On Being Poor: I’ve Been Up and I’ve Been Down, and Up is Way Better Than Down

Photo by Jonathan Brinkhorst on Unsplash

The Heritage Foundation is very concerned about the money the country spends on the poor in America. According to them, people in poverty are not that poor after all. They claim that “poor” people have untold luxuries such as air conditioning and microwaves and televisions and computers and cable tv. They claim poor people and their children are not really hungry and have plenty to eat. Of course, eating from the dollar menu at fast food restaurants because it is cheap may fill you up, but that’s not the same as having healthy food. I tried to find out more about the study that the Heritage Foundation uses to justify their claims that the poor are eating steak and shrimp and sides of beef, but I could not determine how they got their evidence or whether it was accurate or whether they are interpreting it to fit their agenda.

The Heritage Foundation blames the poor for their poverty. People who are not poor often look down on those in poverty. They believe the poor must be doing something wrong or they would not be poor. They say the poor are too lazy to work hard enough to be successful or too stupid to know how to handle their money. To claim the poor are lazy ignores the fact that the vast majority of the poor are the working poor. They work as hard as the next person, but they get paid far, far less than those with better educations, skills, and connections. The privileged think the poor waste their money on unnecessary luxuries and then can’t pay their rent or their electric bill. They believe that if the poor lived right, then God would bless them and then they wouldn’t have to face homelessness after being laid off from their job. Of course, the wealthy are not expected to count their pennies; they are free to buy gold-plated sinks and million-dollar yachts. They may have been born into wealth, and believe they are superior to those born into poverty. They do not respect the difficulties of poverty. It is also true that they may have moved up several levels of the economic scale through sheer effort and hard work, but that doesn’t mean that the poor are shirking their duties.

I know poor people today who definitely do not have the luxuries the Foundation claims they have. The Foundation admits that many of the poor can become homeless at any time by missing a paycheck or losing a job, but to hear their version of the situation, you would believe the poor are financially well off and shouldn’t complain. They do not mention the lack of healthcare or unexpected expenses such as car repairs or house repairs for those who own a home.

How much must the poor suffer to satisfy The Heritage Foundation? Must they live without air conditioning and go hungry often to satisfy the Foundation’s definition of poverty? I admit that poverty in America is not as severe as poverty in developing nations, but the Heritage Foundation would have you believe that people in poverty are stealing the bread from your children’s mouths by receiving help from the government.

Poverty is a lot uglier than The Heritage Foundation makes it sound.

The system is in some ways rigged against the poor. If you can’t afford to pay your car insurance, then getting a $250+ fine is not going to make it possible to go out and buy insurance when you already didn’t have the money. Non-poor people are in no danger of getting this kind of fine. When your car breaks down and you don’t have the money to fix it, but without it, you are going to lose your job and your car, you push off some other bill that will continue to hang over you. Non-poor people do not face this situation because: a) they are probably driving a newer car that is under warranty and less likely to break down, or b) your car is already paid for and you can afford the repairs. A simple traffic ticket will not throw a wealthy person into deeper poverty like it may one of the working poor. It cannot be assumed that the poor are always poorly educated either. There are thousands of PhDs who are working as adjuncts with irregular employment at half or less than what full-time professors make. Universities and colleges hire far more part-time professors than full-time professors.

I know what it’s like to be poor. I have experienced poverty. Years ago, when my husband was in the Marines, I knew what it was like to stretch a dollar as far as it would go and still not be able to cover all the expenses. When he was discharged from the Marines, we moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee where he went to Bible College. After he finished college, we moved to England as missionaries and started a church. During this period of my life, we never had enough money for luxuries; we didn’t even have enough money for necessities. We did without.

For us, poverty meant not having a car and having to depend on other people for rides or walking (we lived miles from the base in a mobile home park on the side of a highway). Being as poor as we were meant not having a tv or a radio or any other appliance. It meant that my daughter did not have a baby bed until she was 6 months old when my father-in-law shipped one to us. It meant using cloth diapers because we could not afford Pampers. It meant not having a stroller and having to carry a baby with me to a convenience store and trying to hold onto the baby in one arm and carrying home bags of groceries in the other as I walked home.

It meant eating macaroni and cheese (made with government cheese), potato soup, or baked beans and splurging by eating hot dogs on Sunday. It meant running out of money before we ran out of month. It meant not having any baby clothes at all until someone with six children of their own gave me a bag of baby clothes the day I came home from the hospital with my third child.

When we did get a car and were away from home, we couldn’t afford to eat fast food so we bought a loaf of white bread and baloney and made sandwiches. On a trip back home, we slept in the car one night and another night we slept at the Salvation Army because our car broke down and the mechanics we took it to chipped in enough money to buy us a new alternator.

It meant not being able to go to the doctor because we didn’t have insurance or money. My third child was born at the county hospital. Often we did not have enough money to buy medicine, or if we could buy over-the-counter medicine, we had to cut the dose in half to make it last longer.

Being poor meant always having to tell your child no when they wanted a toy or a certain kind of cereal. It meant my husband had to put cardboard in his shoes because there were holes in the soles and we could not afford to buy him a new pair. It meant he had only one pair of pants he could wear to college after someone stole the second pair out of the dryer at the laundromat. It meant making clothes from old curtains for me and my daughter because we could not afford to buy anything new.

Our families did help us out from time to time, but most of the time, we did not let them know just how dire our straits were. We wanted to make it on our own. The lack of a car and the cost of daycare meant I could not work to increase our income. My husband worked as a janitor at a high school and later at an elementary school. He also attended the Bible College on the GI Bill. From this income, we were able to pay rent and buy food and nothing else.

We couldn’t pawn anything because we didn’t own anything pawnable. The only possessions we had were our clothes and dishes. Our negligible income meant living in a rundown part of town. It meant when a burglar broke in, he couldn’t find anything to steal. In fact, I’m surprised he didn’t leave us a sympathy card. It meant not being able to move when the pipes in the upstairs apartment flooded and the landlord turned off the water. I was almost 9 months pregnant, and, with two toddlers in tow, had to carry my dishes to a neighbor’s house to wash them. We had to do without water for two weeks until my husband got paid so we could afford to move into government subsidized housing.

Photo by Jack Harner on Unsplash

Now, years later, I have enough to pay my bills, purchase things that are unnecessary or even a luxury, and put back money for savings in case of emergencies. For a while, my present husband and I lived in an upscale house in a great neighborhood, but the stock market crash under George Bush decimated our finances.

After years of living above the poverty line, I can say that being able to pay our bills and have money left over to save and to purchase some unnecessary luxuries, that this kind of life is far, far better than being poor like I was before. We are thrifty and we save money against the possibility of a job loss or illness. We eat what we like, we have cars and televisions and other nice things. Yet we don’t work harder than we did before we had all those things.

The belief that the poor aren’t trying to improve their situations is not the case for most. Those who are disabled and cannot work are not poor because they are lazy or because they waste their money. They are poor because they don’t have enough money and cannot earn enough money. Minimum wage is not enough money to live on and it has not been raised for ten years; while the minimum wage has not risen, the cost of everything else has.

The poor person knows that it is very hard to pull yourself up by the bootstraps when you can’t afford to buy a pair of boots.

The next time you encounter the poor, try to remember that they are not as privileged as you might have been, that they usually work very hard for the money they earn, that having a microwave or air conditioning doesn’t mean they are mooching off the government, and that The Heritage Foundation just might be biased in their beliefs and the information they spread about the poor.