Hoops

The other day I was lurking in a comment thread on an article examining how one solution to homelessness is to give people houses, much along the same idea as one way to alleviate poverty is to give people money. The thread went in a number of different directions. One was the difference between private charity (e.g., church-run) and public (i.e., government sponsored) charity. The consensus being that private charity often  involves certain stipulations to ascertain whether the impoverished person is “deserving” of help (do you go to the right church, life your life the right way, etc.) whereas public charity tries to distribute resources more equitably.

Whoa, hold on there, hoss. As a poor person, I disagree. Okay, the government may try to distribute resources more equitably, but US culture is so steeped in ideas of the virtues of capitalism and the idleness of the poor that the people making laws can’t help but spout nonsense every time they open their mouths. How would they? They literally have no idea what being poor is. As a result, ideas about deserving show up in all the ways meant to help people in need. They take the form of hoops you have to jump through to get that help, and while they may be different hoops than, say, being required to recite the Lord’s Prayer before supper or having to sleep in a separate shelter than your life partner due to ideas about morality (or, for that matter, not being acceptable to a shelter at all if you’re gay), they do more to hinder and demoralize us poors than to give us a hand.

We’re currently in the process of seeking some assistance, and here are some of the hoops I’ve noticed.

The Childless Hoop

Virtually every form of public assistance I’ve looked at prefers, and in the case of being eligible for immediate aid requires, that there be minor children present in the house. Now I happen to think it’s great the government wants to feeds children despite some politicians’ best efforts to the contrary. And I don’t believe that people would elect to have children solely to get those cushy benefits, as I’m sure some do. However, as a childless poor woman I feel even more of a second-class citizen every time I fill out a form asking if there are minor children in the house and know my chances of getting help would be better if there were. (In fact, back in the dim and distant past, the first time I applied for assistance [unemployment], the case worker told me to my face I might as well give up trying since I didn’t have children. And this was before Clinton’s Welfare Reform, mind.) Moreover, as a childless woman who desperately wanted children but couldn’t have them, I feel slapped in the face every time I have to answer that same question. Not pleasant, or easy.

The Distance Hoop

The other day, my husband had to drive some forms over to the county social services extension in the next town, a distance of ten miles. When he got home, he told me, “I was watching the gas gauge the entire way, and I’m going to have to come up with some money to put in the tank by the end of the week or I won’t be able to get to work.”

Every time we have to turn in a piece of paperwork or attend an in-person interview, at least one of us has to travel those ten miles at minimum. If we can’t do what we need to do at the extension office and have to go all the way to the main social services building, that’s thirty miles. One way. There’s no public transportation in the rural area where we live. If we didn’t have a working vehicle, we’d have to borrow one or beg a ride, or we’d be stuck. It’s asking a bit much, I think, of poor people to require they have a car–and the gas for it–to be able to apply for assistance. And it plays directly into the next hoop we have to jump through, which is

The Time Hoop

Applying for assistance takes time. No matter what some people believe, you can’t just walk into an office and claim you need help, and walk away with a fat cheque. There are myriad forms to fill out, and interviews to attend, and more paperwork to file after the first lot has been processed. We’ve been working on this process for six weeks now, and we have no word whether we even qualify.

Government agencies don’t care about your time, and that’s dehumanizing. And it’s even worse in rural areas. Sure, some things can be done through the post, but the post isn’t reliable. Here the post has to go from Delta, where the main social services office is located, all the way to Grand Junction to be processed, and only then back to our small town. This can take days. Back last summer when my husband had his work accident and we were trying to see if we could get it covered on his insurance, we got a notification that we needed to file certain paperwork after the date it was due. Consequently, his whole claim was denied. More recently, we received notification of a phone interview the evening before it was to take place (at 8:30 the next morning). This doesn’t leave much time to make arrangements–in our case, with my husband’s job, in other cases, for childcare or anything else necessary to make sure you have a chunk of time available. And we were lucky; our interview could be conducted over the phone. If you have to go in, in our area that’s 30 miles to cover to get to the main office, then another chunk of time waiting–there’s always waiting–and then up to another hour for the interview itself. If you have to travel and you lack a car, you can easily blow an entire day getting to and from one interview. In that long ago time when I filed for unemployment, I had to ride a local bus from Ann Arbor to Ypsilanti several times. It’s a distance of ten miles; it took 45 minutes there and back, plus the time at the social services office every time. That didn’t leave much during the day for other things like, say, looking for other work.

