Living on the edge is exhausting and expensive. It’s also lonely and stigmatized and those of us who reside there are expected to quietly work ourselves to the bone without making eye contact so as not to inconvenience anyone. We are to shuffle along – at best a cautionary tale for the middle class and the rich, at worst a punch line for ideologically thrifty politicians and anyone needing self-esteem through comparison.
As long as the poor remain too overworked and sick to speak up, the emphasis in our political and social cultures will continue to focus on everything and everyone except the chronically disadvantaged. The poor don’t carry much political capital in this era of Citizens United – if we ever did. Despite being a substantial constituency – typically 14.5 percent of Americans are food insecure, according to the US Department of Agriculture – we lack the time and resources to organize and are often unaware that we are part of such a large group.
We must demand to be heard and those who are not on the edge must stop erasing us; we can’t advocate for our needs as long as we remain invisible.
With presidential campaigning underway a full year and a half before Election Day 2016, catering to the fabled “middle class” is back in fashion with hardly a sideways glance at those who are an unpaid sick day or bank fee away from disaster. Unless you’re a Republican official like Missouri state legislator Rick Brattin, who’s pushing for restrictions to prevent those of us utilizing the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) from purchasing “filet mignons and crab legs,” the poor aren’t garnering so much as a mention. Even acclaimed populist Bernie Sanders spends his time attacking Wall Street and decrying “the 40-year decline of our middle class and the growing gap between the very rich and everyone else.”
I guess I’m part of “everyone else.”
I’m poor. Really, honestly, actually poor.
Except, I’m not. I am all too aware every single day that I’m not simply going through a rough patch or in between jobs or dipping into my emergency savings. I’m poor. Really, honestly, actually poor. And I don’t rate a mention in a stump speech because it’s uncomfortable for the speaker to talk about me as though I’m a human being.
When you can’t level with the majority of your friends and family because making them uneasy will make all of your lives harder, how can you expect a wealthy stranger running for political office to consider your needs? I already groan at the knowledge that reading this likely means some people will cease asking me to meet up or fidget uncomfortably when we get the check and I pay my half.
Poor people are no fun to be around, let alone position squarely at the center of a campaign platform.
Then there’s the middle class. Everyone loves the middle class – whoever they are. If you ask a poor person, the middle class is anyone who can supersize at will and buy the 18-pack of eggs instead of the 12-pack without analyzing the effect that decision will have on the rest of their shopping trip. I triple-check my EBT card balance at the end of the month to see what’s left of my allotted $140 before using it to prevent embarrassment. I retain this habit even though the cashiers in the stores I frequent have been nothing but courteous – or at least unaware – since I received it in January. I know I’m not the only one who expends time and energy in a similar fashion.
Before I go to the doctor, I double-check my bank account to make sure my $3 co-pay is covered.
Before I go to the doctor, I double-check my bank account to make sure my $3 co-pay is covered, even though I’m lucky enough to live in an area with a really great credit union I only needed a local ZIP code to qualify for. That was a relief when I arrived in California with my last $40 in my pocket and no way to deposit or cash anything through my bank back in New York City. I’d tried to open a checking account before I moved, but my credit score isn’t high enough any more.
If you didn’t know you had checking account privilege, you’re not alone! I hadn’t realized it either. My credit score had dropped gradually, as often happens, due to maxing out my cards over three years of underemployment. The panic I felt knowing I’d pay hefty fees at a check-cashing store was exacerbating my untreated anxiety disorder. Walking into the closest establishment so I could cash my last remaining check and not have to wait for it to clear should the credit union approve my new account, I discovered you can’t cash just any check. They hadn’t heard of the group that had contracted me and couldn’t reach anyone by phone. I left with the check and a spike in my blood pressure.
Who knew there was check-cashing store privilege?
I am grateful every day that I have a resource like my credit union; I’d looked for one since the big push to “move your money” in 2011. Nothing in Chicago, Washington, DC, or New York City. The union-owned bank with high fees, no leeway and no mobile deposit was the best I could do in New York City. And that move nearly ruined me just 18 months later. Actions like “move your money” are often privileged even if they are well intentioned. They typically aren’t put together by the long-time disadvantaged who would know what pitfalls to avoid. Yes, even activist and organizing circles are highly privileged and edge out the voices of the poor who can’t get access to planning meetings.
Even with my fantastic bank, which has really reasonable fees – they don’t charge overdrafts unless you abuse the grace period – I still got stuck in the bane of many a poor person’s existence: the fee cycle. It happened because I absolutely abused the grace period. When a dental emergency landed me an almost $400 a month bill that will follow me the rest of this year, I started on the merry-go-round and couldn’t get off. Thanks to my brother, I managed to stop the ride and cease watching $50 to $70 vanish every month.
Not everyone has my bank or my brother.
