Random thoughts on poverty and the poor
November 25, 2013
1. PiC and I had a mini rant about Walmart the other day, on the heels of the blowup about their Ohio store’s doing a food drive for their own employees, when we saw a Walmart commercial advertising their “opportunities”. The spokespeople for Walmart would have you believe that the fact that the company culture supports “associates” and takes care of them during the holidays doesn’t highlight the fact that a company could actually “take care of” their employees by paying them living wages and that’s where their responsibilities lay.
2. For a good part of my childhood, my parents were small business owners who took very little salary for themselves, but paid their employees both as decent salaries as they could afford and Christmas bonuses. Admittedly this wasn’t the best financial decision they could have made for our family in the short term, but if health problems hadn’t prevented them from continuing to run the business, we would have slowly built up enough savings to make it worth it in the long run. In the meantime, we knew our employees were able to feed their families and keep a roof over their heads. And as crap as it made my 20s, and as much as I would have made some minor changes to how things were run if I had a more active hand in business decisions (yeah because I was all of 9 years old. totally plausible), I’m comfortable with knowing our employees didn’t have to struggle just to feed and clothe their families, they just had to do a good job while they were with us.
3. Abby’s ruminations on J.Money and his thoughts on Tom Corley and Linda Tirado’s Why Poor People’s Bad Decisions Make Perfect Sense remind me that people who have always had enough to eat, money for a rainy day, and a support network find it much harder to understand the decisions that poor people make, that seem to obviously be bad choices, but in reality, many of them aren’t really choices at all. I’ve been there, and remember the things that burned in my gut much like shame when I had to make those “stupid decisions” because I didn’t have the cash to make the smart one.
Note: I never smoked, drank or did drugs to get by but damn if I didn’t understand the desire, at times. I never gave up because I had my parents to support, while I wouldn’t call it hope, I never acknowledged that not fighting was an option. Still, when I was affected by THEIR bad decisions, that really sucked too.
A. You don’t have float money. You have exactly “enough” to get by from day to day which means if there’s a sale at the grocery store on pasta, you don’t have the extra $5-10 to buy enough to last you until the next sale cycle. So you buy off sale cycle, you only buy enough for today and tomorrow or even just right now. You resort to super cheap, filling, but super unhealthy fast foods, compromising your health. I used to buy a 99 cent corndog for lunch/dinner on days that I didn’t have food to bring from home and I had to run from school to work. It was the cheapest thing I could get, and I guarantee that was not a healthy choice. But I loved corndogs and it was a dollar for a few minutes of “happy” and food on any given 14-hour day. Or you can’t fill your car up with enough gas to last the week, you can put in $5 for now, and milk that until you hit E and then have to pay whatever price-gauge is at the next station. Also you buy cheap stuff because you can’t afford the higher quality stuff. So it breaks or falls apart, and you have to buy it again. And again. And again.
B. You don’t have time. You can work enough to pay the bills but then you don’t have time (or money) to go to school so you can stop working a dead end job without any hope of advancement or decent working conditions. Or you can work less, and struggle to pay all the bills in any given month. So you pay what you can, week to week, day to day. Bills slip, and it only takes one late fee to really screw up what you thought you were going to be able to clear that month.
C. *Observed: You don’t have hope. So you make stupid decisions like buying crap you don’t need, because your luck is crap anyway. After all, you scrimped, saved, and did without and where’s that gotten you? Nowhere. So you also think that luck has more to do with your life and what happens than what you do (I saw this develop in more than one family member, my incredibly strong, adaptive, and hardworking mom included.)
Confession: I had hope for several years, then I gave that up and just relied on gritting it out.
D. You live in the short term. Today’s work, tomorrow’s bills: rent, utilities, food, gas. Saving for a rainy day doesn’t exist when every day seems like one, saving for retirement sure doesn’t exist. You have to be willing AND physically able to find ways to squeeze every last penny out of every last opportunity: overtime, credit card rewards (without ever paying interest or late fees), loyalty programs. This takes time, which you don’t have, and attention which you don’t have.
That’s definitely only scratching the surface.
I made it out of there by working my ass off, taking every scrap of overtime available ever, and by good luck and good fortune. I was fortunate enough to be employed by the people I worked for: whether they were good people or not was irrelevant, the fact that I was able to make it work so that I could claw my way out of debt and to build up savings was a blessing.
I was fortunate enough to gain the respect of good people who would vouch for me when I needed it.
I was fortunate enough to become friends with people who had retired from super high income, high powered careers who were willing to advise me and help me make the hard professional decisions as a neophyte to the business world. My parents were decidedly blue collar, working class folks who didn’t know enough about today’s world to help. They could only listen and try to help guide.
I was fortunate enough to have just enough brainpower to plan a career path, at least somewhat vaguely, and not just focus on the immediate horizon.
I was fortunate enough to have discovered Fatwallet’s Grocery and Finance Forums in the early years. They taught me to save every scrap, every penny, that I possibly could, while trying to generate a little extra creative income AND to think about the future.
I was fortunate enough to always have been able to pay the internet bill: the source of my inspiration, ideas, and money blogs that taught me things that FW hadn’t. For all the crap that the internet represents, it was an amazing resource.
While we all have culpability in the choices we make, it’s far too simplistic for people to say: being poor is your choice.
And this is why SingleMa’s post on giving always resonates with me. People may not have given me money, my path may not have been smooth, but at every step of the way, while I struggled and fought for what I needed, I was given a helping hand by people who had zero obligation to do so, whether they knew they were helping me or not.