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Posts Tagged ‘being poor’

Living on next to nothing…while we shell out $6.2 billion to broke Walmart workers

In behavior, blogging, domestic life, life, Money, urban life, US, work on July 31, 2014 at 1:06 am

By Caitlin Kelly

No travel...too expensive!

No travel…too expensive!

Have you lived in poverty?

A recent 150+ comment thread at, of all places, Apartment Therapy — a design blog usually devoted to featuring people’s fun, cool homes worldwide — offered a painful, insightful, timely conversation on how some of its readers survive(d) on low or minimum wage jobs.

A few of them:

Charities can only do so much for people, and frankly, when I was living below the poverty line, I chose not to take advantage of a lot of those programs, even though I likely could have, because there were other people who needed it more than I did, and I was getting by, if only just. I was lucky to have no car payment, and a car that was in good condition so the maintenance costs were relatively low. I did, however, end up with pneumonia, because although I had health insurance (I was paying out of pocket for it) I couldn’t afford the copay to go to the doctor and get my Prevacid (not OTC at the time) and as a result I got sick, because untreated acid reflux can do that to you.


 

Even though I pared down to the absolute bare minimum and had a roommate, I was constantly worrying about my car (but couldn’t manage without it), and paying for food, heat, and health care. Any time I got a few dollars ahead, I had some money-sucking but necessary expense. Living on the edge of poverty wore me out. The kicker was that making minimum wage, I made too much to get food stamps and other “help for the poor”. (Adults with children could get help, and adults with disabilities, but the thinking was that if you could work, you didn’t need “hand-outs”.)


For many years, I made more than enough money so I could comfortably afford a house, buy food & necessities, invest and have some fun, too. Approximately two years ago, my position was eliminated from a very reputable company in the area where I live. I can say that I have never fully “recovered”, financially and emotionally speaking. I’ve run the gamut from tearing through my 401k, applying for assistance, working my share of odd jobs and asking family for help. I’ve been forced to learn a new way of living and the bottom line is that living on minimum wage is DIFFICULT…period. Navigating assistance applications can be daunting and because of my assets (owning a home-by some miracle-still) it just wasn’t happening. I can tell you that I have learned to live simpler, though, w/less trips to the clothing store, no more manicures/pedicures every two weeks, etc. Is it such a bad thing? Not really, but “living simpler” ends up going hand in hand with “what do I do now” in reference to the next utility bill, grocery bill, financial emergency, etc. I do believe the sad thing is that individuals that “do the right thing” such as going to school, working hard, etc can still find themselves in this situation. It constantly makes me think “what did I do wrong” and “what do I do now?”

Having lived in five countries — my native Canada, Mexico, France, England and the U.S. (since 1988) — I’m never clear why Americans, some of whom protest that they have “played by the rules,” are so stunned to find their laissez-faire capitalist system has turned against them.

The rules are not made for their benefit!

People who sneer at the idea of accepting (or asking for) government assistance may never have struggled in utter desperation, saddled by illness, disability, injury and/or the collapse of their industry. And many people can never hope for a penny from their friends or relatives.

You can’t bootstrap without bootstraps.

Nor why some of them feel ashamed even asking for help when they have done everything possible to help themselves.

According to this National Geographic story, (August 2014), a staggering six percent of Americans are now “food insecure” and the number of those needing help paying for this food in the suburbs has doubled; here is a radio interview with the author, Tracie McMillan.

While some people can move in with a friend or relative, many don’t have that option and have to figure it out on their own. New York pays a maximum of $410/week in in unemployment benefits, taxable income. Yet in New York City, very few people of any age can find housing for less than $1,000/month. Do the math!

If you’re young, highly-educated, willing to move anywhere a job requires it, in excellent health and flexible — you’ll probably survive. But every one of those categories can shift, as does the labor market and the larger economy.

Nicaragua -- the second-poorest nation after Haiti -- where annual income is $1,080

Nicaragua — the second-poorest nation after Haiti — where annual income is $1,080

I struggled financially for all four years of university, even though my annual tuition was only $600/year. I was living on $350/month and the rent on my studio apartment was $160. I still had to pay for food, phone, books, public transportation, dental work, clothing, etc. My family had too much money for me to get student aid, yet were uninterested in helping me.

