If we can find a way to blame a person for their suffering then we can justify the suffering.
I wrote a post yesterday on how I survived on $800 a month at various points in my adult life. The purpose of the post was not to romanticize being poor nor was it to complain. I am poor but I still love my life. These things are not mutually exclusive. Still, I believe it is important that we start digging into what it looks like to be poor in a “first world country”, not just discussing it in the abstract. The false narrative that people are stumbling into poverty purely through their own mistakes supports the equally false narrative that they can just as directly stumble out of it. It’s the “pull yourself to by your bootstraps” narrative we’ve heard a trillion times.
People who are poor need to start painting the picture of what that poorness looks like. If you don’t paint your own picture, someone will paint it for you, and you might not recognize what you see. The other day I saw someone ask how a person could have a cell phone if they’re homeless, as though, in 2020, a cell phone could be considered a luxury item. It’s not. If people don’t understand why a poor and/or homeless person would or could have a cellphone, then there’s an undeniable disconnect between how we live and how we think others live. More people should start telling the truth.
In any case, on that piece someone asked a question that has stuck with me over night: “how did you find yourself living paycheck to paycheck?” There’s more to the question if you’d like to read it yourself but I thought about this part for a while.
Let’s get down to brass tacks: most people in this country are born into poverty. They do not stumble down some broken path and “find” themselves there. Occasionally you hear a story about a person breaking out of it but that story usually ends there. Whatever wealth they manage to acquire ends with them; maybe it ends with their children if they’re a halfway decent parent. At some point we’ll also have to have the conversation about how you must harm other people in order to become wealthy in this country. All the “greats” have done it. But that’s a different conversation for a different day.
What we do know is that now, more than ever, to be middle class is to still be poor. Middle class people are just poor people with extreme amounts of debt. With my bachelors degree, student loan debt and okay paying work, I am not better off than a person with no degree, no debt and entry level work. The difference is not substantial enough for us to pressure kids to go to college the way that we do. There’s very little incentive to go because it no longer has the illusion of being a source of upward mobility in this country.
So, I didn’t “find” myself living paycheck to paycheck. That is the way that it’s always been. My mother went to law school and had her own independent practice. She was still categorically poor. I need people to understand this. I need people to understand that debt is poverty. You do not own your house if you are paying a mortgage. It is not yours. Because if you do not make the payments, it can be taken from you.
I also need people to understand that the solution to poverty can not be to start a business. Everyone cannot start a business because that, more often than not, costs money. Furthermore everyone doesn’t have an interest in starting a business. Certainly the women I worked with at the daycare would make more money if they each started their own daycare — parents paid upwards of $1200 a month for one child, the employees were paid $13 an hour. However their skill set and interest is in teaching children — you know, the little twerps we refer to as “the future” when it’s convenient. They should be paid well for that. They should be able to live comfortably off that pay. It is important work. But it is not treated that way. That is a major part of the problem.
Plus, if everyone starts a business, who will work for the businesses? You want your burger in less than a minute. You get your burger in less than a minute. Doesn’t the person who gets it to you deserve to live a decent life? Or is the problem the lingering belief that someone else receiving the same pay for doing “less” work than you somehow takes away from your quality of life? Somehow the myth that hard work breeds reward lingers on even though there is plenty of evidence showing that hardworking people are not rewarded.
What I mean to say with all this is, people are poor. There’s a good chance that if you’re reading this, you are poor. That’s not an insult or a moral judgement. When we break down the numbers, it’s the category most Americans fit in. Let’s stop pretending it takes any grand failure to “find yourself” where the majority of people are.