I moved a lot growing up. My parents always rented, choosing to live in an area with a better school system. Just slightly out of reach economically, but very white and very conservative.
Sometimes we lived in Motels, or apartments without heat, or older homes with brown water coming out of the tap, and at least one bathroom with the toilet missing.
My father was a middle school English teacher, my mother was middle management for a chain of hotels. They both went to college and worked really hard. My mom often worked sixty hours a week. My dad worked at Radio Shack during the summer for extra money.
Sometimes my house had little or no food. We certainly didn’t have healthy food. I used to make white rice, using a lot of salt and butter. I learned to make frozen pizza, and TV dinners called “The Hungry Man” in the oven. My brother and boiled hot dogs, and never ate fresh vegetables.
We were never without food, but the selections were often slim.
We always had what we needed, but we were definitely not rich. We were pretty poor materialistically. My parents had the same living room sofa for twenty two years.
I clearly remember when I started to notice the difference in my surroundings.
I had this amazing bike. It was a yellow bike with a front basket, and a yellow and orange checkered seat. I rode my bike all around the neighborhood, and as I got older, into developing neighborhoods bursting with growth.
I rode down twisting, quiet, newly paved roads. Clean and even sidewalks, empty lots, and new houses. Places with new construction, silent after five in the afternoon.
I was fascinated with every house, no matter where in the building process. I would get off my bike and wander around the construction sites in the late afternoon. Totally alone. I looked in windows, and walked inside open floor plans without drywall.
It was the first time I was really aware that other people didn’t live like my family. Some people could afford new houses, big houses, with views of the ocean or the bay. Wild sunrises through the foyer windows.
It may be strange I made it to middle school without truly experiencing wealth inequality. It’s tricky when you are at the bottom, growing up with everything you need. If you have everything you need, what else could be better.
I was certain everyone got their cable or their electric shut off from time to time. That kind of thing was just something that happened to every adult, like the time I learned that every adult has to do their taxes every year.
I knew other people had bigger houses, but that felt like luck or status. The White House was huge, but that was appropriate. It should make sense, or be fair in a way I could understand.
Maybe I just didn’t think too much about it at ten years old.
My dad was incredibly cheap. Five years since his passing, and his cheapness is a legacy. An inside joke of the ultimate in frugality.
When I was twelve, my parents took us on our one and only family vacation to Disney World. It was fantastic and memorable. My dad chose the cheapest hotel possible, we packed our lunch every day (peanut butter and jelly) for inside the park. He insisted on only doing something if it was discounted in his Disney coupon book.
My dad was a family kind of guy. He lived paycheck to paycheck. He chose Disney World over new living room furniture. He chose books over amusement parks.
He always told me how much something cost. From the time I was twelve, I knew how much my parents paid for rent. I was reminded how much the dishwasher cost every time I banged a dish in it.
That kind of attention to financial details can really shape a person into someone who knows how to manage their money. Learning the costs of goods can also help predict future spending, and plan for a retirement.
Reading the fine print of any financial document, my dad taught me legalese.
As a teenager, my dad’s cheapness annoyed and angered me. When I realized we were on the bottom end of the economic ladder, my experiences outside my home told me to blame the earner.
It was easy to cast my dad the villain. Teachers didn’t make that much money. My dad didn’t need to be frugal, I falsely assumed, if he could just make more money.
This tactic is still used today by those in power to blame people for their economic problems. They say, “Get a better job,” “It’s your own fault, buy less stuff.” What they refuse to acknowledge is that many times these jobs aren’t jobs, they’re careers people have dedicated their lives to pursuing.
My dad didn’t just have a job, he was a teacher. A career public servant.
Blaming the poor for their poverty is a smart tactic used to keep people poor. Spreading lies about the poor in a fantastical PR campaign, America succeeded. All my life I heard, “If someone is poor, it is clearly their fault.”
“Poor people are just lazy, and unintelligent. Unworthy of a decent life, simply because of their lack of ingenuity and personal failures.”
“Perhaps we could afford a better house if we didn’t eat out, I yelled at my dad when I was sixteen. He replied, “We don’t have a house. This is my house, I let you live here because you don’t even have a house.”
