No, My Poverty Isn’t “Voluntary”

Recently, I wrote an essay about how living in affordable housing has allowed me to stay in the Boston area. Originally, I pitched this as a feature article about how escalating rents are pushing lower and more modest income people out of cities, particularly those in the creative class (but also teachers, social workers and nonprofit sector employees). I was asked to make this a personal essay, with some reporting thrown in. I complied, though my original intent was to be vague about certain details of my situation, since the internet is a notoriously dangerous place to offer specifics, especially for women.

While I am mostly happy with the essay as it appeared, I had concerns with the things I couldn’t explain or elaborate on there. This was either due to constraints in word count or because it would digress too much from the focus of the essay. However, it should be noted a few edits reworded things in ways that led to false impressions about me and my situation. Namely, the term “voluntary poverty” was edited in for brevity. It was not a term I used or would have readily agreed to using to describe my situation, but found its way in there in the final stages of editing and I overlooked it. That term was then zeroed in on and made part of the headline without prior knowledge, which is typical of the industry (Note: journalists and writers very rarely get to choose or have any input on the headlines of their pieces). My hope was the readership would understand how it was being used in the context of the larger piece and fill in the gaps I couldn’t. But it seems many people didn’t get it, and reading it over, I could understand why. I feel like only those who might have more personal or direct experience with what I was trying to explain would have understood (and maybe not even then).

So, to clarify: no my [relative] poverty is not voluntary. Not at all. What I was talking about was a double-edged sword where attempting financial mobility can actually wind up making you poorer than you already are, due to the nature of the system and costs with that system being too high to make the leap and bridge the gaps. You can’t climb a ladder when the rungs in the middle are missing, especially if you are missing a leg yourself. This means if there’s no middle, sometimes it’s safer to stay on the ground rather than attempt an acrobatic feat that even trained athletes take years to master. So, you choose to stay on the ground. It isn’t so much a “choice” as a default.

Let me stop speaking in metaphors and put it more plainly:

As outlined in my essay, Boston is becoming hellishly expensive, so much so that even all the press around here is proclaiming you need to be wealthy to live here. I am not wealthy. Barring a miracle or becoming a bestselling author, I will never be wealthy. But I have friends here who work full-time making close to six-figure incomes and even they are feeling economically insecure and those of them with families and/or debt are struggling, in some cases as much as I am. So if this is how it feels even if you are theoretically making a high income, imagine the choices for those of us much lower on the economic ladder.

If I lost my apartment here, I wouldn’t be able to find another I could afford. I would have to move (which I also couldn’t afford, because moving is pretty expensive), so the job I didn’t keep I wouldn’t have been able to keep very long anyway. Keeping the job would not have only meant losing it shortly after, but losing everything else. And, the job in question I referred to in this essay was a 4-month temp to “possible” perm. Risking my home and health for a position that even from the get-go wasn’t offering me long-term security didn’t seem a smart idea.

Another point: though keeping my affordable housing was one of the primary concerns that motivated my decision to quit, it wasn’t the sole one, or even the most influential. My biggest concern at the time was health insurance. I would have lost my very low-cost, state-subsidized health insurance and been forced to take the insurance offered by the temp agency (not the place I was actually working for), which offered only the bare minimum of coverage and even by the recruiter’s own words “is terrible.” As I referred to in my essay, I have several health issues that require routine and extended health care. I need good health insurance that covers extensive and frequent care, including medications, procedures and supplemental services. In the year since this happened, my health has taken a turn for the worse. In fact, right now I have a scheduled hip surgery that will leave me fairly incapacitated (on crutches) for a month and am planning two other surgeries — including a spinal and abdominal to relieve nerve dysfunction — that will heavily restrict how many hours I can work, when, how, etc.

None of this is by choice. None of it is “voluntary.”

I didn’t ask for these health issues and I hate having them, but they’re mine and I need to address them as well as possible to try to protect my health and maybe even get better. This is another thing that drives me crazy about this country: that we expect people to do better before they can even get better and deprive them of the avenues to achieve that. We shame them for “failing” to pull themselves up by the bootstraps even if they can’t afford the boots.

Let me lay out the math: the job I was offered in my essay that I quit would have brought my income up to only $2,400 above the YEARLY threshold requirements for where I live (I would have made only $2,400 more a year than I was supposed to be making BEFORE TAXES). This would mean I would lose my $1,014/mo apartment (which also includes heat, no small thing living in New England, where gas prices can run hundreds over the winter). The low end of a comparable 1BR in Arlington or anywhere near it is $1,500 and many units do not include heat in the rent (many of the surrounding areas are MORE and when you get further out, yes, it can get cheaper, but then you need a car to get around — another expense. Right now, I live within a few blocks to everything I could possibly need and my building is right on a major bus line. How would I get to said job if I had to move so far out I couldn’t take it?). So, that’s $6,000 more in rent alone I’d be paying annually — assuming I even found an apartment on the cheaper end in the area. Not to mention, I might have to pay heat (add at least another $200-$500 for the winter). Also, here in Boston, you are expected to put down first month’s rent and a security deposit (which is often the same price as a month of rent) and sometimes even last month’s rent as well. Not only that, the majority of apartments for rent in the area you have to go through a broker to get, who charge a fee that is usually equivalent to a half or full month of rent. This means to move I’d likely have to pay a MINIMUM of $4,500 dollars, but probably more like $5,000 to $7,000-JUST to put down on a place. I don’t have access to that kind of money, so how would that have worked?

