Poor in America

The following is excerpted from John Scalzi’s post “Being Poor” and from the comments that follow. It should be required reading for everyone but especially those who turn up their noses at America’s poor. If you’ve never experienced any of these things or the dozens of others on Scalzi’s blog (“Whatever”), count your blessings.

(My thanks to Michelle at Motley News for bringing this to my attention.)

Being poor is having to keep buying $800 cars because they’re what you can afford, and then having the cars break down on you, because there’s not an $800 car in America that’s worth a damn.

Being poor is hoping the toothache goes away.

Being poor is going to the restroom before you get in the school lunch line so your friends will be ahead of you and won’t hear you say “I get free lunch” when you get to the cashier.

Being poor is living next to the freeway.

Being poor is coming back to the car with your children in the back seat, clutching that box of Raisin Bran you just bought and trying to think of a way to make the kids understand that the box has to last.

Being poor is a heater in only one room of the house.

Being poor is hoping your kids don’t have a growth spurt.

Being poor is stealing meat from the store, frying it up before your mom gets home and then telling her she doesn’t have make dinner tonight because you’re not hungry anyway.

Being poor is Goodwill underwear.

Being poor is not enough space for everyone who lives with you.

Being poor is feeling the glued soles tear off your supermarket shoes when you run around the playground.

Being poor is thinking $8 an hour is a really good deal.

Being poor is relying on people who don’t give a damn about you.

Being poor is stopping the car to take a lamp from a stranger’s trash.

Being poor is making lunch for your kid when a cockroach skitters over the bread, and you looking over to see if your kid saw.

Being poor is people angry at you just for walking around in the mall.

Being poor is the police busting into the apartment right next to yours.

Being poor is not talking to that girl because she’ll probably just laugh at your clothes.

Being poor is a sidewalk with lots of brown glass on it.

Being poor is needing that 35-cent raise.

Being poor is your kid’s teacher assuming you don’t have any books in your home.

Being poor is six dollars short on the utility bill and no way to close the gap.

Being poor is crying when you drop the mac and cheese on the floor.

Being poor is people surprised to discover you’re not actually stupid.

Being poor is people surprised to discover you’re not actually lazy.

Being poor is never buying anything someone else hasn’t bought first.

Being poor is picking the 10 cent ramen instead of the 12 cent ramen because that’s two extra packages for every dollar.

Being poor is getting tired of people wanting you to be grateful.

Being poor is knowing you’re being judged.

Being poor is a box of crayons and a $1 coloring book from a community center Santa.

Being poor is checking the coin return slot of every soda machine you go by.

Being poor is deciding that it’s all right to base a relationship on shelter.

Being poor is hoping the register lady will spot you the dime.

Being poor is knowing where the shelter is.

Being poor is people who have never been poor wondering why you choose to be so.

Being poor is knowing how hard it is to stop being poor.

Being poor is seeing how few options you have.

Being poor is your kids getting excited on Dumpster-hunt day, because that’s the only time they get to eat “real food” like cookies, fresh fruit and desserts.

Being poor is realizing that heating and eating will probably be mutually exclusive this month.

Being poor is trying to decide which one of you gets to eat today – the one of you that is pregnant or the one of you that can work.

Being poor is knowing exactly how many hours and minutes you’ll have to work extra to make up for that bill.

Being poor is knowing that no matter how hard and how much you work, you still can’t cover it all.

Being poor is getting your school clothes from the trunk of a community outreach car and hope they fit better than last years.

Being poor means swallowing your pride and walking into the food stamp office because you don’t want your kids to go hungry, then sitting there smiling, while some social worker (gleefully) humiliates you as she goes over your application.

Being poor is a month with 28 spaghetti dinners, 2 invitations over to eat, and a day without.

Being poor is carrying your fiancee to the hospital to miscarry, then using their phone to call around for someone to take you back home, since there aren’t beds for Medicare patients.

Being poor is wondering what sort of fool drops a penny on the ground and doesn’t pick it up.

Being poor is buying the 25 cent loaf of bread at the grocery store and making it last for lunch and dinner.

Being poor means dreading getting a Christmas present from the Fireman’s Charity, because you’ll end up on TV and everybody at school will find out.

Being poor is wishing the sheet that separates your bed from the rest of the kitchen was dark enough not to let the light shine through.

Being poor is everything gets washed by hand in the bathtub with the smallest amount of dollar-store detergent.

Being poor is always stealing toilet paper and tampons.