Except what I told my dad was a lie. Wealth isn’t earned by cutting a few extras. Wealth is handed down.
My dad worked hard, but his biggest problem was that his dad was also a teacher, and his father a pharmacist. He came from a long line of educated public sector workers.
Rich people are rich because their families are rich. There are very few self made people. True wealth in America is inherited. A United for a Fair Economy 2013 report found that of the Forbes 400 Richest in 2012, 65% inherited their wealth. Enjoying a level of privilege and power unknown to the vast majority of Americans.
So deep goes the lie of a person’s individual responsibility for their lack of American pie, the shame and guilt of simply being poor is a trauma of its own. Shaming the poor is a successful American propaganda machine. So successful, it’s created its own feedback loop.
Shame and guilt about one’s poverty fuels anger and resentment that exacerbates substance abuse and domestic violence among poor communities. The consequences of these behaviors encourage more joblessness, more substance abuse, more anger and violence.
Fines and late fees imposed on the poor only create more poverty. Most people would pay their bills on time if they had the money. Paying bills is simple when you don’t have to choose between electricity and food.
Shame and guilt can also fuel expensive shopping, as the poorer grasp for any materialistic symbol to wash away their poverty. It’s why poor people buy items that make them appear richer than they seem.
The newest smartphone or big screen TV that will ultimately make the poor an example of their own inability to handle their finances. Consuming in a loop to erase the feelings of guilt and shame, only to be shamed by people whose economic privilege allowed them never need empathy.
It was all a cheap ruse to prove they weren’t poor in the first place. No one wants to be poor, but an even greater number don’t want to look poor.
In my family, my mom took greater pride and emphasis on our outward appearances to look wealthier. She spent money on more expensive clothes and shoes, forgoing furniture and critical appliances. We were never allowed to have people over, but we could always go out.
My family so ached to not look poor, they did a dance that was exhaustive and lacked authenticity. Packing expensive clothes in trash bags to move in the middle of the night.
When I was accepted to college, my dad filled out my student loan applications. I didn’t really know how student loans worked, but I trusted my dad. He took out student loans, and getting a college degree was the only way to stay above the poverty line. That was the message.
When I was a young adult I became obsessed with outward truth. I saw my mom as a fake representation of a person. The very shield my mom created to keep me from the embarrassing shame of poverty became embarrassing in it’s own right.
Poverty in it’s own sense is a trauma. It’s not comfortable. I was luckier. The stressors of economic disparity on a child is immeasurable, and doubling challenging for BIPOC.
Growing up in poverty makes a child more likely to use drugs, be exposed to toxic levels of lead, be in foster care, develop PTSD, have psychological food disorders, and have life long mental health disorders.
The problem is we blame the individual for the poverty they experienced as a child as an act of moral failure. Told the poor are not good enough, while celebrating the few people who are self made.
America values the perceived character traits that make up the self made person, like Jeff Bezos, rather than the character of teachers, nurses, and firemen.
America doesn’t invest in the consequences of poverty, like mental health and substance abuse treatment. As income disparity grows, so do its consequences.
In order to eliminate or decrease these symptoms of living in poverty, families need to be able to provide their children with a decent living. Providing a decent wage is just the beginning.
When I started my own family we were living paycheck to paycheck. I wanted to squeeze every dollar I earned the most efficiently, but I also didn’t want to feel any shame for my circumstance. That when I learned the financial management greatness of poor Americans.
When my boys were small, our family received food stamps for about two years. At the time we received $200 a month towards food. I don’t owe you an explanation as to the circumstances I was approved. I am also not ashamed.
Although, the act of using food stamps at a grocery store is shameful in its own way. The stares from other shoppers in line, the judgement seeping from their very pores. An air of better then at two o’clock in the afternoon on a Tuesday at my local Weis market.
I made use of that $200 in a way a wealthier person may never learn. Beyond buying bulk meat, lowering my cost per pound, I learned how to make meals for dollars, the best cheese for the cost, and if the higher milk cost was worth it. It was twenty cents cheaper at Trader Joe’s.
