The Wealth and Poverty of Nations (and Neighbors)

Sharon February 16th, 2009

A while back there was a study that suggested that it is more expensive to be poor in the US in some ways, than it is to be rich.  And to anyone who has actually been poor, this probably made perfect sense.  Among the ways that being poor cost you money:

1. Your infrastructure is limited, so you are limited to what fits in your infrastructure – for example, you don’t have a car, so you can only shop at the convenience stores or those on your bus line, which are more expensive than the Walmart outside town.  Your house or apartment is underinsulated, so your utility bills are extremely high.  You have to have food and heat, so you pay them, and struggle.

2. You are less likely to have insurance, or to have exhausted your safety nets,  so you are more likely to find yourself paying for acute costs because of things you’ve let go – instead of routine dental care, you don’t got the dentist until there’s a major crisis, involving multiple root canals.  You can’t afford to have the roof replaced, so you wait until things start falling on your head.

3. You find yourself falling behind on bills and incurring the costs associated with that fall behind – $50 here to get your electricity turned back on when the child support payment didn’t come in, higher interest rates on the credit cards because of late payments, the returned check fee for the school yearbook you’d hoped your tips would cover…

 4. You have little access to ways of getting ahead – you can’t buy in bulk because you can’t lug your toddler, your infant stroller and a 50lb sack of anything on the bus.  You credit is shaky, nonexistent or minimal, so you can’t borrow enough to start that business or get a car that wouldn’t break down.  So you continue to buy the higher priced bags of rice, and pay the repair and heat bills bills,  - even though you’d save money with a minor upgrade that is as out of reach for you as the moon.

5. The upgrades are out of reach because things like “return on investment” don’t matter when you can’t front the cash.  People who talk about “Only 3 years until you get your money back” for some investment don’t quite grasp that fronting 3 years of anything is out of the question – you can’t handle the credit, you can’t handle the payments, and odds are you, can’t get the loan anyway.

6. Prior indebtedness weighs you down.  Those payments that seemed so manageable when they were described to you at teaser reates or in isolation are now major drags on your budget.  Borrowing to meet crisis needs – say, the payments you owe the hospital from after your car accident, make it less likely you can get along day to day.  Moreover, the costs keep shooting higher, either because companies are making less profit and want more, or because you screwed up as in #3.  You now know you will never, ever get out from under it – and thus, your choices are limited by your debt.

There are other ways that this high cost of poverty plays out, but these are enough examples to get you going.  I’m willing to bet that some of my readers have experienced some of these costs themselves, and more probably will as the current economic crisis expands.

But unlike in prior recessions, ordinary people aren’t the only ones experiencing the new realities and limitations of poverty – governments at all levels are getting to know these restrictions.  I recently listened to my state’s debate on what to do what the stimulus money being offered to them.  The choices consist of:

1. Save the money to meet future budget shortfalls, which will definitely occur.

2. Spend the money in the vain hope of getting the economy moving on projects that were conceived back when we had a growth economy and probably won’t do much to alleviate our plight.  Meanwhile, panic because there will be no money for future budget shortfalls.

3. Use it to cover increasing gaps in safety nets – gaps that only get bigger, and devour more of the money.

None of these really deals with the primary need, which is for deep infrastructure change.  But, of course, it is increasingly beyond our states, just as it is beyond most poor people.  For example, you’d like to move to a better apartment, the one with a bedroom for your daughters who now sleep in the living room, no cockroaches and nearer your husband’s job.  But to do so, you’d have to get first months, last months and security accumulated, plus the cost of the moving truck, and the landlord isn’t likely to give you back the security deposit because he’s that kind of landlord. 

Now the states are in roughly the same situation as your average working class poor person – they aren’t allowed to carry deficits (ie, no credit for you), and the one thing they can’t do is get enough money to do the things that are really needed – even if they knew what they were. 

Meanwhile, their infrastructure begins to degrade, the rough equivalent of skipping your dentist appointments – the bridges start to crumble, the roads have potholes, etc…  And of course, a year or two of neglect is going to mean more costs down the road – but that can’t be helped.

Because your infrastructure is now limited to the cheap energy infrastructure, the states are now limited to cheap energy adaptations – and emphasis on the cheap, or the ones that use what you’ve got - that is, without a public transport network, the best we can hope for is carpooling.  Without good housing, the best we can expect is for someone in any given family to keep their house and move their relatives in.

And crises keep coming along to undercut your attempts to catch up.  First the unemployment funds start to empty, and then the bond defaults start.  A city goes bankrupt and needs state aid to keep the trash pickup coming, and no one budgeted for that.

Credit becomes almost impossible to find – no one wants your muncipal bonds, no one shows up for the auctions.  Which means that you have to stop even the steps you’ve been taking to get ahead.

Things that would give you a return on investment – say, improving the quality of education for your million school kids, or ensuring that some of them can go on to college through state subsidies, or investing in the good health of your households, or making your environment attractive to the kind of businesses that are most likely to stay and bring in tax revenues become impossible – you don’t have the money to make sweetheart deals or improve education – in fact, you are probably cutting back on it, and accepting that in 12 years, you’ll pay the price in students who did about as well in 35 kid classrooms as you’d expect.

That is, real poverty works pretty much the same at the personal, state or national (Iceland, say) level – you can’t buy much, you can’t save money, your costs get driven up. you lurch from crisis to crisis, getting further and further in the hole.  Some people are able to make their way out due to concerted effort and some good luck, but for most people, no matter how you try, getting out is almost impossible – because it would require the ability to invest in your future.  At best, you can maintain, get a little ahead this year, and fall back next, rather as Japan has done for the last 15 years. 

We are not yet at the stage where the US government is fully in this mode – it is still able to borrow money, but there are ominous signs of what is to come.  China’s mutterings about uncoupling from US debt are getting louder.  And with Japan facing a national contraction of 10%, their ability to buy our Treasuries is falling apart.  What happens when the 2 billion per day inflow sputters or halts? 

This is something that many people, maybe even most, simply can’t get their minds around.  The idea that a nation could get poor – and that it could look a lot like when Grandma got poor – seems strange and alien.  The idea that our country or our state would lose the ability to invest in major infrastructure changes, that we might have to live with what we have, seems very strange.  After all, can’t the nation run deficits?  Can’t it just print money.

 Yes, it can.  It can run huge deficits – but remember, all those debts will have to be served, and with a declining tax revenue (poor unemployed people and companies that go out of business pay fewer taxes than employed folks and functioning corporations) revenue base, more and more of our wealth has to go to servicing debt.  And all that borrowed money has to come from somewhere - and more and more debt makes people less likely to lend.  Think of it in terms of your own credit score – the lender is far more likely to lend to you if you have money in the bank and a loan level you can reasonably service than if not.

So what about printing money?  Yes, the US can do that, indeed, the Fed already is.  But the amount being printed is comparatively trivial in relationship to the debts and losses, and because we know that, the temptation is to hang on to any money we have in anticipation of the next emergency, which always comes. 

