Becoming Poor

We tend to think poverty is generational. A cycle of poor families who beget poor children who grow up poor and stay poor.  Perhaps that is true for some but it’s not my story.

The recession is where my cycle begins. Once you’re caught in it, escape is almost impossible. No matter where you started from.

In the course of 5 years, I went from having excellent credit, a high five-figure salary and owning a home to being jobless, desperate and two steps away from being homeless. It began with breast cancer, a divorce, a job loss – health insurance with it, followed by a building a successful small business that crumbled under the economic strain.  From there, it was a short trip to foreclosure and bankruptcy.

Poverty in the US is extremely height for single person households and people of color

Poverty statistics at http://www.povertyusa.org/the-state-of-poverty/poverty-facts/

Like everyone else, I’ve had times where money was tight and I had to pick and choose what to do or what to pay. But that’s not what this is.  This is not about having too little money, this is about having no money.

Living poor means living underground.

Where being hungry is an actual thing – not an interval between lunch and dinner. Where food stamps are a precious commodity for luxuries like powdered milk and white bread and bananas.

Where getting a job gets harder and harder every month you can’t find one.  At every interview, you can see the guy on the other side of the desk wondering  what’s wrong with you that you’ve been out of work for 10 months.

As if nothing had happened. The ultimate in gaslighting. It messes with your mind, not to mention your self-worth.

And so the cycle continues, until it’s been 18 months. Or two years. You start working at temp agencies. You go to mental health clinics to manage the depression. It’s so hard to keep looking.  Fear is paralyzing.  If you haven’t killed yourself, you’re lucky.

Though it doesn’t always feel that way.

It astounds me, living poor.  The rules are different, the burdens extreme.  The poor – me, us – we live in a cash-only world. There’s no plastic to cover an emergency or tide you over if a job is lost or a roof sprouts a leak. You just have to wait and hope it doesn’t rain.

And here’s the kicker. Any expenditure you haven’t planned on is an emergency.

My politics are liberal, I thought I knew how hard it was for poor people. I am now one of them. I knew nothing.

I thought there were things in place. Programs to help. Places to go. There are, but they have been so quickly over-run. The recession was a tragedy of catastrophic proportions – more people lost their homes to foreclosure than people did to Hurricane Katrina.

10 million homes lost to foreclosure.  1.41 million personal bankruptcies filed.  So many credit ratings destroyed.

And yet the response to this catastrophe was quite different than Katrina. There was no public outpouring of support. The government’s response was to give money to the Hurricane. The victims were left to cope on their own.

In North Carolina, the Republican legislature literally made it impossible for people to get federally funded unemployment benefits.  At no cost to the state.

That is how much we hate the poor in America.  And feel so justified in doing so.

The poor are a detriment to our country. To be denied and hidden away, punished. We make America look bad – no matter how we got here. Have we made mistakes? Yes. Do some people game the system? Yes. Do most of us? No.

And surely given the role of financial service companies and big banks in the destruction of the global economy, it’s petty to complain about the integrity of the poor.  We have yet to see a bank CEO drug tested, much less tossed out on the street.

Once you’re in the poverty, you can’t get out.

In 2014, 46,657,000 Americans live in poverty.  In 2010, one year after the recession had officially ended, it was 46,343,000.  So no one escaped the cycle. But more keep coming.

There are people who care, wonderfully kind people, organizations and churches who try to help.  But there are so many of us.

You might be surprised how many suggestions poor people could bring to the table in the fight against poverty.  Off the top of my head, things I’ve learned:

  • Basic income is a logical solution when so many people are losing jobs, health insurance and homes through no fault of their own.
  • Dignity is a human right. This is essential to America and Americans.  It shouldn’t be sacrificed for a few more points on the NASDAQ.
  • Food is not something you should have to beg for in America. Food stamps should be provided to anyone who needs them.
  • If there was an emergency fund where people without credit could get help, that would change a lot of things. We try to save, but we never can maintain long enough without something happening.  Then it’s back to square one.

Take action if you can. I used to support food pantries and help people keep their lights on. If you don’t know anyone who needs these things, try to get out more.

This isn’t about my character.

Look, I worked all my life and since 2010, I live week to week. That’s seven years of trying really hard and getting nowhere. I drive 2003 Ford Taurus with about 200,000 miles and a broken motor mount.  I’ve given up on hope.  I work on acceptance.

I live around poor people and we share what we have. There’s no point in planning for retirement or saving for a vacation.  We have no financial tomorrow.  So we help each other today.

Poverty is exhausting.  A weariness that is beyond explanation. I’m tired most days.  I need a break but none are forthcoming.  I know that.  My last vacation was to Disney World in 2006, a few days after I was diagnosed with breast cancer.  I had an entirely different life then. The shock of the transition still affects me.

I do know I am one among many.  I try to be grateful for the things that remain in my life.  Friends. Laughing.  Having food for my cats. Half-priced hamburger. Dollar Store toothpaste. Hostess cupcakes on sale.  That the engine hasn’t fallen out of my car.

But here’s what I would ask. If you have enough, remember us.

Help someone – do something miraculous.  Buy a bucket of cleaning supplies. An Old Navy gift card. A set of clean fresh sheets. A haircut.  Pet food or vet visits. You’d be amazed at the impact those small kindnesses have. One human being to another.

I remember when 20 bucks was a nice lunch. Now I know it’s a week’s worth of groceries.

If you’re new to this poverty thing, trying to figure out how to get by and need some help, let me know. If I can help, I will. I can always listen because I really do get it.  This is hard and it hurts and even nice people don’t always understand.

DM me on twitter anytime.

 I’m going to be writing about this – about what living in poverty is like.  If all I have left is a voice, I’m going to use it.

Take care.


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