I woke up this morning rested and ready, on fire to get up and get to writing. Then, I made a mistake. I should have turned on the iPad and got to work. Instead, I opened up my banking software to make sure my monthly Social Security payment had posted overnight.
What I discovered was that, before my deposit cleared, a yearly fee I had forgotten about had posted: membership dues for the local gym we haven’t been attending (though that is another article in and of itself.) So, instead of starting the month with a fresh set of capital to work with, I was now already $70+ in the hole for the month, thanks to the aforementioned fees and that lovely, lovely overdraft penalty my bank charges.
And, just like that, my entire day was upended.
I Am Become Debt, The Destroyer Of Worlds
Seriously, is there anything in this world that creates as much internal stress as money, and money related problems?
And, the maddening thing is, we treat money like the digestive process: everyone requires it, but no one ever wants to talk about it, and you’d better be sure you wash your hands afterward.
Money issues are an epidemic in this country. Student debt is crippling households across the nation. Less than half of us have enough savings to survive a 3-month crisis. A person making minimum wage has to have multiple sources of income in order to survive.
And yet, how do we react to our financial woes? With embarrassment. We do our best to hide the problems from one another. There is a deeply ingrained shame response to admitting that things are tough for us, despite the fact that things are tough all over.
We are so embarrassed by our “illness” that we refuse to seek treatment for it. And if you think that is a flawed analogy, try having Epilepsy, or Depression, or any of the other “ugly” diseases out there. There are plenty of examples of folks that would rather just not admit to being sick, instead of seeking treatment.
Living In The Shadow Of The Golden Towers
We keep hearing in the news how fabulously the economy is doing, right? GNP is growing, unemployment is slow, things are supposedly beautiful in Trump’s America.
So, if that is the case, why do the great majority of us admit that financial concerns are our #1 worry and creator of stress?
Simple: we are living on a flawed bell curve. The top 1% of our country is outearning all the rest of us combined. And their economic status is making the rest of us look like we should be doing better than we are.
I am certainly not anti-capitalist in any way. But an economic system that continues to be slanted toward providing resources and advantages to those that require them least is troubling.
And Lor and I are among the lucky ones: those with a “safety net” of concerned family members who are willing to give us a hand if things go really pear-shaped. Thanks to our family, we will never be in the position where we have to worry about having nowhere to live if things get worse. Many of us living in the bottom 10% are not afforded that luxury. If things go seriously wrong, they get to sleep in their cars, or at the homeless shelter.
If there is room that night at the shelter, that is.
The Ragged Edge Of The American Dream
So, how many of us, do you think, are living in poverty: the bottom 10% of earners in this country, measured by yearly income?
It should be 10%, right? But, according to the data from 2017, it is actually closer to 12.3%. 1 in 8 American households
It gets worse. If you are a minority, you are much more likely to be living in poverty. And heaven help you if you are a single mother: 50% (half!) of children living in a female-headed household are at or below the poverty line.
Those that are most damaged by poverty are also the most restricted by society in America.
Which is really unfair: being poor is a demanding, full-time, job.
I, for example, have to meticulously document every medical visit, every prescription filled, log every seizure. Why? Because, every three years or so, I have to re-prove to the Federal Government that there is still no cure for Epilepsy. If I don’t, my SSDI stops, and so do my ever-so-important Medicare benefits. You know, those benefits that keep me from having to spend thousands of dollars each month on medications, medical visits, and surgical procedures.
Living in the bottom 10% is no picnic. It is a daily grind of finding gig work, engaging lenders with predatory practices (I can literally SHOW you loan documents featuring a 75% APR), and deciding which bill gets paid and which gets put off for a month.
We are constantly treated like criminals, just for being poor. It is the same self-sustaining logic that states that minorities are more likely to commit crimes than whites. No one bothers to mention the fact that minorities are not afforded the same advantages as Caucasians, and therefore are more in need of resources from outside the traditional economic system.
The same is true for poor people. A typical middle-class family may scratch their heads at the poor benighted person at the bottom of the economic scale, risking their safety and their freedom while robbing a convenience store for a measly $50.
We don’t do things like take out stupid loans and rob corner stores because we are mentally deficient. We do it because that $50 is quite literally the difference between keeping our heads above water and drowning, Right this minute, I am faced with the question of how to make up a $70 hole in my budget. That hole isn’t coming out of the “leisure activity” section of my budget. It literally is a question of “which bill won’t I pay this month?”