So I started selling my photos and writing freelance at the end of my sophomore year — and missed a lot of classes and other cute/fun college activities — in order to bring in additional income. My GPA is a bad joke, one reason I’ve never even considered graduate education. I had to survive!

images-3

Luckily, I was able to feed, house, clothe and educate myself. I can still tell you exactly what was in my wardrobe during those years as there was so little of it. I lived in a rough neighborhood until I was attacked in my apartment and moved.

I never, ever want to feel that anxious about money again.

Low-wage or minimum-wage work offers wages so low and hours so few that some workers have to go on food stamps.

Walmart, reports Forbes, cost us $6.2 billion in public assistance to its struggling staff. They “can’t afford” to pay better, so it’s up to us to bail out a for-profit corporation. Don’t you love the irony of corporate welfare?

Have you struggled to survive financially? Are you now? How are you managing?

Does Dasani’s NYT homeless story leave you angry? Sad? Indifferent?

In behavior, children, cities, culture, domestic life, education, family, journalism, news, parenting, urban life, US on December 12, 2013 at 1:11 am

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s a story that took a year of reporting and writing to produce, prompting more than 600+ comments after the first day — by 5:30 p.m. yesterday, more than 1,713 readers had weighed in.

English: The New York Times building in New Yo...

English: The New York Times building in New York, NY across from the Port Authority. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The New York Times is running a five-part series on Dasani, an 11-year-old African American girl living with her siblings in a squalid New York city shelter that has sucked up millions of tax-payer dollars already.

Her parents take methadone, do not work and have seven other children sharing a 500 square foot room.

Dasani is smart, capable, liked by her teachers, and burdened by caring for her brothers and sisters. She, like them, has nowhere clean, quiet and comfortable in which to do her homework. Their room has no desk. One wall has a hole where mice run freely.

Here’s an excerpt from the first instalment:

Dasani is among 280 children at the shelter. Beyond its walls, she belongs to a vast and invisible tribe of more than 22,000 homeless children in New York, the highest number since the Great Depression, in the most unequal metropolis in America.

Nearly a quarter of Dasani’s childhood has unfolded at Auburn, where she shares a 520-square-foot room with her parents and seven siblings. As they begin to stir on this frigid January day, Dasani sets about her chores.

Her mornings begin with Baby Lele, whom she changes, dresses and feeds, checking that the formula distributed by the shelter is not, once again, expired. She then wipes down the family’s small refrigerator, stuffed with lukewarm milk, Tropicana grape juice and containers of leftover Chinese. After tidying the dresser drawers she shares with a sister, Dasani rushes her younger siblings onto the school bus.

Dasani guards her feelings closely, dispensing with anger through humor. Beneath it all is a child whose existence is defined by her siblings. Her small scrub-worn hands are always tying shoelaces or doling out peanut butter sandwiches, taking the ends of the loaf for herself. The bond is inescapable. In the presence of her brothers and
sisters, Dasani has no peace. Without them, she is incomplete.

I spent more than an hour reading the comments, which came from social workers, past and present; from New York schoolteachers; from the formerly poor and homeless able to escape a difficult past; from the fed-up-with-generational-welfare crowd.

A few readers simply shrugged — the entire United States, not just New York City, is deeply pockmarked by poverty now, with the second-highest rate of child poverty in the developed world.

As one commenter said…wait. This story will soon be only one of many. She is hardly unique.

Reader reactions, predictably, are mixed:

outrage at the shelter’s squalor; dismay at the parents’ inability or unwillingness to work, earn money and set an example for their children; anger at the tens of thousands of tax-payer dollars supporting a couple of adults who have made repeatedly poor choices, including producing more and more children they have no way to support; disappointment that the U.S. allows children like her to live in such appalling conditions; confusion as to what can be done to alleviate this kind of poverty.

As I’ve blogged here before, I was a Big Sister in 1998 for 18 months to a 13-year-old child whose family was also deeply dysfunctional.  (For readers outside of North America, Big Sister/Big Brother is a national program that matches volunteers — usually middle or upper middle class, employed and well-educated — with struggling youngsters. The idea is to foster relationships that will help poor children and teens survive and thrive.)

