There are many reasons why the poor are ‘poor’ or why the middle-class is deteriorating into a state of being ‘poor’ but as this first-person account of the self-defeating feedback loops of poverty’s trap harrowingly suggests, escaping that social strata (as we noted previously) is becoming ever more difficult. Of course, a George Carlin noted previously, “the only true American value is… buying things,” which leaves the ‘poor’ increasingly losing hope. “Rest is a luxury for the rich,” the author notes, “planning is not in the mix,” as she explains why poverty has forced her to “make terrible decisions.”
Why I Make Terrible Decisions, or, poverty thoughts
There’s no way to structure this coherently. They are random observations that might help explain the mental processes. But often, I think that we look at the academic problems of poverty and have no idea of the why. We know the what and the how, and we can see systemic problems, but it’s rare to have a poor person actually explain it on their own behalf. So this is me doing that, sort of.
Rest is a luxury for the rich. I get up at 6AM, go to school (I have a full courseload, but I only have to go to two in-person classes) then work, then I get the kids, then I pick up my husband, then I have half an hour to change and go to Job 2. I get home from that at around 1230AM, then I have the rest of my classes and work to tend to. I’m in bed by 3. This isn’t every day, I have two days off a week from each of my obligations. I use that time to clean the house and soothe Mr. Martini and see the kids for longer than an hour and catch up on schoolwork. Those nights I’m in bed by midnight, but if I go to bed too early I won’t be able to stay up the other nights because I’ll fuck my pattern up, and I drive an hour home from Job 2 so I can’t afford to be sleepy. I never get a day off from work unless I am fairly sick. It doesn’t leave you much room to think about what you are doing, only to attend to the next thing and the next. Planning isn’t in the mix.
When I was pregnant the first time, I was living in a weekly motel for some time. I had a minifridge with no freezer and a microwave. I was on WIC. I ate peanut butter from the jar and frozen burritos because they were 12/$2. Had I had a stove, I couldn’t have made beef burritos that cheaply. And I needed the meat, I was pregnant. I might not have had any prenatal care, but I am intelligent enough to eat protein and iron whilst knocked up.
I know how to cook. I had to take Home Ec to graduate high school. Most people on my level didn’t. Broccoli is intimidating. You have to have a working stove, and pots, and spices, and you’ll have to do the dishes no matter how tired you are or they’ll attract bugs. It is a huge new skill for a lot of people. That’s not great, but it’s true. And if you fuck it up, you could make your family sick. We have learned not to try too hard to be middle-class. It never works out well and always makes you feel worse for having tried and failed yet again. Better not to try. It makes more sense to get food that you know will be palatable and cheap and that keeps well. Junk food is a pleasure that we are allowed to have; why would we give that up? We have very few of them.
The closest Planned Parenthood to me is three hours. That’s a lot of money in gas. Lots of women can’t afford that, and even if you live near one you probably don’t want to be seen coming in and out in a lot of areas. We’re aware that we are not “having kids,” we’re “breeding.” We have kids for much the same reasons that I imagine rich people do. Urge to propagate and all. Nobody likes poor people procreating, but they judge abortion even harder.
Convenience food is just that. And we are not allowed many conveniences. Especially since the Patriot Act passed, it’s hard to get a bank account. But without one, you spend a lot of time figuring out where to cash a check and get money orders to pay bills. Most motels now have a no-credit-card-no-room policy. I wandered around SF for five hours in the rain once with nearly a thousand dollars on me and could not rent a room even if I gave them a $500 cash deposit and surrendered my cell phone to the desk to hold as surety.