The Proof Hoop

I’m convinced that the reason for all these hoops is that the social safety net–for what it’s worth–in the US isn’t designed benefit people at all. It’s designed to keep out those whom the system decides don’t qualify, for whatever seemingly arbitrary reason. And nowhere is this more evident than in the mountains of proof required to convince social service workers that you actually need and qualify for help (the accumulation of which takes time which you may not have, mind).

Take my disability claim. I have had a serious mental illness my entire life. Numerous doctors have treated me for it. Many of those have told me and those around me that I would never be able to work a full time job. (My parents were told “she’ll never be able to take care of herself” when I was eighteen.) Despite this, it took me until ten years ago to think that maybe I might qualify for disability, So I filled out the forms and was denied off the bat.

This is not unusual. Generally disability claims are denied the first time you apply, unless there’s reason to believe you won’t live another six months. If you appeal, you have a chance of your claim being granted, but you have to supply ample proof of your disability and, in many states (mine included), attend a court hearing.

I wasn’t up to the task, so I enlisted a lawyer who would take for his fee a portion of the award if my claim was granted. What I would do if it weren’t, I had no idea, but I was in bad shape so I went for it.

It took two years. The court demanded all my medical records for the ten years previous, as well as statements from all the doctors I had seen in that time and any I was seeing currently. In addition, I had to fill out another ream of paperwork: all about my treatment, and the meds I was taking, and what steps I had taken not to be disabled. I was deep in a major depressive episode at that time, and I could barely face doing the work. My lawyer called me up and yelled at me for not reviewing my files.

Well, anyway. I guess I presented as crazy enough at my hearing because my claim was granted. But even though I have a lifelong illness, the powers that be see fit to review my case every three to five years to see if I still have Bipolar Disorder. This puts me in a Catch-22, because if I improve too much I’ll lose the disability medical insurance that pays for the medications that helped me improve in the first place, and I’ll be right back where I started.

As a contrast, at the same time as I was going through all this rigmarole, a friend in England with troubles and a depressive episode of her own needed a reprieve from work. She saw her primary care doctor and told him what was going on. He wrote her a slip of paper “signing her off work” for six months, which she took to the nearest benefits office and that was that. Of course, things being what they are in the UK right now, this system may be on the way out.

More recently, as we’ve filed for assistance, we’ve been asked for proof of disability, proof of work, proof of wages earned, proof we no longer had a bank account that’s been closed for ten years, proof that an insurance policy was canceled, proof of debt…and the list goes on and on. All of which serves to solidify my belief that the social service system in the US exists in mortal fear of dispensing benefits to someone who doesn’t “deserve” them.

The poor would be better served, and bureaucracy much reduced, with less judgment and less concern about who deserves what and more compassion and trust. But until more politicians take their heads out of their asses and stop listening only to those with clout and money, attitudes of judgment will continue to infect the very systems claiming to provide relief.

 

The Math of Poverty

Getting some pushback on yesterday’s blog, I see. Apparently poor people haven’t earned the right to be judgmental, or to be angry. Sometimes I think there are only two ways to be an acceptable poor person in the US. The first is the “Bob Cratchit” model: Show up to work every day at your perennially underpaid clerical job, wearing the threadbare yet neat suit you (or your partner) have painstakingly hand-tailored by the light of your single candle, live on your bowl of bean broth a day and never ask for more, and generally show stoicism about your lot. The second is the “dirty beggar” model: wear sackcloth and ashes and hang out on street corners (preferably with your entire family and a small dog), shaking empty coffee cans and hitting up passersby for spare change. This second, while not respectable, is certainly acceptable in that it gives your “betters” someone to look down on and complain about in various forms of media. Falling outside either of those models confuses and alarms people. And when people are confused and alarmed, they react in unpleasant ways.

Which brings me to today’s post. I found something educational in the veiled vitriol of one comment (interesting use of the quotation marks around the word “husband,” by the way; did you mean to question the existence of such a person? or do you simply doubt that we’re married? I decline to upload a copy of our certificate for your inspection.). It went like this:

“With the $10 you spend on Netflix, you could have had THREE pairs of glasses and not waited three years!”

Honestly, at first I had no idea what this meant. $10 is obviously not $101, which was the cost of my glasses. And it definitely would not have covered three pairs of glasses. So I had to rewrite this portion of the comment in my head. It came out like this:

“If you had saved that $10 a month instead of spending it on Netflix, you could have bought three pairs of glasses in three years.”

