When The Poor Get Taken Advantage Of By Friends And Family
She’d been like my big sister for years. Neither of us had immediate family for similar reasons, and we’d become each other’s family almost instantly.
So when I lost three contracts in a few short weeks and suddenly couldn’t pay rent or eat, I didn’t look for ulterior motives or downsides to her life-saving offer: “I have a room and could use a hand with the kids.” Using some airline miles, I booked a one-way ticket from New York to San Diego for the following month, September 2014; shipped necessities at FedEx; and moved the few things I owned that I might need if I moved back into my storage unit. After luggage fees, I landed in Southern California with less than $20 in my pocket.
I couldn’t possibly have anticipated that six months later I would be working an 80-hour, unpaid live-in nanny shift for her every week — sometimes with only one day off in between. My situation had become more desperate, rather than less. When you care for two children under the age of 2 from 10 a.m. on day one until 5 p.m. on day four, with just an hour for dinner and two hours in the morning off, it becomes almost impossible to work enough billable hours of your own to pay off bills — let alone to put money aside for first and last month’s rent and moving costs.
How exactly does someone with two degrees and marketable skills end up completely stuck, living on a (now former) friend’s porch and dealing with daily emotional abuse? While it seems rather fantastic, my story isn’t so unusual. Friends and family have been taking advantage of desperate friends and family since someone had a rock and someone else didn’t have a rock.
Why doesn’t anyone ever hear about these stories? Because despite 49 million Americans living with food insecurity, the poor in the U.S. are largely invisible. No matter the state of the economy, 12–15% of Americans are poor enough to be hungry at any given time; we’re just too politically inconvenient to show up in stump speeches and debates, and too exhausted from poverty logistics to advocate for ourselves.
Most talking points and policies are designed to help the fabled and exalted “middle class” — not to help the poor find a way into that exclusive club. Nearly half the population makes under $15 an hour, yet this constituency isn’t seen as worth the time of media outlets or politicians.
Let’s take a quick look at what that $15/hour gets you in real dollars via some quick math that the poor do almost constantly:
Assuming your employer will schedule you for 40 hours a week rather than shorting you to avoid having to provide paid time off, sick days, and health insurance, you’ll make $2,400/month before taxes, so approximately $1,600/month take-home. That amount won’t get you a studio apartment ($769 national average), transportation to and from work, and groceries in most parts of the country.
Monthly public transportation passes in cities like Chicago and New York that have reputations for “high quality” trains and buses will cost you an easy $100/month — and the poor are likely to live far from work, adding to costs and inconvenience.
Even if you can qualify for food assistance like I did temporarily, you max out at $194/month in benefits when you’re in the lowest possible income bracket. Should you put any money into a savings account or put in extra hours at work, that’s a strike against your benefits, as is owning practically anything, from a car to a small condo.
Welcome to the poverty cycle.
My personal poverty story starts with rotten timing (pro-tip: don’t graduate three months after 9/11 with a print journalism degree), is fueled by health problems I didn’t have time or money to address, and includes an almost impressive amount of bad luck. By the time I ran out of ways to make do, get by, and patch it together, I’d been racing for almost three years to find a way to survive in this bullshit capitalist system outside the service industry before my body broke down. I knew I couldn’t work physical jobs two or three at a time, 60–90 hours a week forever. I’d made two long-distance moves chasing opportunities and working side jobs dog-walking and bartending to make ends meet, while using credit to fill the gaps.
When contract number three canceled because of an act of god 12 hours before we were set to sign, I didn’t know what to do. I’ve managed to figure something out every time impending disaster has appeared on the horizon, but suddenly, I found myself beyond the point of exhaustion. I texted my pseudo-sister.
“Hey. How’re things?”
“Pretty shitty; pregnancy is rough and I don’t know if the girls’ dad is going to stick around. How’re you?”
“Also pretty shitty. Lost that contract. No idea how I’ll pay rent or eat next month.”
When she offered to have me move in with her, it was clear she’d been thinking about it for a while. She promised to fly me back to New York once a month so I could continue pursuing the media side of my career, and that she’d only need me “a few hours a few days a week.” Oh, and the occasional overnight shift since she worked as a swing shift nurse — a well-paying job in our part of California, especially with 20 years of experience.
My answer was immediate: “I’m in.”
Of course I was. Not only was she family, but I was completely out of options. I knew my knees, back, and wrists were unlikely to survive another lengthy full-time bartending stint, and that was my highest-paid service skill. Going back to the service industry also meant giving up writing at a time when I was landing paid bylines and learning how to cold pitch successfully.
I’d networked myself into a situation in which several peer-mentors were willing to introduce me to editors and help me develop the skills I’d need to turn writing into a career again. Four 10-hour bartending shifts — if I was lucky enough to land those hours at one place (unlikely) — plus a commute of over an hour in each direction would mean a 50-hour work week and a day to recover from working nights. There was no way I could write enough to have a real shot with only two free days a week.
I was exhausted and couldn’t wait to be with the person I considered family.
I didn’t initially see the strings attached to my friend’s pitch that we would be supporting each other; exhaustion and love can make you blind to people’s motives.
Over the winter, I helped her throw out the girls’ father, secure the restraining order against him, and win permanent custody because I loved her and my nieces. It would take almost six weeks for her gratitude to wane and the emotional abuse to start. Another month later, I realized she had been lying to me from the very first “offer to help.”
The front “room”/porch I lived on wasn’t a room at all when I arrived — it was three walls and a curtain. Her carpenter boyfriend and father of her children so resented her extending the offer to have me live there — it meant he would have to get off the couch and get a job, as they would now have childcare — that he refused for almost 100 days to build a partition to give me any real privacy. In fact, she had to hire a mutual friend of theirs to finally get it done.
