Five Things I Learned While Living in Poverty
Last week after waking up for the fourth straight morning with a dull nag along my spine, I began pining for a new mattress. An hour later, after making a melodramatic show of gulping down ibuprofen and drenching myself in Icy Hot, I entered a furniture store with an inexplicable limp and paid for a new Stearns king-sized pillow top and box-spring. On the way to the Customer Service desk to pay, I spotted a faux-antique headboard with white paneling – similar to the one I’d seen on an HGTV home-makeover show – and told the salesman to add it to my order. Delivery was free, I reasoned.
The next evening, after I spent a few gleeful minutes in my bedroom counting the number of revolutions it took to roll from one side of the plush expanse to the other, I couldn’t help but acknowledge the absurdity of my freedom. It’s an odd thing for someone who’s spent most of their life in abject poverty: the ability to go and buy something significant, to answer the prodding of some extra want or need. Perhaps it will always be jarring – these small reminders of my legitimate membership in the world of 401k’s, health insurance, and good credit scores.
Now that I’ve finally begun to breach the threshold into middle class existence, I often can’t help feeling like an imposter and a traitor. It’s as if the fact that I’ve paid the bills on time is some kind of a betrayal, an inauthentic foray into a life I wasn’t assigned. You don’t forget the things you learned sleeping behind the caddyshack just because you’ve finally joined the club, and as a consequence, the membership jacket never really fits right. I used to look at people who had the freedom to buy “five-star safety rated” cars and fresh organic produce and furniture they saw on HGTV and think, what do they know about reality and struggle? So to salve my guilt over the wanton purchase of comfortable bedding, I thought I’d share some of that reality. Here are a few things the more fortunate should know about being poor.
1. Being poor is expensive.
Even the economically-illiterate know that bad credit equals higher rates on things like credit cards and loans. But unless you’ve been there, you’re unlikely to understand the broader meaning of the concept of “poverty tax.” Consider what it costs to cash a check when you have no bank account. For those who have been blacklisted from account ownership because of a history of overdrafts, for those unable to maintain the minimum balance or fees required for checking, banks and check-cashing rackets can charge as high as 10-18% of each check in cashing fees. For someone relying on a minimum-wage paycheck, this can mean losing the equivalent of an entire day’s pay.
Check out what the reconnect charge is when someone’s power is shut off for nonpayment. This can tack an extra couple hundred onto an overdue bill in some places. What’s more, most utility companies, which operate as monopolies, will require a hefty security deposit in addition to full payment before they’ll restore electricity or water – services needed for basic civilized life.
In his 2010 book Broke, USA, Gary Rivlin writes about the lucrative business of poverty – how pawnbrokers, check-cashers, the payday loan industry, and a menagerie of other “mercenary entrepreneurs” have successfully turned people’s hard times into massive profit-generators. But even state and local governments have gotten in on “poverty taxation.” States and municipalities count on the fact that small violations like parking tickets and seat belt citations will turn to more significant revenue amounts when they’re issued in poorer neighborhoods. When a person cannot immediately pay these fines, the penalties and interest can quickly become an inescapable web of misery. Take my own experience as anecdotal evidence: I once got a speeding ticket for $72. Since I had no possible way to pay it by the due date, it quickly led to a license suspension, court costs, missed work, compounding fees and interest, restoration charges, and an eventual grand total of $1,327 over four years.
2. People like to help others – as long as you don’t “look poor”
In general, people are only willing to be charitable if their visual assessment deems a person who needs help “deserving” of such empathy. It’s a fact that’s been confirmed over and over by countless sociologists and YouTube social experiments – it’s even been the focus of several segments of the primetime show What Would You Do? with John Quinonez.
But many poor people see the proof firsthand every day. Never having gas money, it put me in the unique position to witness this for myself. Running out of gas in a 22-year-old rust-bucket with a spidered-out windshield and half a muffler is a very different situation than running out of gas in a nice borrowed car wearing an equally-borrowed pantsuit. In the latter situation, after stalling out in a relative’s late-model SUV while dressed nicely on my way to a job fair, two separate cars stopped – one to help push me from the road and one carrying a 40-something couple who insisted on buying me a gas can, filling it up, and then following me to the nearest gas station to top off my tank. I’ve never forgotten that kindness. I’ve also never forgotten the two hours I spent unsuccessfully trying to flag people down the day I broke down in my own jalopy – or the man who told me to “get a job” when I asked to use his cellphone.
3. Once you’ve had nothing, you don’t place much value on material things
Plush mattress purchases aside, the truth is that I have no real connection to non-human tangibles. After having to sell sentimental belongings in order to eat, or as a consequence of losing all one’s possessions more than once to unpaid storage bills, perhaps this can be explained by desensitization to material loss. Once you’ve had to limit yourself to keeping only what you can carry from place to place, it becomes very easy to forgo a connection to objects. I shed no tears over misplaced jewelry, wine spills on a new rug, or an iPad left on the train. If a shirt loses a button, I’ll toss it before I sew it. I notoriously give valuable items away to anyone I think may have a legitimate use for them.
After spending any significant time living in poverty, you tend not to covet the luxuries. You get used to wishing for more relevant things. A stable place to sleep. Heating in the winter. The knowledge that you can eat tomorrow.
It’s nice to have the ability to buy a new mattress when I need one, but if the pipes burst tomorrow and turn it into a moldy sponge for the garbage heap, I’ll shrug and move on. I rarely have a true desire for anything replaceable. Status symbols will always seem trivial and silly to me. Having nothing creates a certain world view that completely rejects consumerism.
4. Poverty is an exercise in catch-twenty-two predicaments
The best example of this cosmic truth may be the most immediate cause of homelessness: having no home. Landlords invariably ask for a deposit of one to two month’s rent, and that’s a lot of scratch. Barring the availability of some person willing to take you in for as long as it takes you to save (ever try accumulating savings when you’re living paycheck to paycheck?), the only alternative is to find a short-term rental. A residential hotel might run you $250-$350 per week or even $50 – $150 on a per-night basis. The problem is that when you’re paying what amounts to two or three times what you’d be spending on rent, there’s nothing left over to put aside for a security deposit.
Imagine applying for jobs when you don’t have a phone – or God forbid, electricity or a place to shower. But how do you pay a phone bill when you don’t have a job? The cycle of contradictory quandaries applies to much of what a person needs to “get on their feet.” When you live hand to mouth, what others see as mere “incidentals” – the need for minor car repairs or the appearance of a plumbing problem – become dire emergencies that can start a chain reaction of life-destroying chaos.
5. Poverty can become an identity
Why did the simple act of purchasing a bed compel me to reflect on my past, almost as an act of contrition? I think…it’s because despite having been lucky enough to find a way out of those circumstances, being poor is and always will be a part of my identity. It’s difficult not to feel like I’ve forsaken my tribe somehow. Poverty can be a community, and it can also be a culture. It’s a basic defense mechanism to embrace the things that would otherwise shame us. Outcasts ban together and name their clubs. Only those who have been there can commiserate. Only the equally downtrodden can understand. While our most weighted experiences certainly don’t have to define us, they do become part of who we are. Poverty can shape a piece of that.