Ah-ha! That makes better sense–to a point. And this is where the educational part comes in. You see, poverty math is not like money math. Money math is straightforward: X amount x Y months over Z years = AMOUNT. Poverty math is more existential, and there are far more variables. So what looks like a simple equation ($10 saved on Netflix X 12 Months/year X 3 years = $360 = Enough for three pairs of glasses) becomes a complex equation including time and circumstances and all kinds of other things a poor person has no control over. I’ll spell it out:

Let’s say I decide that I’m going to do without Netflix and put that money in a jar every month, so at the end of three years I have enough for my three pairs of glasses. Let’s also say that at this point in time this is the only “extraneous” expense I have so this is the only savings I can make, and let’s grant that I am making enough to cover my monthly housing, food, and utilities.

After six months I have $60 in my “glasses fund” jar. And then something happens. It doesn’t matter what happens. Stuff always happens. Maybe I blow a tire on my car and it has to be replaced. That’s minor; a new tire costs about $60, less if you get one that’s patched. Do I dip into my glasses fund? Of course I do, because I have to have the car to get to work. It puts me back at zero on my glasses fund. This shows how savings are a function of circumstance. So now our equation can be expressed as:

[12(Savings) / (Circumstance)] X 3 = Glasses

You can make up the loss in a relatively short time. But that was a small problem. Let’s say there’s a big one. Let’s say your car blows an alternator. That’s around $300–it’s been a while since we had to have an alternator replaced. It wipes out your monthly food budget. Now you have $60 and no food, and your kids are hungry. Do you hold onto that $60? It’ll buy a lot of macaroni and cheese. Of course your future glasses will take back seat to that. Your savings have actually gone into a negative amount here, because it’s going to take you a while to make up your deficit. Remember, you have no credit cards, only cash in hand.

Poverty Math is an exercise in relativity, and the rule is always Current Circumstance > Future Circumstance.

People come up with all kinds of arguments against this reality of hand-to-mouth living. There’s always the person who will say, “But do you really need the car? Can’t you take public transportation or get a ride to work?” And I’m not going to answer that question, in the first place because there will always be something more important than the future that comes up, and in the second because nothing will ever satisfy these people. No matter what lengths of austerity poor people go to, those who think they know better will always claim they should do more and sacrifice more.

I don’t know if Poverty Math qualifies as a science. Perhaps it’s more of a philosophy. The time and relativity aspects insist that one exist in a kind of perpetual NOW, where worries about both the past and the future become irrelevant. Perhaps this is why so many spiritual systems recommend giving up material goods and living a life of poverty. I don’t see the bright side, myself. The problem of an eternal now is that you lose the ability to believe in the future at all.

If that’s part of enlightenment, I’d rather have the money.

[With regards to Occupy Math, who I hope will find this post humorous.]

Dear Wealthy Person…

Wait: I’ve started off wrong, haven’t I? Because you don’t think you’re wealthy, not at all. You probably think you’re comfortably middle class, though your six-figure income puts you in the top 2% of earners in the US, though your yearly income is more than my husband and I expect to see in ten. I see this as part of the disconnect the wealthy have from those on the bottom of the income scale; after all, studies have shown wealth decreases empathy.

So I shouldn’t be surprised that you’ve posted another meme about how poverty is due to mismanagement of funds and not a lack of funds, and how you’re not about to “throw money at” the poor because it won’t solve the problem. And I’m not. It still makes me mad, though. I don’t have any reason to suppose you posted this meme in response to my sharing my GoFundMe campaign begging people to help us with this week’s $500 in bills that have to be paid RIGHT NOW, yet I do suppose it. Every time I see a meme like the one you shared, it feels personal to me. Both judgment and a slap in the face from someone who doesn’t know, and likely will never know, what it’s like to live in abject poverty. The kind of poverty where every day is another choice of what we can do without, another decision on what to put off and what absolutely has to be paid for.