To do it on the scale required would require that we decouple from the world economy in a lot of ways.  Now this may well happen, but the process of decoupling is likely itself to be difficult, and deeply destructive to the economy.  That is, you can print money if you’ve already accepted that other nations aren’t going to be doing a lot of foreign investment – but that means seeing other economies take their wealth out of yours, which is a further deflationary event.  By the time hyper-inflation does come, what you probably have is something called “collapse.” 

And by this point, the assumptions one can safely make about what nations can and can’t do are probably rather different – one stops, I suspect, seeing nations like the US as powerful actors who could do things like extend health care to everyone or rebuild our energy infrastructure.  Instead, governments can do one of two things – pitch their entire effort into ameliorating suffering, or pitch their effort mostly into preserving wealth and privelege.  Something has to go, generally, and the first thing is likely to be the big dreams.  Instead, goals get smaller – either petty small, or more basic, simpler and more honest.  So far, we’ve been heavy on choice #2, help the rich,  but there are still hopes for better, and reason to try and make it happen at every level.

I think a lot of people who “get” the recession break off here, at the idea that there can be such a thing as a nation becoming poor.  And yet, it does happen – we’ve seen standards of living fall in several nations over the last few decades.  But Americans particularly struggle to get their heads around the idea that many of the big things governments do might cease to be done.  And they may be right – but I think it is wise to recognize the real possibility that at the municipal level, the trash pickup and snowplows may stop, that at the state level, your wife who is an employee may end up collecting worthless IOUs, or that projects designed to improve all our lives may simply be abandoned mid project.  And that at the national level, the scope of our ambitions may have to get smaller, and smaller, and smaller.

 What is remarkable about the resilience of poor people is how often they do manage to keep themselves from hitting rock bottom, despite the heavy burdens they labor under.  That is, while some do end up homeless and desperate, most ordinary poor people work their job or jobs, tend their kids, put food on the table, keep everyone going, get their kids to school.  That’s something that states and nations could also do – we will have sufficient resources to keep everyone fed, even to keep our commitments to the hungry in the world.  We will have sufficient resources, if we choose, to educate children and offering support to the elderly, the frail, the vulnerable.  But this will mean giving up most other goals – including the ones that talk about growth and executive salaries.

Moreover, there is an alternate form of poverty – self-sufficient poverty.  That is, it is possible to shift one’s idea of growth from the “quarter over quarter” to the “generation over generation” model – that is, you don’t get richer with your annual raises, you get richer because your parents save what they have, and pass it down to you.  They improve the soil, they plant more trees, they pay off the debt, and then you add the extra room for your sister and her children, dig the drainage, start the business that you can pass on to your children.

At the personal level, this is the difference between the urban dweller who lives on $2 per day and spends 80% of her income on food, and the one who lives on $2 per day on a piece of land that produces enough food for them.  In the first case, a medical crisis is a disaster, and you can never get ahead, never find the money to send your kids to school, never keep up.  In the second, most years the money can be held for doctor’s bills and school fees, and there’s hope.

The major functional difference in the two cases is this – the self-sufficient model has found ways around the constant falling behind.  It isn’t perfect – people do fall behind.  But there’s more stability in the long term. Instead of paying heavy fees to have services or energy provided, you might make your own, uisng a methane digester to provide cooking fuel from your own bodily wastes, or you might turn to community funds to start a business, or build a home, rather than banks with heavy interest rates.  Infrastructure investments are slow and less frequent – but because you stay in place for generations, the accumulated benefit of those investments, whether richer soil or a carefully harvested and nurtured forest or a house adapted to your climate and needs accrue enough to each generation to make progress.  Instead of always losing because you cannot afford to borrow ahead from the next generation or the next year, you never borrow against them – you plan for their enrichment by doing what you can, slowly, and then passing down the benefits over time. 

At the government level, it is possible to respond to less formal wealth with more informal wealth – with improving people’s quality of resources, rather than their quantity, with offering incentives for self-sufficiency, with encouraging people to feel content with what they have, or even proud of doing without and living well.  It is possible to imagine a patriotism built on our ability to adapt to these changing conditions, a sense that we are passing on to the future a legacy.  It is feasible to invest in natural capital – to plant more trees that will bear and serve future generations, to improve soil and water quality, and pass down more and better – not more and better economic growth, but more and better natural resources, and more and better priorities.

The transition from on-the-edge to self-sufficient is not a magic bullet – it is all poverty, and no poverty is bliss.  I do not claim that poverty is an ideal – merely that at least for a time, it is inevitable that we will experience a dramatic drop in what we can afford and have.  I wish I thought that there was another way through the present disequilibrium, but I do not.

The good thing is that we are still endowed with resources, nature still repairs itself to a degree, though we have done deep damage, there is still some hope for the future, if we were to invest ourselves in it.  And the other good thing is that after a period of poverty, one can reach equilibrium in which one no longer feels poor – that is, perhaps if we can find a way to induce people to improve their culture, soils, water, resources, we may find that living with much less is easier, we have adapted and developed a vernacular lifestyle in which “poverty” is no longer the right description, because we are accustomed to what we have, and we get back a little more each year, a little more beauty, a little more community and social capital.  

 Sharon

47 Responses to “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations (and Neighbors)”

  1. Phil says:

    You can’t afford to take advantage of your supermarket’s “Buy one get one free” offers on frozen (or freezable) food because you can’t afford to buy a freezer (or replace a broken one).

    You can’t move closer to your place of work in order to cut transportation costs because you can’t save enough for a deposit on another rented property.

    And so on.

    Excellent post, Sharon.

    I once had a very depressing conversation online with a banker about how the need for emergency car repairs was a mere inconvenience for the rich but a crisis for the poor. She just could not understand.

  2. Rosa says:

    I was in Iowa this weekend and there was a story all over the local papers about a group of men with mental disabilities who had worked at a local poultry processing plant for years and lived in a company-owned barracks at the edge of town.

    Over time, the company paid them less and less and then let their living quarters degrade, put up a big fence to keep community members out, got more and more secretive…but nobody reported them.

    One local person who didn’t live in the barracks was quoted saying she just figured some government agency looked out for them, so she never checked.

    We’ve been running into more and more of that as our infrastructure from the ’20s and ’30s – consumer protection agencies, the public defender’s office in each city and state, the last little bits of passenger bus & rail systems – just fall apart due to neglect. And it’s only going to get worse as long as this recession lasts.

    I hope you’re wrong about the decline being permanent.

  3. Peter D says:

    I think this is one of the hardest things about trying to prepare for the crash – it’s too expensive. Now I don’t mean in terms of food, you’ve done a great job helping low income people like me store food on a limited budget – but I live in a cold climate and am dependent on the system for heat (both in terms of natural gas and electricity). For me to become independent takes a lot of $ that I don’t have.

  4. e4 says:

    Interesting points, as always.

    I always thought our inheritance laws were stacked against passing the old homestead down to family. Anybody know about this in any detail?

  5. kate says:

    Here in Albany, NY one thing I’ve noticed is how people with limited incomes usually depend on getting a ride to the store. Some bartering goes on too. Someone with a car repays a favor by giving two other people a ride to Walmart, where they load up the car.

    And I’ve heard the same problem Sharon mentioned, with the exorbitant fees poor people are stuck with when they get behind on paying bills because something broke down in the system, perhaps child support, worker’s comp, disability payments. There’s a racket in the way we set all this up. Fees should be waived.

