The Paradox of the Working Poor

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At the ripe old age of 32, I have spent nearly half my life working. This, in and of itself, is really no big deal- it’s not unusual for teenagers to get part time jobs and spend the following years working in some capacity. I don’t think my story is unique, but the amount of work and the return has compelled me to approach my financial and career situations with a certain amount of transparency- perhaps even approaching a level of outspokenness that usually would be frowned upon.

You see- I grew up poor. Now my folks make a decent living and by the standards of most, have achieved the so-called American Dream. But it wasn’t always this way. My first waking memories were housed in a double wide trailer and even years later, I remember seven of us living atop each other in a three bedroom apartment. Growing up, I didn’t know we were as poor as we were- children don’t recognize poorness in the way adults do and my parents did everything they could to keep quiet about their dire and deteriorating financial situation. By the time I was old enough to realize, things were looking up for them and I was working. I got my first job when I was fourteen. I worked seasonally for a Toys R’ Us. Though this is somewhat of a diversion from the topic at hand, it is important to note- no matter how dire things were, we were fed, bathed, and clothed, and my parents never, ever talked about money. I didn’t know about the bankruptcy, the lay offs, the credit card debt, the trouble that they were having. They only began talking about some of these things, as footnotes in conversation, within the last five years. It’s only through the assessment of my own desperate financial situation that I truly recognize how their financial history has affected my own and how if they had simply been transparent, talked about their trouble, things might look differently for me.

I graduated high school early- at 16 I set out to support myself and began working two jobs- full time at a restaurant and part time at a retail store. Over the next sixteen years, this type of grueling work has characterized much of my career. When I eventually entered college at 18, I worked part time at Target while I attended school full-time. This sort of back and forth- two jobs, one job and school, sometimes two jobs and school- is who I’ve become. I’ve always worked and I’ve always worked hard. During grad school, I worked two part time jobs in the hopes that even with the little I made, the experience in my field would land me in a better position. It hasn’t.

One of the few things my parents were vocal about is the need for a degree. “It doesn’t matter what your degree is in, so long as you have one you will be able to find a job” was the resounding encouragement I got. I’m not willing to argue the validity of that statement, but I will say that things are a lot different than they were when I started my academic career 14 years ago. In 10 years, I received four degrees- an Associates, two Bachelors, and a Masters. I went to school for what I wanted to go for- initially it was Art, Art History, and History and later Historic Preservation. In pre-2008 economic fallout times, perhaps my parents were right and it didn’t matter what your degree was in.

Unfortunately, by the time I received my Bachelors degrees in 2011 this was no longer the case. Either you had to have a degree with your career’s area of expertise or you had to have experience. Just in case you were wondering- there are very few opportunities in any art and/or history related career fields, fewer still are the opportunities that pay a livable wage. I found my opportunities were either in Education or to pursue a higher degree in my field so that I might have the opportunity to actually work in my field. In either case, it meant going back to school. After a year trying to hack it as an educator, I decided to literally go for broke and get that Master’s degree. I did my research and found that the average in the field of museum workers was roughly $60k- that’s livable. It’s not fantastic and I would never bank a six figure year, but it was doable. What I did not realize is that the average is greatly influenced by the many museum workers in large metropolitan areas where $60k is still not a livable wage. I didn’t know that there are far more volunteer positions than paid positions in this field. I just hoped that with enough hard work I would find myself in a better position.

I got my Masters in 2014 with $72k in student loan debt. Considering the number of scholarships I received and the number of degrees I earned, $72k is not bad. I was able to move into a full-time position within the small museum I worked for- a grant funded position that started at $26k. I continued to hope that with enough time, experience, and hard work, I would undoubtedly find myself in a better position. I haven’t. Within a year, I began working a second job to make it all work as I applied for other jobs. I also made yet another return to school in the hopes of hopping fields and getting into Web Development- though that is another topic for another posting. Four years later, I am making $30k and I am losing my job as our grant funding agency has decided not to renew our application. My student loan debt has grown to $86k as I’m not even able to keep up with the interest. My personal debt has grown along with it as I use credit cards as a stop gap to make ends meet and I was finally forced to replace my 20 year old car.

