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The Poor Experience in America


Each individual’s worldview is most directly shaped by personal experience. Due to how our brains work, we are far more likely to believe things that are part of (or at least similar to) our own experience. As a result, we tend to have considerable difficulty accepting the reported life experiences of people who have endured very different circumstances.

You can probably tell where this is going and what it has to do with being poor.

I have found that people who have never experienced being poor have a difficult time understanding the implications. But as someone who was formerly poor, I think I am in a good position to at least speak of my own experiences, which may be similar to others who are or have been poor. So, this is written with the intention of illustrating what it’s like to be poor in America, if you have no frame of reference and no idea what it’s like. (If you are or have been poor, you may or may not relate to this–your experiences are just as valid! This just happens to be mine.)

One of the things you quickly realize when you’re poor is just how valuable and scarce money is. Twenty dollars seemed like a lot. Sometimes, $100 felt like it might as well have been a million, for all the chance I had of having it on hand. The bottom line when you’re poor is that you just don’t have enough money. When one is more financially secure, a whole new world opens up in terms of how you approach and solve problems. Car broke down? Pay someone to fix it. Plumbing broke? Pay someone to fix it. Work emergency? Well, you’re probably working a job that’s very accommodating, since they’re paying you well, so take all the time you need. Sick? Go to the doctor. Hungry? Buy whatever you want to eat. See something in the store or on Amazon that catches your fancy? Pull out the credit card, done. It’s yours. So many concerns go away when you simply have enough money not to worry about them.

But when you’re poor? Forget it.

Car broke down? You better hope one of your friends is a shadetree mechanic, or that you’re mechnically inclined, yourself. For the latter, you’ll need tools, which you’re either renting from the local parts store, or acquired second-hand or as gifts. Hopefully, whatever you need is on hand, or your mechanic friend has it. And he’s a nice guy–he’ll cut you a deal, so you only need to come up with $200 instead of $800.

Where do you get the $200? That’s the size of a few bills, or maybe your grocery budget for a few weeks. Time to skip paying a bill and hold off the collection department for a month or two. Maybe trim the food budget for the rest. If you need your car immediately–say, tomorrow, because you have a job that you can only get to by car and you’ll be fired if you don’t come and none of your friends or family are going that direction so nobody is available to take you–then you’re either borrowing the cash from a friend, or taking out a payday loan.

But wait, why are you borrowing money? Don’t you have savings?

Of course you don’t. You’re poor. You’ll never have more than $50 in your savings to begin with, so why bother? The second you have anything saved up, it’ll be spent on a car repair, or a medical expense, or another unexpected bill. You’re always living on the edge.

Chances are, your friends are poor, too, which means there is a whole economy of favors and services in place. Your friend will lend you $100 now in exchange for $200 of the food stamps you get next month. It’ll hurt–you could’ve used that food–but your car’s busted. You have no choice. You’ll just be living on ramen and canned vegetables for a while.

As noted above, depending on the size of the expense, you may have to skip a bill. This means avoiding phone calls and moving money around in the hopes you’ll be able to pay the most overdue bill first, before the relevant service (phone, electricity, gas, etc.) gets shut off. Sometimes, the company will be patient with you. Can you work out a payment plan, maybe get the past due amount caught up over the span of a few months? Or maybe they want it all right now, and they’re going to shut you off in three days unless you pay it immediately. On top of that, if your account was in good standing, it isn’t anymore, and maybe they’ll decide to burden you with a deposit now, just in case this ever happens again. Because when you’re poor, and you have no money, the obvious thing to do is to saddle you with more liabilities.

It could be worse, though. You could be homeless, right? But you never know when you might be, since government programs are always being cut, your wages are stagnant, and if your landlord ever decides to be a jerk, you may find yourself needing to move suddenly. Your landlord may not like fixing things, or complain when you call him out to do basic maintenance. You’ve probably been late with your rent once or twice, too, and he’s bitter about that. If you’re a young woman, he might suggest you perform some favors for him if you’d like a bit more expediency in the repairs and maintenance. But he’d never do that, because it’s sexual harassment, right? Too bad you’re poor and can’t afford a lawyer, nor would you like to spend months dealing with equal housing opportunities agencies in the hopes they’ll take you seriously and eventually do something about it. After all, they’re underfunded, too, and have bigger problems to worry about than that one time your landlord wanted sex in exchange for doing his job.

