Monday, July 27, 2015

For Poorer

I'm stealing the title of this post from a great piece of the same name. You should read it, especially if you're poor-ish, with young kids, and a freelancer (or would-be freelancer). It's a rough combo. There's no earth shattering resolution, just a feeling that you're not alone in this situation.

"Lord you know that I am ready, ready for my Sugar Daddy"... this song! 

I've been thinking about what it means to be poor in America for a long time. In high school, which I attended online, we used to have these things called "resumes", which was a misleading term for what was essentially a blank canvas that popped up when you clicked on a student's name and where the owner of that name could create any impression of themselves that they wanted in that space. For the longest time, I had this quote up there by John Locke from his Second Treatise of Government (I know, I was pretty edgy), "money has but fantastical, imaginary value."

At the time, I took this to mean, "who needs money, all you need is love, joy, peace, [insert whatever]". As I've gotten older and had to start paying for things, I've come to realize that he was probably commenting on the fact that money is only valuable because we all agree that it is and we all subscribe to a system in which we accept money in return for goods or favors. The money itself is meaningless, merely paper or metal that we believe to be worth something.

[my new motto is going to have to be some version of Moss's quote: "At least I have a lot of love in my life. Love is all I've got. That, and my sweet style."]

This realization has been somewhat of a letdown. As an adult, and especially as a parent, I am now keenly aware of the value of money in my life. I used to scoff at the American definition of poverty. There are so many people around the globe who have so much less than I have, and even so much less than the truly destitute and homeless people in the United States. I'm not saying that in an "eat your vegetables, there are children starving in Africa" sort of way, I saw a lot of genuinely life-threatening poverty growing up in China.

Here in California, where the good weather brings a lot of permanently homeless people, there is usually free food and shelter provided for those who seek it out, and if they really want it, there are often opportunities to learn a skill at a community center, or something of that nature. In other parts of the world, people sometimes sell a child to feed their other children, or watch their children die of starvation. That is an understanding of poverty that most Americans are shielded from, and that is a blessing.

However, I've also learned as I've grown in to an adult that suffering is not so easily defined as we sometimes think it is. It is difficult, dangerous, and feels hopeless to be poor, no matter the circumstances. Suffering, stress, and strife are universal, and even if some have experienced more disasters in life than others, the emotions are familiar.

I have been one to scowl (inwardly) at panhandlers in the U.S. and think to myself, "get yourself off drugs and get a life." "Stop milking the system and abusing my tax payments". "Only they are responsible for the position they're in, why should I help bail them out when they'll likely go get drunk off my hard earned money?"

And then I found myself with very little money, relying on other people to get by. I've always prided myself on being thrifty and good with my money. I've never been in debt, I don't spend excessively, I almost never pay full price for things, etc. But either I'm not as good with money as I thought, or there just isn't enough of it for what I considered a modest lifestyle. You've got to make it work with what you're given, right? Yet, what I'm given is paltry (and yet so good, compared to some!), and the cost of living only increases. I don't say this out of anger at employers or the job market or something, just that we don't make a lot of money (for a variety of reasons) and we have plenty of expenses.

In the United States, the official poverty line as defined for a family of 4 in 2015 is $24,250 a year. If Jonas worked full time (40 hours/week) for every week in the year at $13/hour, he would make $24,960 before taxes. For now, I'm contributing $200 a month, at most. We also end up getting more money back from the government than we pay in taxes, which is great for us, and probably why our government is in extreme debt, but that's a whole other topic. As you can see, we're just about at the poverty line as defined by the U.S. government. We rarely have more than $8000 in the bank between the two of us, and we often have a lot less than that. More often than not, $10 feels like a lot of money to me.

For the sake of this post, I took a preliminary screening test to see if our family is eligible for food stamps. We aren't, primarily (I would guess) because my parents let us live with them for free, minus the cost of utilities. Obviously, this is a HUGE blessing and opportunity and life saver for us. It keeps us from eating solely rice and beans, but I totally resell things that people give to me as hand-me-downs. #brokeasajoke. Our goal is to save enough money that we are able to go back out on our own again, and use the time that we're here to make headway in school so that we can get better paying jobs. 

