What it’s like to be poor


The problem with the world isn’t that poor people are all lazy and greedy. The problem is that people who have never been poor have no idea what it’s like. They can’t even imagine it. So they fill in the blanks with their own experiences and end up convincing themselves they live in a happy world where the poor enjoy all the luxuries of life without having to work for anything, and every job is a window of opportunity that leads to The Promised Land.

This perspective is so far from reality it constitutes insanity. I’m going to try to dispel some of the confusion and explain what it’s like to be poor and why the world should be talking about poverty more than celebrities and sitcoms.

One of the most common complaints you hear about welfare recipients is that they just use their free money to buy steaks and other expensive foods. The first problem with this point of view is it implies poor people don’t deserve to eat good food. This is heartless and misses the point. There’s enough food in the world for everyone to eat well. You should be mad at the system that only lets poor people eat steaks every once and a while, because the rest of the food they eat is the cheapest, most generic processed crap the government will approve for human consumption.

Mostly, poor people eat cheap processed food, but not because they’re too stupid to know it’s unhealthy or they’re too uncivilized to want to eat fresh fish and truffles. They walk past rows of savory food every time they go to the grocery store and stare at it longingly as their stomachs grumble.

On the way home, they pass aromatic bakeries, cafes and ethnic restaurants where they can’t afford to splurge $7 on a cup of coffee or salmon quiche. When they do eat at restaurants, their eyes dart immediately to the prices on the menu looking for the lowest numbers. Then they decide which of those items they’re going to order. Poor people only order steaks at restaurants maybe once a year. They won’t even buy steaks at the grocery store except on special occasions. So if you see a poor person buying steaks with food stamps, you should be happy for them that they’re taking a break from eating hot dogs and cereal and getting to eat like a real human being for one day.

It’s especially meaningful when a poor person gets to eat steak, because if their bodies aren’t malnourished from the nutritionless boxes of food they’ve been eating, they’ll be drained from the hard work they have to do. The cruelest lie ever told about the poor is that they don’t work. For every unemployed poor person, there are ten million who work all day every day as fast as they can at dangerous, tedious jobs where they’re permitted as few breaks as possible and are given as few amenities to accommodate them while they spend their entire lives trapped at work.

How do you think food gets from the field to the grocery store all packed up in boxes? Where do you think all the clothing and gadgets at the mall come from? They’re processed, assembled and stocked by people working all day for barely enough to survive. Every day they’re fighting for survival. Work is a life and death struggle for them, and if they can’t keep up the pace or grovel before their bosses reverently enough, they’ll lose their job and die. Everything is always on the line. The stress and anxiety this causes is soul crushing. You can’t spend your life this way without breaking. Something inside you has to die in order to keep going.

Those who do survive will never earn enough time off or money to take vacations. A backyard BBQ is the closest they’ll come to a vacation. If they save their pennies for long enough they might be able to take a trip to a beach resort, but they won’t have enough money to rent jet skis, go scuba diving, get a massage or eat more than one gourmet meal. In the end, they’ll come home broke and have another few years of unrelenting work before they can take another whirlwind vacation, assuming no unforeseen expenses pop up before then.

You can’t go a month without having to pay some kind of fine, fee or bill, and everything is as expensive as possible, especially health care, which is why insurance exists, but poor people are too poor to afford insurance. So they don’t get to go to the hospital. If they break a finger, they just tape two Popsicle sticks around it. When poor people do go to the hospital after their bodies break down from relentless work, they end up literally paying their life savings to get better.

Obviously, if they can’t afford vital medical attention, they certainly can’t afford cosmetic ones. Rich people can afford to have wrinkles removed. Poor people can’t afford to have warts removed from the bottom of their feet. Poor people don’t even get to go to the dentist regularly because it would cost too huge of a percentage of their life’s savings.

Poor people might be able to afford preventative health care if they didn’t get taxed so much. When someone with no savings gets paid $1,000 and gets taxed $100 they’re paying 10% of their entire net worth. That’s not just inconvenient, that’s crippling. It’s the difference between being able to see the dentist or not. Rich people can afford to pay more in taxes and still eat steak every day. Poor people can’t afford the taxes they’ve got.

And poor people don’t get much back from what they put in. They don’t get health care. They don’t get to go to museums, national parks, airports or take long road trips. Some of them don’t even get covered bus stops. They do get to go to jail for not being able to pay the relentless barrage of fines and fees the police dole out for any conceivable excuse though.

