prevalent in the upper classes, yet the poor are the ones who create fodder for the huge Prison Industrial Complex and bear the lifelong consequences if they are dependent, thanks to the "zero tolerance" we have imposed on the low income.  These consequences radiate out into the entire family, who are left to struggle without any support. In Portugal when they decriminalized all drugs, the criminal activity fell over 40% in less than a year.  But to be honest with you, most low income people cannot afford drugs and alcohol, they are too busy trying to survive on the low wages they receive for the hard labor they perform that takes every penny they earn.  Still anyone they love who does fall into the drug/alcohol trap are condemned if they have the misfortune to enter this Complex and it affects the entire family, indeed, entire communities.  

            This dependence on the poor by the upper classes include taxes.  The poor pay the highest rate of taxes in every state. In my state, which contains two of the richest men in the world, they pay less than 2% of their $Billions in taxes while a welfare mom pays almost 20% of her meager income.  If Bill Gates alone (not counting the several other $Billionaires we support) paid the same rate of taxes that a welfare mother paid, our entire state would not only be out of the $1Billion deficit we have, we would be more than $5Billion in the black ~ and Mr Gates would still have over $50Billion to "eke" out his living.  To Mr Gate's credit he supports fair taxing himself, but the truth is he pays far less and will for the foreseeable future.  Check out your state here: . You will discover that even the middle income folks pay less than half of the rate of taxes the poor pay in almost every state.

            I do not see this System as some sort of "vast conspiracy" so much as a benign blight that is perpetuated but is invisible to most who benefit from poverty. This dependence and "learned helplessness" reaches out WAY farther than the rich needing butlers and maids.  It is about the entire society pretending poverty is a "burden", when in fact they are depending on the poor who are the very base of the pyramid holding up everything else. I also want to say that small non-profits are often the ones who are doing the REAL work that those mega-nons refuse to do and they do not get any consideration from the government or those large "foundations" who are in reality huge tax shelters for the rich giving money to other rich people running non-profits.  These hard-working small nons get barely a nod, yet often operate and smaller budgets than a DHS manager receives.  Nor did I cover the health care field, food security, or the other basic needs that require a never-ending parade of the poor.  

            Suffice it to say it is there, it is a silent dry rot that is eating out the very core of our communities while the middle class who depend on the poor themselves and do not know this dependence is a cancer, are falling in slow motion towards the same fate.  


            First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they hurt you, then you win ~ Mahatma Gandhi

            by mntleo2 on Wed Jan 16, 2013 at 06:52:40 AM PST

            [ Parent ]

  •  I am not sure if this would work with children (6+ / 0-)

    sure one person could bunk in the "wild west" or sleep on the couch in 2012 but when we have children involved it is not that simple.  Kids need to go to school and need to be cared for- cannot really ship junior off to sleep in a stranger's house.  I do agree that more people are living with less and willing to share what they have wiht those that have even less but I do not think that is a good thing in the long term.  Kids are real expensive and need more than a place to sleep.

    •  Generally whole families couch-surf together. (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      bumbi, nicolemm

      I haven't seen many kids packed off to live with complete strangers. In a lot of interviews, what I see is whole families camping in friendly basements or spare rooms. A family of 5 joining a single person in a one-bedroom apartment is a squeeze, but I've seen it managed with substantial grace and dignity.

    •  Kids also are an important national resource ... (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      blueoasis, nicolemm

      As an activist for low income families, I am sometimes asked the question, "I chose not to have kids, why should I support other people's kids?"  

      I tell them this:

      Other people's kids" are going to pay YOUR Social Security when you can no longer work for a wage, "other people's kids" are going to fight in your wars, run your country, maintain your infrastructure, and even take care of YOU when you can no longer care for yourself.  

      So do you want these "other people's kids" to grow up in adverse poverty, live on the streets, not be educated enough to care for you, or become criminals that your tax dollars have to pay for, or are you willing to support people doing the work of raising those "other people's kids" in order to care for you?  

      Not only couch surfing does not work for kids, house sharing is also not easy to do.  Families need their own space, they cannot live comfortably with strangers.  The best way shared housing works IMO is with relatives, and even this can be VERY stressful for kids and families without a lot of work and thought.  

      Multi-generational housing is one of the best things for kids there can be because the grandparents not only give the family a sense of history and familiarity, but they can caregiver while the parents are working for a wage and everyone shares in the household responsibilities.  This requires a great deal of cooperation, a single-minded purpose that has a lot of open trusting communication. and that above all the "The Family's" survival depends on each and every one to work together for their own benefit.  


      First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they hurt you, then you win ~ Mahatma Gandhi

      by mntleo2 on Tue Jan 15, 2013 at 12:21:04 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Apples and oranges (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Odysseus, bumbi

    Communism has always been the norm for people living under one roof.  And that is true just as much in Russia as it is in America or anywhere else in the world.  It is only when the group becomes large that communism proves unworkable.  So the comparison between American communism and Russian communism is really a comparison between a household and a nation, and thus is a conceptual muddle.

  •  Why 2012? (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    •  One man's opinion. (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      FG, nicolemm

      I've been relentlessly questioning people on their attitudes towards personal debt default since early 2009, and saw steady change. In 2009 the only universally acceptable excuse for personal debt default was medical bills.

      2012 was IMO a cross-over year, and one of the crossings was that average Americans by and large lost interest in blaming the "new poor" for their plight -- including couch-surfing, strategic default, living in their car, and defaulting on credit card debt.

  •  This is a very interting POV (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    bumbi, llywrch

    on the subject that I will have to think about.

    Certainly, the Great Depression was known to be a time where some of these characteristics existed; some families became more cohesive, a lot of writers and artists received big breaks working under the auspices of the WPA.

    I don't think that poverty or being broke is any one's lot of things.

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