The Soapbox: We Can’t Address Poverty Until We Listen To People Who Are Living It

I’ve gotten a lot of feedback about last Friday’s article on Gwyneth Paltrow and the Food Bank Challenge. From that feedback I’ve learned a lot of useful things, like that the $29-per-week allocation is supposed to be for three people; you aren’t allowed to buy prepared food on SNAP in Illinois, Ohio, and I assume many other places, so fast food isn’t an option on SNAP; many people who qualify for SNAP also qualify for WIC vouchers; that tax isn’t charged on SNAP purchases (which buys you a whole extra dollar to work with); and mainly, that experiences of poverty vary widely in details but have one overarching theme, which is that it really sucks to be constantly worried about how you’re going to get through to the next week.

I was also asked whether or not I’ve ever lived on SNAP. The first person who asked me was a man whose job title was “President & Principal Designer” and who prefaced the question by saying, “I have a question for you before I make any comments.” I smelled imminent condescension and chose not to reply. I will, however, discuss the details of the life I was living at the time, mainly because, like I said, experiences of poverty vary widely in details and I think it might be a good idea to start sharing those stories.

No, I have not lived on SNAP. I did, however, live well within the requirements for SNAP, which are that a two-person household must have a net income of less than $1,300 a month. We — my former spouse and I — were living on about, eh, $1,000-1,200 net per month between two people. This was especially the case in 2008, because my ex was unemployed and I had only spotty part-time employment, try as I might to keep it, and it paid about $8 an hour. This is not unusual for women living in poverty (a part-time job or jobs paying close to or under minimum wage, sometimes under-the-table, that is). It was less the case in 2009, when I got my first full-time job; more the case in 2010 when I went back to school and started working part time at Whole Foods; less the case again as I started getting raises; and more the case again when I left my former spouse, moved, had to take a job that paid less, was raped, took a lot of time off of work on medical leave, eventually got fired, had to go on unemployment, and was almost evicted from my apartment (2013).

But suffice it to say, my financial situation was not stable or predictable until September of last year, when I was hired at The Frisky and finally had a salary and benefits. The time I was referring to in the post was most of 2007 and pretty much all of 2008, when we were living at less than paycheck-to-paycheck.(I eventually took out private student loans, toward the end of the year, to pay tuition at a too-expensive college that I eventually left, as well as paying for a few months of rent, some furniture, and back bills — those loans are now worth $412 of my paycheck every month, and I regret it.) I didn’t live on SNAP mainly because of my former spouse’s pride. At the time, I didn’t understand that and thought it was foolish not to accept help when we needed it. When I went on unemployment benefits in 2013, though, I understood better how humiliating it feels to take government assistance in a culture that tells you that people who take government assistance are leeching off of everyone else, that they’re lazy and just don’t want to work. I don’t think I’ve ever felt worse about myself as a human being and a member of my community as when I was on unemployment. So I blame my former spouse less, now, for not wanting to apply for SNAP or food stamps at the time. Regardless, there are many, many reasons why people who live in poverty don’t live on SNAP; that’s just one of them.

What $29 A Week For Food Looks Like For Actual Low-Income People (And Not Gwyneth Paltrow)
Gwyneth Paltrow was tapped by Mario Batali to do the #FoodBankNYCChallenge.

It doesn’t take away from the point of the article, which wasn’t just about people living on SNAP, but also people who are living in poverty period. I really don’t care about Gwyneth Paltrow’s shoddy in-poverty grocery-shopping planning skills, or about criticizing her, so much as I care about the fact that a lot of people were saying, “Oh, that doesn’t look so bad.” It demonstrated to me that many, many Americans who have never lived in that kind of poverty don’t know how much and what kind of math poor people are doing when they’re performing basic functions of their lives, like paying the bills and grocery shopping. It is a way of life that is completely foreign to people living in the middle class, which I know, because I grew up middle-class and I am middle-class now.

So my main purpose was to get readers in the mindset of someone who’s living in poverty and grocery shopping, because the objective in that situation is to get the most bang for the very, very few bucks you have. It is stressful and exhausting to have to stare at a block of cheese and do the math in your head as to how many gallons of gas you can get and whether you’ll be able to make your ComEd payment if you buy it, and if you can’t make your ComEd payment, you know that they won’t charge a late fee, but How many months behind am I? Will my electricity get shut off? Is there a side job I can pick up to make up the extra $60? Would anyone lend me the $60? Would anyone GIVE me the $60? And am I going to overdraft on my bank account? I should just not buy the cheese. Let me put this bread back, too.

By the way, I once overdrew on my checking account, unknowingly, to the tune of about $450, which was a catastrophic sum of money. I was almost ruined. We appealed to family members to bail us out and they came through. It was because Chase Bank’s policy, at the time, was that if you had multiple pending transactions, they charged the largest transaction first, specifically so that you were more likely to overdraft. Then all those tiny, $2 purchases came through, each with a $35 overdraft fee, and there we were, $450 in the hole. That policy has been changed since then, thankfully. Another piece of that poor-person mental calculus was finding out that if you overdrew, they wouldn’t charge the fee until 8 a.m. the next morning, so there were multiple instances in which I knowingly spent more than I had in my account because a bill had to be paid or I needed groceries or gas, figured out a way to get $20 — borrowing from someone or doing a side job — and then raced to the bank before work to deposit the cash before the bank opened and my account was charged.