So, now you’re quickly packing and hoping to move out in the space of a weekend–it’s not like you can take off from work–and if you’re lucky, you found a place that you can afford and is willing to let you pay the deposit in installments, since you obviously don’t have that kind of money on hand. You know you won’t get your deposit on the old place back, not because you left it a mess–you did the best you could–but because the landlord is an asshole, and he knows you don’t have time to take off work to see him in court. He’ll just keep it, like your last landlord did, and the one before. There’s hundreds of dollars (or more) you’ll never see again.

Well, what if you get sick? The ACA (“Obamacare”) has made healthcare more accessible and affordable to more people, but plenty still fall through the cracks. Poor enough for Medicaid, but living in a state that didn’t take the expansion? Unless you’re a child or a pregnant woman, you’re just out of luck. This means waiting until whatever conditions you have (and being poor, you at least have something–all that stress adds up) turn critical, then rushing to the ER and racking up a bill that’s easily in the five figures. If you had to go inpatient for treatment–likely, since you waited so long–you may now have lost your job, so while you have a warm bed to sleep in during your hospital stay, you risk losing the one you have at home unless you can find something else ASAP, or at least beg your boss not to fire you because you nearly died.

How about that job hunting, then? You might have one or two nice sets of clothes–those are for weddings, funerals, church, and job interviews. You’ll really be in a bind if anything happens to them, so you do your best to keep them immaculate. If you’ve gained or lost weight recently, this can be a hassle, but you just have to make do. Do you have those rounds with the hospital every once in a while, or any circumstances that might take you away from work unexpectedly? Then you probably have a spotty work history, and nothing that would ever help you move up past being qualified to flip burgers and take food orders. This has nothing to do with intelligence–you just couldn’t afford college, and being poor, you never had the time or resources to learn more marketable skills, and even if you did, everyone else you know is poor and in the same boat, so there’s no one to help hook you up with a job that will actually get you somewhere. Pile on that the mistreatment you get just because low-wage workers are seen as expendable cogs, the minuscule-to-nonexistent benefit and vacation packages, and the rigid scheduling, and it’s a wonder anyone manages to get by at all.

But you get by, because you have to. What other choice do you have?

This is without even discussing having children in the mix. But if the above sounds difficult, just imagine having to add being responsible for one or more other little humans who don’t work (so they aren’t helping you be any less poor), need constant care and supervision (which you’re either doing yourself or paying money you don’t have in order to provide), and who also need to be fed, clothed, and taken to the doctor. There are various programs and resources to help with these, but applying for them and staying qualified is practically a full-time job in itself–when you’re already juggling two (if not more) part-time jobs to make ends (barely) meet in the first place.

Given all this, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that people who are poor are seen doing “irresponsible” things like using drugs, playing the lottery, and so forth. Life as a poor person is constant stress and misery. Anything that offers relief, however momentary, is a blessing. It’s not fun. You feel guilty about that relief later–and the money you spent on it. The most fortunate have good networks of family and friends who can help with money and other assistance, and pick up the slack from time to time. You’ll return the favor when you can, too. But you’re still always standing on a precipice between just barely surviving and falling into an abyss from which you’ll never be able to escape. Your health might take a turn for the worse, or you’ll be the victim of a serious crime (poor people are victimized more often, and more violently), or any number of other calamities may befall you that, if you had some money, you might have been able to prevent or solve them. But you don’t, so you couldn’t.

Everything described here either happened to me or someone close to me, or I was otherwise involved with or participated in. These are relatively common experiences for poor Americans. Things get even messier if you happen to be a woman or a person of color–I haven’t even mentioned being hassled by police, which happens more if you’re poor (and certainly more if you’re not white).

I say all this so that, if you are inclined to be judgmental of poor people–of the assistance they receive, of the life choices you assume they’ve made–you might think twice and try to have a little empathy. If you’ve not been in that position, you probably have no idea what it’s like, or how stressful and difficult it is. If that were you, wouldn’t a little compassion mean a lot? Wouldn’t a little kindness?

Photo by stevendepolo