I just discovered another, older blog post with the same title as our recent series on Being Poor. It’s a different approach, but still a valuable insight into the way the ‘other half’ live- and sometimes that ‘other half’ is the people in the pew next to yours, at the grocery store in front of you, and in your homeschool group.
Writer John Scalzi over at ‘Whatever,’ writes a long list of what being poor means. I agree with most of the things on his list, and certainly, this no nonsense list goes a long way toward explaining to those who have never experienced it just how limiting it is to be poor at times. Here’s a few I thought particularly brilliant and poignant- and I’ve experienced most of these, or something quite similar:
Being poor is hoping the toothache goes away.
Being poor is going to the restroom before you get in the school lunch line so your friends will be ahead of you and won’t hear you say “I get free lunch” when you get to the cashier. (DHM: I understand school lunch programs have changed now so this doesn’t happen)
Being poor is a heater in only one room of the house. (DHM: we’ve kept the heat so low that water froze in our bedroom at night, and we learned to sleep with wool caps on to maximize body heat- did you know that most of your body heat leaves through your head?)
Being poor is hoping your kids don’t have a growth spurt.
Being poor is feeling the glued soles tear off your supermarket shoes when you run around the playground.
Being poor is a bathtub you have to empty into the toilet. (DHM: or having to use a bucket because your sweet elderly Christian landlady won’t call a plumber on the weekend, and you can’t afford to make waves by complaining)
Being poor is the police busting into the apartment right next to yours. [DHM or being the one to call the police because while you were up late with a croupy baby you looked out your window and spotted a car theft in progress]
Being poor is needing that 35-cent raise.
Being poor is six dollars short on the utility bill and no way to close the gap.
Being poor is crying when you drop the mac and cheese on the floor.
Being poor is a six-hour wait in an emergency room with a sick child asleep on your lap.
Being poor is having to live with choices you didn’t know you made when you were 14 years old.
Being poor is a lumpy futon bed. (DHM: or the floor)
Being poor is people who have never been poor wondering why you choose to be so.
Being poor is knowing how hard it is to stop being poor.
Being poor is seeing how few options you have.
Being poor is running in place.
Every item on that list is something I can relate to, something true, something hard. But then there were some other things on the list I couldn’t relate to. I snipped them off. You can read them at the original if you like, but they are not necessarily family friendly. I can’t relate to them. Stealing from somebody else was never an option, no matter how poor we were. Trading immoral acts for bread was not even something we considered.
A third category of items on the list are things I don’t think are about being poor- they’re about being smart or stupid, or having an inappropriate sense of entitlement. Here’s what I mean:
Being poor is getting angry at your kids for asking for all the crap they see on TV.
You’ve got a t.v.? Man, sell it if you’re poor. Television is not a need, and your kids do need to learn not to ask for all the junk they see on television whether you’re poor or wealthy.
Being poor is knowing exactly how much everything costs.
That’s also being smart.
Being poor is coming back to the car with your children in the back seat, clutching that box of Raisin Bran you just bought and trying to think of a way to make the kids understand that the box has to last.
Buying Raisin Bran is not something poor people should be doing. Oatmeal, cornmeal mush, french toast, bread pudding- these things are all much cheaper than Raisin Bran and more filling, too. Nobody is ‘owed’ Raisin Bran, and if you’re poor, you need to be spending your small amount of money much more wisely than this.
Being poor is stopping the car to take a lamp from a stranger’s trash.
We still do this. This isn’t being poor, it’s being smart and frugal.
Being poor is off-brand toys.
Being poor is never buying anything someone else hasn’t bought first.
Being poor is picking the 10 cent ramen instead of the 12 cent ramen because that’s two extra packages for every dollar.
Each of these things are about being smart spenders, losing the sense of entitlement, and growing past your culture. Off-brand toys? Try used toys from a yard sale and home made play dough. IT’s smart to get two extra packages for every dollar. If you applied this mindset to everything you did, some day you just might not be poor anymore.
Being poor is knowing you really shouldn’t spend that buck on a Lotto ticket.
Being poor and stupid is buying it anyway. Being poor and smart is knowing better.
Being poor is making sure you don’t spill on the couch, just in case you have to give it back before the lease is up.
This is being poor and not too wise and a little bit unimaginative. Being poor and smart is doing without the couch or picking one up from the roadside, at a yard sale, or a thrift shop.
All that said, I’d like to stress, again, that the hardest thing about being poor is that you have absolutely no margin for error, and human beings, rich and poor, are prone to error. Those with money in the bank, comfortable jobs, and good cars can make a foolish financial decision. They can blow a hundred dollars on new clothes or a new electronic toy, and it just means fewer lattes that month, or maybe not going to eat once or twice when you might otherwise.
When you’re poor, you use exactly the same level of thoughtlessness to spend a mere one dollar on a lotto ticket- and that might mean you don’t pay the electric bill and your power gets turned off, and then your milk goes bad, and then you need to spend more money for groceries, and that sets you back even further, and then, and then, and then…
It’s a rapid spiral down, but a grueling, hard climb back up.
In order to break free of that spiral you have to change your entire outlook about what is fair and what is not, what you deserve and what you do not. You have to change your attitude first so that you don’t see an unexpected ten dollars as permission to go to the movies, but rather as a chance to pay more on a bill, or put extra gas in the car, or buy ten dollars worth of an incredible sale item at the grocery store so that you can get ahead in the grocery bill later. You have to escape your cultural expectations, if you’re American in particular, about living standards and just how much consumerism is really necessary. The best tool for escaping poverty is the adjustment of your own point of view.
But you also have to have a few breaks- somebody fills up your tank without telling you, or drops off a bag of groceries anonymously, or leaves a twenty on your kitchen counter, or invites you over to dinner a few times, or buys diapers for the baby, or notices that your shoes have holes in them and so gives you a gift certificate to the shoe store, or somebody tells you how much she loves doing yard sales, but hates to go alone, so would you come with her (thus saving you gas)- a small break like these can help you pull ahead, providing you’ve adjusted your thinking so that you apply these breaks properly.
Bonnet Tip to BoardGameMadness for the link to Scalzi’s blog.
Updated: minor semantic adjustments
This post submitted to Mudville Gazette’s regular open post feature.