I’m thinking you believe you could make those decisions better and more easily than we do. Trim the fat! Don’t spend anything extra and then you’ll have money to put away! I’m imagining your voice telling us we don’t need expensive broadband Internet (after the installation fee, cheaper than what we had before, so the alternative is no Internet, mind). We don’t need mobile phones, do we? Certainly not two of them, with two separate accounts! ($75 a month for the both of them, in an area where some places still don’t have landline access. Oh, right–we DO have a landline for emergencies; it’s $25 a month. Sometimes the fiber optic lines get cut.) They just aren’t necessary–except my husband needs to be available to take calls anywhere and anytime a job might come up. Except I have a mental illness and my phone can be my lifeline in a way the landline isn’t, in a way I can’t explain, but of course that doesn’t matter. I didn’t need to spend money on a nice steak yesterday ($7 on a really good sale) because ramen is good enough for every meal, even when I have a literal physical condition that requires and infusion of high quality food every so often. Let’s see, if I eliminate all that “fat” from my budget (unnecessary Internet, unnecessary phone plans but the phones are already paid for, the food doesn’t count because one must have some kind of food), then I’ll have saved a whole $125–not even enough to pay one of the outstanding medical bills we have on hold because my disability (did I mention I’m disabled?) medical only covers 80% and the husband doesn’t have any insurance at all. So we’re stuck with the pile-up of bills incurred when he almost cut off his thumb last fall. Now I’m down to choosing which of the utilities I can sacrifice and whether or not that mortgage payment is really necessary, and do I really have to see my therapist and my medication manager in this next week? That’s another $75, which would be $50 except the last time I saw my therapist (almost two months ago), the Mental Health Center was good enough to defer my fee. But I guess it’s not really important whether or not I’m suicidal.

You may notice that I can tell you the exact amount of every bill and how much we’ve spent in the last few days ($34.81 for a small sack of groceries because the last $10 has to go in the gas tank), and I didn’t even have to look that shit up. So I object to the claim that financial difficulties we face are the result of “poor management.” The truth is, we don’t have anything to manage. When you’re faced with a choice of being shot or being hung, all decisions are trivial.

I know very little about the way you live, other than that you have more than I do. I can admit that. Why do you assume you understand the causes of poverty, or how poor people live?

In Googling (there’s that unnecessary Internet service again) to find a citation for another statement I want to make, I found a lot of articles from people who seem to think as you do, right down to using the same words: “Throwing money at” the poor won’t cure poverty, for whatever the reason of choice happens to be. Can I just take a minute to tell you how offensive that wording is? Every time I see it in relation to someone or something needing funding to solve a problem, my sight turns red. I get an image of someone throwing meat at a starving dog to distract it, then running away. Running away without LOOKING and SEEING whether that dog has been mistreated, whether it’s chained, whether it has sufficient water and shelter and all the things a dog should have. To me, it says a lot more about the person who uses the phrase than it does about the people at whom it’s directed. It says you want an easy way out. It says you don’t want to think. It says you want to do the barest minimum thing possible to assuage your guilt, and maybe to keep you safe where that dog can’t get you. So you talk about “throwing money,” and then you dismiss the very concept, because you’ve made your pronouncement that it won’t work. And you know what, in some ways you’re right. “Throwing money” won’t “solve” poverty on a wide basis. Solving the problem would mean taking a good, hard look at the problems that cause it, at the limitations of Capitalism and Calvinism, and working hard to combat them. But that’s too hard. So you declare yourself without responsibility to your fellow human beings, who have had the misfortune not to start out with as much as you have, of who have slipped into the hole that waits for everyone who doesn’t toe the line. To those with mental or physical disabilities, or just with the wrong temperament, to do what one has to do to succeed within the system’s limitations. You got yours, they need to get theirs. World without end, Amen.

I’ll tell you what: “Throwing money at” poverty might not cure it. But it certainly helps to be able to get over the next hurdle and breathe a bit before you have to face the next one.

My husband owns two pairs of pants, did you know that? One for work and one for not-work, with a not-too-badly worn pair of jeans for those dirty jobs around the house. Is that too much for him to have, do you think? Should we sell one? Maybe with the money from it we could start an investment portfolio. I’m a bit luckier: a friend regularly gives me an Amazon gift certificate for my birthday, so I can get some clothes, a pair of boots. My good winter boots are 20 years old. My husband hasn’t had a new pair of work boots in at least 15 years, maybe more. If we can’t make them last, what do we do? There’s no money for new ones.

THERE’S NEVER ANY MONEY FOR NEW ONES.

Last time someone made a major contribution to my fundraiser, I bought new glasses ($101). I felt guilty for doing it, even though I’ve been needing new glasses for about three years now. I felt guilty about wanting to be able to see. But maybe that’s another thing I should have done without.