She didn’t tell me about his violent felony record until I was living with them. I knew about the substance abuse history, but not his threatening her or that he had stabbed his uncle. I also couldn’t know that without him there, she would need to take her frustrations about life and lack of self-esteem out on me — something she may not have realized either, until she had power over me.
Eventually she convinced herself that I was her employee — one who should work gratefully for 80 hours every week. I did all the basics as the primary parent for that stretch: feeding, changing, bathing, laundry, cooking, sitting up with one or both of the babies at night, soothing them through teething and colds, teaching the youngest to eat solid foods, teaching the oldest her ABC’s and how to be nice to her sister, and generally trying to keep them from getting hurt in a house that was largely lacking in childproofing basics. (The bathroom was the only exception.)
Because she didn’t provide much in the way of activities or any money to take them to activities, I educated myself on good children’s programming (thank goodness for Daniel Tiger) so I could manage children not quite a year apart when one was having a rough or clingy day. I also worked with the youngest so she could learn to sit up and start crawling despite a slow start due to a hip issue that put her in a lederhosen-like harness for several months.
I was the caregiver for three and a half to four days every week, minus the two hours she spent with her kids after work in the morning and the one hour I was allotted for dinner. In addition, I did all the cleaning, cooking, and running most of the house errands — all in exchange for a room that during the custody battle she’d calculated was worth about $900 per month. Never mind that live-in nannies are paid in addition to their room and board or that “board” includes things like food, cell phone, paid time off, and overtime, or that in California, you’re only allowed to apply a few hundred of someone’s earnings toward rent.
By June, I snapped. I’d been pulling two or three all-nighters every week — often in a row — in an attempt to put together enough freelancing money to create options for myself. When one decent month cost me my food assistance, it quickly felt like all the work I was doing was pointless. I didn’t know how long I could survive in that living situation, but I was never going to put away first and last month’s rent — let alone finally file the bankruptcy ($1,800) and pay off the unexpected medical bill I’d incurred in January ($388/month for 14 months) so I could get all the way on my feet.
I did what I do when I hit a breaking point: I started ranting on Twitter. A few hours into my reviving the #PovertyIs hashtag, it was trending internationally. Someone I have several friends in common with was watching that day and reached out to me; thanks to her generosity I have a safe, free place to live through next summer and a real chance to dig the rest of the way out of a 15-year hole.
When I told my pseudo-sister I was moving, she retaliated. A woman who couldn’t motivate herself to do so much as a load of laundry or get up while her 18-month-old cried for hours on her day off suddenly found the energy to make my life even harder. She kept the power cord to the modem in her purse so I couldn’t work, and kept the garage door opener with her at all times so I couldn’t get to the washer and dryer to do laundry. Her cat died as a result of her grudge, because the poor 18-year-old couldn’t handle the heat inside the garage where it was living.
After draining my hot spot data in under a day, I realized I wasn’t going to make it there a month without Internet. So I found a sliding-scale lawyer — a great one who was even available to help me on the Fourth of July when she demanded access to my space without notice. She’d tacked a standard (though, outdated — which my wonderfully snarky lawyer enjoyed) “Notice to Enter Dwelling Unit” from the state of California on my door, checked every box under “reason for entry,” and posted it just 24 hours before the holiday. I emailed her and cc’d my lawyer. He was kind enough to respond that, yes, I was right and she would not be allowed entry until she made a more specific request with the proper notice ahead of time. He also reminded her and her lawyer that the retaliation of turning off my cable, withholding Internet, and preventing me access to the laundry were all illegal under the terms of the independent agreement she’d signed with me the month before so that I could keep my food assistance. (I had to prove to the state why rent wasn’t listed on my monthly expenses and I’d been very, very specific in the document she signed.)
Thanks to my lawyer’s initial letter and follow-up emails, I was able to get my Internet and cable back, and she understood that she wasn’t allowed in my room unattended or without proper notice. She even corresponded with me respectfully after my lawyer explained a few things about labor law to her lawyer — namely that I could easily sue her for around $70,000 in back pay, and all I was asking was to have cable and Internet until I was able to move . . . so maybe she could chill out and stop pushing it. He never had to lay out that she wasn’t actually my landlord as she claimed in the eviction notice she gave me after I said I was leaving (redundant) and that her landlord would probably find any situation that could be construed as an illegal sublet to be very interesting indeed.
By mid-July I’d packed, loaded a van with the help of friends, and left my keys on the desk before closing the door behind me and never looking back.
Thanks to the 10 months that I lived with my former friend and my nieces, I learned a lot about my capacity to love and my capacity to endure. I discovered that while I still don’t want to be a primary parent, I definitely love kids and am pretty good at being the main caregiver. I’m now open to being part of a family with children where my role is recognized and valued.
I luckily landed in a city with outstanding resources for rebuilding. I qualified for a credit union that’s helping me rebuild; my bankruptcy is less than half the price it would have been at my previous address (it’s cheaper to file in California than in New York); I have access not just to subsidized insurance, but to fantastic primary and specialist care; and the mild weather and sun have been great for my dysthymia and anxiety.
I’m still attempting the impossible: dig the rest of the way out, put in enough hours with doctors and treatment to be mostly functional, and get entirely on my feet in a year. I still struggle and many days, well, suck. But I live with someone who has empathy and believes in my work, and I have the support of real family.
I tell my story because I “don’t look poor” and it is jarring for many to hear that someone with my background could wind up in such a situation. I simply ask that you consider how my struggle is not just common, but how it would be significantly worse for someone with less privilege than I’m lucky enough to have.
In a country with so much wealth, no one should be hungry and no one should be homeless. Yet one in six Americans isn’t sure that they’ll be able to eat next week — which means a lot of people know someone like me.
Lead image: Flickr/Tax Credits