I am writing this post in response to two recent articles I have seen repeatedly being shared around the internet: This is Why Poor People's Bad Decisions Make Perfect Sense, and The 5 Stupidest Habits You Develop Growing Up Poor. I have taken some time to mull over the content of both articles and waited until the little one was with his dad to sit down and write so I get my thoughts down clearly.
Perhaps it is because I am older, and hopefully wiser. Perhaps it is because I was blessed with a mom, who even in the bleakest poverty, gave her children hope. Perhaps it was the influence of my depression era grandparents. Or maybe it is recognizing the blessings me and my boys received when I was struggling on my own for the first time. But the perspective I have of being poor is so different from Linda Tirado and John Cheese. Don't get me wrong. Being poor is a struggle, but both of these authors perpetuate a mindset about poverty that is dangerous and pervasive in our culture.
I know first hand what it is like being poor as a kid and an adult. I developed pneumonia from living in a damp, cold house way to small for my parents and siblings. My greatest fear was the bath tub falling through the rotten floor when I took a bath. My dad's pay check came through the mail and if it didn't arrive on time it was a challenge for mom to feed us. Often the cars we drove were junkers with doors that had to be held shut with twine or mufflers held up with coat hangers. It was difficult going to school as an adolescent and wearing cheap, outdated clothes. It seemed no matter how hard dad worked we were stuck.
I have also gone without as an adult. Most recently right after my husband moved out on us and left me struggling to get by with two boys. There were times I had to beg to keep the lights on. I had to get on food stamps to keep us fed. Every month was a struggle to pay rent and keep a roof over our heads. I sold what ever I could of value to get by. It felt like I was constantly asking for help. While I am still within the federal poverty guidelines and I still am walking a tight rope financially, I don't necessarily feel poor. In fact I feel quite blessed. Even as I pull on yet another pair of socks with holes in them or shrug off not feeling well because I don't have health insurance.
So, yeah, my credentials are real. I know poverty. It sucks when you can't pay your bills. But justifying poor people's bad decision making is perpetuating the problem. And here is why:
Spending money is about self control
Being poor doesn't justify a lack of self control when it comes to spending money. Far too many poor people do go out and blow their big tax return on things they don't necessarily need and it gives them only a moments reprieve from feeling poor. When you base your spending on making you feel better, if you are poor or not, it is a temporary high. If you are poor, the reality of your situation will come crashing down on you sooner than later. Spending an unexpected windfall is a modern mindset that my depression era grandparents would have shaken their heads at. Our modern disposable, consumerism behavior is detrimental when you are poor.
I buy all our clothes from the thrift store. I don't remember the last time I purchased new clothes, especially for me. If I want to make a big purchase I postpone it. I really want to get rid of this awful, filthy recliner that gives off bad vibes because my ex loved to regularly take naps there and replace it with a new, colorful side chair. I found a chair I like but I have continued to postpone purchasing it because I can't really justify spending over $100 on a chair when I need new socks, underclothes, and glasses. Having the self control to postpone a purchase on something that falls more into the "want" category than "need" gives you time to assess if the choice is a smart one or not.
I want to also be a good role model and teach my children that it is important to be able to wait for something they want, that it is ok to not get everything they want. I don't feel I am contributing any more to their happiness by gong on a spending spree with our tax refund and buying them all of the things they are "deprived" of.
Eating Healthy is Cheaper
Really. It is the junk food that is expensive when you think about it. It contributes to increased health costs and is full of empty calories. While I agree there are "food deserts" in big cities where good quality fresh produce is hard to come by, I must say that the biggest barrier to eating healthy is education. I also think some "foods" should not be allowed as purchases through food stamps. Soda is my biggest complaint. Soda is not a food. I'm sorry if you are a big soda drinker, but it is diabetes in a bottle.
I just listened to a wonderful story about a chef who gave up his high paying job in a fancy restaurant to work for a soup kitchen. Instead of prepared and highly processed foods he cooks up fresh ingredients, increasing the healthiness of the meals and decreasing the cost per meal. Don't have a lot of time? Use a slow cooker. I love mine. I've seen them sold at my local thrift store. When you get home tired after a long day at work your meal is ready for you.
The point is, avoid over processed and prepackaged meals. Avoid empty calories and junk food. If you concentrate all your food dollars on nutritional value you will be able to eat healthy on a limited income. Eating poorly is, again, a byproduct of our society which has written that poor people don't deserve good food. Don't believe it. You deserve it as much as the next person. Maybe you can't afford the lobster or to eat out at the local trendy restaurant but you do deserve, and can afford, good food.