The Shame Of Poverty
And, the thing is, there are going to be friends and family members of mine that are going to cringe to read this post.
I will hear things like “I had no idea…”, or “Why didn’t you ask for help?”
You didn’t know because, like 99% of poor people, I didn’t talk about it. And I didn’t ask for help because I am not stranded on the side of the road. I am poor. It doesn’t get better between this month and next.
Others have asked me why I am not “making a living” as a writer. Ha. Ha ha ha. The vast majority of those who are profiting from freelance writing realize less than $10,000 a year from their work. I am not among that group – since 2016 I am probably over $2,000 in the hole from supporting my writing habit. If not for my Patreon supporters and a thin stream of book sales, I would be forced to just stand in the corner and mumble to myself.
I have had close friends whisper their Horatio Alger dreams for me – why don’t I just get a job and start climbing the ladder, like everyone else? Many have gone so far as to suggest that I am actually lazy.
I am not lazy – I am frightened. Let me explain…
An Experiment in Number-Crunching
I “earn” $18,000 a year from Social Security. I’ve learned to build our life around a whopping $1,400 a month, with over half of that going to housing. But, let’s theorize that I somehow find an employer who is interested in an employee who has seizures, can’t verbally communicate very well, and has no short-term memory to boot.
Let’s also theorize that they are willing to pay me, say, $30,000/year for an entry-level position. Has to be entry-level, remember. I’ve been out of the workforce for nearly two decades at this point.
So, $30,000/year works out to $14.42 an hour. Every 80 hours, I will earn $1,153. Not bad! That’s nearly what I make in a month right now!
Oh, but wait…that’s before taxes. So, let’s reduce that about by 25% to reflect taxes, social security, and the like. OK, we’re now at $865 every two weeks. We’re down to $1,730 a month now. That’s only a little bit above what I bring home right now. Hmm.
Now, let’s not forget that I will no longer have Medicare, so I need to start paying for my own health care. So, there’s another (at least, some pay FAR more) $100 every month gone. $1,630.
Now, I am still sick – I didn’t miraculously get better. I am going to have to keep on paying for my cocktail of meds every month. I will no longer get any Federal assistance with my drugs, and instead, we’ll be paying a co-payment for my meds every month. Let’s say I have to only come up with 10% of my meds. My latest Medicare Prescription summary tells me that I would have been on the hook for $1,694 in meds last month. So, 10% of that is…$169. Every month. $1,630-169 = $1,461.
Congratulations – I’ve now arrived at what I am already making a month by staying a garden variety, disabled poor person.
Oh, but wait – if I go back into the workforce I am now on the hook for the student loans that are currently in deferment thanks to my broken brain. That payment would be…$215 a month. (A LOT lower than many student loan payments I know of.) I am now down to $1,246 a month.
Oh, and by the way…I did mention that I am still sick, right? To the tune of a yearly hospitalization for various maladies? Now, not only would me missing work for procedures and surgeries totally piss off my new boss, but it also would cost me money. LOTS of it. Looking over my latest statement from my most recent hospital visit, I would have been on the hook for….$43,000. I can’t even begin to guess what that would have cost under a traditional insurance plan.
As it is, I was forced to come up with a $350 co-payment. Hence the 75% APR loan I referred to earlier.
And welcome to why those of us who are poor, stay that way.
Poverty is one of the great ignored societal ills in our country today. I’ve actually been trying to work in Poverty Advocacy for a while now. It is hard going – people would rather talk about having STDs than talk about being poor. It remains a horrible, societal shame – one of the worst admissions you can make in our success-driven nation.
But our societal expectations are just flat out WRONG. If you take nothing else away from this post, please, just remember this: most of those in poverty around you are not there because they are lazy. They are not there because they are criminals, though many become criminals out of necessity. They are there because we keep them there.
If you are concerned (like I am), there are things you can do. Be sensitive to those who are worse off than you. Get plugged into organizations that work with the poor – whether your church, a food bank, a bookmobile, what have you. Vote intelligently – keep in mind that tax cuts for the top 1% are not going to do nearly as much for the welfare of this country as things like subsidized child care, student loan reform, and regulation of predatory lending practices.
And, lastly, do understand that this isn’t a plea for financial help on the part of my household. We’ve gotten through worse than this. More than any handout, the best thing you could do is to become sensitive to poverty – what it is and what it isn’t. The poor around you might not be standing on a street corner holding up a sign saying “Anything Helps.”
They might be standing right next to you, hiding in plain sight.
Talk To You All Again On Monday,