    I don’t know if I see the country going this way in general. I think those of us with privileges and resources will hold onto them until the bitter end.

    By the way, one of the most joyful things I’ve seen is the growth in farmer’s markets and how they accept food stamps and how popular they are. People line up before it opens. It’s colorful and many different languages are spoken.

  6. Michelle says:

    I don’t know whether to regard this as optimistic in the extreme (that it CAN be endured, and there ARE ways to do so with decent grace) or pessimistic in the extreme (all he** is about to break loose, and we can’t prevent it). I will carry on as if the fertilizer is about to hit the fan, and seek to bring others along into relative okay-ness with me. Thanks for speaking out so plainly about your expectations, and for helping others recalibrate their/our expectations as well.

  7. You’ve made good points here, Sharon. I’ve been among the working poor most of my life, with a few upward blips now and then. Absolutely, the automobile breaking is an acute crisis. Even having it towed away unexpectedly can cause someone to put it up for sale immediately after retrieval – personal testimony there!
    In our now electronic age, even the COMPUTER breaking is a serious setback, should it be needed for work or schoolwork. Now that everyone has cell phones – and paying 90% higher bills monthly than a home land line used to cost – the breaking or loss of a cell phone can be catastrophic as there are fewer and fewer pay phones available to use, even for emergencies, and one call costs 75 cents!

    It is disheartening to admit to, but I think that the future you paint is the most probable. Since it also resembles the living standards of some nations whose emmigrants we receive, I cannot see a smooth transition or acceptance of such truth within a large segment of US Citizenry. Our social identity has been heavily influenced by the notions of what is wealth, status and progress. There is a great demonizing of the poor, the “other.” I cannot help but foresee great convulsions of angst, etc. when such realities sink in.
    No matter how many people become poor, there will still be people with money.

    The greatest challenge, beyond keeping us all fed, and sheltered, is how to change those definitions of what is “enough” to live a good life, and actually have the majority accept them.

  8. sealander says:

    I’m with Snowbird on this one…….I can’t see the majority of American people accepting with good grace that despite whatever aspirations they may have had, the best they might manage in the future is to become a New American Peasant.

  9. hugh owens says:

    Thank you for another thoughtfully penned analysis of life in these United States and thank you for offering hope and coping strategies. I spend a lot of time looking at the same problems on a global basis and the struggles you describe for Americans has been business as usual for a good part of the world and looks to become unwelcome change in other formerly prosperous corners of the realm like the UK and Ireland, Spain, and Italy. The fact is we are broke, as people, as states as nations. With the level of national and now global debt, there are no ways save this credit and debt model. The economic morons who caused this think that the solution is more debt, more money, more stimulus. Gertrude Stein said(paraphrasing)”There ain’t no answer. That’s the answer.”
    Eventually when this debt is defaulted upon, forgiven or inflated out of existence, we will begin living with a new economic and societal model in which conservation, economy, community production of food and goods returns. Those who can prioritize what is really important, people like jewish farmer will survive and probably thrive and pass on habits of self sufficiency which will not only benefit themselves and their families but the nation. It will be a learning process but it looks like long last that people are starting to grasp the magnitude of the changes that are upon them.

  10. EJ says:

    Caution zombies ahead!
    Today @http://greenbluebrown.blogspot.com/

  11. risa b says:

    All the more reason to stress skills focusing on low cost solutions. “Design For the Other 90 Percent” type thinking.

    When I was little, my family went on vacation — a rare thing, we were poor — came to a bridge in South Georgia where a Pepsi truck had rammed the abutment and dropped thousands of pounds of glass on the bridge. People were turning around and driving a seventy-mile detour. But we were on a budget. My dad looked around a bit, and got an axe out of the back of the station wagon and cut several alder branches, said “here” to a bystander and gave him the axe, then started sweeping with one of the branches. Everyone standing around got the idea, and one by one they picked up a branch or took one from the man cutting, or took over the axe (it was HOT), and in twenty minutes everyone could get through.

    It can be tough not to have what others have, but it can be strong not to need what others think they must have.

  12. MD says:

    My Dad always said it was good to be poor, because it meant that he was always learning- if the roof leaked, he had to climb up there and fix it. If the plumbing froze, he was under the house, thawing it (use a hair dryer, not a blow torch!:). He even kept the house propped up with a car jack and concrete blocks. When it was becoming too much, a wealthy couple bought the “charming” old place for enough money for my parents to have a new place built on the last of the inherited land without debt. “Debt” was a four-letter word for us, so it just amazed me to move to the city and see how helpless urban poverty can be.
    Living on less is thought-provoking in a lot of ways. Self-sufficient poverty requires religious maintenance to prevent costly breakdowns, and doing lots of things yourself that you would not think you could do until you pick up the screwdriver or the shovel or the crowbar or the hammer. But you can do them, and the learning gives you a valuable skill set. That is a positive thing.

  13. NLL says:

    As a retired banker, I have seen this for twenty-five years. Small account holders, the people who can least afford it, pay more fees and penalities. While large account holders’ fees are regularly waived or refunded. It is sad, but profit before humanity rules.
    NLL

  14. ctdaffodil says:

    Very Timely Post Sharon!
    reading this makes me want to start working again so we can put more earnest efforts into our cash stores….other stores are in good shape and we have really good credit – but you just don’t know.

  15. Paula says:

    I don’t doubt that we will head for hyperinflation in the near future. Foreign investors will not want diluted dollars in exchange for their bond purchases. And when we stop affording all the semi-useless crap made in China, the country will stop lending us money and buying our bonds. The longer the Treasury cranks out those worthless dollar bills, the worse it’s going to get.

    If we Americans were smart, we would refuse to claim any more “stimulus” handouts from this government. Our grandchildren will be paying for it all, and that’s a dirty shame.

    Paula

  16. Brad K. says:

    NLL,

    I think one of the greatest outrages today, is the lack of pressure on banks – in regard to penalties and fees.

    Returned check charges, charges for insufficient funds where the item is processed, daily fees for negative balances on demand accounts -

    I would like to see severe restrictions placed, requiring that fees not exceed *actual costs* to the institution, amortized per month over their entire operation. Instead, I see banks and others using such fees as the basis for their income.

    Yes, large depositors do benefit a bank – they provide the funds that banks loan and make profits on. As well, there are fewer return or overdraft events and costs.

    Yet I abhor the practice of using checking and savings account fees to generate profits.

    Likewise ATM fees – prudent operators shouldn’t realize nearly enough cost to demand $1-$2.50 per transaction. And banks certainly don’t encounter costs to explain a further hefty charge to the customer’s account for electronic transactions.

    I am not averse to banks recovering costs. Making profit, though, on hardship offends me.

  17. Jeannie says:

    Great article! I can relate to it well. My husband and I are lucky enough to have health insurance. The only problem is we also have a $5,000 deductable. That means we don’t go to the doctor unless it is a major problem. We have been lucky and have only had to use it once in the last five years. Then the bill for the many, many doctor visits and two surgeries was $50,000. We were just thankful we had the insurance since there was no way we could have paid that bill. My husband does hard physical work on his brother’s farm and would retire now, he is 62, but he needs to keep working because we need the health insurance. Insurance we are thankful to have, but that costs us $13,000 a year even with the hugh deductable. National health insurance would be one of the best things that could happen to poor and working class people in this country. That will never happen, even though a majority of the people want it. The excuse they will use now will for sure be that it is too expensive even though war and bank bailouts cost much more and help no one but the already too rich.