Nobody gives enough thought to depression. You have to understand that we know that we will never not feel tired. We will never feel hopeful. We will never get a vacation. Ever. We know that the very act of being poor guarantees that we will never not be poor. It doesn’t give us much reason to improve ourselves. We don’t apply for jobs because we know we can’t afford to look nice enough to hold them. I would make a super legal secretary, but I’ve been turned down more than once because I “don’t fit the image of the firm,” which is a nice way of saying “gtfo, pov.” I am good enough to cook the food, hidden away in the kitchen, but my boss won’t make me a server because I don’t “fit the corporate image.” I am not beautiful. I have missing teeth and skin that looks like it will when you live on b12 and coffee and nicotine and no sleep. Beauty is a thing you get when you can afford it, and that’s how you get the job that you need in order to be beautiful. There isn’t much point trying.
Cooking attracts roaches. Nobody realizes that. I’ve spent a lot of hours impaling roach bodies and leaving them out on toothpick pikes to discourage others from entering. It doesn’t work, but is amusing.
“Free” only exists for rich people. It’s great that there’s a bowl of condoms at my school, but most poor people will never set foot on a college campus. We don’t belong there. There’s a clinic? Great! There’s still a copay. We’re not going. Besides, all they’ll tell you at the clinic is that you need to see a specialist, which seriously? Might as well be located on Mars for how accessible it is. “Low-cost” and “sliding scale” sounds like “money you have to spend” to me, and they can’t actually help you anyway.
I smoke. It’s expensive. It’s also the best option. You see, I am always, always exhausted. It’s a stimulant. When I am too tired to walk one more step, I can smoke and go for another hour. When I am enraged and beaten down and incapable of accomplishing one more thing, I can smoke and I feel a little better, just for a minute. It is the only relaxation I am allowed. It is not a good decision, but it is the only one that I have access to. It is the only thing I have found that keeps me from collapsing or exploding.
I make a lot of poor financial decisions. None of them matter, in the long term. I will never not be poor, so what does it matter if I don’t pay a thing and a half this week instead of just one thing? It’s not like the sacrifice will result in improved circumstances; the thing holding me back isn’t that I blow five bucks at Wendy’s. It’s that now that I have proven that I am a Poor Person that is all that I am or ever will be. It is not worth it to me to live a bleak life devoid of small pleasures so that one day I can make a single large purchase. I will never have large pleasures to hold on to. There’s a certain pull to live what bits of life you can while there’s money in your pocket, because no matter how responsible you are you will be broke in three days anyway. When you never have enough money it ceases to have meaning. I imagine having a lot of it is the same thing.
Poverty is bleak and cuts off your long-term brain. It’s why you see people with four different babydaddies instead of one. You grab a bit of connection wherever you can to survive. You have no idea how strong the pull to feel worthwhile is. It’s more basic than food. You go to these people who make you feel lovely for an hour that one time, and that’s all you get. You’re probably not compatible with them for anything long-term, but right this minute they can make you feel powerful and valuable. It does not matter what will happen in a month. Whatever happens in a month is probably going to be just about as indifferent as whatever happened today or last week. None of it matters. We don’t plan long-term because if we do we’ll just get our hearts broken. It’s best not to hope. You just take what you can get as you spot it.
I am not asking for sympathy. I am just trying to explain, on a human level, how it is that people make what look from the outside like awful decisions. This is what our lives are like, and here are our defense mechanisms, and here is why we think differently. It’s certainly self-defeating, but it’s safer. That’s all. I hope it helps make sense of it.
And Jim Quinn’s Burning Platform blog notes – It appears that she’s been getting lots and lots of responses to her letter, good and bad.
Here’s her response to people accusing her of bitching.
DEAR GUY WITH HURT FEELINGS;
So I have been wandering the Internet to see where this piece I wrote wound up. And I am rather amused at one fairly standard reaction:
Oh, typical poor person bitching. Rich people work hard too. If you don’t think positively nothing good will ever happen.
Here is a disclaimer, and now that it is on the Internet with my name on it I’ll hear no more about this:
Yes. Rich people work hard too. Nobody is telling you that you are lazy, rich people. What I am saying is that I am not lazy. That is a different thing entirely than impugning your work ethic. It’s actually got nothing to do with you at all. I do appreciate your need to read some thoughts from someone who is poor and make it about your relative merit, but you should know that it kind of makes you look like you struggle with reading comprehension. Because it’s not about that. I actually specifically said that more than once. I know, it is frustrating to see conversations happening and know that your opinions are considered irrelevant.