And if you didn't already know, some farmers markets take food stamps. You can also use food stamps to purchase seeds to grow a garden. Your local food stamp office should be able to direct you to farmers markets and gardening stores that accept SNAP benefits.
Mental Health is a Priority
Unfortunately, depression and poverty are closely related. Tirado is correct about that. It can seem like taking the time to care for your mental well being is a luxury when you are poor, but it is as important as eating healthy foods. I keep a gratitude journal. I pray. I rant to a close friend. As a single mom it can be difficult to find time when I am not working to focus on "me time" because my four year old is usually right there with me. Any mom will understand the luxury of going to the bathroom alone. But many things that are good for my mental health involve things I can do with kids in tow. I had the day off yesterday and the art museum waived admission for the day so we went and rode the cool elevators for free. My four year old did slow down to look at the art too but we have taken advantage of many free days and he kept exclaiming in frustration "Mom, I've been here before!" when I pointed things out to him. We then took a walk along the river. Don't fall for the "poor people don't belong here" mentality. Baloney. It's free and open to the public. Check out your local museums on their free days. Go to the library. Take a walk in nature.
I find the biggest influence on my mental health is showing gratitude for what I do have. Yeah, I have to put off buying new eye glasses a little longer, but I did pay all of the utilities this month. They cut my food stamps (a mixed blessing), but a good friend had us over for a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner. I drive an old car we nicknamed Rattletrap Car, after a children's book by the same name. I still owe over $600 for this car I purchased back in July for $800, but I'm grateful that the person selling it to me is working with me and that I was able to afford to get the inspection and registration up to date, as well as the title in my name. I am grateful that I have plenty of clothes in my closet, and so does my young son. I am grateful that I have a job I enjoy. Even if it doesn't pay enough or cover health insurance. I am grateful that I will be able to work extra hours in the coming weeks. I am grateful for my children, my family, my friends...
I have gone through depression. It numbs your whole world and sucks all the color out of it so that everything is grey and the simplest things seem like climbing dangerous mountains. It does make it hard to think about the future. When my ex left there were times when I was so scared, so depressed, that getting out of bed to face the day felt overwhelming. He wan't helping out financially and the rent was due. How was I going to keep a roof over our heads? I had to ask a friend to help us out with food. But when you feel like this you need to do two things: latch on to something that is so important to you that it is the driving force to life itself (for me it is my boys) and ask for help. There is help out there. If the first time you ask you don't get it, keep asking. Sometimes I had to ask and ask and ask, but my boys became the sole force moving me forward. I was not about to become homeless and succumb to despair.
You Can and Should Make Goals for the Future
Poverty can feel like a dead end, but it is important not to fall into that trap. It is a hard cycle to break. Hard, but not impossible. Sometimes I do fear I will never experience what it would be like to not worry about having all my needs met or that I'll never be able to pay all those people back who have helped me out one way or another. I fear that I'll always have to struggle. But in spite of, or perhaps to spite those fears, I have made grand plans for my future. Not anything unreachable, and indeed pretty simple by some standards. I plan on getting to a place where I can save up to purchase about an acre of land and build a small 800-950 square foot house on it, as well as a small photography studio. I plan on having a small flock of chickens and a garden. This is my plan for me and my youngest son. I have the floor plan of the house I like posted on my refrigerator where I can see it every day.
When you are already overworked and underpaid you look for something easy in your life and it can seem that eating over processed foods, not assessing your spending habits, and not tending to your health or your future are ways to make life a little easier, but in reality you are walking into the trap of a mythological mindset that is as dangerous to you as walking in front of a bus. You can make good, responsible choices that are moving you and your family forward, up, and out of poverty. It's not easy. Believe me, I've cried plenty of tears when I had to pay rent late, putting me deeper behind because of the late fee. I've thrown the cheap, over processed macaroni and fake cheese in front of my boys because it was cheap and easy to prepare and I was tired. I've pulled ten hour days at work and sold things I'd dearly like to have back just to make ends meet. But I'm not about to feel like a victim, nor am I gong to let myself feel poor in heart and soul. I have a future and I have choices, daily choices big and small, that impact that future. I'm not about to sideline that future because I'm "poor".
Live simply. Live boldly. Be humble. Be grateful.