What It’s Like To Be Poor

[It’s been a day at work — clients being thrown out of their homes, their cars dying, relationships fading or ending altogether, kids being sick, the list goes on.  I write this blog often enough and it helps me, but today I want it to help THEM (you know,my clients, my poor, not always “deserving” clients). I’m tired of explaining and bickering over what they need, why they, need it, how “much” the government gives them, etc.  It’s not an esoteric or intellectual thing for my clients, and I don’t have either answers or snarky comments in this particular article — I just have a story.  It is not one person’s story, it is not based on one particular person, it’s a conglomerate of a bunch of people — hopefully honest without being melodramatic.  So here it is, … my impressions of what it’s like to be poor…]

“Once I lived the life of a millionaire\ Had lots of money\ Didn’t have no cares” — Billie Holliday

How does a person get to be poor? There are all kinds of ways. Some people were born poor and stay that way, some people get hit by tragedy and become poor, some people have ailments and illnesses, some make dumb mistakes. For some people, their own choices have led them to it. For others, other people’s choices have led to it. It usually starts with children and a breakup. A woman marries and has a couple of kids. Her husband has a girlfriend, loses a job, drinks a lot, does drugs, beats  her, has depression, went to war and now has PTSD, was sexually abused, has a “midlife crisis” or something else happens — he dies at work , for instance and she ends up single, with two or more kids.  Sometimes, the woman really is the problem. She has nagged her man to death and he’s now done had enough, so they break up.

On his salary, they can’t afford two apartments — one for him and one for her, so he keeps what he can and — if he’s a good guy — he pays what he can in child support. This leaves him little or no money to live on and her even less. If he’s not a good guy, they’re all in trouble. In any case, most likely she gets the kids because “she’s the mother” and “he’s got a job”. If she married right out of High School, the last job she had was working at McDonald’s when she was 15 or as a camp counselor or if she went to college — some sort of a work-study job at the school library.

Because his child support isn’t enough to live on — assuming she gets some — she has to go “back” to work.  “Back”, of course, assumes that she was ever there in the first place. So she looks for work, but she freaks out because she thinks, “who’s going to take care of the children?” — and she’s not the only one asking.  Her friends, her ex-, her family and the kids themselves all ask that question. Beside that, society in general seems to ask that question, because “she is, after all, the mother”.  So she doesn’t really look for work for awhile because she can’t afford child care, but she can’t afford not to work, and she’s not a good mother if she works and she can’t stand to be away from her kids and… and… the list goes on and her head spins. If she has family, they try to take her and the kids in. If her family is messed up, she doesn’t want to do that, because it’ll only cause more problems, so she’s on her own. If her family loves her and they have a connection, she moves in with them — assuming they have a place big enough for these extra kids and can handle having them there.  If not, that won’t work either.

In any case, the loss of the relationship, the loss of the money, various years wasted, all run through her brain and she gets depressed: not horribly, clinically depressed, but depressed nonetheless, because it’s a lot of loss to take in. Her ex-, dealing with whatever issues that caused him to leave the family, and missing his children, also becomes depressed.  Because of their depressions, neither of them is any fun to be around and (best case scenario) the people they are living with get sick of seeing them mope around the house, and resent taking care of them while they look for work or don’t. After awhile, even the best meaning families throw them out because it’s too much to deal with and/or they simply don’t have the means to keep it up.

He goes to work and can’t concentrate and/or pours himself into his work and/or pours himself another drink and his life slowly falls apart. If he’s lucky, he’ll meet some woman at work and they’ll get married.  If he’s not lucky, he loses his job — and with it — health insurance benefits. He already resents paying child support and he doesn’t get to see the kids, so he stops caring about them on some level.

Back at her side of the equation, she finally musters up enough courage to go against society’s expectations (in her head, anyway) and looks for a job. Welfare has kicked in and the Department of Revenue expects that her ex- is paying his child support. This puts her in a funny position. She could stay home and collect welfare and the kids could get State Medical Insurance and she wouldn’t have to find daycare or she could get a job that pays really well and pay for childcare. If she stays home, she’s a “welfare mom”, the bane of our American society, but she at least takes care of the kids. If she goes to work, she’s no longer the ideal mom and she has to spend time away from her children. And that “great job” that she’s so qualified for? She has no experience which will let her get the job, or she gets paid less than a man for a job she can’t usually get and (because she’s lucky) spends lots of time at work.  If she’s really lucky, she makes $15.00 an hour ( or $600.00 per week). After child care and taxes, she brings home about $250.00 per week or $1000.00 per month. Rent costs $700 for a crappy apartment in the old mill town these days but that’s what she’s got. After awhile, she tries to find a place but “first, last, and security” come to $2100 in a lump sum. That’s two months take home pay without eating, buying clothes, having fun every once in awhile, or anything else.  So, with any luck, it takes 6 months of working and saving to get an apartment. Note that that’s 6 months of working and saving. If either of those two fails, you’re poor for longer.

One day, while driving to-and-from work, her car breaks down. She doesn’t know how to fix it, her ex- doesn’t either (and probably wouldn’t come if asked, anyway), so she takes the car to the repair shop and the guy there charges — or wants to charge — $400.oo for all of the work that needs to be done. She can a) not get everything fix and worry about the car all the time; b) get the car fixed right and scrimp on food and stay on target for the apartment; or c) feed the kids as much as they eat and wait longer to be “movin’ on up”.   She chooses “a” and spends her time worried about the car. Her anxiety creeps out every once in awhile and she snaps at the kids, particular when Junior says he wants a pair of Jordans (sneakers) that cost $125.00 per pair, just like the hoodlum next door has.  She yells, but catches herself, apologizes and goes on, explaining that “no, it’s not fair, but that’s the way it is”.