I’ve gotten some questions about where I shop that I can get as much food as I proposed in the GOOP post for $28 plus tax. The answer is ALDI, mainly. The prices have increased since 2008, but what I listed is generally accurate to 2008 prices to the best of my memory. Another piece of the constant mental calculus is that I have lived with a working library of knowledge about what grocery items cost the least at ALDI, Target, Jewel, Whole Foods (yes, some items are cheapest at Whole Foods — notably bulk grains), and now my neighborhood grocery store and Mariano’s as well for the last seven years of my life. And yet another piece of the mental calculus was figuring how much gas I was using, in dollars, to get to a bunch of different stores, and whether I should bother making the trip to all of them or if two would suffice (at the time, ALDI and Target were across the street from each other and about three miles/a fifth of a gallon/$1.80 round trip from my apartment; and let’s not forget, I worked at Whole Foods and got a 30 percent discount, so I was there anyway).

There is a tremendous psychological cost to constantly working the numbers. I still break down crying over my bank account because even though I make a massive amount of money right now compared to what I used to make, even though it’s basically an entry-level salary, and I have a partner who makes even more than me, if my bank account is low for any reason — even if it’s just that I paid my half of the rent and put money into savings — I feel like I don’t know how I’m going to make it through. It’s an automatic response. Imagine feeling that way all the time and that uncertainty being actually viable, because you really don’t have a way to make it through that is immediately apparent.

And that’s me. I have privilege. People who didn’t know me when I was broke scoff at the idea that I was ever really broke if they happen to see the house I grew up in and find out that I went to a schmancy private school for grades 6-12. None of that meant anything after my parents’ business went bust in the early aughts, they got a divorce, I put my eggs in the basket of an abusive partner who isolated me from my family and caused all sorts of other financial-related problems (having to do with my job stability, my household responsibilities, etc.), and together, as two people earning not a whole lot and not having much support, we had emergency after emergency after emergency that drained us. And once we were broke, things were set up to keep us that way. Think of that Chase overdraft policy as a small example. But really, once you’re broke, once you’re falling behind, once you’re constantly calling in favors and constantly trying to repay, it’s almost impossible to get out. Most people who are born into poverty stay that way not out of choice but out of circumstance.

I eventually left my former spouse, with my family’s moral and financial support. I have privilege. I have family members who have completed their college educations and have good jobs these days. My mom let me live in her house for a few months after I left my ex. When I was unemployed, my current partner lent me money. When I was almost evicted, I was only almost evicted, because I had been fighting a legal battle for a few months before that, and eventually got a nice enough settlement from it that I was able to, again, pay back bills, keep my apartment, and live on savings until I got this job. But I had the privilege of the wherewithal to approach a lawyer about it in the first place, and I had the privilege of perceived believability in the eyes of the public on my side (which is a microaggression we commit against impoverished people — thinking that they’re not trustworthy). I had an excellent K-12 education, I have a bachelor’s degree, and I have years of pretty good job experience on my resumé.

In other words, I clawed my way out of a cycle of poverty not because of my hard work, exactly, but more because of my own privilege built in from my childhood, and because I had other privileged people in my life who could help me. I didn’t do it by my bootstraps. I can’t imagine how anyone, having to go through the stress and exhaustion of performing the constant mental calculations that poverty requires, going through the stress and exhaustion of constant, never-ending worry, on top of working in service labor and taking care of children (which is its own bag of stress and exhaustion), has the emotional strength to pull themselves up by their bootstraps — much less the physical strength, if they’re going hungry, which is true for 14 percent of Americans, or, in strict numbers, 49.1 million of our neighbors. Most of those people also live in impoverished communities. Because of the way our real estate market works, people in similar income brackets tend to live around and socialize with each other (I suggest going to Rich Blocks Poor Blocks, picking a city, and zooming all the way in), which means that unlike me, most people living in poverty do not have support networks that can help them break out of the cycle of poverty.

Based on my experience, strictly from my point of view, all of this adds up to this conclusion: People who have disposable income should be giving more money to people who don’t, one way or another. I support government-sponsored social programs like SNAP that distribute our money to impoverished people for us. I try to elect representatives who support them, too. (That obviously hasn’t been working.) If a homeless person asks me for money, I at least check to see if I have small bills or change that I can give them, and if I have it, I do. I ran a marathon last year to raise money for a behavioral health center that almost exclusively serves people who are living on government health plans like Medicaid, because Rahm Emanuel closed most of my city’s community mental health clinics. If you don’t believe in social programs, and you think that private charity is the best solution for social problems, that’s fine. The thing is that then you actually have to donate to those charities, because otherwise they can’t operate. They’re frequently underfunded and overcrowded, so in my opinion, the system of private charity isn’t really working. And blaming the problem on people not pulling themselves up by their bootstraps is bullshit.

The number of responses that I got to my GOOP article that said “I’ve never thought of it that way” was really revealing to me. I don’t think we talk about the actual experience of being in poverty, and what that’s like day-to-day, enough. I feel iffy even saying that I lived in poverty even though I factually did, because I had a lot of advantages nonetheless. But people get into poverty in a lot of different ways. It could be poor and naïve choices, which is how I tend to see my own poverty (I shouldn’t have ever been with that man, switched schools, taken private loans, etc.). It could be a medical emergency — one woman who reached out to me had a family member get lead poisoning. It could be a drought. It could be a recession. It could be a predatory loan, especially mortgages circa 2008 and payday loans. It could be just being born into a poor family in a poor region, not having enough to eat, not being able to concentrate in school because of it, not being able to attend college, never getting the kind of job experience that allows you to move past a certain level of responsibility and ergo a certain salary level. But the more we tell these stories, the more people understand how completely not-simple poverty is and, most importantly, how they can help. It’s not just a matter of not having income, and it’s not just not having access, it’s also the psychological cost of being poor that keeps people poor.


[Feeding America]

[Rich Blocks Poor Blocks]

Send me a line at [email protected].