There was a viral post a while back on the Humans of New York Facebook page that left me reeling. It was a simple picture of an older man talking about bootstraps and poverty. He said, “I used to think that I could write a prescription for a poor man: ‘Get a job, save your money, pull yourself up by the bootstraps.’ I don’t believe that anymore. I was ignorant to the experiences of poor people.” I immediately understood his words in a profoundly intimate way.
I am what the working poor looks like. My husband and I both work full-time positions, and I have a part-time supplemental income, and every month is a struggle. For the longest time, I was deeply embarrassed by our economic condition. Despite following all the rules in the handbook of The American Dream — go to college, get married, get a job, have kids, buy a house — my reality is that I am drowning in debt, and at the rate of my income growth, it is likely that I will die owing the federal government for my student loans and the bank for my mortgage.
No matter how hard I work, I am one paycheck away from economic disaster. Each month I pencil in what we owe on the calendar, and I try to figure out how to line those bills up with our paychecks. If there is a school function that requires me to purchase anything or send money, then I look at the calendar and wonder what bill I can put off for another week. I have the grace periods of every bill memorized so I know that if I can’t pay the electricity this month, that they won’t shut it off next month as long as I give them something by the 15th.
It’s an exhausting way to live, but (for now) I am too proud to ask for help. There are people poorer than my family, and I know we are still the lucky ones since we do have food, shelter, and safety. Those bootstraps people like to talk about? I heard about those straps my whole life, and trust me, I’ve got a firm grip on mine and they are pulled as tight as they will go. But it isn’t enough.
For Christmas this year, we put ourselves behind on the mortgage by nearly three months in order to pay for propane to heat the house, put a few small gifts under the tree, and buy new winter coats and boots for the kids. But the tires on our only car are bald, and my child has a rare genetic condition that requires us to pay thousands of dollars out of pocket each month because we don’t qualify for any subsidy programs or grants. I lay awake at night wondering how the fuck I am going to pay for all of this.
Paycheck to paycheck is how we get by, and I know I am not alone. According to the Center for Poverty Research at the University of California, Davis, the working poor “are people who spend 27 weeks or more in a year in the labor force either working or looking for work but whose incomes fall below the poverty level.” And what is the federal poverty line? Well, that depends on how big your family is. In 2014, the Census Bureau reported that 45 million Americans fell below the poverty line. That equals 14.5% of the U.S. population.
As bleak as things feel now, they are sure to get worse under the Trump administration hasn’t helped and things aren’t likely to get better for the poor and middle classes. According to Vox, “Trump will likely oversee the most vicious cuts to programs for poor and medium-income people of any president since Reagan.” Trump’s economic plans have pushed already teetering families like mine into extreme poverty. If we lose our healthcare? I can’t even let my mind go there, because my son didn’t ask to have a rare disorder, and no parents are prepared for the financial toll it takes to keep their child healthy in those circumstances. My 50-plus hour workweek feels so self-defeating in these circumstances.
When I hear people talking about bootstraps, I think of my grandparents who lived in a time when America’s economy was booming with post-war progress. They could afford to have bootstraps with which to pull themselves in any direction they desired. But me? I’ve yanked, I’ve pulled, I’ve sweated my heart out, and I owe a shit ton of money to pay for a small house and an education that got me a job that doesn’t cover even my bills.
So, while my kids went to school with their new winter boots and warm jackets this winter, I trudged through the snow in my ratty sneakers because I couldn’t afford proper boots for myself. We’ll figure out how to keep food on the table and a roof over our head, but that will come at a great cost to my health and my spirit. There is absolutely nothing lazy about what I am going through. Being the working poor is an entirely unfair and hopeless experience. But even worse are the offensive assumptions that people have about being able to pull oneself out of an economic situation like mine.
So when that man on Humans of New York said that he was ignorant to the experiences of poor people and then went on to describe modern poverty, my heart felt a ray of hope because someone was speaking up in a very public way about my daily struggle.
I am what the working poor looks like, and I want you see me.