The Realities Of Being Poor

by Rita Templeton
Originally Published: 

“Poor” is such a subjective term. To those who are homeless or starving, someone living in Section 8 housing with government assistance probably seems downright well-off. But by most people’s typical, comfortable American standards, I spent a substantial portion of my life at a financial disadvantage. After my parents’ acrimonious divorce when I was 9, all the way through my early adult years, I lived well below the poverty line: that imaginary threshold separating the haves from the have-nots. My mom worked two jobs to make ends meet (though sometimes those ends didn’t meet at all), and some years were leaner than others, but my reality was a constant state of never quite enough.

To me, poor is the burning mortification I felt when my fifth-grade crush, behind me in line at the grocery store, snickered as he witnessed my mom paying with food stamps. It’s the oppressive cloak of sticky summer heat in our un-air conditioned one-room apartment, and how the hard, squeaky springs of the thrift-store sofa bed I shared with my mom poked into my back no matter how I positioned myself. It’s the rumble of emptiness from my stomach that seemed to echo into our equally-empty cabinets, and the tastes and textures of powdered milk and generic peanut butter and government cheese that comes from a box.

Being poor is pawning, out of desperation, anything you may still have with any sort of value, and cashing in pennies. It’s filling every receptacle you’ve got — bathtub, sink, buckets, pitchers — while you still have water because you know yours is about to be shut off. It’s staying in an empty apartment with no electricity and an eviction notice on the door, because you know there’s a 30-day grace period, and if you don’t figure something out by then, you’ll be on the street. It’s watching your own blood depart your body from a thin tube as you give plasma for the second time in a week and already calculating when you’ll be eligible to give again, because hey, that’s 30 bucks.

Being poor is using the restroom at the gas station down the street and stuffing your pockets with toilet paper because you’re out at home. It’s the scornful glances, the treatment you receive, because it must be all your fault you’re poor, you lazy ass — just get your shit together.

Why does happiness depend on money? Why is it money and not something else? I wrote in my journal when I was 18, from my first independent apartment where I was living with my boyfriend (who would later become my husband). Because nothing else keeps the bills paid. Nothing else says whether we have food or a phone or electricity or transportation. Just a couple of weeks ago our power was shut off, and during those 7 or 8 days it was cold and we had no heat, no light, no stove to cook on. Then when we finally got it turned back on, our phone got disconnected. While the power was out the refrigerator defrosted, and what food we had in there spoiled. Now there is literally nothing to eat. Even our staple foods like rice and sugar have all been used and we have no money to buy more. Today I’ve eaten two crackers, that’s all, and it’s 3:30. We can’t do laundry — no quarters, no soap. We’ve been out of toilet paper for the past three days, so we’ve been using napkins — but just today, we ran out of napkins too.

Poor is a state of being, but it’s also a feeling; an invisible but oppressive mantle you carry around your neck at all times. It’s feeling beaten down, every damn day, even on “good” days when you don’t notice it as much. It’s the unrelenting stress of putting out proverbial fires, deciding which is more important when you finally get a few bucks: Paying your rent, your utilities, or getting some food? It’s knowing your credit is ruined indefinitely because you can’t afford to repay this or that, or anything at all, really. It’s the disheartening knowledge that you must endlessly chase dollars, sometimes doing things that are illegal or at the very least unpleasant, things that go against your very nature, just to watch those dollars slip through your fingers as they keep a roof over your head for another month. But hey, it’s a shame about that empty fridge.

Nobody understands poor people unless they’ve been there, and it’s hard enough to be poor without also being misunderstood. As someone who has walked more than a mile in those (raggedy-ass) shoes, I’d like to clear up a few things.

Not everyone on welfare is “working the system.”

I want to clarify this right now because it’s a biggie. Sure, we’ve all heard stories of people who take advantage of government assistance because they’re lazy or faking a disability. But there are also people, like my mother and countless others, who use this type of assistance as a hand-up, not a handout. When I would complain about having to use food stamps, my mom would squeeze my hand and assure me that she hated it, too, that this was only temporary, that we would only use them until we could provide for ourselves — even if that meant only having the bare minimum.

