Everything You Think You Know About Poverty Is Wrong

I try not to get worked up in comments sections on articles online. For one, it’s generally a colossal waste of time, and it’s really not becoming, either. Most of the time, I just think of what I would say and spend my time more wisely. But some issues are too dear to my heart, and my impulse control is not that great.

Earlier this week, The Huffington Post published an article about food security in America; it featured the story of a single mom with two teenage daughters and outlined the struggles they — like millions of other Americans — face. The article struck me because I’ve been there more than a few times. I know pretty intimately what it’s like to live well below the poverty line, but I thank my lucky stars I never had to scrape by with anyone else depending on me. 

When I got to the comments section, I saw so many people trying to “help.” People from privileged backgrounds, who might have some misconceptions about what it’s like to be poor, who have all these simple ideas of how to get out of poverty.

I’ve seen it time and again; I’ve sat gritting my teeth at potlucks while upper-middle-class twenty-somethings offer easy solutions for peoples’ inability to make ends meet — but there is some serious confusion out there about how poor people could be “doing it better.”

“Why don’t you just buy in bulk? That’s what my parents did during The Depression.”

Great idea! A good way to save money is to buy bigger quantities of food–take cheese as an example: an 8-ounce package of sliced cheese runs about $4, or $8/lb, but a 2-lb block is only $8, nearly half the price per pound.

But there’s an issue with this: you have to have that $8, and the $3 for the loaf of bread, and the $5 for the bologna. What if you only have $10 right now? People are forced into buying smaller quantities at higher prices because they don’t have the luxury of spending $50 on a nice bulk shop. After all, they simply don’t have it. Or access to food, in general, isn’t great.

“Maybe you should stop eating junk food. It’s expensive.”

I looked up Atwater, Ohio (the future is amazing); it’s pretty and flat. But looking at a map, Atwater and the 10 miles around it are what you might call a “food desert.”

If you didn’t have a car (there is no public transport), the closest place to get food year-round is a convenience store. Walmart, in all of its junk food glory, is about 12 miles away. In case you have never been to a Walmart: they sell produce, eggs, dairy, and frozen veggies. Someone with disabilities who can’t rely on public transport or afford a car is pretty SOL when it comes to accessing healthy food.

“They LOOK like they get plenty to eat.”

Anyone that’s paying attention knows that obesity can be a form of malnutrition. A controlling factor is a time; when I was working two jobs and trying to stay in school, I gained about 50 pounds. I ate fast food close to where I worked (a minimum-wage job at a national chain!) on my 30-minute breaks. I didn’t have time or money to cook, or rather learn how to cook.

I agree it’s SO much better to make some fresh pasta sauce than buy a can of Ragu — if you do it in bulk, you’ll eat better AND save. I make my own from scratch; it costs roughly $12 for 4 meals and takes me an hour to prepare. Contrast that to a $3 frozen dinner packed with salt, fat, sugar, and empty calories which just need to be heated.

“But she could afford tattoos and nice clothes…”

It’s true, a lot of people who are poor were born that way, but poverty can also happen to anyone. One of the most common factors in poverty is poor health; people already toeing the crusty edge of poverty get sick, and lose the footing that they had.

I’ve come home to the yellow eviction notice on the door and lived out of a van for awhile (in the summer, it’s not bad), and I never once looked “homeless.” People who pay $50 for their Gap jeans would be shocked to know they can be had pretty consistently at thrift stores for a few dollars. People can fall on hard times and lose their homes but still have artifacts from the life they had before.

Poor people are acutely aware that “looking poor” (do we need to wear rags?) prevents you from getting jobs, apartments, friends, basically all the things.

“They own a house?! They should sell it and rent a place — it’d be cheaper.”

Because cashing out one of the most important resources a person can have, for no reason, makes sense, right? If the person in question lived in a McMansion, absolutely. But poor homeowners generally don’t have a house worth selling, simple as that. The woman in the article above owned a trailer in a park, which sells in Atwater for about $9,000. Rent for a 3-bedroom house in the area is about $900/month. Do the math on that one. Her situation is not unique.

“Why don’t they just grow food?”

I love gardening! But it took me about three seasons to get my vegetable game down to where I was actually saving money, not losing it. Just buying seeds is a spring-time budget concern to me, not to mention the hours of research I’ve spent learning how to garden. Some people who have some time and not an immediate need could certainly alleviate their food bills by investing in gardening and putting up food. But not everyone has the time, money, space, and knowledge to gamble like that. Canning, drying, and freezing your harvest is an expense that people rarely consider either.

“Her kids are old enough to work! They need to pay their way!”

Right? Her teenage daughters should get after-school jobs! If they want to stay in poverty, that’s a great idea.

Putting the stress of supporting their family on top of being poor and trying to finish high school is part of the cycle of poverty. You make concessions for today, hoping that tomorrow will be better. If her daughters COULD find work, they’d only clear about $35 for minimum wage work after taxes, and that doesn’t include transportation to said job. That’s a six-hour workday after school, leaving little time to excel in school. Education is one of the only ways out of poverty currently. Making your teen daughters give up their one ticket out isn’t a choice anyone wants to make, especially when the benefits are short-term and negligible. 

I keep hearing people say, “But these are just excuses”; no, they are explanations. Despite a system that is skewed towards a shrinking middle class, 50 million people are living in poverty in the U.S. — about 15% of our population. 

What are some stereotypes about poor people that really ice your cookies? If people understand how easy it is to get there, or what it’s actually LIKE to live in poverty, maybe they’d support policy to change it.

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