On pseudo understanding poverty – but hey, I’d never judge

I was skimming my Facebook newsfeed recently and saw that one of my friends had posted an article called “20 Things the Rich Do Every Day.”  Based on the title, I thought it was an article showing how much privilege the wealthy have.  Then I clicked on it and saw it was a comparison of what rich v. poor do daily.  Again, I at first thought this was a lesson on privilege.  I mean, 70% of the wealthy eat fewer than 300 calories of junk food a day while 97% of impoverished people eat more than 300 calories of junk food/day.  I thought, ‘Okay so this fact is demonstrating that junk and unhealthy foods cost less than nutritious foods and thus, are more accessible to low-income people.’

But sigh… no, that is not what this post was saying.  I hadn’t heard of Dave Ramsey before and I didn’t know he has a “holier than thou” attitude.  I quickly realized that the “point” he was trying to make is that wealthy people make better decisions than poor people and this is the reason the rich are rich and the poor are poor.  I mean, he thinks that if you live in a developed country, like the USA, that you have no excuse for poverty other than your own self.

Nice…  As a professional in the Domestic Violence field, I know this is absurd bologna.  What determines one’s social class is complex and often anchored by various forms of oppression or conversely, privilege.  In “The Working Poor” by David Shipler, he notes early on in the book that some people are able to escape poverty but that these individuals receive elements of luck and circumstance.  In other words, their own good decisions alone are not a guarantee that they will move beyond poverty.

I think this article is better and this article is even better.  I can also speak to my own experiences as a privileged, white young woman who did become temporarily less resourced.

I’ve always been privileged, don’t get me wrong.  Even when I was living paycheck to paycheck or in grad school and going further into debt on a daily basis, I was still privileged.  I have always had a resourced family to fall back on and to bail me out.  I tried to avoid relying on my family but they were always there for me.  For many actually poor people, family is not an option.  Their families may want to help but can’t, their families may want to let their adult kids or sister stay with them but they live in public housing and could lose their place if they get caught.  And then sadly, there are many people who can’t rely on their families.  There are people who know they’d be worse off if they moved back home, because of alcohol/drugs, serious and untreated mental illness and/or abuse.  None of this was ever, thank goodness, a reality for me.  I always had my family.  And the sheer fact that I was in grad school is evidence enough of my privilege.

The first 24 years of my life were silver spoon privileged.  I was born into an upper middle class family and both my parents had masters degrees and good careers.  My mom stayed home with me and my sister but eventually went back to work.  I lived in an affluent town and I went to very good public schools.  I applied to college without worrying about application fees and went to a large, public state school, not in my home state of Vermont and I had an amazing time.  I got to take all the classes I wanted, major in a major I enjoyed, study abroad, travel, buy stylish clothes and go out to eat.  And when I finished at the ripe old age of 21?  I had no debt.  My parents paid for my entire college experience and they even left me with the remaining amount in Izzy’s college savings bank account of about $20k.  FYI, my younger sister (my only sibling) had the same experience.

Holy sh*tballs, I am a lucky lady.  Sometimes I forget how privileged I am until I actually write it out.  And I’m pretty aware, for a privileged lady.  I wonder how many people could write out their privilege and still not get it.

When I finished college, I took a low-wage job in the mental health field as a paraprofessional, knowing I wanted to go back to school.  I had no debt and I lived in a city so I didn’t need a car.  I lived in an affordable apartment in a neighborhood that was a little dicey (I saw brawls and I regularly heard gunshots) but there were many lovely things about that apartment and neighborhood too.  There was a community there with people who cared about each other and grew gardens together.  Plus, I lived with two good friends and we all looked out for one another.  And truth be told, I could have afforded a safer neighborhood but this was the place I chose to live.  And I was lucky that nothing bad happened to me – except that time I swear a group of teens were following me and calling me a “ho.”  But I got away from them and it was a confusing experience and I’m still not sure that they were targeting me.  Anyways, despite the fact I was making $11.50/hour in one of the pricier American cities, I rarely worried about money.  And I managed to have a good social life and to save several thousand dollars.  I used that savings to spend several months volunteering in Central America.

Then came grad school.  Again, the fact I even went to grad school is evidence of my privilege.  I did not chose an affordable school.  I chose a pretty pricey one.  I took out loans for tuition and managed to score a couple of scholarships.  I used the leftover $20k to live off of for two years, in an expensive city.  My program was two years long and I worked the summer in between the two years.  That summer, I made $15/hour at a summer camp, which was pretty good and definitely helpful.  I also occasionally baby-sat and did catering gigs, which also helped.

Still it was hard.  Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know, the privileged girl had less money than she normally did and couldn’t like buy a lot of shoes and other things she wanted.  Poor me.  But I swear I’m not telling this to show what a privileged, clueless person I am – though this post and others probably show that.  I’m telling it because I think it’s important to never, never judge people who are poor.  Because I was never poor but the time I was less privileged, life was hard.  And if I can get whiny about being less resourced for a couple of years, you can bet people who grow up poor and can’t escape have experienced way worse and have legitimate reasons to be upset, and not whiny, like me.

