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Poverty Series II: What is Being Poor in America?

While many are decrying McCain’s failure to mention the middle class in his debates, other classes have received far less mention this election season. Outside of derogatory references to Joe Six Pack, and the need for health insurance, the poor and working classes of America seem to have been largely excluded as a talking point.

In 2005, author John Scalzi wrote a simple but brilliant essay on what being poor is in reality for millions of Americans. Among his observations:

- Being poor is hoping the toothache goes away.
- Being poor is thinking $8 an hour is a really good deal.
- Being poor is relying on people who don’t give a damn about you.
- Being poor is an overnight shift under fluorescent lights.
- Being poor is six dollars short on the utility bill and no way to close the gap.
- Being poor is people surprised to discover you’re not actually stupid.
- Being poor is knowing you work as hard as anyone, anywhere.
- Being poor is getting tired of people wanting you to be grateful.
- Being poor is people who have never been poor wondering why you choose to be.
- Being poor is knowing how hard it is to stop being poor.

Several hundred people added their own observations to Scalzi’s essay, making it perhaps one of the most definitive oral descriptions of poverty in recent years. Poorness, we learn, isn’t just a number –- it’s not just a salary or a neighborhood –- but something that encompasses every facet of a a person’s life, from health and social opportunities, to where we live, and whom we can attract as a partner.

Poverty carries an emotional and stigmatizing price. It’s losing teeth at a young age because a $600 root canal or 50% co-pay is unaffordable, and then losing out on social and job opportunities because of a marred appearance. It’s not being able to afford to pay a $50 fine for a traffic violation, and ending up in jail.

It’s having to sell everything you own to pay the rent for just one month. Or losing your ID or drivers license and not being able to afford to replace them. It’s having no credit and no cash for a flat tire or any other emergency. It’s having poor credit, and being charged exorbitant interest rates, and paying higher rates for auto insurance than even drunk drivers pay. It’s a life where nearly everyday comes with some anxiety, panic, or dread.

To live in poverty is to be hastily judged, and told you should have taken better care of your teeth to start with, and that if you can’t afford a car you shouldn’t drive one –- never mind how your teeth got damaged, or whether or not you have bus service in your neighborhood. It’s being denied employment opportunities based on your faded clothes or credit score.

It’s being thought of as irresponsible even when you have made your paycheck stretch as far as it could go. It’s buying a .79 cup of coffee at the convenience store in the morning on the way to work and having someone, likely a better-off relative, tell you that this is why you’re poor and can’t afford to pay your rent –- because you waste your money. It’s knowing that no matter what you do, or how hard you try, someone will view you harshly because you have not risen to their class level.

It’s hearing the rags to riches stories, looking desperately for hope, only to learn about the privileged circumstances, inheritances, benefactors, or rare open doors that led to success. It’s hearing how all those things are negated by successful people when they talk about “working hard” and “creating their own luck”. It’s waking up every day to face a society that believes its own American dream cliches, but that puts no stock in the truth of your own story.

This is what poorness in America is, and unfortunately it is largely misunderstood, ignored, or viewed as an incurable plight. It’s a particularly grim and harsh story in a society where the pursuit of happiness is a constitutional right, but where there’s really no such thing as a level playing field. Presently, the circumstances that help create happiness – including those as basic as personal security, health, food, and shelter – are increasing in price while wages and job opportunities stagnate, leaving the poor poorer, and millions more at risk.

20 comments to Poverty Series II: What is Being Poor in America?

  • Pirate Queen

    Another deep layer of your heart bared for all of us to see and share. Your strengths are profound, Jane. Your voice is crystal clear. The pain is wrenching.

    I see every one of the fears, and more, in too many pairs of eyes of my students. No matter what town or city I’ve taught in, there’s always been the dozens of children who bear the profound ache of hunger, displacement, uncertainty, all of which are troweled across their faces and emanate from their souls through their eyes.

    I cannot, and will not, avert my eyes from theirs. They need to be seen by the same eyes as I view their peers. I try to send them rays of every emotion I can muster to let them feel that they are NOT less than any another person in the room, for they are not.

    And, as it is for the children of poverty, so it is for me: I will never forget. I will never forget a single one of those children and what they told me, not on paper, but from their souls.