Try to repress the urge to tell me that you do more physical labor than I do in a day, though, because it makes you look silly. I have never met a wealthy person washing dishes at Denny’s. I am sure one exists, but I don’t think we can go assuming that the majority of people who live in the middle and upper classes are working on shop floors or in warehouses.
And about the happy shiny attitude: are you seriously telling me that you legitimately think that the thing that is stopping me from getting a lucky break is that I simply don’t believe hard enough? Tell me, if I clap my hands and really believe, can I bring fairies back from the brink as well? Do you think I am stupid? I am not. I can read the news. I know that class mobility is decreasing and wealth is stratifying and for many of us, hope is going to stay unfulfilled. You do not get to tell me how to process the fact that “success” is a crapshoot in this America, because I can tell you that hard work and talent alone aren’t going to do it.
There’s one decent job opening for every hundred talented and hardworking people. If you happen to be hardworking but not particularly skilled, your life will most likely consist of making someone’s shareholders happy. It will be degrading and exhausting. And you are fucking high if you think that simply thinking positive thoughts will change the nature of the economy. That is not how the economy works.
Your implication that I am too stupid to know that is laughable, because your average ten-year-old in the ghetto knows that the game is rigged. Fuck you for demanding that I pretend it isn’t to make you a little more comfortable. It isn’t going to happen. I don’t mind, particularly, that we have settled on this system. It’ll change again soon. Rich people know that; it’s why they’re retreating into guarded conclaves and hiring extra security for their malls. But you don’t get to pretend that this system we have decided on, the one in which we are pretending that we have never heard of the Gilded Age so that we don’t have to acknowledge that we are doing it again, is anything like fair or meritocratic. That is patent bullshit. Stop it. I do not mind talented people having money. I mind stupid people with money saying that they must be smart because: meritocracy. That is terrible logic.
Here is the thing: nobody lives without something in their lives that grounds them. It might be something simple and pure, or something big and complex. But there is something, because human nature makes us find whatever is available to find a reason to live. My point is not that it isn’t true, my point is that if the thing that you have to hold onto is that at least other people have it worse, it’s kind of depressing. It’s survival. It is not uplifting. You can’t simply walk into the life of someone who is actually chemically depressed and demand that they paste a fucking grin on. Rather, you can, but you’re an asshole. And double the assholery if you can afford access to medicine and sleep and the things that we would need to solve the depression and you still stand there telling me to find a pair of bootstraps and just Think Positive!
Perhaps, friend, you could try reading the damn news before you tell me that how I should feel about the way the economy functions and my place in it. I think your idea of the economy must be pretty simplistic. I do not think that word means what you think it means.
Oh, and one more thing: It is entirely possible, especially since about a decade ago, for someone who was raised in a higher class to be poor. I am one of those people. The fact that I didn’t grow up wondering if I would eat does not negate that I have spent much of my adult life with that concern. So, in conclusion, a giant and full-throated Fuck You to the people who are attempting to avoid the conversation by parsing whether or not my vocabulary means that I am insufficiently poor to be allowed to speak. Because I know goddamned well you wouldn’t have even read my first post if I were speaking in my vernacular.
Please, if you are one of the people who want to discuss whether or not I qualify as working poor because I have a capable brain as though the two have anything to do with each other, feel free to find something more productive to do. You could watch delightful children’s programming, or read Lemony Snicket. There are plenty of coloring books and if you get the good crayons you’ll have fun. Maybe you could hitch a ride to someplace with skeeball and tickets which you could exchange for prizes. If you are feeling pretentious you could try reading the kids’ version of Rousseau or Toqueville. I would suggest the original versions, but I worry that you might miss those points. They tended to speak in their vernacular, too.