I am not prone to being ashamed of myself, but it's difficult to look at these numbers and not feel embarrassed. I'm not sure that we did anything wrong that put us so far "behind" the middle-class dream-life, but sometimes it feels like we did.  Of course I wonder where we'd be if we had finished school before having [unexpected] children, but since we did, I try and find strength in the fact that we've always had everything we need from day to day, and that we are rich in family, if not in money. 

Regardless, being poor is stressful. I tell people that "we're in a time of limbo" and I might even say, "we just have to trust that God will take care of us" (which is true), but that makes it sound like I'm a lot more zen with the whole thing than I am. True, I don't constantly dwell on it, but that's mainly because I can't control it for now (God knows I try, and try, and try) and when I do dwell on (like I have been while writing this post), I get so down in the dumps that I need to go shopping. KIDDING. A little bit. At least my retail therapy happens at the thrift store. 

Really though, we're planning to move to LA, which I am excited about on many levels, but it's unhappy to think that I won't be able to afford taking advantage of much of what it great about LA. Then again, I pay $80 a month for my phone. I know that's a level of "poverty" that is pretty bearable in the grand scheme of things. I make this "quality of life" argument to myself about how it's okay to spend money on fun stuff sometimes because poverty is soul-crushing otherwise. Yet, spending money at all is pretty soul-crushing when I look at the numbers (which I often avoid because it's so painful - I know, I deserve many lectures for that), and spending money now means that we may just stay poor forever, and that would probably be even less fun.

Things like vacation or family photos that are GOOD things usually don't win out in our budget, and it's difficult to see people around me having those things. Not merely out of jealousy (though there is that at times), but because we don't act as poor as we are, and that creates some social tension. Our friends want to go out to eat or go to a show and I often have to tell them we can't afford it. It's hard to feel as brave as I make myself look when divulging that fact. I don't want to take their money (they often offer to pay for us), and God forbid I start a gofundme campaign to support my middle-class lifestyle habits (I know that's scathing, but HATH MY GENERATION NO SHAME?! I'm not going to pay for your plane tickets!).

It is difficult for me to accept monetary help from people. I don't even like taking advantage of government programs that we're eligible for, because I'm paranoid of being a whiner. I'm not sure if I grew up poor or not - my parents were supported missionaries who were very careful with their money. We had everything we needed, but both of my parents are very thrifty. They felt strongly that they shouldn't abuse the funds given to them, and so I spent a year sleeping on the floor of an office in our family apartment while my friends lived in 3 story mansions. I remember not being able to go out to eat with my friends, or even as a family, because my parents didn't have enough money. I heard my parents talk about money shortages (if only due to the lengthy transfer times between international banks) and it made me a little jumpy. I'm not trying to sound bitter, but I guess I assumed I would never let myself be in that same uncomfortable position.

So why am I poor? I'm not afraid of work. In fact, I really enjoy working. But I also value being present when my boys are very young, not to mention that we couldn't afford daycare. Being poor feels like a trap in a lot of ways. To put it bluntly, I'm not a stay at home mom because I like doing it. I'm not very good at it. I do it because I think that I should and because I can't afford not to. Seriously, I wouldn't make enough money working outside the home to pay for the cost of caring for my kids when I'm at work. As described in this article:
 "These women described their shift to stay-at-home motherhood as a choice, but a choice implies options. Work flexible hours while your child is in the care of loving, trusted caretakers—ideally in onsite daycare—or stay home with your baby and don’t work. That is a choice. No, the women I wrote about had been given what was clearly a false choice, even though the culture at large and even the women themselves often insist on believing otherwise. What kind of choice is it when your career as an attorney or investment banker demands that you stay at the office 60 hours a week or opt out of the workforce altogether? When a husband’s significant income gives a woman the “luxury” to stay home with her children, she’ll often feel compelled to choose that option."
My goal isn't to turn this in to a rant about inequality in the workforce or society forcing me into a kind of motherhood with unfair standards (even if there is some truth to that). I would be more troubled to never see my kids than I am at seeing them 24/7. But this "luxury" of staying home feels less luxurious when there's no viable alternative.