    You’ve been tapping a lot of deep memories and their associated aches for me, Jane. Thank you. I, for one, never want to forget all that I’ve been taught by the children who have crossed my path. Nor do I want to forget the greed, corruption and superficiality of the people that have forced so many families into depths so deep that we as a nation resist looking and realizing that we are far worse off than we care to ‘fess up to.

  • linda woods

    Being poor sucks.
    Great post! :)

  • Elaine

    This might be more of a WTF but what about when you apply for jobs and they run a flippin’ credit check! Seriously?


  • Maria

    Another great post Jane!

  • Elaine, it’s a big WTF. I wrote a long article about it last year. It’s a backdoor way for employers to discriminate based on class and social status. And it is appalling how credit scores are being used to rate auto insurance — drivers with no accidents, no tickets, but with financial struggles are, in many cases, being charged more than drunk drivers.

  • LBJ

    That cartoon says so, so much!

    Hasty judgements are everywhere, and real opportunities are not. I know I couldn’t make it on the wages of a Target employee, so no I’m not ready, or prepared.

    I did switch my money market fund to “safe” investments, and I’m not taking on any new debt if I can help it.

  • Kate McLaughlin

    True, real and gut-wrenching, Jane.
    In my youth I was called white trash by my best friend’s mom. I wore hand-me-downs, smelled like my father’s cigarette smoke, didn’t have money for school pictures, and worked in the cafeteria to get the free lunch.
    Today I’m far from poor, but am always aware that luck and good timing are as key to that as are preparation and hard work.
    I’m also ever-cognizant of how quickly it could all change.

  • kris D.

    i believe the great divide in understanding comes when those that have never gone without, wish to blame the poor for their lot in life.

    John Scalzi’s piece tugs at me because it’s like a checklist of my youth…
    that too…oh and that
    why is my heart racing and my face all flushed?

    see, i’m not poor now and even though i’ve spent my whole life working for something (great brett dennon tune), i know it can be taken away…in a heartbeat. so i’m not that far away from my roots. that makes me middle class. it also makes me uneasy. i fight off fear and have become fiercely protective of my brood. i have a tendency to horde things…..

    let me tell you something. we live in a wee tiny house in a nice little neighborhood that sits right next to one of the most affluent areas in California. now i am going to tell you something else. i can’t stand them. my neighbors on the hill….i’d rather be in the ghetto. i’d rather work for the working class. but that is another story.

    Jane, i’m so glad i have a voice in you. you are a magnificent person, ya know that? i’m just havin’ a little Jane gratitude right now….

  • Mary

    You make me cry.
    The media’s coverage about the tough economy focuses on people who have $3600 mortgage payments, people worried about their shrinking 401Ks and people worried that they will no longer be able to live off their dividends. What about the people with no home, no 401K, no job?
    And you’re so right, somehow they always manage to throw in “I worked hard for this…” as if people who work for lower pay don’t work hard.
    Let me just also say however, there are many of truly generous people who share their wealth. My daughter was the recipient of several local community based scholarships this year. Their generosity also makes me cry.

  • Ann Parker

    I too was poor once. At twenty four I left my abusive husband, took my two boys and moved to a 48$ a month walk up flat in St. Louis because that was all I could afford. The alcoholic woman downstairs watched my kids while I worked and let my oldest fall from the stairs knocking himself out. It took me one hour to get to work on the bus and sometimes more than one hour to get home because the busses would be full and pass me by while I stood in the cold wind or rain. It was in the sixties but before the war on poverty brought scant relief with welfare, rent subsidies or food stamps. We were hungry. I left my kids a can of chicken noodle soup and a roll of crackers for lunch and found out later that my babysitter was keeping the kid across the street and splitting my kids lunch with her. When I couldn’t afford the laundrymat I washed clothes by hand and hung them in the dirty back yard. Then I had to keep an eye that someone would not sneak in from the alley and steal them off the line. No one would cash my check. Even a payroll check. The phone booths in that neighborhood were out of order most of the time. No one trusted me and finally I trusted no one. The owner of the little store on the corner would not give me change for a dollar unless I bought something from the store. There were no screens in my windows and in the summer it was 100 degrees in my apt. I worried about my children the whole time I was at work and I worried about my job the whole time I was home. Every morning my four year old would ask, “is today Saturday?” because he wanted me to be home. My ex husband paid child support one time, that’s all. Eventually I remarried and moved to the suburbs and had another child. Now I am a widow. I have social security, his pension and a little money in the bank. I have never been wealthy but no amount of wealth would ever be able to make me forget the time I was really poor.