Poor people don’t even get welfare. I walked into a welfare office once and told the case worker I had no car, no home, no family, no friends, no job and $1,000 in savings. He told me I didn’t qualify for welfare, but if I applied to fifteen jobs and didn’t get hired, then he could give me barely enough money to survive if I ate rice and beans every day. However, if I got a job, then I wouldn’t get any more money. So I’d still be financially destitute until my first pay check. Then I’d continue to be destitute for the foreseeable future while I saved up my pennies by not enjoying any luxuries in life and hoping nothing bad happens to me.

That’s not an extraordinary story. That’s the norm. That’s how much the welfare office helps. It’s not a safety net. It’s a toilet to flush the poor down. As if to prove a point, the welfare office I went to had a lock on the bathroom door. When I tried to open the door, a security guard told me to go back to my place and sit down. For all the taxes poor people pay, they don’t even get a toilet to piss in.

I don’t know how you get money out of the welfare office, but even if you can, it’s not enough to live a stress-free, fear-free life, and sooner or later you’re going to have to go back to work at an inhumane sweatshop. The only other alternative is turning to a life of crime. Then you’ll have the time and money to live like a real human being… at least, until you go to jail, but at least then you’ll get three meals a day and won’t have to pay utilities or rent. You’ll probably still have to work in an inhumane sweatshop though. Plus, you’ll still have dangerous neighbors, and you’ll have to address your superiors as “sir/ma’am” and follow orders just like at a real job.

Rich people might be stamping their feet at this point, shouting, “If it’s so damn bad being poor then why don’t you just get a degree and/or work harder and pull yourself up!?!” To that I would say, if poor people can’t afford to go the hospital, they sure as hell can’t afford a higher education.

More importantly, it’s impossible for most of them to work any harder. They’re already pushing the limits of human endurance, and many have more than one job. All they do is work and recuperate from work. The problem isn’t that they’re not trying. The working poor are poor because a predatory economy keeps them chained to work with expenses and debt. If jobs paid more than the cost of living, then people wouldn’t be poor. The system is designed to ensure they never get ahead. Sure, there will be a few who beat the system and go from rags to riches, but that’s the exception. Endless poverty is the norm.

The physical and emotional suffering caused by poverty are stressful enough, but it also has a profound spiritual cost to its victims. When you have no money, you have no freedom. You can’t travel where you want. You can’t quit your job. You can’t pursue hobbies. You can’t be picky about where you live. You can’t afford to take classes or buy books. You can’t do anything but go to and from work. So you spend your life in a place you don’t want to be, doing things you don’t want to do for people you don’t like. But you have no choice. So you do it. All day, every day.

In the end, all your life amounts to is a tool at a business. You’re a machine, bound to follow orders, unable to make decisions for yourself, explore the world or find yourself. You’re not even allowed to express yourself by the clothes you wear since you’re forced to wear a uniform. Not that you’ll make enough money to buy good clothes anyway; you’ll shop at thrift stores and wear the faded clothes of people richer and older than you.

Poverty robs the poor of their very identity, dooming them to be unable to give their lives meaning in or outside of work. Poverty defeats the purpose of sentient life. It kills the poor inside before killing their bodies. There’s no purpose of humanity existing if the rest of our history revolves around oppressing the masses so the rich can live like gods.

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4 responses to “What it’s like to be poor

  • blah

    I didn’t read all of your story but I agree with the parts that I read, I was poor with idiot parents so had to work all my life just to pay bills, now @ 40 years old i only have a few more years before the mortgage is paid off, (I have a degree which wasn’t easy to get, and took years before making decent money) anyway, I know from experience it can be extremely difficult to go from being poor to having decent quality of life. I also believe it is getting harder over time as things become more expensive, good luck to future generations who are born poor with idiot parents


  • object

    Where so you live? I have spent 7 decades in the US. I have been very poor, working poor, middle class and comfortable middle class, including a brief period where I _felt_ rich. No university degree, but I do have a trade school skill I used for over a decade. My partner is still using a similar skill, at age 63.

