As this excruciating 2016 election cycle rolls on, I’ve been hearing loads and loads about each candidate’s “solution for poverty.” Generally by people who’ve never been poor.
Poverty remains one of the least talked about problems in America, and for good reason: It’s a horrible thing to admit when you’re living in a land of supposed excess.
The American Dream, ostensibly, is homeownership, supporting a family, affording general luxuries, and having a job. So when you’re unable to hold any one of these things, a certain shame is attached to it—a feeling of complete failure and detachment from the world at large.
Other people have stuff. You don’t. It blows, and it feels like you can’t escape.
How do I know about this? Because for three years, between 2009 to 2011, I lived below the poverty line. It was a brutal experience, and the costs are so much higher than you can imagine. Let’s get into it.
Poverty is a VERY difficult cycle to break
I was your run-of-the-mill middle-class office worker between 2005 (when I entered the white collar workforce) until 2009, when I lost my job due to the “Great Recession.” I had a relatively decent amount of savings, but as you can imagine, it was quickly depleted. I had a difficult time finding work (like so many others), and simply ran out of money.
I was living with a long-term girlfriend at the time, and she was making a very small salary as an administrative assistant. The only reasons, in my estimation, that I was able to get out of poverty at all were:
- Having a college degree.
- Having grown up in a world devoid of poor people.
- Being white.
When you aren’t born into poverty, you have certain advantages that can bail you out, namely a network of people who AREN’T poor who can eventually throw you a rope (even if it takes a while).
In general, chronically poor people don’t have that. Their world is poor, and virtually no one makes it out.
Oh yeah. You didn’t know that? Despite all the grand ideas we have that poor people can just simply stop being poor if they really feel like it, they don’t.
In fact, the rate of “working poor” is on the rise, and for a few years, that’s where I was trapped.
What’s it like to live in poverty?
As I said before, brutal.
The easiest way to described poverty is this: Your needs far outweigh your means, and there are no means anywhere in sight.
And not needs like “I need a new iPhone.” It’s more like, “I have one pair of pants and it’s developing a hole—and I just don’t have 40 bucks to replace them.”
When I was at my worst, I was making 8.50 an hour at a book store in New York City (which is a punishing place to live on so little money). Let’s tell this story in numbers, because they can paint a much clearer picture:
8.50 an hour, after taxes, is 6.38. Multiply that by eight hours (if you’re lucky to have an 8 hour shift), is 51 bucks a day. If by some miracle you work five days a week, your net pay is 255—a week.
So in a month you make 1,105. In a year that’s 13,260 (and that’s 40 hours per week of your time just to even get THAT much. Try adding a second—or third—job on top of that).
This is where the fun begins.
Want to get to work? That’s 116.50 a month just to fucking show up to your job (unlimited MetroCard). So basically, you have to work 30 minutes a day just to pay for your commute.
Want to have lunch? That’ll run you a minimum of 5–6 bucks, meaning you need to work one hour just to have a meal during your shift.
And this is only the tip of the iceberg.
So after commuting, you have 988.50 for ALL of your bills. In my case, I was half on the hook for a 1,700 per month apartment, meaning 850 of that measly 988.50 was automatically gone, leaving me 138.50 for EVERY OTHER EXPENSE I HAD.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that this isn’t sustainable. In order to pay your bills you need more money. To get more money you dip into credit. Credit you can’t repay. Your debt becomes a new bill, which you already don’t have the means to cover.
Essentially, you’re fucked.
Welcome to the world of the working poor.
So what does it feel like to be poor?
In a word, it’s demoralizing. Imagine a world where this is your everyday reality:
- You can’t afford ANYTHING.
- Debt is inevitable.
- Debt is inescapable.
- No one wants to hire your under-employed (or unemployed) ass.
- You live on the razor’s edge. Everyday.
- You have bank accounts in the tens of dollars.
- All setbacks are incredibly punitive.
- You’re penalized by all institutions (bank fees for low balances, etc).
- You have to make decisions about whether or not you’ll have healthcare.
- You suffer a mental cost from thinking about money all the time.
- You fight with your significant other all the time about cash.
- You feel left out (friends can go out, you can’t).
- You can’t save anything.
- You live in a float (you need future checks to cover current expenses).
- You live with broken things you can’t replace.
- You live with a general feeling of being trapped.
This is the hardcore truth about poverty. Being poor costs so much more than money. You make withdrawals from your sanity, your pride, and all the energy you have yields so little a return.
So what are a few things that can help?
That’s a lot to tackle in one article, but there are a number of things that I’d like to see happen.
Stop stigmatizing public assistance
Considering how much fucking food we waste in the United States, let’s stop defunding Food Stamps and similar programs. There is absolutely no reason ONE person in this country should go hungry for even five minutes with the gigantic food supply we have. It’s unconscionable.
Keep socializing medicine
Yay America for being ranked 37th in global healthcare. A country of such wealth should have the most well-funded and sensible healthcare system available to anyone who wants it. There’s no real reason anyone in the U.S. should be buried in medical costs.
Raise the minimum wage
Companies cry, “We’ll go out of business if we have to pay our workers more!”
Then go out of fucking business. Appropriately compensated employees are the lifeblood of the economy. You get more money in the hands of workers, they’ll spend it. Deprive them of money, and guess what. NO MONEY IS SPENT AND EVERYONE SUFFERS.
Rationalize campaign finance
When it costs one billion dollars to become the President of the United States, you know you’re screwed. But that’s not even the real problem. It costs millions to become senator or congressperson, too. This money has to come from somewhere, and it usually comes from wealthy donors who have no stake in curbing poverty.
Stop the financial influence, and you might be able to have a real conversation about poverty.
Realize that the cheap shit you buy has real costs
Walmart. Target. Amazon. All those low low low low prices. How do they do it? Oh right. By not paying their workers a living wage (for Amazon, I’m talking about factory workers, who make 13% on average less than the national average.)
I’m not saying these stores are completely evil, but we’re paying a price for their cheap products. Spend your money where workers DO make a living wage (Costco, for instance, is one of the fairest companies around). Reward places that are part of the solution.
Reform credit card companies
When you’re poor, you arguably need credit the most. That’s why it’s downright punitive when companies charge an APR anywhere between 14 and 23 percent. But that doesn’t even really spell it all out. This article from About.com gives a better explanation, which I’ll quote:
With credit cards, APR tells you what interest rate you pay, but it doesn’t include the effects of compounding – so in reality you probably pay more than the APR.
If you only make small payments on your credit card, you’ll start paying interest not only on the money you borrowed, but you’ll also pay interest on the interest that was previously charged to you. This compounding effect can raise your cost of borrowing higher than you might think.
This sucks if you make a decent living, but is absolutely crippling to poor people. Essentially, you start to work for the credit card company. That 100 bucks in credit ends up costing you more than what you borrowed in the first place. The Credit CARD Act of 2009 helps a little, but there are enough loopholes to drive a truck through.
Poverty is a real problem in the United States, and it effects everyone. Poor people aren’t just folks in the bad part of town. They’re you and me, and we’re everywhere.
I managed to escape poverty, but I’m lucky. And I know it. Many people don’t. Before you turn your nose at people in Section 8, people in meaningless, low-wage jobs, or people who don’t have the nice things you have, think of how they got there—and what keeps them there.
While it doesn’t seem possible, the next poor person could be you, or someone you care about.