  • Doris Rose MacBean

    Soul searing narrative that cannot be glossed over. You remind me of painful times that I have buried. Thank you?

  • Donna L. Faber

    Hey Jane … I love the new look. Very compelling and pertinent to your latest series of articles.

    Poverty (sigh) …

    As it relates to the American landscape, I got my real taste of what was happening, and my first real view of the class rift that exists, where I was working last year in Connecticut. I was working for a major company that deals with outsourced office services. Won’t mention the name here. Anyhow, I was managing 20 people across various departments in a big, publically owned, pharmaceutical company that had like 1500 people present, most researchers and scientists, on campus all the time. It was a mildly engaging job, didn’t pay squat, but I had three good supervisors that were eager to learn.

    But I wander from my point. Always talking about myself.

    Keep in mind that this company, the one I worked for, makes it’s revenue underpaying staff so it can mark up their cost to its client. The folks I managed had a pay range that went as low as $8.00 an hour all the way up to maybe $19 depending on the need and presence of a specific skill set, right?

    My lower waged people had one definitive marker … you glanced at them and knew they were poor. Knew the sacrifices they had to make. What was it? Missing teeth. Right in the front of their face. One of my staff, a mail workers, just didn’t bother wearing her prosthetic because it annoyed her … her appearance and the way she was perceived stopped being an issue for her long, long before I got there.

    Then I started noticing it everywhere. The lady at the food window of Taco Bell, trying to give good service, slurring her words because she was missing eight teeth, upper jaw, right in the front. The lady at the grocery store, people at the gas station, CSA’s working at my grandmother’s rest home. They all bore the mark of the American poor … missing teeth.

    It was an intense realization for me. I learned a lot of respect for these people managing them, but it also took more than 6 months for them to realize I wanted to work with them, rather than corral them, as they were so used to being treated a certain way.

    It was really intense.


  • Alison

    Jane, I agree with whoever said “the measure of a society is how it treats its weakest members”. And I extend that yardstick to include how it treats its homeless dogs and cats in addition to the have-not humanoids. So many municipalities think nothing of cutting animal shelter budgets, even in more prosperous times, as a show of cutting frivolous spending. My heart aches for all the people, and for their precious pets, now that so many are forced to surrender or abandon them due to displacement. My only hope after all this economic turmoil bottoms out, however long that may be, is that a new society with all new priorities emerges. One that completely rejects the shallow, self-serving, materialistic values of our current society for a compassionate, generous and inclusive culture that promotes the value of helping take care of each other and the animals, domestic or otherwise, whose survival also depends on us.

  • Pamela

    “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.” (Matthew, 5:5) When might that start to happen? Anyone?

    Poverty is a global epidemic and North America is fast approaching third world standards. That is, the working poor are fast approaching third world standards - and being snubbed for it.

    Anyone CAN end up in poverty. There was a time I was making $25per hour + bonuses, in a management position - then I got sick - no job now. We lost our benefits at work due to economic downturn. SO - I went from making good money and comfortable living to poverty and scraping by with no disability. Luckily, I grew up in poverty. I had a mom who taught me how to make money stretch. Eventually - I hope to turn things around. The funny thing is: People still think I have money because I still have the same friends and wear the same clothes. I am still treated with respect! When I was a kid we were treated like trash. Perception is everything. I don’t pretend to be something I’m not - I have bigger things to deal with - but people make assumptions. For the most part, assumptions are bullshit!

    Great post - look forward to the rest!!

  • Little Sun

    Bless you for writing this, Jane.

    I know hungry-belly poverty all too well. Such poverty is not ennobling, despite the myths the comfortable may tell themselves. I am not there now but the scars of those times keep me from ever taking anything for granted. In my peculiarly blessed and cursed life, I have healed many, many things that others thought impossible to heal. As I read your post and the comments, I realize once more that my fear of hunger has not faded. Nor has my rage about economic injustice.