I found the process deeply frustrating, as much because I expected far too much from it and because, I thought, the organizers expected far too little.

My “little sister”, like Dasani, was bright and very likeable, apparently eager to flee the clutches of poverty.

But, sadly also highly unlikely to do so. I saw frightening and destructive behaviors within her family I’d never before encountered en masse — abandonment, laziness, welfare dependence, neglect and passivity — that boded ill for her future.

The desire to flee poverty can also create an impossible choice — between the bosom of a chaotic family a child knows well, and a larger world they don’t. You’re not going to get very far saying “axe” instead of “ask” a question.

I saw this play out with my “little”. The more I tried to find her better options, (even, yes, a scholarship spot at a private school barely 30 minutes drive from her family), the more they shrugged it off.

I admit it. After 18 months, I burned out and walked away.

Children need consistently healthy role models if they’re going to succeed and avoid the pitfalls of addiction and/or teen pregnancy. Dasani’s mother teaches her to fight — physically — which, as the Times reports, gets her suspended from school.

The series’ pathos has left some readers eager to “help” — but what, exactly, can they do?

Donate to charities? Pay even more taxes? Volunteer individually with a child on their own? Foster a child or several?

What do you think?

What — if anything — would change (for good/better) a life like hers?

When trying your best to help just doesn’t work

In behavior, children, culture, domestic life, education, family, life, love, parenting, urban life, US on October 22, 2013 at 12:04 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Cover of "Dangerous Minds"

Cover of Dangerous Minds

Here’s a great/depressing piece from Salon.com by a teacher who worked in Texas’ worst school — burned out and gave up:

Before I came to Pearce I knew that many of its students scored poorly on standardized tests; the school was rated “Low Performing” the year before I arrived. The only other non-elementary school in Central Texas rated “Low Performing” was in the Travis County Juvenile Detention Center. I also knew that 80 percent of Pearce students received free or reduced-price lunch, and almost all were African-American or Latino.

Like many attendance-zoned high-poverty schools, Pearce was often a chaotic place where discipline issues, student absenteeism, low parent involvement and high teacher turnover were the norm. Why would a teacher with other options work in such a stressful, violent setting?  I chose Pearce because I was going to make a difference; I would do whatever it took to help these kids overcome classism and racism and escape poverty. Full of youthful enthusiasm and self-flattery, I could change the world by working at Pearce. Why not?

Here is the hard truth about my experience: I didn’t have much of an impact. Sure, I made a small part of the day more pleasant for some students, but I didn’t change the course of any of my kids’ lives, much less the nature of the school. A middle-class teacher coming into a low-income school and helping poor students realize their true potential makes for an excellent White Savior Film, but “Dangerous Minds” isn’t real life. Real life at Pearce is survival.

This piece hit me hard because I, too, tried my best — for 18 months in 1998 — to mentor a 13-year-old girl mired in multi-generational poverty and welfare dependence. Her family was noisy, chaotic, fractured; her mother had simply disappeared five years earlier, leaving C and her half-brother to live with their grandmother and an assortment of relatives.

I was matched with C — and a week or so later her mother turned up. Out of the blue.

The following 18 months proved an eye-opening, sobering and sad wake-up call. I liked C and admired her spirit; she was fun, affectionate, easy-going. I took her sailing, to play squash, to simply hang out at home and have dinner. We had some long frank conversations.

I had hoped — and tried hard through my connections there– to get her accepted on scholarship into a local prep school, a potential escape from the madness of her current life. She loved her visit there and said repeatedly she wanted to go to college.

But “college” seemed like Disneyland, a lovely far-off place she’d heard about and longed to visit, somewhere desirable that others went.

The slogging intermediate steps necessary to prepare for college-level work — consistent application, self-discipline, learning to study, acquiring and perfecting social skills — felt elusive, even invisible to her and her family. I heard no interest from her grandmother in how C might actually get there.

Instead, in front of me, she’d poke C in her belly, demanding: “Are you pregnant?”

My own privilege had, (embarassingly), been previously invisible to me. I didn’t realize that the gut-burning determination to climb the socio-economic ladder just didn’t translate or resonate with this child or her family.

The relationship ended abruptly and badly. We never even said a formal good-bye. No one ever called or wrote to me, and no one from the matching social service organization ever followed up to apologize or explain.