I knew that paying extra on my car payment every month goes directly towards the principal. It’s a great idea, but when you’re negotiating 20 cents for milk you are not capable of paying it.
Excellent Financial management totally wasted because I was assumed to be lazy and morally corrupt. It is the greatness of the bottom of the economic ladder, wasted financial talent. Tools to survive that turn out to be sound advice. Advice the wealthier don’t utilize.
When I have money in my bank account, I can easily slip into this mode. I don’t look at the prices of cereals. I’m not buying what’s on sale. I’m just buying it because I want it. I am not thinking about that 20 cents, and how many 20 cents can be saved.
I become wasteful in my consumption when I have more to consume, especially when having the opportunity to waste is not a consistent reality.
Meaning, it’s hard to not overspend when spending isn’t something normal. When denying yourself something you desire for so long, you forget what it feels like to be face to face with it.
It doesn’t mean you make poor financial decisions, it just means you need more money to live a decent living. Life hasn’t been fair to you in some way. In a country as wealthy as America.
The poor are wasteful in different ways. They can only afford cheaper items, hand me downs from family members, creating clutter and waste. They are victims of environmental waste because of what they can and can’t afford. At times afraid to throw things away.
As a child, my family always had so much trash. Bags and bags every week, dumpsters full during every time we moved. Incredible trash. My dad also said yes to every single free item, in case we might need it. Creating more emotional and physical baggage to our poverty.
Being poor isn’t a light feeling. It is physically and emotionally heavy.
As an example, my dad always bought the cheapest toilet paper. Cheaper in the short term, but we end up using more toilet paper. I guess, like me, he was counting those twenty cent savings at every corner. What the wealthier don’t understand is that when you are poor, you can only think in the short term.
It’s hard to think environmentally, or even ethically when you can’t even fathom a tomorrow. It doesn’t mean you’re bad at managing your money, in fact quite the opposite. When succumbed to the trauma of poverty, when fully surrounded, you can only think in the moment. Just like any trauma.
The lie of sole individual responsibility for one financial circumstance is a lie perpetuated by those draped in wealth and power to hold onto their wealth and power. It’s a lie for greed, and for government control. It’s a systemic disparity that puts the white poor against the BIPOC poor. Both groups scrambling for a voice in the tiny spaces the poor are allowed a voice in our society.
Everyone at the bottom blaming each other, blaming themselves, but not blaming the real villains. The wealthy and powerful.
Despite being poor, I am excellent with money. I know how to pay down my debt. I know I have debt, and I know what I bought with it. I know how to manage my wealth, as I suspect most living paycheck to paycheck are aware.
Individual responsibility is a civic duty, but living in a world of wealth redistribution is a moral imperative. It’s not just a good idea, it’s absolutely necessary to creating a safe and prospering community.
In making sure everyone has what they need, without the shame of needing it can only lift people up. If not out of poverty, at least in an overall standard of living for which America has prided itself for centuries.
My dad just wanted what was best for his children. He worked hard, helped with homework, came to every concert, spelling bee, and competition I competed. His individual responsibility, his obligation, was to be a great man. Flawed, and human, but not rich in money. When he died he left very few personal items. He was frugal to the end.
I trust the instincts of my poorer friends. I trust their advice. I trust their many life hacks, coupon clipping, and saving techniques. I love that they know when to expect sales, and where to shop. I prefer the financial advice of people who have had to stretch their finances thin, how to make the most efficient purchases.
I rely on this not just as a person living paycheck to paycheck, but as a human being. To take what I need, and give the rest away. Making choices not just financially solid, but best for humankind. I should want this for everyone regardless of how much money I earn.
It’s not just idealism, but a way of addressing the crisis of poverty and income and racial inequality that is becoming a further divide among Americans. A way to end the cycles of trauma for so many, and to be a happier and healthier nation.
Joy Ellen Sauter is a freelance writer living in Seattle, Washington with her partner, Nathan, two teenage boys, and two cuddly pit bulls. She writes about mental health, popular culture, and disability rights. She studied History at Penn State University, concentrating on American social and cultural movements. She is looking for representation for her upcoming book, “I Want To Change the World.” A dystopian novel of historical fiction about the psychedelic 1960’