Poverty is not self-imposed.

There’s a sense of blame around poor people, like they actually, actively choose this lifestyle. Nobody says “Hey! Let’s struggle to obtain even the most basic of needs!” People are poor for many reasons, and financial devastation can happen to anyone. Before my parents’ marriage fell apart, we were an average middle-class family, with a home and two vehicles, going out to eat, watching our cable TV, and enjoying weekend trips. Afterward, I was the child of a single mother, getting my dinner from a food bank instead of a restaurant. Nobody asks for this type of circumstance. Nobody.

Poverty is not easy to escape.

If “poverty is self-imposed” were a train, then “Why don’t they just do something about it?” would be the caboose; one always follows the other. Being poor is like being at the bottom of a deep, dirty hole. You may find an occasional foothold, a root to grab here or there, but the soil crumbles beneath your weight or the root snaps — and when you fall, you often find that the hole is deeper than before.

When you get your water turned back on so you can bathe and flush and cook your ramen noodles, your car dies. When you get your car fixed, you lose your job. You’re so busy scraping together money to live on and to patch the leaky holes (literal and figurative) that are popping up in every area of your life, it can be impossible to gain enough financial traction to actually get ahead. There’s no room for long-term planning when you have trouble getting by on a daily basis. There’s no saving when there’s nothing left to save.

People who aren’t poor cannot possibly “get it.”

Even if you’re an openminded and nonjudgmental person who feels like you can effectively see things from another person’s perspective, there are facets of poverty that you’ll likely never think of. Like what happens when you’re about to start your period, but feminine hygiene products are fucking expensive and you have five bucks to your name and you’d also like to eat. Or you’ve got to choose between tampons and diapers.

“Luxuries” are an important part of life.

So often, I hear people who have never experienced poverty grouse about things like, “If they’re so poor, how come they can afford cigarettes/phones/coffee/fast food?” The best way I can explain it is this: There’s a reason that people refer to shopping as “retail therapy” — sometimes it makes you feel better. When you’re poor, your entire life is lived laboring under a weighted blanket of stress, of judgment, of never having enough or being good enough. It is human nature to want — no, need — the occasional splurge, no matter how destitute you are. Don’t begrudge a poor person one of the only things that makes them feel a little closer to the rest of society.

It costs money to be poor.

I am admittedly no economist, but the way companies try to get extra money from people who don’t have any is something that has baffled me since childhood. Say you overdraw your bank account by $20. The bank then charges you a $35 overdraft fee, on top of the negative balance — so once you do manage to scrape up $50 to deposit, you’re still $5 short. Forget about buying anything in bulk, which is typically cheaper in the long run. Same with sales: You can’t take advantage of a lower price if you don’t have the money while the sale’s going on. There’s no good in a “buy one, get one free” if you can’t even buy one in the first place.

Poor people don’t need sympathy; they need compassion.

If you were holding up a heavy weight, and your arms were burning and trembling, which would you be more grateful for: someone who came along and said, “Tsk, so sorry you’re holding that weight,” or someone who came along and helped take some of the burden off? Poor people don’t need anybody else to feel sorry for them. What they do need is someone to realize that they’re not poor because they’re lazy or stupid or bad — that they’re humans, just like anybody else, with the same needs and desires and hopes. They need people to donate and lend support to the programs that help them because there are far too many voices scoffing that they’re “just taking advantage.” They don’t need saviors — people who publicize what generous benefactors they are to make themselves look better. They need quiet understanding, and a willingness to share the resources that come so much more easily to people above the poverty line.

Fill a box with the things you take for granted: Coffee, candy, tampons, fabric softener, fuzzy socks. Rolls of quarters. Toilet paper. Take it to a shelter or a food bank or a poverty center. “Adopt” a family for the holidays, but don’t let your support stop when the holidays are over. Find ways to help all year long, even if it’s just little things.

Because for those in dire financial straits, even the little things are priceless.

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