Let’s say for the sake of the argument that Junior remains a good kid, instead of becoming a hoodlum. That’s very good, given temptation and all. If he completes High School, his grades won’t look as good as a suburbanite’s, because his school isn’t considered a quality school in the same way – it doesn’t have an arts program and orchestra, among other things.  In addition to that, Junior has to put up with comments like “I had sneakers like that, then my father got a job” as a “reward” for his acceptance of the situation.  Still, with hard work, he and his sister will get ahead, if the economy’s good and if they have talents that pay well after their done with school.

Ok, so life goes on and one of the kids gets sick.  Because the family’s on state medicaid, it’s been hard to find a primary care doctor. Instead, she takes the child to the Emergency Room for treatment, and it takes hour after hour after hour before the child gets seen. Before that, though, she’s decided to go home on-and-off three times. When they get seen, it takes an hour and she gets meds to treat the problem.  When she gets to the pharmacist, he informs her that state medicaid won’t authorize this particular prescription, so he calls the doctor back and gets another, more generic version for her child. She wonders if her child is actually getting the best medication, but she takes what she can get and the kid has to stay home from school for a few days.  She fears that work won’t give her the time off and daycare won’t take the kid. They can’t go to school, so what can she do? She calls her family or friends and hopes that they can do it. They can’t because DSS or DCF or whoever is involved in their life, so she send the kid to school sick and hopes for the best.  Sure enough, the school calls and she has to leave work in her broken car, put up with the boss’s “evil eye” and get her child.

Every once in awhile, she gets so frustrated with all of this that she goes “wild” — spending $100 on a night out or drinking until she’s drunk or buying extra toys for her children because she feels so bad she can’t get them stuff all the time, “like those other parents”. On these “binges”, she spends too much and “bounces” checks. These cost her $35.00 each plus something new — $6.95 per day until they’re paid off. Assuming this is the middle of the month, that’s another $140 she doesn’t have that’s got to come out of somewhere. If they turn down the heat some more, or she eats a little less, and nothing else happens, the fees can be gotten over.

And what if she “gives in” to the kids and gets them a computer game system (or just a computer, for that matter)?  She goes to Rent-A-Piece-of-Equipment that she saw on TV and pays “only” $50 a month for two years. That’s $1200 for a piece-of-equipment that costs $650 at the store. Is it worth it? Maybe not, but it’s what she can do.

But something does happen — it could be anything, but something happens — so the family has to absorb even more stress. If the daughter needs dental work, MassHealth or the local medicaid doesn’t cover it anymore, so the kid has to wait for a little while longer to get it fixed or go to the clinic where dental students work. She chooses to rinse her mouth with salt water three times a day to hold off until seen.

While at work, a man “hits on her”. Ok, he’s married and bit of a scumbucket, but he’d help pay the bills. They start to see each other. Then she has to break it off and work gets tenuous for awhile. His wife finds out and he moves away, so she keeps her job. At some point, she meets a friend’s friend and they start dating. Dating is a balancing act between kids, budget, work, and night school, so she can get a better job. Maybe she can manage it and maybe she can’t.  Maybe her boyfriend will work out and maybe he won’t.

This is the way life is and stays for the next five or ten years if she’s lucky –– and the system works.

But what if she isn’t lucky? What if she or one of the kids or her new boyfriend gets sick? What if there’s mental illness in the family? What if one of the kids joins a gang? What if addiction enters the family? What if the cost of things goes out sight for awhile? What if like tonight, it’s so cold that the family has to turn up the heat in their drafty place? What if it’s the summer and it’s been 105 degrees for 2 weeks? Do they turn up the electricity? What if there’s an accident of some sort and there’s no one who can work? How do they make it then?

Poverty, while not exactly illegal in this country, is seen by so many as failure — police, doctors, the system in general.  It limits choices or forces choices between difficult things on a daily basis, making life-and-death choices which can (and do) go awry easily. It’s not the worst thing someone can endure, but it robs people of all kinds of things during the course of their lifetime.  Resources, of whatever kind, leave “wiggle room” in life. Poor folks don’t have that. Do they succeed if they “make it”? Yes, but at a terrible cost if things get to be too much — families destroyed or isolated and separated.  It’s difficult at best.

That’s all I’ve got for now, but it’s something to think about.







3 thoughts on “What It’s Like To Be Poor

  1. You left out the part where she goes back to school to try to get ahead, but is told her kids are now old enough that she should be working, and she can only keep her benefits if she’s working 30 hours a week, and if there’s no job she can take, she has to “volunteer” somewhere.

    Like a community mental health center, where her anger and stress boil over, and she’s inappropriate and hostile toward other clients just like her.

    • Cathi:

      Oh, you know her too? I had a client once who was on Clinton’s welfare-to-work program and she wasn’t allowed to work more than 30 hours (making too much money!) stocking shelves at a retail place or she’s lose all her benefits. She made $7.50 per hour at the time and was losing her insurance because she worked at company who paid her too little and … gave her no health insurance. There’s a sign in Chicopee that says, every once in a while, “Why is it that a “major” tax break saves you 1% and “minor” increase costs thousands?” or something like that.

      And how do we determine “inappropriate”? I feel like Al Pacino sometimes: “I’m out of order?! You’re out of order? The whole system’s out of order!” But it’s only because of what I see. Just wanted to share the … ahem, joy … with others who don’t.

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