    I cannot write or talk about it without feeling a survivor’s guilt that rends my soul. Even though I have chosen to work with those who have been thrown away by this culture, I never feel I can do enough for those who still live in the desperate worlds I daily pray I’ve left behind… I still can’t be the voice I would like to someday be when it comes to economic injustice because my personal rage is still too huge… And though I am miles from where I once was, I still live with the awareness I am never more than a couple of paychecks from finding myself there once again.

    Bless you, Pirate Queen for knowing how incredibly important your gaze might be… for I also know all too well the soul-destroying effects of being “disappeared” by those who fear even acknowledging the existence of those who are poor. You may not only save lives by what you give when you open your eyes and heart, you may well be saving souls.

  • Pirate Queen

    Little Sun,
    Your nod to me is beyond gracious. I am deeply humbled.

    I’m pretty clear that I may never know if any one gaze, touch upon a shoulder, or even a please or thank you will make a difference to one student or many on any given day.

    I do it anyway, because we have too easily become a nation (world?) devoid of truths, compassion, community. I couldn’t live with myself if I thought that I couldn’t give something as simple as $2 for lunch, a smile, or a sincere look of caring to anyone in pain at any level.

    Your acknowledgement will sing within me for a very long time, Little Sun. My warmest thanks for your caring words.

  • Donna L. Faber

    Pamela … you’re right. The meek shall inherit the earth, because they are the only ones who won’t go crazy with greed, stomping all over everyone to keep their useless crap, as the world continues to change. I think it’ll be a gradual thing.

  • Little Sun

    I bow to you and thank you again, Pirate Queen. I am alive today, in many more ways than simply breathing, because of some all too too rare moments when I was indeed “seen” by a passing stranger. At those moments, I needed simple acknowledgement of my existence as a human being—a sense of connection no matter how brief—far, far more than I needed food–which I also very sorely needed then…

    I am grateful you gave me an opportunity to thank someone for this. And to say how incredibly important that is and can be. Never doubt that what you do matters, no matter how small it may seem.

  • Gia

    Have been out of town, and just had a chance to check in. Lovin’ the new blog Jane!

    This is right on. It’s amazing to me the difference in the way people treat me before they know what I do for a living and after. After they find out, I always get a….”but you’re so articulate” kind of comment. I’m not stupid, I work hard, and I’m contributing…. STOP JUDGING ME!!! is what I wanna yell!!!

    I’m not poor now, but have lived it….. and have been judged for it….. I am so glad you’re doing this series!!! okay, on to part 3!!!

  • Joey

    Reading this Made me Cry, and smile at the same Time.

    However I truly believe that as much as Love money and shiny things, they have nothing to do with happiness. It doesn’t matter that I will probably end up leaving this world with the same thing I came into it with; nothing! as long as I have love, faith and hope in my life that is riches beyond measure.

    I think of it in a more global scene, being there is always going to be someone who is poorer than me, and in third world country there are people who would think of me as the richest man they ever met. I never have more than 2 dollars on me, and my work shift at Starbucks starts at 530am which means I have to be up at 4am. I walk because it is not in my $$$ monthly budget to take the bus! I just think of it as a great way to get my mind up for the day reflect on the past and plan for the future, also listening to some music on my ipod or talking to crazy homeless people who ask me for change, which I reply ” If I had change would you think I be walking to work”. most really do understand and smile go on there way. passing them by let’s me know that even though I am not “rich” I have roof over my head. that’s good thing right?
    When I am work I push myself as had as I can go, because if I am not the best barista on the floor, it ends up effecting my hours the following week, so there is no time for slaking! I am ok with that, though I do sometimes miss my 17$ an hour manager Job in a factory where all I did was walk around and say No! but Hell, you know this is a great workout, and I love smelling like coffee, ummm so good. and when this rescission and so called 2nd depression is over I will have something remarkable to write about.

    Life is beautiful thing, I am luck that at this time in my life, I have freinds who love as much as I love them. I am not addicted to any substance, and I do not smoke(which saves me a $$$$$.) well I lie, I am addicted to the internet, but come blogging as brought me great joy and helped me truly express myself! Also meeting people online such as you Linda is Priceless.

    Thank you for being an inspiration in these dark times!

    I hope one day to write as eloquently as yourself!

    What a heart moving piece.