You know what else we don’t have that’s considered normal? A television or cable service. Entertainment in this house is hauling the laptop into the bedroom and hoping the screen lasts through another hour of streaming something on Netflix. Oh–should I have added Netflix to the list of things we can do without? That’s a whole ‘nother $10 per month! I should celebrate.

I know you have a job, wealthy person. I’m almost certain you don’t need it, because your partner earns the bulk of your income. It’s a hobby for you. Even that hobby would sustain us comfortably–more than comfortably. We’d be well off if we had the wages you earned from your hobby. Currently the husband is working part time at half his usual wage because that’s the only work there is. And yes, this much is true: We chose to live where we do, in an area that doesn’t offer a huge amount of opportunity. And we did all right until the Recession hit. We were willing, and are still willing, to make certain sacrifices. We saw a way toward a better future. That’s why husband went back to college right before the Recession. But you know what? That college degree has done bupkis for us. No one wants teachers here. No one wants to “throw money at” education. Good gods, what’s going to happen in a rural area with no alternatives but public school under our current president, I can’t bear to think!

You might advise us to up and move if we can’t make it where we are. I want to ask you, who’s going to pay for us to do that? Is someone going to guarantee work and moving expenses? Is someone going to find us a new place to live–far, I might add, from family members who are getting older, and who need us, and who don’t want to move? The house we live in wouldn’t bring much. We’re fortunate in that my dad bought if for us as a wedding present, but we’ve had to mortgage it up to the eyeballs. And you know, poverty has affected our house, too. I think we’d have to put about $10,000 into it before we could sell it. Where’s that going to come from?

I’m winding down from the intense rage I felt at the beginning of this post, but I want to add one last thing: You know what they worst thing is about being poor? Besides the moralizing, judgmental people who think they know what your life is like, I mean. The worst thing is, you get to this state where it seems like all you’ve known and all you’ll ever know, so there’s no use in dreaming of anything different. I was noticing this just this morning: We used to say things like, “Maybe next year we’ll get a chance to go to Denver Comic Con,” or “I really want to go to the Ren Faire in Larkspur; maybe next summer.” But we don’t say those things anymore. Because we know it’s not going to change. There’s not going to be any Comic Con this year, or the next year, or the one after that, so why bother even thinking of it? And maybe you’ll say that’s part of our problem: that we don’t make plans and then stick to them, so we never get out. But I’ll answer you this: You can’t make plans and stick to them if you don’t have the wherewithal and you have no way to get it. No matter what plan you make, it has to be able to shift in the face of necessity. And necessity boils down to food and shelter, with warmth and light and water coming not far behind. When I see your self-righteous meme, I imagine you think we’re not keeping track of these things. The truth is, we juggle them every single day. It doesn’t stop the unexpected from happening: The blown tire that has to be replaced, or else husband can’t get to work; the sickness that makes it impossible to work; the family emergency; any other thing that a wealthy person like you has a cushion for and we don’t.

The truth is, giving poor people money does work. You just don’t want to believe it does, because it relieves you of responsibility to help. In my book, that makes you a taker every bit as much as you think I am. So I guess we’re even.

 

Class Privilege: Perspective

Lately my husband and I have been going through a rough patch comprised of health issues, a recurrence of my clinical depression, overwhelming financial woes, and general hopelessness over our ability to attain any kind of stability or make any substantial improvements in our life. A week or so ago, my husband was chatting with an old school buddy about our circumstances. Because neither of us is either inclined or suited to hiding our feelings, he was open about his unhappiness and sense of futility. After a conversation where my husband went into detail about our circumstances, his friend came back with this stunning piece of advice:

“You should stop doing the things that make you unhappy.”

My husband broke off the chat at this point, mainly because he was at work and had other business to attend to (also, shortly after his friend made this comment, the entire town where my husband’s school is located suffered a power outage). However, a good part of his lack of desire to continue came from incoherent frustration and anger at the inanity of the statement. I first heard about the interaction when Michael came home and said, “I want to slap ____ upside the head.” After telling me all about it, he said, “I want to tell him to please take some time to reflect on the utter foolishness of that suggestion before I go get the Stupid Stick.”

I encouraged him to do so, but with one thing and another–it was band rehearsal night and Michael hates any kind of confrontation–he didn’t. After a few hours of no response, my husband’s friend seemed to get an idea that his advice hadn’t hit the mark. So he amended it.