  18. Betsy says:

    Below is an excerpt from a Boston Globe editorial from last week. It helps me understand why we’re encountering such resistance to turning around our unsustainable way of life. The tone is mocking and sarcastic and portrays an underlying assumption that if I can afford it, I should have it, because, as l’Oreal tells us “I’m worth it”.

    Just splurge a little
    Even a bad economy is no excuse for hyperfrugality
    By Sam Allis
    Globe Columnist / February 8, 2009

    There’s nothing neurotic, of course, about the brute fear that consumes parents with three children who have both lost their jobs. There is nothing neurotic about trading down from meat to SpaghettiOs for dinner, or staging a family vacation in the backyard. Nothing neurotic, in short, about doing what you have to do to get by.

    But there is something neurotic about people who are not in extremis eating lentils and roadside greens to prove some point.

    People living comfortably who suddenly embrace the current fad of eating little, spending less, and crow about it. What we have here is a calorie race to the bottom. What we have here is overreaction.

    (The fad has nothing to do with the committed chicken-breasted men and X-ray thin women who want to live forever. Their daily caloric intake would be problematic for Mini-Me. One woman I recently saw on TV said she enjoys the feeling of hunger.)

    The party was over last year, but it became official in January, when the strange and famous clothing designer Karl Lagerfeld famously announced to the BBC, “Bling is over.”

    It’s time, he said, for modesty. I’m all for modesty. I have no choice because I don’t have the dough to live otherwise.

    But the gap between modesty and extremism is huge.

    The new hyperfrugality we read and hear about is the new Botox. It’s a trend that will be hot until something else comes along, as collagen did for all those women who wanted clown lips. Maybe driving at 7 miles an hour will become hip, who knows?

    Whenever this crisis ends, prepare to watch a disturbing number of people return at warp speed to angus beef and yellow fin tuna.

    There lurks a dark joy among simple-life true believers, who planned ahead for hard times and were ridiculed for doing so. They have no time now for those who couldn’t be bothered.

    They watch with wry amusement as the rest of us face collapse.

    I have a friend who has lived a very simple life for decades. Much of what he ate he grew. He’s always scoffed at large consumption. He was on an austere energy program long before it was cool – no running water while doing the dishes, things like that.

    I remember him telling me back in the late ’70s that he wouldn’t mind a crash. Americans must experience it, he said, before they can find balance in their lives.

    Speaking of extremist behavior, an article in The New York Times last week caught my eye. It was about lunatic people – my adjective, not the Times’s – who have unplugged their refrigerators in the name of energy efficiency. As best as I can get it, they survive with a small freezer in the basement and a steady rotation of ice water bottles from said basement freezer toted up into the dead refrigerator in the kitchen to keep it cool enough to preserve some foods. Meat for hungry mouths? Try Wendy’s.

    This whole thing is nuts. It has far less to do with survival in hard times than it does in trumpeting extremism in the name of energy savings. I know a lot of serious environmentalists who would blanch at the thought of losing their refrigerators. Think of a family of five eating two or three meals a day sans refrigerator. Powdered milk, anyone?

  19. ChristyACB says:

    I really enjoyed your essay here, but I admit to conflicting emotions about it. It seems so often that poor are described in such glowing terms, the Noble Poor. But no one describes the inefficiency of actions and extremely poor judgement that keeps many behind the curve. Why is no one talking about all those who got a stimulus check who went right out and bought expensive shoes when less expensive ones would have been fine? Why doesn’t anyone talk about the section 8 houses with yards and no garden? Where is the description of that noble poor person who got back a tax refund far larger than what they paid in taxes who didn’t get themselves out of debt but bought luxury goods?

    Personally, I have been poor. I mean dirt poor. I mean, make a wrong choice and starve poor. Instead, I made right choices and over time and much very, very hard work with 2 or 3 jobs, got ahead and now am upper middle class. That isn’t a brag, it is a statement. Everyone can get themselves out of their own personal quagmire if they are actually willing to work.

    While I didn’t have family to lean on, most people do. Why aren’t more of the Noble Poor sharing quarters?

    I may sound unsympathetic and I’m sorry if that is the case. In all actuality I give as much charity as I can but my taxes are not charity! It seems people see the “best solution” through a very limited lense that changes as their situation changes. Perhaps I am too a bit, but I’m tired of being the responsible one that is footing the bill. National Health Care is not free. I get to pay it for you is all. Amnesty for Illegal Aliens is not a way of gaining a tax base, it is a forgiveness of all that was stolen from those who pay the taxes.

    I agree that we should all be sustainable and working to use what we have. The overall American viewpoint of today has got to change. The paradigm shift. I grow my own food and preserve it, yet I still work in the big world to bring home the bacon (or turkey bacon). If times get hard, my house can hold 20 people in a pinch and everyone gets a job, no matter how menial, if it helps.

    America does sort of need a crash so that it can restabilize and reprioritize, but that includes the so-called poor. Being born in America does NOT entitle anyone to bling, a free home, free welfare, free food stamps, to steal what you want or “liberate” from others, a nice car or even your own home. It isn’t free. It is paid for with the sweat of others. Nothing is free. Corporations aren’t created and people don’t work 80 hours a week to build them to give freebies to those who bounce checks for yearbooks. To have all those things mentioned are priviledges gained through hard, hard…hard…work, extreme perseverance and working with the family you were born into or made for yourself.

  20. irritated says:

    Personally, I have been poor. I mean dirt poor. I mean, make a wrong choice and starve poor. Instead, I made right choices and over time and much very, very hard work with 2 or 3 jobs, got ahead and now am upper middle class. That isn’t a brag, it is a statement. Everyone can get themselves out of their own personal quagmire if they are actually willing to work.

    Ah – but you obviously did this in the old economy.

    My wife has a Master’s degree and has been unsuccessful at finding a job for about 10 months. She is incredibly hard working and has applied for everything from dog walking on up to the fields in which she has academically-verified skills.

    We live in a rented apartment downtown, have no opportunity to grow anything (we have few windows and no outside space).

    Corporations aren’t created and people don’t work 80 hours a week to build them to give freebies to those who bounce checks for yearbooks.

    …but they get a free pass and billions in “relief” when they make stupid mistakes. They have reduced the inflation-adjusted take-home pay of workers for the last 35 years.

  21. “Everyone can get themselves out of their own personal quagmire if they are actually willing to work.”

    Really?

  22. Rosa says:

    This pisses me off so much!

    austere energy program long before it was cool – no running water while doing the dishes

    How is this “austere”? This is standard in notably affluent places like Europe and Australia. So are a bunch of the “extreme” things we practice (like laundry lines).

    Extreme exists, but we obviously haven’t been extreme enough, if mainstream people think not wantonly wasting water is an extreme change.