    Today, in 2013, food stamps are available. Probably not if you still have $1k in savings, though. The case worker decided you could survive long enough to apply for 15 jobs. Eating processed crap costs more than eating whole food cooked from scratch. I can feed 2 people well on under $4/day. Some of those recipes will feed 6 people, so it can count for 3 days at under $4 total. That includes steak. BTW, steak is boring more than 1x-2x/week. Eating out is a diversion. Rarely is it worth the menu price, but then, you are paying for the labor of others (likely poor) to prepare it. It is all a tradeoff.

    Really homeless people lack that $1k in savings. They can get vouchers for housing for a limited time. It isn’t great housing. It is likely a cheapo motel or SRO hotel. It is shelter, not a forever home. They can qualify for Section 8 vouchers where they pay 1/3 their income and have to be reassessed every month. Working poor who qualify for food stamps can apply for fuel assistance. It is a pool, 1st come, 1st served. Maybe it gives someone enough money for a couple of winter month’s heat, payable to the fuel provider. Everyone else who pays an electric or gas bill pays a fee to create that pool.

    I drive a 6-year-old car and a 14-year-old van. Both paid for. I pay for mandatory insurance, maintain them and pay for gas. It isn’t that onerous.

    My home is paid for. I have lived here 40 years. At some point, I will sell it for enough cash to survive any really old age I might have and live in something much smaller and cheaper or in an RV or a trailer. I need shelter, heat in the winter, cool in the summer and a minimum amount of electricity, plus a Tracphone, Netflix and an Internet connection. Really poor people can get a free phone and 250 paid minutes/month. I sacrificed for this property and paid tax on it every year. I improved it and did not allow it to fall into ruin. Trust me, anyone can do that. I am ordinary, not very strong and only moderately skilled in home building and repair.

    Really ill? Go to the ER. They _must_ treat everyone, by law (just say “Hill-Burton”. They know what that means.) Even small villages have free clinics. Even Mayo will treat folks on State Medicaid if they have something serious. I know people who do and who still get top tier treatment from world class specialists. Got a $100 left out of that $1k? Most common prescriptions are $4 at Walgreen’s or Walmart. Most pharmaceutical companies give huge discounts or free meds to anyone who qualifies. Your MD mediates this.

    I have traveled on the cheap to the places I wanted to see in the world. I mostly did this up to age 55 or so. My partner manufactured items that sold at resorts. We were able to write off the travel and a day’s lodging and food as a business expense about 1/3 of the time. Or, we booked a marketing event somewhere, paid for the marketing, did our business and spent several days in a world class destination, to boot, not to mention the stop offs on the way to and from the marketing event. We have partnered with others to own a sailboat, joined the working man’s sailing club in our area and had every bit as much fun as any yachty in the Med. We once were able to get in on a Phase II time share in a place that was not yet discovered (we searched for this place and this was pre-Internet). The salesman was so desperate to return to his former World Class resort, he threw in 4 weeks of premium dive packages, gave us credit for the week we had paid for and further knocked off $1k on the total price. We enjoyed this place for 11 years, then sold it at a breakeven price. Some times when we traveled there, we packed our own dried food, went to a grocery store and cooked in. Once, we booked an extra week in a hostel that catered to Europeans and cooked in a communal kitchen. Terrible room, same island, same reef, great food and great company and stories to tell forever.

    Retirement? I am still working. I will likely work until I die. I own my own business manufacturing something I invented 30 years ago and have marketed ever since. It costs me 1/3 of the sale price to make it and it is a low-price-point item that I am able to sell in gross lots. I work about 10 1/2 months of the year, about 5 hours a day, 5 days/week. It is a living. I know retired people who are so bored and isolated, their money is doing them no good at all.

    One other thing: once poor, never rich. If you have experienced poverty, even $100M will never seem like riches. It just means you don’t have the same anxieties you did before. So, some folks were born to wealth. Luck of the draw. I know several. Many pretend they aren’t wealthy because they cannot face the jealousy that brings. Some spend their lives feeling inadequate, although quite comfortable. They still become ill and they still die, just like everyone else.

    I can stretch a dollar in ways many can’t even believe and so can a lot of us. Some of that stretching is actually creative fun. Some is probably pathological and OCD. No one cares, including me. It is my life and money is simply a tool. I know how to get enough of that tool and enough is all anyone needs.

    You are whinging!



  • eassae

    I can recommend the book “Hunger” by Knut Hamsun.


  • Hector

    Reasons like these is what really makes me despise the monetary system and collateral damage it produces.


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