Being poor is the lunchlady feeling bad for you so she sneaks you leftovers from after all the classes have eaten, for you to take home for dinner.

Being poor is hearing your daughter tell you twenty years later that she finally realized that ‘Mommy already ate, sweetie’ was a lie.Being poor means a 4 hours of commuting for a 6 hour shift.

Being poor means fishing for coins in your friend’s couch while he’s in the bathroom.

Being poor means putting a beloved pet to sleep because you can’t afford the vet bill.

And the comments went on, and on, and on … much farther than I could bear to read.

7 thoughts on “Poor in America

  1. My wife told me this story about her mother, HM. It must have happened around the time of WW II. Her father was a clerk in the water department and her mother a secretary at city hall in a large Virginia city. (She eventually rose to become the mayor’s secretary.) They lived with her mother’s parents and three of my wife’s uncles in a large house downtown, coal heat, one bathroom. The whole family had been brought low financially by the depression, the grandfather now working as a clerk in the hotel he once owned. HM walked some blocks to catch a bus to work, whatever the weather, and she had only one dress she considered suitable for work.

    After a long period she was finally able to afford a new dress, and as she was riding up to her city hall office the elevator operator, a black woman, commented, “Why Mrs. M—-, what a lovely dress!”.

    Now to put this into proper context you must understand that this was segregated America, and this was Dixie. HM was devastated and on reaching her office wept uncontrollably.

    I tell this story to illustrate a couple of points, and they are basically the same points made by Scalzi’s post. First, almost anyone can be brought low by circumstances, whether it be by financial troubles or health problems. Secondly, a proper modern civilization ought to provide its citizens with enough safety net that human respect is preserved. We have made progress with that, through SNAP, unemployment insurance, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Some want to begin to turn the clock back to the old days in that regard, and that is at the heart of the current political battle now raging.

    1. It must be incredibly difficult to carry on when you feel embarrassed and humiliated, when your pride and self-respect have been wounded or obliterated. I don’t pretend to know what it’s like to be truly poor, to wonder where the next meal is coming from, or not have decent clothes to wear to work. However, I remember how humiliated I felt having to apply for unemployment after I lost a job. I’d gone as long as I could on savings and my last paycheck, but I finally hit the wall and I was extremely grateful to have that safety net when I needed it.

  2. Being poor is having an outdoor bathroom,
    Being poor is seeing the outdoors through the cracks in the walls while you lay in bed – and seeing the mice and rats scurry in and out.
    Being poor is being glad your child can go play with a friend after school where it will be warm.
    Being rich is having heat in any room.
    Being rich is having clothes-new-to-you from a cousin across town who outgrew them
    Being rich is having a bike to ride to work.

    This is a good piece to read – very emotional.
    It could have been written during the Great Depression(only some of these “poor” items would have felt “rich” to people like my parents) – or in the more recent recession during the 80’s.

    Good people have been poor and gone on to be successful.
    Being poor is not a crime.

    The people that handle applications for food stamps and unemployment should be carefully selected and trained to be professional – not snotty or enabling – just neutral. It’s humiliating enough to have to go to food banks and such. Dignity and encouragement is as important as food. A hand up shouldn’t be a slap in the face with a sneer – and it often is from these petty employees.

    I’d like to see this piece edited for true poverty: Some of it isn’t really poor – but that may be a matter of perspective from one who’s seen it.
    We live in a very spoiled society.
    Be thankful for opportunities and kindness of strangers

    1. I did some editing, aware that I probably should have done more. Frankly, I reached a point where I was just too emotionally spent to keep reading. Yes, perspective does matter. Fear, desperation, and despair are no respecters of income. And just as I would wish on every doctor a stay in the hospital (to learn some humility and understanding), I would wish on those government employees a few months on unemployment or food stamps.

      1. Everyone looks at things through their own experiences.
        We never thought we were poor. There were those worse off than us.
        Most docs make terrible patients: they know how bad the care can get – and all the mistakes that can be made.
        (I wish all the insurance companies, hospital corporations, and medical management groups would stop telling docs exactly how many minutes each patient gets and what test/treatments Docs are to recommend. It’s going to get worse.)
        I’ve heard horror tales about gov. employees people have had to deal with for unemployment/food stamps – arrogance and insults. Simply not in the spirit the assistance workers are supposed to have. Gov bullies are so typical.
        People are stressed and angry – for good reason.

... and that's my two cents