  23. Kathy says:

    Yeah, look, I have to say, as an Australian I am always weirded out to hear that drying clothes on a clothesline is considered environmentally extreme or unusual in some way. It is so absolutely the norm here, and most people use indoor drying lines in the winter too, resorting to electric clothes dryers only when it’s significantly wet and cold for a sustained period. Most middle class homes *have* dryers but I’d say I’m not untypical in using ours maybe 10-12 times a year at worst.

    Ditto on the water things. Hell, running water while washing dishes is so frowned upon in our drought conditions; we are on outdoor water restrictions that are quite tight and approved of by most people; I don’t know anyone who flushes their toilet after every use (unless they are rerouting greywater or tank water to flush it, which about 10% of my state already does and more are moving that way). We live in a dry place – wasting water is socially unacceptable. Does that make us radical simple-lifers? Who knew ;-)

  24. Laurie in MN says:

    “Personally, I have been poor. I mean dirt poor. I mean, make a wrong choice and starve poor. Instead, I made right choices and over time and much very, very hard work with 2 or 3 jobs, got ahead and now am upper middle class.”

    With all due respect (and I *truly* mean that. Really.), you were also lucky. Sometimes making all the right choices and working 2 or 3 jobs simultaneously is enough. Sometimes it isn’t. And it helps if there are jobs to be had.

    I hope that your knowing what it’s like to be one bad choice away from starving helps you empathize with the people who are in that place right now, and remember that small things can make a huge difference when you are that broke. Getting the yearbook can make the difference between your kid feeling like they are a part of their class and feeling like they are poor laughingstock kid who’s never going to fit in. Renting a movie once in a while shouldn’t be cause for not being one of the “deserving poor” any more, because even the poor deserve to have a night of fun once in a while. Ditto the occasional “treat”. The fact that doing small stuff to help you keep your head up and keep going is held against you is part of the problem the United States has with anyone who hasn’t pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps in my not so humble (or quiet) opinion.

    It’s pretty hard to pull yourself up by your bootstraps when you haven’t any boots. Sometimes you need a hand. And if you’ve had one, it pretty much obligates you to *give* one, if you ever get to the point of not needing it yourself.

    I’m getting off the soapbox now as I never intended to lecture. I do apologize for that. But I also think it needs to be said.

    Thank you for listening, and hopefully, pondering.

  25. Dan says:

    Great piece as usual Sharon.

    But I wonder how long it’s been since you’ve ventured into Middle America. I’m talking the WalMarts and Targets, the convenience stores and inner city high schools, the suburbs and Tilly’s surf-wear shops.

    When I journey in my own haunts, my yoga classes, my natural grocer, the library, the coffee shops, I have a lot of hope for the world and think it’ll all be fine as we coast our way as you described into a genteel form of impoverished living. I save 50% of my income and live at a lower-middle class level by choice for now. I know I’d be fine making do with less because I’ve done it. I’ll keep my job for now and put away the savings for when it dissappears with everyone elses. And I know there are others like me out there making do and not compromising their principles as they strive for a lot of what you described.

    But when I hazard out to the big-boxes and see the hoards of obese, illiterate, oddly entitled masses buying Cheesy Poofs and Icees for heir kids and bemoaning that an $8.99 tee-shirt is ridiculously expensive while handing over $50 for video games and toxic plastic toys…well, I don’t see things quite so rosy then.

    There is a huge class or sub-set of people in this country who have been reared on TV and corn-syrup. They are too stupid to fend for themselves and too much a part of the intentionally created consumer culture to ever change. They are not the Noble Poor. They are the automatons. The tumors of a cancered society. I’m sorry, but I think these people would choose death or a FEMA camp over hard labor and a living wage.

  26. Rebecca says:

    Christy and Dan, gee, classist much? I grew up in those areas and thanks for insulting me and everyone I knew growing up. People are illeterate or nearly so because none of the f*king schools are worth a damn. They’re obese because a $0.99 bag of cheez doodles is a hell of a lot cheaper than buying fresh fruit and vegetables. Most of them work two or three jobs. When there are jobs available, that is, which isn’t often. Dan, I’d like to see YOU do a double shift at a diner and then go home and take care of the kids. Christy I’d like to see you work two jobs and then grow a garden in a housing complex where everything you grew would be stolen -assuming you could get permission to grow the garden, that is, which is doubtful.
    Yes, people make bad choices. That includes the two of you. You both have an awful lot of advantages -good education and so forth. Most poor people don’t. I clawed my way out of the ghetto by a combination of hard work and a lot of good luck.
    And don’t talk to me about being one bad choice away from starving. I was malnourished until the age of 12. I know what it feels like to be actually starving.
    Go back to your comfortable middle-class lives secure in your self-righteous assumption that your better than everyone below you.

  27. Rebecca says:

    Oh yeah, as an example of fees, check this: my utility payment was one day late to the utility company thanks to the U.S. Postal Service. One day. Before they received it, they had all ready sent me an automatic cut-off notice for five days after the due date, and were demanding an extra $6 and change for a late fee.

  28. Vincent Blackshadow says:

    The classic governmental response to a financial hole this huge is to start a war with someone, then whip up patriotic (idiotic) fervor so that most people will work for years on end for sub-minimum wages for ‘the Nation’.

    I see no evidence to the contrary that this current meltdown will be any different.

    Working at slave wages for decades might just payoff the debt bubble, on the other hand, the Derivative Beast and associated debt monsters are probable much larger in aggregate of all combined world assets for a century or two.

    Serfdom is here to stay. ‘Adapting’ to it will be the key to any possible future sense of happiness.

    Dmitry Orlov said that during the USSR collapse, women adapted much better than men (especially middle-aged men) because ‘…perhaps … they have less of their ego invested in the whole dubious enterprise (Modern Empire), or perhaps their sense of personal responsibility is tied to those around them and not some nebulous grand enterprise…’

  29. ChristyACB says:

    Rebecca…Uh..did you actually *read* the post I made that you’re so angry about?

    Ghetto climbing out – check!
    Working 2 jobs and then growing a garden – check!
    Getting it stolen – Check!

    Let me add that where I lived wasn’t a government subsidized housing unit since I hadn’t bred enough to qualify and didn’t want it, so instead I lived in a freaking hovel where I plugged up the holes *through* the wall from gunshots in order to keep the massive roach population out. So yes, been there, done that. And I worked 3 jobs, thank you very much.

    As for this so-called wonderful education I got. Hey, baby, I went to the same crappy public school you’re ranting over so get over it. And as for getting my further education, yes, I did…by freaking working 3 jobs to take each class and tutoring students in the class I had just finished to get a discount on the tuition for that one class.

    It can be done. You just have to *not* give in to Poverty Fatigue which makes you buy things that don’t help when you get a little cash and stick to what is absolutely necessary. You won’t get enough sleep. You won’t get enough time with your kids to make yourself feel guilt free. You will live in a roach motel apartment. You will have to bring tomato plants indoors every single day and night to keep them safe and break your back doing it. You will have to work at jobs that are totally beneath your dignity. You will have to spend your 10 free minutes a day crying because it seems like too much.

    But at the end, you’ll find yourself waking up one day and saying…Holy Moly…I’m making it!

