Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Poor people shouldn't

I didn't grow up poor. I grew up in a standard middle-class neighborhood where I always had exactly the clothes I needed and never wondered if we had enough food to last us through the week.
But, my kids are growing up poor. My oldest is figuring it out but the 3 younger kids don't really grasp the concept yet. Which is good. No child should have to worry about money.

Before our family joined the ranks of the working poor, we were completely ignorant to how someone could go from having everything to having nothing. I often wondered what mistakes folks had made to get them to that point. And while I'm sure that everyone makes a financial faux-paus along the way, I now understand that it takes very little to completely unravel somebody's life.

I guess I thought if I told a little of our story, it'd kill some of the myths associated with poor people. 
And I use the term poor instead of "low-income" because "low-income" is a phrase that someone came up with because poor just makes people uncomfortable. 
But that's what we, and a lot of people are: poor. 
I'm not going to put a bow on it so that it's more palatable. You can look away if you want, but I really suggest you do otherwise.

Back to our story:
In 2009 my husband and I grossed over $100,000. He worked full time as a Systems Analyst and I worked part time in retail. We had a nice apartment in the business district of a newly developed Sacramento suburb. 
Then Spring came and all Hell broke loose. First, my husband's job was outsourced and my hours were cut drastically. Then, our son received an initial diagnosis of PDD-NOS, which resulted in expensive therapy and meds. We burned through our savings paying for rent, groceries and other necessities in just a few months.
Luckily, my husband was able to land a job pretty quickly, the only drawback being a huge pay reduction.

With an income of roughly half what it once was, we decided the only option would be to move to a house with a lot less rent. So we did. We switched to cheaper phone service, took our cable & internet down to basic. Made a pact to never buy anything new unless we absolutely could not find it used. 
We were starting to get by again and then we were hit with something else: rising insurance premiums.
Having 6 kids between us, health insurance is an absolute necessity, and ours went up by almost $400 a month. Then, the insurance stopped covering therapy and meds for our son. 

In just 18months, our family went from upper-middle class to poor. Simple as that.
So here I am, using WIC checks to pay for milk & bread, googling times & dates that the food bank is open, scouring Freecycle, and trying desperately to hold onto Netflix, our last bastion of fun.

I often hear people who've never wanted for anything in life say "Poor people shouldn't....."
Poor people shouldn't go to the movies.
Poor people shouldn't eat out.
Poor people shouldn't take a vacation.
Poor people shouldn't have date night.
Poor people shouldn't have cable.
Poor people shouldn't have internet.
Poor people shouldn't live in nice neighborhoods.
Poor people shouldn't have kids.
Poor people shouldn't have nice things.
And on & on & on.......
What I want you to know is that poor people should.
We are just as deserving of living a full and happy life as anyone else. 

There is something that I have gained through this that I would not trade for a million dollars and that is: perspective. it's something that I find a lot of people to be lacking these days. 
People line the blocks to get the newest iPad, whatever the cost, and arrange telethons when other countries are in need because it makes them look like they care. 
But most people would not give an orange from the tree in their front yard to feed a homeless man.

Someone, not knowing my situation, recently asked me what I'm doing for the disadvantaged in our area. 
I responded that the only thing I have to give is my time, and I give it wherever and whenever I can.
I encourage everyone for one month, take the money and time you would have spent having a spa day or over-paying for coffee and dedicate it to contributing to a more worthy cause. 
Volunteer at the Food Bank or donate your abundance of fruit to urban gleaning

We need to stop punishing the poor and rally together to figure out how we can give each other a collective hand up, because homelessness and poverty are not going to just go away. Even if you live in a sparkling suburban community, you are not immune to losing everything. I am a living, breathing testament to that fact.
So, instead of thinking about what poor people shouldn't do, think about what you can do to create change and most of all: stop the judgement.


  1. I love this. Not that you're poor, and the circumstances that landed you there, but your take on it.

    I recently wrote an "i'm broke" post. We aren't going without much, but we definitely live paycheck to paycheck. And it would take NOTHING for us to end up poor.

    Thanks for sharing your story.

  2. Kim, at least you have paychecks ;)
    Great post Casey. Sometimes I look at our lives (the lack of a bank account, for example, since there are no checks coming to put in one) and wonder how we got here...even though I know the steps along the I can sort of understand that people who have never been poor have a hard time grasping how anyone ends up here, let alone 2 educated people from decent families. What really gets to me is the lack of compassion, and the inability to realize that ANYONE could end up where we are.

    Medical insurance was one of our biggest stumbling blocks along the way, too. Now, it's the one area that we're better off in, since having $0 means you can get free health care. Makes no sense (I mean that we couldn't get it when we had an income and were paying taxes), but there you are.

  3. This is an amazing post. So true.

  4. I just want to say that I am grateful for your honesty and people like you. I was raised in poverty and have been working hard my whole life to "get out of it." Things have improved for me now that I have my own family but we are still working poor. Even now, we are made to feel guilty by our "better off" family whenever we try to have a smidgen of fun. Despite not ever experiencing the luxury of taking for granted where my food is coming from I know that I am blessed to have this perspective because there are people who don't have it. :)

  5. Brilliantly written. Thank you for sharing your story :)

  6. First, I love this post!!! It really made me think. And may I be the first to say, I completely and totally understand. We are working poor as well. How we get by, I honestly don't know.

    We live without a lot of the monthly expenses a lot of people have. I must admit, we don't have cable, cellphones, on our home phone we don't have long distance or caller ID, we don't have car payments (don't ask how old our cars are...but, they run well) I don't think everyone needs to give up their cable, or cellphones, but that's what we've done to help us get by.

    We eat out more than we probably should, and we do still have internet....and I am hanging on to my Netflix for dear life! We are not in forclosure, we are not desperate enough to be thinking about filing for bancrupcy.

    BUT, if someone is, I have to admit, it does bother me if they have $60 a month cellphone bills or $75 or more a month cable bills,etc etc. It adds up very quickly. And it can help if you're struggling to pay rent or mortgage. There comes a point for a lot of us, when we all have to give something up to get by. It doesn't mean we're not good enough or we deserve our current situation, just means times are tough right now.

    Attempting to find some optimism. Maybe it is to teach all of us what is really important. Could we manage on less? Some people see life as always having excess of "stuff". It does make it more interesting for us, trying to think of inexpensive or free family activities in the area. We do things we might not ordinarily, and sometimes, they are more fun than anything we could have done with more money.

  7. "And I use the term poor instead of "low-income" because "low-income" is a phrase that someone came up with because poor just makes people uncomfortable."

    This makes me love you. Well done.

    We're poor too. I usually hate it. Because it's difficult and uncomfortable. But I grew up even more poor, so in comparison, we're like the improved version. Plus, we always have food.

    Great post.


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