Then there’s also the cost of moving (since I can’t move my stuff with my health issues, I’d have to probably hire help and rent a truck) and other fees that come with renting — credit check, key fee, garage fee. Again, the job offered me $2,400 above the income ceiling and taking it would have cost me at least double to triple that in moving and renting costs ALONE. Because that doesn’t even count the other costs I would have had to shoulder to keep it. My health insurance costs would have went up $5,000 to as much as $10,000 a year, when factoring in not only the premium, deductible and co-pays, but the out-of-pocket expenses for all that wouldn’t be covered by it that I still needed just to maintain a minimum standard of functionality. I don’t have that kind of money at all and this job surely wasn’t making up the difference. Then, my student loan payments would go up to over $200 per month, leading to $2,000+ year in SLD payments. So, to take a job that would have offered me a so-called boost of $2,400 annually, my costs in living would have increased at least of $12,000 to as much as $20,000+. That’s insanity. Even if I asked for a pay cut or hour-cut to make the difference to be able to stay in affordable housing, the increases medical expenses and student loan debt alone would have still increased exponentially in ways I couldn’t afford and would threaten my ability to make rent.

The reason I know this math is because I sat down and crunched the numbers. Again and again. I looked up Craig’s list at apartment prices. I ran the numbers for the health insurance package I’d have to take and what I’d have to pay and about how much for what wasn’t covered. I went onto the Direct Loan website and put in my new monthly salary for the IBR calculator. I have pages in a notebook of these numbers still somewhere in a drawer. I called a couple of my friends and cried hysterically about my limited choices (my hysterics were even more because the job was a bad fit for my skills and relied on a program I didn’t understand and was offered no training). This wasn’t a light decision. But people in my financial situation rarely make decisions lightly because everything has a trickle down effect that become an avalanche that can lead to worse destitution. Specifically, homelessness.

I know people took issue with me wanting to stay in Arlington. And perhaps this is again something only those who have been in my situation can understand. Anyone who cares to know more about me can Google me to get a sense of my childhood and family circumstances, but suffice it to say I don’t have much in the way of family and home has always been a slippery thing for me. I’ve not had an easy go of it, despite what people want to guess from a 1,200 word article. For the first time in my life, I feel comfortable, I feel safe, and I have roots. This is invaluable to my health and my survival. Case in point: I am having surgeries this fall that will leave me on crutches while living on the top floor of the 3rd story building for more than a month. I wouldn’t trust being this vulnerable anywhere else. I have friends I trust will help me. I didn’t have that elsewhere, even in my own family. They’ll check my mail, and do my laundry and take out the trash and help me with meals. I’ve been on my own since I was 17 and I am not used to or comfortable relying on others. But sometimes we need others and I actually have people I can trust and since I know how rare that is, I am not going to give that up. Other things I have here in Arlington: safety, green spaces, clean air, aesthetic charm, are also NOT things I had much of at all growing up, which is why I appreciate it now and want to safeguard it. All people are entitled and should have access to a livable/walkable and safe community, regardless of income. As someone who grew up in a high crime, high pollution inner city neighborhood, I know the importance of where you live to shaping your outlook on life. It makes a big difference. And our country divides us through redlining to make us hate or blame each other rather than see who’s behind the curtain calling the shots and consolidating power. I’m not the enemy or part of the problem, my situation is a symptom of a systemic issue.

So, no my poverty isn’t voluntary and despite the picture presented with my article I am not a young cis male hipster wearing a fedora and sighing on the stoop (writers rarely pick the pictures for our articles either). I am an-almost middle aged woman who has always been poor and is disabled and just trying to make the best decisions with the hand I’ve been dealt to make ends meet. It’s not my fault that the math doesn’t add up. It’s the system’s. And if you believe it’s me, you’re drinking their kool-aid.


Post-script: One final note about my apartment: I live in one of the “modest income” units (even though currently, with the escalation of my health issues and its impacts on time I can work, I am making much less than I did when I was moved in here). My apartment cannot go to someone poorer than I am as those units are earmarked specifically by Section 8 guidelines (and I am not Section 8, though the majority of my neighbors do have it and live in units authorized as Sect 8 units).