Semantics aside, Brianna Karp has had a difficult life: she grew up poor under the care of a mother with both a mental illness and a substance abuse problem. She began working at the age of 12 out of the need to contribute to the household income and take care of her own personal needs. She is currently underemployed and dealing with the daily challenging situations faced by those with few means. She blogs about these challenges at The Girls Guide to Homelessness, and her entries resonate with those of us who are or have been among the working poor.
While reading Brianna's blog, I found myself thinking about the recent Washington Post article that began with the statement "you have to be rich to be poor." (Anyone who doesn't understand that statement must promptly leave this site and read the article now.) Part of why I recalled this article is because of the numerous hassles Brianna has on her plate (e.g., trailer in impound thanks to WalMart and a broken down car), but another reason is because that article highlights exactly why this (not really) rags to (semi) riches story rubs me the wrong way.
Brianna scored an internship with Elle, where she currently gets paid $150/month to write for their blog, by contacting the magazine's advice columnist E. Jean Carroll. E. Jean was so enamored with Brianna's "courage and spirit" and "highly entertaining blog" that she offered her a four-month telecommuting position as the columnist's lackey because "the cleverest way to land a good job…is to already have a good job/internship/volunteer position." Soon after, the story of Brianna's newly acquired internship hit the media and had people raving about how this little homeless girl's resourcefulness and clever thinking had got her on the path out of poverty. This is the kind of story a friend of mine dubs poverty porn: the shallow sharing of egregious incidents and conditions that ultimately result in the reaffirmation of a narrative we all know too well: that ubiquitous bootstraps pulling American Dream scenario. This kind of tale is all about the glorified ending without the mess of the reality of what it takes to get there—if one is able to get there.
One could argue that Brianna is putting a human face on homelessness (which is, indeed, her stated goal) or that she's bringing to the forefront issues faced by the working poor, except for one thing. She fails to make substantative connections in the dilemmas she writes about. She even goes so far as to disconnect the two: "my thrift store habits are not a direct result of my homelessness." Instead of smartly tackling important issues (like that most people shop at thrift stores do so out of necessity not choice, contrary to what indie hipsters would have you believe), she simply tries to make thrifting seem cool by talking about the thrill of hunting for the perfect vintage outfit. Brianna's articles could easily be written sans that mention of her so-called homelessness, but there's a shock and sympathy factor gained from its mention.
Maybe I'm being too harsh on Brianna. Let me try that again: I'm being too harsh on Brianna. Girlfriend is taking care of business, and I've got no quarrel with that. In fact, I wholeheartedly support it! I just want her to push her analysis more than she's done so far. I want her words to move beyond complaint to examination and then to action. I know Elle isn't exactly known for its hard-hitting, in-depth journalism or its activism, and I'm sure they (and the media covering the story) are simply looking for pat pieces to up their oppression cred and feel-good tales in a time of economic turmoil. But couldn't the magazine at least pay Brianna minimum wage? It's a lot harder to swallow the idea of the vapid fashion magazine's newfound benevolence when you know Brianna's hourly rate falls below the legal requirement for a proper employee. Sure, she's just an intern, but does that make it okay to exploit someone who clearly needs a living wage?
Hang in there, Brianna. Milk this opportunity for all it's worth, and then take what you've gained and go get what you deserve.
Update: In a comment below, E. Jean has clarified that Brianna gets paid for her blog separately from her internship with the advice columnist.