There's been some buzz about LA city and county hiking their minimum wage to $15/h over the next several years. You all know by now that I lean liberal, but maybe that's because I'm poor, not because I'm idealistic. Generally, I oppose citing sources from websites like "Republicans" or "you're an idiot if you want to take guns away from" because you're not going to get level headed information from those sources. When was the last time you were convinced of something because your Facebook friend posted about how stupid your political leanings are? That said, I read this little poster recently and well, reality bites...

First of all, I KNEW I belonged in the 70s!
Like I said, this information did come from the Occupy movement, and they really have it in for rich people. I don't have a problem with rich people, although it sounds like a nice thing to be. Forget the part about CEOs making supposedly 937% more than they used to, and just think about the cost of school, food, and housing right now. I know these numbers aren't too far off because the older people in my life tell me how much of their paycheck went toward those things when they were my age, and it was a lot less than what it is now.

Not that I hear a lot of people howling about this anymore, but machines aren't smarter than us. They're just more durable. They can do the same tasks over and over, so the jobs that are left are the ones for the creative thinkers and doers and innovators - the jobs that aren't skilled are steadily disappearing, and that leaves some of us unemployed. I can say with confidence that I am a skilled person, but I don't have any paperwork to prove it, and the cost of that paperwork is incredible. Not only in dollar amount, but in time and energy that is taken away from putting food on the table and keeping my children from scratching each others eyeballs out. We have more access to knowledge than ever before, but it feels harder than ever to use it to our advantage.

Additionally, the benefits of the those good jobs increasingly help the most well off - poor people can't afford the best toys and tools, or enter politics or the other channels we consider to be able to affect change. I saw a headline that posited that successful entrepreneurs come from families with money. Starting something new (aka "hard work") is costly, and often a failure. Sure, there are people who pull themselves up by their bootstraps and build something lasting and incredible, but there are also people like me. I have dreams, I have drive, but I also have responsibilities that prevent me from focusing solely on becoming not-poor. 

For now, that leaves me and my family sharing a home with other people, going to school at night at a very slow pace, and sometimes wanting to give up because it doesn't seem like anything will ever come of this struggle. We'll never save enough money that we won't have to worry about money ever again. It's hard to think about, hard to say. Truthfully, most people I know will probably never have so much money that they never have to worry about money again - that's not my aim in life. However, I would really like to step back from the brink of total destitution at some future point.

In the midst of what so often looks like such a grim state, I have no choice but to focus on the fact that we have everything that we NEED this very day, and even some things that we don't need. I would love to have my own home. I would love to have a car that I wasn't worried about shutting down in the middle of an intersection with two kids in the back. I would love to have a car at all. I would love to not worry about money, but even if I managed all those things eventually, I know that that's not what "making it" means.

I'm taking one step at a time, reminding myself that many adults in my life who are "making it" had less than I do now at some point in their life. I know a good amount of people who have lived in a car at some point in their life. Frankly, they're the best kind of people, because they know they can make it on next to nothing and as long as you have hope, that's very powerful knowledge to have under your belt.

I probably don't need to tell you, if you've ever been even close to being poor, that it can be hard on a marriage. When you say your wedding vows, you assume that your life will mostly be for better, for richer, and in health, but it doesn't always turn out that way. I guess I should have seen that coming, marrying a 22 year old art student (insert laughing-crying emoji). But you know what? Poor in America could be worse. I am rich in immediate family, rich in church family, rich in good friends, richer than a lot of people in the world, and maybe Love really is all you need [while you wait for a few more pennies, and the opportunity to make a few more pennies]. That, and a sweet style.

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