Zero Day Finance’s recent post Why Do We Always Blame the Poor got me thinking about the fact that, even when I was in poverty, I was never truly poor.
I don’t say this to distance myself from a scary situation, the way people do with the chronically ill. And I’m not saying this in some wistful, silver-lining/#blessed kind of BS way. (I’m a firm believer that staring at silver linings can blind you — in both senses of the word.)
No, I’m well aware that technically I was impoverished. I received $330 a month while my Social Security Disability case was pending, then $633 a month once I was approved. So I was poor, but I was poor with privilege. I had resources that so many poor people lack.
I had family support
This is the biggest factor: I had my mom. She supported me — financially and emotionally — when things imploded.
The fatigue made it difficult for me to use the bus system. The depression didn’t help. So she made sure we got apartments near each other — down the hall from each other, as it turned out — so that I had access to her car.
In fact, my having a place at all was her doing. True, I did the research and found a cheap apartment. But she paid for most of my rent while I was living on $330 a month. Once I was approved for disability, she still paid for half.
Mom also regularly bought food and treats for me. She’d save coupons for things I liked, combine them with sales, then drop them off when she got back.
Once she got her job at MSN, she lent Tim and me money so that he could get his dentures. Sure, we set up a payment plan with her, but that was a chunk of money that didn’t have to go on the credit cards. Part of her wedding present was forgiving the remainder of the loan.
Finally, Mom provided moral support and financial guidance she provided, which was invaluable to keeping me making smart money choices.
I had government support
I was on Medicaid while my Social Security case was pending. This meant no co-pays to see doctors, and my medications were very cheap.
I switched to Medicare once I was officially declared disabled. Since my income was so low, an assistance program covered my premiums and lowered my medication co-pays. I never paid more than $30 for any of my prescriptions.
The state of Washington provided a generous amount of food stamps. Thus I rarely ran out of food credit, especially with Mom taking me to various stores to get the best prices. Speaking of which…
I had grocery options
I lived within three miles of three major grocery chains and an Asian market.
Compare that to the millions of people living in food deserts. These are areas without traditional supermarkets, where neighborhood markets are the only source of groceries. These stores have few healthy options, low quality produce (assuming there’s any at all) and high prices.
Unsurprisingly, these areas tend to have a high concentration of poor people. The companies are counting on the fact that these people won’t have the transportation (or gas money/bus fare) to make to regular grocery stores. And that bet usually pays off. Residents are stuck buying from the stores’ relatively slim pickings — and paying more for the privilege.
I, on the other hand, could sit down with the local ads, picking and choosing which items to get at each grocery store. If fatigue hit too hard for me to drive, Mom was usually willing to chauffeur.
I had time
This is one of the most important resources that so many poor people lack. They’re too busy surviving to strategize anything other than how to cover all of the month’s bills. Or worse, which bills they need to skip to pay the rest.
I often had brain fog or was anxious and stressed out. Depression and fatigue made it difficult to leave the house. But since I wasn’t working, I had plenty of time to think through decisions, plan my moves, to figure out the best way to make my money last.
I had the time, if not always the energy, to go to those three different grocery stores. I had the time to look into assistance programs, to investigate all the ways I could get help.
And having all that time meant I could (and often had to) space out my actions and choices. This helped me avoid so much of the decision fatigue that is especially hard on poor people, meaning that I was able to make more carefully reasoned moves than off-the-cuff ones.
Poor in money, rich in resources
All of these factors meant that, while I was technically living in poverty, I was never in quite the same straits as the average poor person.
Don’t get me wrong, I often felt helpless in a way that poor people do: knowing that you can’t just fix your financial problems by cutting back and taking on more work.
Poverty mindset stereotype aside, most poor people live very carefully. They’ve already cut out unnecessary expenses, but it’s simply not enough. And taking on more work? They may struggle to get full-time hours at their job. Heck, they may already have a second job, but since the work they get is low-paying, it’s just not enough to surmount the bills they have.
So yes I also understood the helplessness, but I never had to experience the fear — the constant worry that poor people deal with.
See, I always knew exactly how much money I’d get each month. It didn’t change because I got sick and missed a day or because my company decided to cut employees’ hours. I never had to worry about a check being smaller than usual, and I certainly never had to worry about skipping one bill (in favor of another) and getting a utility shut off.
No, I was able to structure my life in a way that I didn’t have much, but I always had enough. Poor people have just enough, which is to say that the slightest breeze blows them off course.The smallest puff of bad luck and all those plates they’re juggling come crashing down in a deafening roar.
The steady government check (and assistance) made me more or less immune from most gusts of misfortune. Not to mention that I had something most poor people don’t: my mom.
While I didn’t want to lean on her for support — at least, more than I already did — I always knew that she’d take care of me. She would never have let me be homeless or even go without a utility for a single day. I had a safety net, which is the very vital thing that the average poor person lacks.
For all those reasons, I can’t claim to have ever been truly poor.
Have you ever been truly poor, or have you always had resources to back you up?