My position is not unique. There is a shame that comes with the burden of being poor. Perhaps it’s something that is handed down through the generations- like one of the cardinal conversations you simply don’t talk about- among politics and religion, is finances. The old adage that the poor simply need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps overlooks the many that have tried and failed. My financial failure is not from lack of trying.

The unending shame of this position is what compelled me to write this post and to be transparent and candid about my position. I connected with a classmate of mine and we would often talk about when we are done with the program and land that development job what we’ll be able to do. One day, we were having a conversation in a similar vein and I lamented that I rarely even wear makeup anymore and she flatly stated that I could look better if I chose to- there were things that I could do or buy on the cheap to make myself more presentable. She then went on to say that my choice to stop wearing make up was more likely the result of my depression. I felt so ashamed. Not only was I being shamed for being poor, but I was also being shamed for my depression. The shame associated with financial burden is overwhelming and undoubtedly contributes to my depression — financial problems are often associated with suicide. But this wasn’t about my depression.

You see- I believe she is right in that looking good on the cheap isn’t impossible but I’ve come to carefully calculate every expenditure I have to make. I’ve existed on a deficit for quite some time and for anything outside of the regular budget- i.e. rent, utilities, food- I have to take extreme care and budget for or simply put it on a credit card and hope for better days to come. Certainly, I am well aware that if it falls to my credit cards, I will be paying interest which I cannot afford. If I need underwear or socks, unbelievably, I have to budget for those items. Cosmetics aren’t cheap and I can’t recall buying any cosmetics in the last two to three years. Nearly 80% of the clothes I wear were either given to me or purchased at Target on sale. Certainly, I experience depression but my choice and reluctance to invest in my appearance was one of intentionality — I am of the class of people that considers make up and nice clothing something for special occasions only.

Bigger still are the impacts this has on my personal life. I am frequently walking a tight rope to figure out some way to save a little more money and there’s not a day that goes by without me checking the balance of my bank account or a week without a financial nightmare. I cannot marry my boyfriend of more than four years because accounting for his income would place me in a position where my income driven repayment plan for my student loans would exceed what I am actually able to afford. This also overlooks how often he helps and fills the gaps for my financial burden and the overwhelming feeling that he could find someone better off that could match his contributions.

I always feel like I’m begging- I recently had to have surgery and had to navigate finding a provider that would work with me so that I could pay my $1,400 deductible in installments. Worse still is that I know that there are things that I need that could help me save money in the long term that I simply cannot afford- right now some of those things are occlusal guards at $500 as I grind my teeth in my sleep and they are cracking and custom orthotics at $475 that could help me to prevent or prolong the need for surgery on my very troubled feet. Considering socks and underwear are out of my reach, it’s not hard to see how these things are as well.

Although I am not technically in poverty, I exist in what the United Way has deemed as Alice Hardship- a demographic acronym for Asset Limited Income Constrained Employee. I’m above poverty level but I don’t make ends meet. It should be noted that Alice doesn’t account for things student loans and their projections for housing and groceries are hardly sufficient for the state of Connecticut. I may not be in poverty but I’m not far off.

The ways in which the poor are disadvantaged is great and there are many systems in place to ensure that the poor continue to be poor. Recently, I had the grim opportunity to pay federal taxes- the amount I owed was out of my means but in order to get an installment plan, the government was going to charge me almost 1/3 of what I owed simply for the installment plan. Of course, the money had to be borrowed in the hopes that I could navigate payment without additional cost. This is only one illustration- add to it penalties that are almost exclusively levied on the poor like late fees, over draft fees, credit scoring and variable interest rates- it’s no wonder that I’m not the only one experiencing this and wondering how exactly to better pull my own bootstraps. Again, there is more than enough material on that topic for another posting.

Although this has been strictly concerned with my own experience, I write in the hopes that putting a scrutinizing lens on my own situation will help. I spent more time than should have been warranted questioning myself, my finances, and my circumstances simply because a thoughtless comment made me feel so ashamed. My own poorness is consistently degrading and no judgment is necessary. Despite the fact that this is the worst its ever been and despite the fact that no matter how hard I try it seems to get worse every year, I continue to remain hopeful, hardworking, and headstrong. I am not the only one trying to navigate the paradox of being among the working poor. We are your friends, neighbors, your coworkers, and your teachers.

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