I remember shortly after I started grad school, I went for a run (I did still have time to exercise).  I saw a girl who was wearing a t-shirt that had a printed message on the back.  I can’t remember what it said but it was something along the lines of, “Get out and live your life.”  ‘What life?’ I thought to myself as I jogged, ‘I have so little free time right now and even if I did have more, I have no money to do anything fun.’  It was a slight exaggeration.  I did sometimes go out for dinner or to the movies.  You better believe there are people who cannot afford either of those activities and literally have no time to do anything pleasurable.  But exaggeration or not, it was depressing in that moment when I pondered that girl’s t-shirt.  I knew that when I finished school my career options would hardly be lucrative.  I knew that things would be better for me but I doubted they’d ever be as good as they had been.  And things could be bad.  While it was likely things would get better once I finished school that didn’t mean things would be good.  Still even then I knew that in the worst case scenario, I could move back in with my family for food, shelter and love and support.  There are so, so many people for whom that is not true.

Then there was this time in grad school where I was offered $3000 extra in loans randomly.  I don’t remember why.  But I remember I could have not accepted that money and could have made my monthly payments lower in the future.  But I didn’t do that.  I took the money and used it to live in the moment.  It was the summer after my first grad school year and I wanted to have fun.  I needed fun.  I worked so hard and I needed something to recharge so I could get back on that exhausting, work-fueled treadmill again in the fall.  People are people and they need R&R no matter how little money they have.  Rest and some happiness are integral parts of everyone’s well-being and health.  I’d argue that R&R is a basic need.  Without it, you get depressed and cannot thrive and if you’re depressed, you could even feel you should no longer be alive.

So what did I do with that money?  I went out to eat.  I drank Blue Moon during trivia nights at local bars.  I took a trip to Atlanta to see friends.  And I bought $200 Coach shoes.  Was it a smart decision to accept those extra loans?  On the surface, no.  But maybe it actually was.  I mean, all that stuff made me happy and helped me rejuvenate and to get through the many long and exhausting days that the next semester brought.  And in the end, did it matter?  Might I have saved myself $10 maybe $20 in monthly payments?  Would that extra money help me now?  How much difference would it really make?  I’d save $120, $240/year.  Yeah I could save that and it would add up.  But would I?  Maybe.  And in the end, I got a good, well-paying job and I married a man I love and who has a good, stable and lucrative career.  So together, we’ve been able to travel, to have an amazing wedding and to buy a beautiful home.

For the first year out of grad school, I had a not-so-good paying job.  I managed to have a social life but it came at a cost.  The cost was that I lived paycheck to paycheck.  And once those student loans kicked in, it got stressful.  I also broke a bone for the first time in my life and ended up with expensive bills for the care that my rinky-dink health insurance wouldn’t cover.  So I dipped into my almost non-existent savings to pay those medical bills.  But I had a savings.  I was lucky.  I had lower loans to pay off, thanks to a debt-free undergrad education and the $20k in savings that I applied to my grad school experience.  A coworker of mine needed to work a second job to pay for her car and loans.  And the job we were working was hard.  On average, we probably each worked 55 hours/week, doing traumatizing DV work.  And she then pulled more hours just to get by.  Plus, she and I could tell ourselves that we didn’t do that job for the money… but that doesn’t mean that we suddenly stopped living in a society and culture that values money above all else.  And when we didn’t make much money in said society, it was easy to feel that our work wasn’t valued.  And when you feel that way, you can start to feel worthless and again, depression can set in more.

She and I got lucky though.  After a year of that fulfilling, good but not well-compensating job, we both got new jobs.  We both got new jobs that were equally fulfilling but more rewarding because they paid better and provided much better benefits.   We both eventually got married to awesome guys and we were able to pool our resources with another person.  We temporarily had it tough but for many people, being poor or not well-resourced isn’t temporary, poverty is their life.

I never lived in poverty but can still see how having less money makes life much more difficult and a lot less sweet.  Unless you’ve had the experience of being poor and/or suddenly having a lot less, don’t scoff at my comment that life is less sweet.  Because when life is less sweet, it becomes bitter and so do you.  And that sucks – it sucks everything out of you.

So I wrote this to show how privileged and naive I am.  JK.  Although like I said, this post and others show that.  I wrote this to show that I don’t blame impoverished people.  I never have.  But now that I’ve had some less privileged times, I get this article and I don’t judge the author.  But I don’t relate to what David Ramsey wrote and I don’t like his scolding judgment of the poor.

And am I opening myself up to judgment and criticism for writing this article?  Will some people say I have nothing to complain about and how can I write that I experience any oppression because I’m a woman when I’m a woman who’s so incredibly privileged?  Yeah some people will say that.  But that’s the point.  Privilege and oppression are complicated and people can experience both.  But the more privileged you are, the less oppressed you are and vice-versa.  And even very privileged, straight women experience more oppression and are more likely to experience violence/sexual assault than their straight, male counterparts.  But less privileged people, especially less privileged women, are that much more oppressed and that much more likely to be victimized.

PS  I haven’t figured out whether or not my Facebook friend posted Dave Ramsey’s article in tongue-in-cheek jest.  Just an FYI.


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