    If you’re smart, you *won’t* immediately go quit the extra third job because you can, instead you’ll *save* every penny it brings in. And if you’re really smart, you’ll keep on doing that until you have a full-on down payment for a house and then…and only then…will you give yourself a day off to enjoy the move in. And when you finally finish that last class, then and only then will you take your shiny new degree to a single job and you’ll save every single extra penny until you have a year’s worth of income in the bank.

    Then you can give yourself a treat, but only 10% of what you think you deserve.

    I’m not classist…you are. By assuming I’m some silver spoon muffinhead petted up through life and not even bothering to read that I was *exactly* where most of the complainers are, you show your own classist bias.

    All it takes is actual self control.

  30. Paula says:

    Dan,

    What do you know about hard labor? What sort of occupation do you have? Before you bash the “huge class or sub-set of people in this country,” possibly you should think a little bit about the items you purchase at your natural grocer and coffee shop. Undoubtedly, a number of individuals who grow, pick, and package your “natural” foods are part of this sub-set.

    My father, a son of some extremely hard-working, Irish-German immigrant farmers, always told me it takes all kinds to make this world go ’round. I really don’t think classing humans as tumors is fair. I believe the tumors are really the advertising executives and marketing managers who create enticing campaigns for unsuspecting, unassuming buyers and naive youth. Just another wonderful facet of corporate America . . . I should know. I used to work campaigns for some pretty large corporations.

    Instead of bashing others for being part of a TV and corn syrup culture, maybe you should take some time off yoga classes and get involved in teaching families about basic nutrition. I’ll bet your county government has a university extension office that could use a good volunteer or two. Or are you too far above these people that are “too stupid to fend for themselves?”

    Dan, we can all start making a difference if we let go of our haughtiness.

    Paula

  31. Isis says:

    Christy,

    Let me ask you something. Suppose you got sick while working your three jobs and taking classes and gardening because, well, your body just wasn’t up to working such long hours. Suppose you didn’t have insurance because, well, you were paying for classes rather than for even basic insurance. And suppose furthermore that in order to get medical treatment, you got into more debt than your minimum wage jobs would ever cover. Under those circumstances, what would you be? The idiot who worked her body harder than was reasonable to expect it to endure?

    Seriously here. Only so many people can work on that kind of schedule without breaking down physically and/or mentally. There will always be a few people who manage to make it that way, but for most people, this is simply not within reach. Kind of like an Olympic medal. Every Olympic medalist worked extremely hard to get there, but if pushed in that direction at all cost, an average person’s body would break down long before reaching the necessary level of preparedness.

    Basically, what I’m saying is that your approach may work for a few and break many more, but to expect that to be a ‘cure’ for poverty for more than an isolated individual here and an isolated individual there is (to put it mildly and generously) unrealistic.

  32. Pete says:

    Thank you Sharon for another terrific article.

    The good man is the teacher the bad learns from and the bad man is the material the good works on. Not to love the teacher nor to love the material though it seems clever, betrays great bewilderment. — Laozi/D. C. Lau trans.

  33. Bill in Tennessee says:

    Great post, Sharon, made all the more fascinating by the comments that followed. Readers’ takes on this subject reveal, if nothing else, the deep divisions of class that, race aside, exist in this country…and perhaps world-wide. That, and the incredible, pent-up (thus far) anger that can manifest in times of stress. One of my greatest fears is that, soon, we’ll be seeing great displays of anger, when people begin to understand just how unmercifully they’ve been manipulated and screwed by this system. My hope is that we don’t begin to turn in anger against those of different classes, for whatever reason. Although, for sure, it seems like half of Wall Street ought to be strung up.

    The Department of Defense is formulating plans to deal with massive civil disslocation and unrest. Former government (CIA) agents are talking and writing about bad it will be when things do come unglued. Google “Nothern Command” to see some of what’s up. As long as there have been empires (political, financial, religious) based on exploitation, the “powers that be” have lived in fear of the day when the peasants’ eyes snap open. That day is fast approaching, and I’m thinking the repercussions will be horrendous. It’s happening in Europe and Asia, right now. We be fools to think it won’t happen here, as well.

    Being angry in a situation like we face is an honest and understandable emotion. There’s a long list of those who deserve our righteous anger and, hopefully justice will be served.

    My wish at this time, as collapse seems so near at hand, is that we will be wise enough to pick our targets carefully.

  34. Greenpa says:

    Wow, Sharon, excellent stuff. The responses are wonderfully educational too- obviously, a lot of folk are still unaware of how far down “down” is.

    Got a huge kick out of the reference to the NYT article on wackos unplugging their fridges. LOL!!

  35. Dan says:

    Paula and others-

    Apologies if my post came off as haughty. I’m in the middle of working 12 hour night-shifts (that real enough work for you?) and might not have got the point across just right.

    I grew up in a small town and went through a shitty education system too. My parents were poor. My mom sold tupperware to help pay the bills and I worked after school from the age of 14 on. I still have college loans to pay off and am working hard to save as much as I can before the inevitable. I grew up eating “natural foods” because that’s what my mom cooked. I grew up on staples and was never allowed all the candy and crap my friends parents let them have. I buy staple foods from the natural food stores because it’s cheaper and healthier than buying shit food from the major chains. I spend time in coffee shops because a cup of tea costs $1.50 and lasts three hours. I take yoga because it keeps me sane and costs much less than paying for health care down the road that can be prevented by more conscious living. And FWIW, I do spent time trying to help people learn about nutrition and making better choices with their money. That’s one of the reasons I may sound jaded…because mostly no-one wants to listen. They want Nascar and Bud Light and Famous Dave’s BBQ, all put on the credit card.

    But who cares.

    My point was that regardless of how un-PC it sounds, there are just too many people who don’t and won’t get it for our utopian crash scenarios to work. Yeah, it might sound classist, but I work with them, I live around them, I have them in my family, and I stand by the gist of what I said. Some of them are poor, some are rich, it’s not really the money that matters…it’s the attitude of entitlement, the consumer culture, etc. Yes, there are a lot of good, hard-working people in this country. But the center doesn’t hold. You can only blame the education system so far. At some point you make a personal choice to turn on the TV, to suck down that Coke, to give in to violence, to not pay attention to the world around you, and on and on. Whether at the lower margins or the middle-class top, those who choose not to examine their choices or understand the implications of them are going to have a very hard time in the years ahead. Again, it’s not about class and it’s not about money. I know people making $10K a year who get it and $100K a year who don’t.

    I know it’s complicated and I know people have their own crosses to bear. But that doesn’t hide the truth of the lives so many live. Maybe it’s been their only option. Maybe not. I guess we’ll have to wait and see how the adaptation goes.

  36. Barb says:

    Christy, Thanks for posting your experiences. It’s distressing to see the anger people have expressed, far as I can tell, just because you’re a strong woman. I find your story quite inspiring and am sorry more people do not see it that way.