“Oh, that’s one of our most difficult families,” said her social worker, on one of the many times I called them, bewildered and exhausted.

C would now be in her mid-20s and I wonder if she ever did attend college, or graduate. Is she married? Working? Does she have kids? Is she happy? Thriving?

I also, selfishly, sometimes wonder if she ever remembers me.

Sadly, chastened, I haven’t volunteered for a similar role since.

Have you ever volunteered for a position where you’d hoped to make a difference in a child’s life — but burned out and gave up?

Do you regret trying?

Or giving up?

The C-Word We Avoid — Class

In behavior, business, culture, entertainment, Money, movies on December 29, 2010 at 2:14 pm
Working Class Hero

Image by christian.greller via Flickr

Finally!

Even if it’s only in the entertainment pages, we’re talking out loud in the U.S. — land of the mythical meritocracy — about social class and who’s rising, who’s (much more likely now) falling, and who’s most terrified of sliding from “middle” (defined as…?) to lower or working class, words used more easily in nations whose central identity doesn’t rely as heavily on the idea of equality and assured social mobility.

In a recent New York Times piece by film critic A.O. Scott:

The idea of the universal middle class is a pervasive expression of American egalitarianism — and perhaps the only one left. In politics the middle has all but swallowed up the ends. Tax cuts aimed at the wealthy and social programs that largely benefit the poor must always be presented as, above all, good for the middle class, a group that thus seems to include nearly everyone. It is also a group that is, at least judging from the political rhetoric of the last 20 years, perennially in trouble: shrinking, forgotten, frustrated, afraid of falling down and scrambling to keep up.

In the movies, which exist partly to smooth over the rough patches in our collective life, the same basic picture takes on a more benign coloration. Middle-classness is a norm, an ideal and a default setting. For a long time most commercial entertainments not set in the distant past or in some science-fiction superhero fantasyland have taken place in a realm of generic ease and relative affluence. Everyone seems to have a cool job, a fabulous kitchen, great clothes and a nice car. Nothing too fancy or showy, of course, and also nothing too clearly marked with real-world signs of status or its absence.

Last year I viciously mocked “It’s Complicated” in this blog for the absurd affluence of a divorced woman character, played by Meryl Streep, who lives in a $5 m home, runs her own bakery business and wears impossibly lush clothing and jewelry. Most women divorcees fall far and fast from their married affluence, if they had any, drained from the start by legal fees.

It’s a mug’s game to try and pinpoint “middle class” in New York, where I live in a a suburban town, when a 1,000 square foot shoebox of a 60-year-old house on a postage stamp lot runs $400,000 with $12,000 a year in taxes — barely affordable on an income of $100,000 to 150,000 a year.

In New York, you can make six figures and not have someone snort in derision for calling yourself “middle class.”

Fact is, anyone paying $30-50 per trip by (subsidized) commuter train into the city to work or look for a job, struggles hard here on an income of less than $50,000 for one, let alone $40,000 or less trying to raise a family.

Only now are we seeing films address how we really feel about money and what we really feel about who has it, who doesn’t and what we’re willing to do to get and keep some.

In the New York Post, critic Kyle Smith writes:

Without ever saying so, “Blue Valentine” is centrally about class, and class, in America, anyway, is centrally about much more than income — it’s about tastes and values, as we see when Dean’s idea of a healing getaway means a cheesy lovers’ motel. It seems obvious that if Dean had arranged such a trip with cool irony instead of urgent eagerness, Cindy would have accepted it in a larky spirit. And if Dean painted canvases instead of houses, his lack of accomplishment wouldn’t be an issue.

American filmmakers largely avoid class, which is fine because virtually all of them were well-born and tend to portray their inferiors as piteous, comical or (especially when they’re minorities) as sprites whose magical simplicity can be used to cure the angst of therapy-needing professionals.

