The Plight of the Poor

Garden Bathtub

I never feel quite clean enough after my nightly bath...

To be honest, I am poor. And to be even more honest, I strongly dislike being represented by those who are not poor and have never been poor. Being poor is even more difficult than it sounds, you see. Most people think that to be poor, you have to have bad money management skills, a very low wage job, little to no formal education, and a bathtub in your front yard.

I’m here to tell you that most of those things are just not true! For example, my bathtub is in my backyard, because I understand nudity being unacceptable in society. One rumor down!

Seriously though, let me tell you a little bit about how I became poor.

My parents were poor. To date, neither of them have ever owned a house. Both of them acquired nice vehicles shortly before or after my 16th birthday. As a child, I watched both of them count change to make ends meet. We were frequently evicted from even the shoddiest housing; so often, in fact, that we had to move to another state and into a motel because nobody would rent to my parents. I saw them make irrational decisions about what money meant to both of them. I decided, simply, that I was not going to do what they did.

Easier said than done, my friends. I was married to my husband (also from a poor family and with no higher education than high school) when I was 16. Instead of finishing high school and going to a big university where I was more apt to succeed, I quit school to go to work. I took that very low income job at McDonald’s and got my G.E.D. before I was old enough to be given my license.

I have muscled my way through a montage of jobs over the years. Unfortunately, even with my persistence and determination, my job and my college work always conflict. This brings me to my first point.

1. There has to be a person on the bottom of the pyramid

Businesses need low income workers to keep prices down. A business knows that if they expect more and pay well, they will be expected to provide benefits packages and raises, which can raise the cost of employment. So, McDonald’s started this concept that basically limited the variety of work expected of a worker, so they could pay them less to do the job. Other businesses adopted this philosophy, and I don’t really blame them. It’s just good business. I’ve noticed, however, that something got lost in translation. The “managers” of these establishments generally make only $1-3 dollars an hour more than their minimum wage counterparts, and are expected to output at least 1-1/2 times the work. This always confused me, because I noticed that the high expectations and low pay kept many talented workers on the bottom, and most of the “managers” would burn out from physical and mental exhaustion over putting out so much for so long. I would like to add, however, that most of these low income managers had no degrees from college. Almost every manager I talked to had dreams, at one time, of going and doing something else, but school conflicted with their work schedules, or they were too tired to try school after working the required 45+ hours a week. And in my experience, every manager I’ve worked for has told me to either A) ditch class to work a shift, B) work late/come in early during exam week, or C) quit school for a semester or more “to get myself together”. As a recognizable poor person, I would assume that each job would encourage me, or at least stay out of my way, to finish school. After much consideration, I have realized that each of those managers knew that they have to have employees to run a company, school is inconvenient for them, and I have to have money to live. It’s a lot easier to keep people on the bottom of the pyramid then to help them climb it.

2. Things are more costly to the poor

Please understand, I’m not a complainer- I consider myself an educator for the masses. And I know that there are plenty of people who know where I’m coming from, by being poor. But there are also people who can’t understand what being “poor” really means.

A gallon of milk costs me half an hour’s wages, before taxes. If I want to take my family out to eat at McDonald’s (off the dollar menu), this will cost me about three hours of work. A dinner at Friendly’s or Applebee’s will run me almost a day’s wages. To go back and forth to work for a week instantly runs me six hours of work, which is almost a full day. So basically I work one day for free, after taxes. Some of this may not sound too bad to you, but most low income jobs are tedious and unrewarding. My current job is insulting with how simple it is, but apparently creative thinking is for people with degrees.

About a year ago I was returning an item at a Wal-mart that was in a city even more poor than my own. It was an air mattress that had cost me $70 (almost 1-1/2 days work). The customer service worker (he seemed experienced- maybe even breaking double digits with his years of hard service and tenure!) told me that they carried the very same item, for $20 MORE. “Why so costly?” I asked, “the Wal-mart I bought this one from is about 20 minutes away.”

“Well, we are on the bus-line. A lot of people in this area don’t have a car to jump into and go get a better deal. We are the only provider of grocery and home goods in this city on the bus-line. They just have to pay the difference for the convenience.”

That day I learned how the dis-advantaged are exploited for “convenience”. I mean, I’m pretty poor, but I do own a car (it cost me $200 and is junk, but it runs) and can drive somewhere else if I think a price is unfair. But those who have even less money than I do pay more to spend it. This may seem like no big deal to you, the better-paid worker, but it affects us more than you think. Many of the people in this said community are dependent on welfare and unemployment to survive, which are taken out of the taxes that all workers pay. The dollars they take out of your check don’t go as far as they could, just based on chance and geography.

3. Money management is not lost on all poor people

Here’s a quick question: your water bill is $100, due on the 5th, your electric bill is $140, due on the 6th, your rent is $500, due on the 1st, and you have to have $75 for gas/fare to work all week. You just got a check for $400, and your next check is on the 8th. What do you live without for a few days? Water, electric, work, or a place to live?

A poor person would tell you that you call and practically beg the electric company to extend things a week because the water company charges more to come out and cut you back on, and they’ve already extended you two times before. You send $250 towards the rent and hope they don’t hit you with another $65 late fee for the rest. You pay the water company and tell work your car broke down, and ask a co-worker to take you to work for two days to save the fuel and your embarrassment. Hopefully you had some food left over from last pay period, or you just casually steal french fries out of the fryer to make it through the week (I even had one co-worker who pulled the trashed burgers out of the garbage and ate those. They were still wrapped, but it’s the principal of it…) and hope you don’t get in trouble (his managers yelled at him for this all the time, to the point that they just gave him a free sandwich every day if he promised not to dig for one).

Being poor is all about decisions and money management. A poor person isn’t incapable of living off of less, or even cutting back. It just so happens that their income rarely exceeds their expenses. And because most poor people only know poor people, it’s rare to have a good source to borrow from or someone who can support you while you build a nest egg.

As you can see, being a poor person is not so much the person’s laziness or inability to handle life as it is a lack of resources. My best friend constantly tells me that I can stretch a dollar further than anyone she knows, and this is probably true, but only because I practiced for so long. And don’t misunderstand me, I don’t agree with any form of socialism to “equal the playing field”. I’m asking that we support our poor by access to competitive pricing and easier college transitions, just so the poor don’t always have to be poor!

One Response to “The Plight of the Poor”
  1. Mother of 2 and No More says:

    Very interesting insight. I grew up very poor too (big family of 9, 7 were kids), but made the decision in high school that I was not going to be poor. Worked very hard and never depended on anyone and now doing well. It’s hard for me to understand how anyone can be poor when the opportunities are there to anyone who is healthy and capable.

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