    From time to time, I’ve gotten involved in volunteer work of one kind or another, trying to help people who are somehow never able to help themselves. When I tried to get women at a battered women’s center interested in growing a garden, all they wanted to do was watch soap operas on TV. When I let a young woman and her daughter move into my home while I was away, I got back to find vegetables rotting in the garden and the young woman driving into the city a couple of times a week to buy food from stores, with food stamps. And so forth. Sometimes poverty is just bad luck. Certainly this is true for children living in poverty. But once a person is no longer a child, it’s no longer luck. Sure, sometimes everyone has bad luck. But everyone also has good luck, sometimes. I’ve noticed that when people stay poor, year after year, it’s mostly due to the bad choices they make, day after day, hour after hour.

    To the person who complained that she should be able to rent videos even if she can’t afford to (and have the government bail her out when she can’t pay off her debts?) Good grief! Have you never thought of entertaining yourself in ways that do not require spending money? Sitting around telling stories, for example. Going for walks. Checking out books from the library. Building things out of scrounged materials. Collecting wild foods that grow everywhere, even in cities.

    Instead of trashing Christy, why don’t you ask her questions about how she did it? Try to learn from her?

    Here’s how I did it, when I was first starting out — I worked as a waitress at night and answering phones at an insurance company during the day. I saved up $700 from my tips and put a down payment on a rattty old house (this was back in the early 1970′s when $700 had more purchasing power than it does now). I saved money to buy building materials to fix up the house by eating food people left on their plates at the restaurant where I worked (I’d encourage people to order things I liked), supplemented by beans, brewer’s yeast and vitamin C tablets. A very inexpensive diet, overall. You know what? I’ve never felt healthier in my life. It makes me smile to remember those days — I was young, and the world seemed so full of hope.

    I didn’t dwell on my poverty or on the fact that when I got a bladder infection I couldn’t afford to go to the doctor, so instead drank lots and lots of water to wash out the infection (it works just about as quickly as antibiotics). But then … I feel really healthy now too at the age of 59, and the world still seems full of hope. Maybe that’s part of the secret to having the strength to do whatever you need to do — looking at the bright side most of the time and always having hope.

  37. Anna Marie says:

    Working hard can get you out of poverty, but I might argue you can only do it so long and that there is a degree of luck involved. I grew up poor, worked 2-3 jobs through undergrad, masters and Ph.D. The last year of my Ph.D. I worked full time and finished my dissertation. Then I got the professor job and worked full time while adjunct teaching on-line in the evenings to pay off my student loans. Weekends I did research for tenure. By the time the student debts were paid off I was 37. I was tenured, had savings and no debt, but also had no house, no partner, no family, few friends. I had worked 60+ hours per week since I had been 18, denied myself much fun to save money, and I was absolutely exhausted. I had moved 6 times in 20 years for the sake of economics, and “the career” so I felt little sense of community. My colleagues from higher social strata were aliens to me with their talk of vacations, and cabins in the woods, and golf games.

    After all of that, I wondered what life was all about and let myself relax a little, watched a movie now and again, let myself have a treat once in a while. Not too surprisingly, I became emotionally open enough to meet my husband who happened to be wealthy, and I now don’t have to work. I write and teach part-time to continue the pension and savings contributions, I tend a big veg garden, have chickens, and live simply. For a while, I felt guilty about not busting my hump out there in the marketplace, but my husband said…sweetie…this is the time for your reward. Life is to be enjoyed, not just endured. I honestly don’t know if I could go back to working 60 hours a week for “the man” again. I just don’t think I’d have the youthful stamina, and I’ve lost interest in the academic games people play. And, I’m enjoying some of the sweeter things in life like walks in the woods, and camping with my husband, and a decent bottle of wine. Those things would be hard to give up.

    But I do know that if I wasn’t lucky enough to meet my hub, I’d be in there, working overtime, saving every dime, because I’d be afraid I’d lose my job due to state budget cuts. The fear would never end. Sometimes, getting out of poverty can be just due to silly luck. Sometimes, getting out of poverty can be due to giving up the fear.

  38. Paula says:

    Dan,

    Now I get your point! Yes, I can understand where you are coming from. My youth sounds similar to yours. I worked from early on too and put myself through college because my parents couldn’t afford to help. Fortunately, I grew up around gardening and agriculture, so I naturally understood the value of autonomy from early on. Get this . . . a few years ago a teenage relative of mine looked at my trellised cucumber plant and asked me if that’s what pickles are made out of. I thought it was cute, but I seriously wonder what percentage of Americans would ask this same question. Our culture is so far removed from its food sources-that’s what scares me about living in these economic times.

    What’s heartbreaking to read in this thread, is how incredibly hard people have worked to give themselves better lives, only to realize it’s not enough anymore. We should all be furious with our government for being so lax on the banking industry and multi-national corporations. We all will be paying for a few people’s greedy endeavors for many years to come.

  39. Sharon says:

    What a fascinating conversation this has been, particularly the dialog about getting out of poverty.

    I’d say it is pretty safe to say that 1. More people can do it than have. 2. Everyone can’t – whether for health and personal reasons, because they have children or because they are lazy asses (which is not a category limited by class). 3. Most people don’t know how – even if they had the ability to do so.

    Add to that the modern addition – that it is getting harder, and simultaneously more necessary. And whether some people are just lazy asses or not, everyone who can take our help learning how to live decently even if poor, is going to need it.

    What a great discussion.

    Sharon

  40. Liz says:

    One observation: people grow up not just with different attitudes and expectations, but in different kinds of systems. Kids who grow up in hard-working families and in situations where the work is rewarded learn one set of coping strategies–get a good education, look for a good job, work hard at it. Kids who grow up on welfare learn a different one–how to get the most out of section 8 housing, the most out of food stamps, the most out of whatever welfare system they’re in. They learn the skills they see being used around them. It’s unrealistic to expect those kids to suddenly acquire a whole new set of skills and expectations out of thin air when they reach adulthood.

    Some will be so dissatisfied with poverty that they will knock themselves out to learn new ways of living. Those people would be exceptional in whatever social strata they started out in. The rest of them will struggle along doing the best they know how to do with the tools they have around them. Demanding that everyone pull themselves up by their bootstraps is like demanding that every woman suffering from domestic abuse should immediately get herself out of it. You have to come to the point where you can internalize that it’s possible to do so, whether the situation is abuse or poverty.

    I’ve watched one family member on food stamps and in rent-assisted housing work every angle she could come up with to keep her family fed and sheltered, while others with her same education and background just went off every day to the jobs they assumed would always be there. Now the jobs have gone, and they’re helpless. The single mother who has always had to fight for every penny has skills that her more fortunate sisters and cousins never dreamed of, and she’ll figure out some way to manage the coming crisis too, while they wail for more bailouts and mortgage assistance. Being poor is never “noble.” But sometimes it does generate survival skills that you don’t get any other way.

  41. Barb says:

    Great summary, Sharon:

    =====================================
    1. More people can do it than have. 2. Everyone can’t – whether for health and personal reasons, because they have children or because they are lazy asses (which is not a category limited by class). 3. Most people don’t know how – even if they had the ability to do so.
    =====================================

    I think number 3 is the most limiting factor. Most of the time, people are lazy asses only because they have no meaningful goal. Here’s a real-life example – years ago I wrote an article on the effects gardens have on school children. Some of the parents of a local school had gotten together and turned an elementary school’s barren court yard into a paradise of a garden. As part of my prep work for the article, I interviewed some of the kids. One was a kid who had previously been labeled “learning disabled” or whatever the fashionable term was at the time. This kid, who had been scheduled to be moved to a “special needs” school, gave me a tour of the garden, naming all the plants. He was especially pleased to point out a chrysalis, from which, he explained, a Gulf fritillary butterfly could be expected to emerge. He had gobbled up knowledge in arithmetic (for example, he needed to be able to compute the number of cabbage seeds needed to plant a 12 foot row); botany; zoology. He told me, “I used to hate going to school. Now, every morning when I get up, I can’t wait to go to school.”