As someone whose own income plummeted by 75 percent after losing my last full-time job in 2006, this is no idle fantasy. When I went to work as a sales associate for $11 an hour, no commission, at a mall, I began to understand the extraordinary income inequality that is increasingly defining life in the United States.
Our mall attracted the hedge fund guys and their size 0 wives tending their 10,000 square foot Greenwich mansions.
Such attitude! Such entitlement! People who think nothing of snapping their fingers in the faces of the growing servant class.
You and me, babe!
From the Huffington Post:

Income inequality in the United States is at an all-time high, surpassing even levels seen during the Great Depression, according to a recently updated paper by University of California, Berkeley Professor Emmanuel Saez. The paper, which covers data through 2007, points to a staggering, unprecedented disparity in American incomes. On his blog, Nobel prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman called the numbers “truly amazing.”

Though income inequality has been growing for some time, the paper paints a stark, disturbing portrait of wealth distribution in America. Saez calculates that in 2007 the top .01 percent of American earners took home 6 percent of total U.S. wages, a figure that has nearly doubled since 2000.

As of 2007, the top decile of American earners, Saez writes, pulled in 49.7 percent of total wages, a level that’s “higher than any other year since 1917 and even surpasses 1928, the peak of stock market bubble in the ‘roaring” 1920s.'”

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$250,000 Isn’t Rich? Riiiiight!

In behavior, business, culture, Money, news on September 22, 2010 at 3:41 pm
Without money
Image by Toban Black via Flickr

Here’s a recent blog post that makes me want to throw a chair:

But for all the moral outrage one can level at a person bitching about making “only” $250K, know that $250K per annum is much closer to the minimum starting point you need to bank in order to have a shot at “making it” in the expensive cities of America. Living the dream requires a whole hell of a lot more…. if you are earning $50,000 a year, the prospect of earning $250,000 a year probably seems like a panacea. Think about it: you’d be earning five times as much! I’ve yet to meet the person who wouldn’t love to quintuple his or her salary. From the perspective of a person making $50,000 a year or less (the subset could also be called “most Americans”), the person or family making $250,000 a year is rich.

Except he’s not…

In fact, most people who make $250K aren’t even sitting there thinking: “Ooh, if I bust my ass and play my cards right, being ‘rich’ is just around the corner for me and my family.” If, God forbid, $250K also represents all you have, being truly rich is probably not even an option for you. You can’t “invest” in anything with the piddling savings you’ve stowed away. You can’t “buy” anything, other then maybe a family home and a some consumer assets that will start to depreciate the minute you breathe on them…

No, if you are making $250K a year, what gets you out of bed every morning isn’t even the desire to become rich. Instead, you’re motivated by the white-knuckle fear that something will go wrong and you’ll be cast back down with the sodomites who struggle valiantly to eke out an existence on $50K or less. You are certainly not rich, but you are terrified of becoming poor.

This is why living in New York City, and its self-regarding suburbs, makes for such delicious comedy. On a combined income of $250,000, it’s true — that a $5 million home is out of reach.

Boo hoo.

There is nothing more terrifying to the better-off, (as the writer, a Harvard-educated attorney at least admits), than the notion you might slide back down that greasy pole.

Then what? A cardboard box under a bridge?

Our household income, with no kids, is less than half this amount. That’s still a fortune to many people in this country.

In downstate New York, sadly, it’s a bit of a joke. Crossing any bridge costs $3 to $9 in tolls, one-way. Two hours’ parking in a Manhattan garage can easily run $20-40. My sweetie takes a commuter train to work — at an annual cost of almost $3,000, none of it tax-deductible. The maintenance on our one-bedroom suburban apartment is now almost $900 a month, with three increases in the past three years. No choice in the matter; if we don’t like it, sell and move!

We own one vehicle, paid off, nine years old. My income is less than half what I made in my last staff job. Good thing I didn’t buy a bigger home or take out huge loans…

The problem of talking about money is that it’s rarely just about money. It’s really about entitlement. It’s about Who You Think You Are. The gut-grinding knowledge that all that Ivy League striving may leave you owning only one home (not the two or three or four owned by the people you attended school with and, for many of the strivers I know, spend their entire lives comparing themselves with.)

Keeping up with the Jones — certainly when, as one attorney I know is doing, schooling four children privately ($100,000 a year in tuition alone) — can kill you.

I wake up daily deeply grateful for: safe, clean housing, healthy food, caring neighbors, my health, a functioning, insured vehicle, health insurance, some savings. It’s a lot.

It’s enough.

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