As frugal as I’ve learned to be out of necessity (there were years in my 20s when I grocery shopped at the dollar store), I never manage to catch up. For a long time, it was a joke among my friends. If I landed an extra shift or gig, my car would sense it and require a repair for almost the exact sum I’d brought in.
Cash flow is a bit tighter now, so the scenario has morphed into a not-so-funny reality. Just when I think I’ve made a little extra to put toward a financial goal like finally having the money to file bankruptcy, I remember I need shampoo. And prescriptions. And contact solution. And DayQuil, because working all night a couple times a week isn’t the best way to stay healthy. That $33 is quickly followed by light bulbs and allergy medicine, then laundry detergent and dish soap. Before I’ve been able to dream about filing and finally being at “scratch,” I’ve spent the entire $75 check I had hoped to put aside.
Yes, I did actually say I have to raise the money to file bankruptcy. The national average to file with a lawyer who is just competent enough to keep you out of legal trouble for checking a box incorrectly is $1,500. In New York, it was going to cost me twice that, so I’m getting a bargain in California even though I lost my deposit when I couldn’t file before moving across the country.
I’ve also dealt with undiagnosed medical conditions and disability-level ADHD that my new doctor describes as a “10 out of 10.” It was almost a relief to hear her say, “I don’t know how you’ve been functioning up to this point.” Easy answer? Poorly.
Poor people have an almost constant cost-benefit analysis happening internally as they go about their day.
I’m certainly not alone on the almost appallingly thrifty grocery trips, the jaw-clenching disbelief at the price of shampoo and deodorant, or the untreated medical condition that makes “regular” jobs in cubicles or retail outlets a panicky situation or simply not feasible. The never-ending list of decisions like weighing which bathroom cleanser size or what roll count of the on-sale toilet paper to budget for that the average poor person has to weigh every day would completely overwhelm anyone who has lived their life above the poverty line. Poor people have an almost constant cost-benefit analysis happening internally as they go about their day – another contributor to inescapable exhaustion and stress.
And the stress is compounding. We struggle and save and skip medically necessary vacations and sick days; we forgo the newer car that would save us money in the long run because we can’t put the money down up front. We go without lunch when we have to meet a friend for a drink or coffee and then smile when that friend asks how we are.
We can’t talk about how we are because those around us join in as though they can totally relate to what we’re saying even on a surface level. We listen to friends and relatives say things like “I am so broke until pay day!” and complain that the price of their favorite daily Chipotle indulgence went up. We hear people sigh as they scale back the size of their vacation or pick a cheaper destination. We hear all those things in the breath before they tell us about the great deal they got on a new flat screen TV and their plans to go to the baseball game on Sunday.
We hear you use the word “broke” and know that there are no words left for us and so we remain silent.
If we can’t even describe our circumstances because the not-quite-as-well-off-as-they-want-to-be crowd has hijacked and softened the most accurate words, how are we supposed to convey the immediacy of our needs? Broke means “not having any money.” It doesn’t mean “not holding any money in your hand, but having some at home” or “spent the last of your disposable income and are now choosing not to spend any more money.” It also doesn’t mean “I can’t purchase X, Y, Z if I want to stay on my long-term plan.”
If you’ve ever used the word “broke” without actually having zero dollars – or less than zero with pending transactions and likely overdraft fees – you are fueling the erasure that allows conservative politicians and talking heads to downplay the effects of poverty and the necessity of the social programs that keep people alive and out of squalor. Using “broke” flippantly diminishes real-life experiences and plays into the trope that people may be down on their luck, but they’re probably fine and we shouldn’t worry too much about them.
The truth is you probably aren’t broke. The 69-year-old who can’t physically continue working the last year before qualifying for Social Security at age 70 under the conservative House Republican budget is likely to be, though. And those 12 million people slated to be bumped off the food stamp rolls through a full $8.7 billion cut to SNAP could become the very embodiment of broke just trying to buy bread and cheese.
Poor people need different things than the middle class. Advocating for both simultaneously isn’t impossible; pathways to higher education, for example, are so expensive that making college more accessible would help both groups. Rebuilding our infrastructure and making clean energy more practical and widespread helps both in the long run as well.
The poor, however, need immediate assistance in the form of life-sustaining necessities like shelter, food and medical care. While the middle class can consider which candidate has the best plan for keeping Social Security solvent or the best green energy proposal to keep the planet habitable in 100 years, we need basic services right now to fill the gaps to put a basic level of wellness and stability within reach.
As long as we’re seen as the group tagging along right behind the middle class, the poor will continue expending all available energy just to stay alive with nothing left to change our circumstances. We are human beings living in the richest country on the planet; resources are plentiful enough that none of us should be hungry or sick.
It’s time we faced down stigma by acknowledging our reality and challenging those around us, as well as our politicians, to see us as more than our country’s dirty little secret.