    I see this same kind of thing in employees I hire for my business and in the small business owners who are my clients. It doesn’t work well, trying to make people into complacent machines. If you give people some leeway to set their own goals and follow them, people who used to seem stupid suddenly become smart; people who used to be lazy suddenly have energy.

    Unfortunately, if people are trained their whole lives to be complacent machines, by the time they are adults, it is often very difficult for them to change, even if you show them how. This is one reason I’m really worried about what’s going to happen as the economic depression progresses. So many people have no clue what it means to create one’s own goals, to make decisions and carry them out.

  42. Sad and Mad says:

    ChristyACB said,
    “Everyone can get themselves out of their own personal quagmire if they are actually willing to work.”

    Bull. My 62-year-old works his fanny off for $8.50 an hour. That’s all there is available in my area. Scratch that! Right now there is nothing available. The jobs are gone and the numbers of unemployed keep going up.

    For the sake of argument, let’s assume he could find another job. Would you hire a man who works harder than anyone I know but his eyes are bad and the money for the new glasses he needs is not in our budget? Could you look past how horrible his few teeth look and hire him anyway? No? You would instead hire the guy who previously had a decent job with health insurance, eye and dental care benefits and LOOKS good, wouldn’t you?

    Or maybe you could think about hiring me. Right now we only have one vehicle so I would need a ride. No public transit here. If we could afford a car, I would still need a ride because I can’t pass the eye test to renew my driver’s license right now. I also desperately need new glasses. Bad teeth? I have those, too. Find me a dentist who will take reasonable payments and maybe we could fix that problem.

    But wait. If I find a fix for all those problems, will you hire me once you find out that I have severe nerve damage which means my fingers don’t work very well and my arms are in constant pain? I drop almost everything I pick up. Will that be OK?

    Our electric bills are going up. Our water/sewer bill is going up. Our property taxes are going up even though our property value continues its downhill slide. And, no, I can’t sell my house. Everybody and their brother is trying to sell around here. There are no buyers and my house isn’t in the greatest shape anyway. It costs money to make repairs. Not in the budget.

    And, puh-leeez, no one tell me to cut out things we don’t need. We don’t buy ANYTHING we don’t need and, believe me, we skip some things we do need. I haven’t bought any brand new clothing in years and, sad to say, that includes underwear. Sorry if that’s too much information but maybe some people need to really understand what desperation feels like these days, not years ago when we/you were young. NOW.

    We take nothing from the government or any charity. We pay our own way, all the way. So we are costing no one anything. No health care benefits here. Nada. I don’t go to the doctor. Can’t afford it. Hubby goes because we need to keep him healthy but we can’t really afford it.

    So what’s next? Tell me to ditch the internet service and save money that way? I can’t afford to give it up. Right now the only small income I am able to add to our household comes from internet work. Should we give up our cable TV? Oops. We don’t have any. Long distance service? Nope, don’t have that either.

    I don’t know why I bother. Does anybody want to “get it?” Probably not. This post is several days old so I’m likely talking to myself anyway.

    Excuse me if I came off angry. I don’t want to be… but I am. And excuse typos, etc. I am not going to proofread this before I post it. I can’t see very well through my tears.

    I’ve enjoyed your blog, Sharon, but I guess it’s time to delete it from my feed reader. It’s all too painful to read that some folks think we don’t work hard enough or made poor choices so maybe we deserve what we get. “Compassion” should be deleted from America’s vocabulary. There is so little of it left.

  43. Paula says:

    Dear Sad and Mad:

    Don’t leave this blog and don’t give up.

    As for this comment:

    ChristyACB said,
    “Everyone can get themselves out of their own personal quagmire if they are actually willing to work.”

    I see some degrees of truth to that, but getting out of quagmires can often require the help and assistance of others.

    I’ve heard too much of the “I worked my ass off and walked four miles to school in the snow each day” so I deserve it bullshit. Guess what: the world is not fair. It never has been and it never will be.

    Most people in the world work very hard just to survive from day to day.
    A friend and co-worker of mine who is Indian and travels back and forth to New Delhi on business talks a lot about faith. In so many countries, you don’t know what tomorrow will bring, so you absolutely rely on your faith. Much of the time, help is not just around the corner at the public assistance office-because there isn’t one.

    Tell the people in Nigeria who are getting the crap kicked out of their land and fishing waters (from Shell oil) that they can “get themselves out of their own personal quagmire.” Yeah right. No, they can’t. Their livelihoods have been stripped from them.

    Sad and mad, keep your head up. Find some other people who are sad and mad and be a source of strength and support for each other. That is what my family and I will do.

  44. YD says:

    This is in response to the unidentified cucumber comment above. I once spent a summer gambling, that meant taking a bus to the casinos through the sierra mountains. One day fellow passengers from my neighborhood of origin but different parents and experiences made the following observations.

    “Where did they get those giant rocks?” said the young girl who was quite earnest and impressed by the size of the boulders strewn through the hils that lined the highway.
    “They are there for landscaping to make it look nice so you will enjoy the casino.” was the equally earnest reply from her male companion stated assuredly to his impressed companion.

    I was amazed and aghast. I did not correct them, they were having a great day and I did not think having this “fact” corrected would serve any purpose but it did make me wonder. This was even worse than the campers I used to be a counselor of not being able to connect the chickens we were seeing to the plastic wrapped pink meat their mothers brought home from the store.

  45. ChristyACB says:

    Sad and Mad,

    I’m saddened to hear of the straits you are in, truly I am.

    I would like to clarify that no single statement can be reasonably meant to include every person and this entire series of comments is, at least from my view, generally geared toward the healthy and work capable.

    It sounds to me like you are the outliers that the benefits of assistance were actually meant for. What those who didn’t protest a new tax had in mind when the taxes were created.

    In short, my mom is just a couple of years older than your man and has serious problems, though not cosmetically visible. It makes her fear for her job security and her future too. But she knows she has us and always will so long as we have breath.

    Do you have family? It seems you need some help and there is no shame in needing it when the body decides to go one way while we’re going another. None whatsoever.

    I suppose that the other half of my argument is, where are the families? People with limited resources should live together. I’m among those who do think extended families sharing homes is the norm (5 generations in 1 house worked great while I was a kid, but it was a big house).

    Every single person is different and not everyone is going to have the physical capability to do 3 jobs. Some people will be disabled.

    I’m talking about your general person, in reasonable health.

    And yes, sad, if he was a scientist in a field I was hiring for, I wouldn’t care what he looked like if he could do the job. You should see what some of the truly brilliant folks from Eastern Europe look like when they first get hired on here. And most don’t know about even deodorant.

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