“Or maybe you should try to do more things that make you happy,” he said.

stupid stick meme

Michael and I are solidly lower class (and I mean this in a financial sense, without all the cultural connotations the term involves). Between my disability and Michael’s salary as a public high school teacher, we gross a very low five-figure yearly income with no benefits. Michael drives a beat-up ’97 Escort we bought used from a teacher friend. We live in an economically-disadvantaged area in a tiny house that’s been mortgaged up to our eyeballs robbing Peter to pay Paul. (My dad bought this house for us as kind of a wedding present twenty years ago. He paid cash. If not for that piece of generosity, we’d have been homeless years ago.) We do without a great many things most people in the USA take for granted, like cable TV, new shoes, and dental care. Our credit rating is so bad that the other day when we were watching Netflix and someone mentioned that a character had bad credit with a rating of 580, we laughed.

I’m not sure what social class I’d put Michael’s high school buddy in: probably upper-middle. He’s married to a woman who works in the hotel industry and earns a yearly salary that’s at least five times ours, likely more. His job is “minding their investments.” Over the years I’ve known them, they’ve lived in well-to-do areas because that’s where her work is. I have no idea how they spend their money or what their credit rating is, but I think it’s safe to assume they’re a good deal better off than we are.

I feel the need to insert a disclaimer here. I am not writing this to make Michael’s friend–or anyone–feel bad about having money. And I am well aware that even in this country there are people worse off than I am. So please leave those particular straw men at home, ‘kay? Thanks so much.

We don’t like to talk about class in the United States. We like to preserve the myth that any rugged individual can rise to any height on his or her own merit, and that those who don’t achieve “The American Dream” are at fault in and of themselves. Class is for those weird European countries with institutionalized nobility that prevents a person moving from one “station in life” to another. And in the United States, enough people do achieve some kind of class mobility to preserve the myth. These are the ones we hear about: The Black woman from the ghetto who becomes a successful surgeon, the steelworker’s son who becomes a Hollywood celebrity. We love stories of disadvantaged people overcoming obstacles. It’s part of the national narrative.

That’s not what I want to talk about, though. What I want to talk about is how our reluctance to believe in stagnant social class structure blinds us to the reality of class privilege, and how that, in turn, leads people to make idiotic suggestions to the poor about how to improve their lot. As in any discussion of privilege, the point here isn’t to make others feel guilty for what they have (as I stated above), or to imply that your social class is bad or wrong and that you should give away all your material goods. Likewise, it isn’t to imply that poverty is some spiritually elevated state. It’s merely my small attempt to encourage people to open their eyes a bit wider and take fifteen minutes to walk in another person’s shoes.

I have lifelong experience of being around people from a higher social class than mine, from being a scholarship student at an exclusive private school to conducting workshops in Tarot and spirituality for rich (largely white) people, to dating a guy whose father was a fantastically wealthy literary agent and investment banker in New York City. Along the way, I’ve noticed a couple things about rich people. Most of them aren’t bad or evil. Of course, I’ve known some slumlords and greedy real estate agents. But most rich people aren’t consciously out to screw the lower classes.

snidely

But most rich people don’t think that they’re rich. They think they’re “just like anybody else.” And this causes problems when they try to sympathize and/or give advice to those of us in lower social classes, because they come out with some incredibly stupid stuff. And those of us in the lower classes get pretty upset when someone who spends $250.00 a week at the hairdresser suggests that we stretch our $250.00 a month food budget farther by “cutting out the things you don’t really need.”

My dad was a prime example of this kind of thinking. He came to adulthood during the Great Depression, so he had an excuse. He counted every penny like Scrooge MacDuck. He was a minister and our house came with the job, so we never had to worry about rent or a house payment. We always had two recent-model cars and a well-stocked refrigerator (in fact, my dad had some food hoarding issues, so we usually had way more food on hand than we needed). I don’t remember ever having any of our utilities shut off. The credit cards were paid off every month. We went for a two-week summer vacation up north every year and most years we went somewhere in the spring. When he retired, he paid cash for the house my mom lives in now, just as he paid cash for the house I live in. And yet, I can’t remember a single day of my life when he didn’t complain that we were on the way to the poorhouse with every expense. When I reached adulthood and faced real, long-term poverty, I wanted both to laugh and punch him in the face. It’s the same reaction I have when a wealthy person tells me she has a way for me to “put $100 a month in a savings account starting right now” or recommends I simplify my needs by getting rid of my third car.

People who are well-off often miss the point about all this, or get defensive when you mention it, or both. When, a few months ago, I posted on Facebook about the irony of my father always thinking we were on the verge of destitution when we had all that we did, one of my sisters commented, “Well, but they needed two cars because Mom and Dad both worked.” The implication being that 1. Michael and I don’t need two cars because I don’t work outside the home, so stop whining and 2. Um, what does “irony” mean, again? as well as 3. My sister is clueless about the definition of poverty. Incidentally, she posted this from one of her semi-annual vacations to Hawaii.

I read an article recently about a formerly fiscally-conservative Republican getting a wake-up call to the reality of the world. It’s worth reading, but until you get to it, here’s the part that stood out for me: The narrator describes working at a school program for disadvantaged kids, where their parents sometimes went along on educational field trips. One of the field trips was going to a sit-down restaurant, and the educational part involved learning about ordering from a menu, using the tableware, and leaving a tip. The narrator thought this was the lamest field trip ever. It had to be explained to him that not everyone has had the opportunity to go to a sit-down restaurant. The experience doesn’t even enter into some people’s reality.

Or how about this: A Facebook acquaintance once commented on a meme about income inequality with the observation that “poverty doesn’t mean the same thing it did forty years ago. People don’t actually not have the money to pay their water bill.”

Elrond-Facepalm

Actually, I’d like to point out that there are many places in the United States–particularly in Appalachia–where not only do people not have the money to pay their water bill, they don’t even have running water, indoor plumbing, or central heat.

This is the kind of blind, classist nonsense that people need to get over saying. It’s ignorant, and it’s insulting. And when wealthy people encourage poor people to “think of all the advantages you have that people in third world countries don’t!” at the same time as perpetuating this weird denial of their own advantages over people who don’t have it so good, it comes across as unsympathetic and dismissive. Yeah, I have internet access and a refrigerator and a smart phone. These things do not diminish the hardship of having to decide between paying to heat my house and paying my medical bills. And before you suggest that I should do without “luxuries” I “can’t afford,” I’d like to point out that in all honesty I can’t afford much of anything. I’d also like to invite you to do without those same things for a week and see how you like it.

There are things my husband wanted to say to his high school buddy, but because he’s nicer than I am, he didn’t say them. I’m going to take the opportunity to say some of them for him.

When you tell a poor person just to “stop doing the things that make you unhappy,” you’re implying that they’re too stupid to have come to this conclusion for themselves and too lazy to have done everything in their power to alter their circumstances. Please remember that the next time you’re moved to repeat inane psychobabble as a solution to a real problem of material and resources.

Likewise when you suggest we “do more things that make us happy.” I honestly don’t know what you have in mind here. What makes us happy is anything that temporarily relieves the ongoing stress and struggle of life. It makes us happy the one day of the month we can fill up the gas tank of our car. It makes us happy when we can go grocery shopping and fill up our cart and pay in cash without having to worry that spending that money in that way means we get arrested on the way home for not paying our car insurance. It makes us happy to have our car insurance and registration up to date so that we don’t have to worry about getting carted off to jail if the local cops pull us over for the wonky taillight we can’t afford to fix. It makes us happy to see a refrigerator full of food and to be able to forget hunger for a few days. It makes us happy to pay every bill on time and still have enough left over to pay the mortgage. When we can scrape up enough for a meal out, it’s a celebration. We’d be deliriously happy if we could pay everything that needs to be paid on time AND still have money left over to go shopping. One month free of financial stress for us would be like a month at a resort with room service for someone else. Getting away for a weekend–just getting in the car and driving somewhere new, and stopping on a whim at a cute B & B, and sitting down to dinner at a diner–yeah, that would be cause for ecstasy. But it would cost half a month’s pay, and everything else would go down the drain, and in the end, it would cause more stress than it relieved.

When you get right down to it, suggesting we “stop being unhappy and start being happy” is a sideways way of saying, “just stop being poor, why don’t you?” Believe me, if it were in our power, we would. And really, when I hear that what I hear is, “I’m uncomfortable with your reality and I have no concrete solutions.” That’s okay. I’d rather hear that up front.

What I hear most of all, though, is “I have NO CLUE what poverty is really like.” So do us both a favor and take a few minutes to imagine it. Really imagine what it would be like to get by on less than a quarter of your current income. And after that, maybe we can talk.