class rage speaks
Ruminations on the personal experience of being poor and my journey toward being fully myself in spite of classism's silencing and setbacks. Here's to feeling a little less alone.
Thank you, as always, for your support. Every now and then, I get a little blip of reblogs and such, and I’m always glad to see when people feel they got something positive from what I wrote.
I am not currently active on this blog and I have not been since August of 2011. The reasons for that are complicated and personal, but an important reason is that my life is very different now from how it was when I started this project. I’m married now, I finished my bachelor’s and then my master’s degree, I have a good full-time job, and in general, my life is so much more secure and safe than it used to be. I’m very lucky to not have to be so afraid any more.
Having grown up poor and gone through periods of varying levels of financial difficulty still heavily influences how I approach many aspects of life. My family and others I care about are still low-income. I work in higher education, where class issues are always in play and always frustrating. Class issues will always be incredibly important to me; however, the reality is that right now, I’m not poor, and I can’t speak for that experience. It’s possible that at some point, I will decide to become active here again, but right now, I feel like my rightful place is as a listener, not a storyteller.
Again, I’m so glad when people find things I wrote helpful or evocative or truthful, and I thank you for reading.
Edited to add: When I said that I am not currently active here, I meant it! I will not be responding to messages or reblog comments, as I do not log onto this account regularly, and I am sort of confused as to why I continue to get new followers. You’re free to follow, but there isn’t going to be any new content.
I don’t know what happened here, but I appear to have acquired quite a few new followers. Hello! If any of you would like to tell me where you heard about me, I would very much like that- I haven’t been keeping track very well, and the number of hits I’ve received suddenly this past week has been a big surprise. I can tell that one of my posts has been circulating on Facebook, but I can’t tell where or how much.
As you may have noticed, this Tumblr is current on hiatus for personal reasons. I’m currently unsure as to when I will begin posting regularly again. However, the recent response I’ve received has been very heartening. I hope to begin posting again over my winter break (I’m a student), but please bear with me if it takes longer or goes slower than I would like.
Many thanks for all of your support.
“ Can we just accept that fact that being poor, and being on public assistance, means you aren’t eating well right now? That the steak and lobster buying food stamp recipient is a straw person? That people on public assistance are not living high on the hog? And that it’s a crying shame that the assistance people get is not enough? You know, call me a communist, but I would love it if people on public assistance could afford to buy the occasional skirt steak, salmon, pork tenderloin or package of dried mushrooms along with their regular food purchases if they wanted to. I think people should be able to feed themselves and their kids consistently throughout the month. I have a problem with the idea that we seem to require poor people to eat gruel and wear rags. If my tax dollars are going to help people, goddammit, I want them to be able to get enough help to eat well. It beats the hell out of what my tax dollars usually go to. ”
It’s kind of sad that wanting people, regardless of their financial situation, to be able to enjoy life in some small way opens yourself up to being called a communist. Not that it is really an insult, it’s just sad that being decent is such an anomaly.
On a recent slow day at work, waiting for a phone call to answer, I found myself perusing the archives of the Dear Prudence advice column. I frequently disagree with Prudence’s advice, but it makes for an interesting read to pass the time. Between the standard stories of fights with the in-laws, workplace drama, and child-rearing problems, I found a letter from a soon-to-be father asking for advice about whether to take a great job offer that would force his new family to move far away from the couple’s parents. What caught my eye was the letter-writer’s mention that neither set of parents had very much money, and moving so far away would mean that they were financially incapable of visiting the couple or seeing their grandchild.
I could go either way regarding Prudence’s advice that the writer take advantage of the job opportunity and do his best to also maintain the family relationships, but what really got my attention was her treatment of the writer’s assertion that travel was not an option. She completely brushed this aside, asserting that a plane ticket was “only a few hundred dollars!” and implying, it seemed to me, that the couple’s parents were being selfish and unreasonable to suggest that they couldn’t afford it.
I was shocked at her disregard for the writer’s assessment of his family’s situation. It’s highly inappropriate to tell someone that they are wrong or lying to say that they can’t afford something.* You probably don’t know what their exact financial situation is, even if you think you know. You may know some of the details, but they are the only person who really knows what’s going on and what they’re comfortable with. Sure, family is important, but sometimes it’s just not possible to come together, no matter how much you want to do so. Jeopardizing your living situation or going into debt, or expecting someone else to do so, isn’t exactly a great expression of familial love.
I’ve encountered the “but it’s not that much money!” attitude innumerable times, applied to everything from social events to charitable donations to desirable objects. I’ve come to read it as a red flag, a warning that the person I’m dealing with isn’t taking time to think about their financial privilege and the situations others may be living with. When it’s stated in a general sense, it’s simply ignorant, and when it’s directed at a particular person- usually in an attempt to force them to accept an expense they don’t think is wise- it’s extremely disrespectful.
The bottom line is this: there is no amount of money so small that it can be assumed to not matter or to be worthwhile to everyone. Not “just $20” for a restaurant meal, or “just $200” for a cheap plane ticket, or “just $50,000” in student loans to get an education. Refusing to respect someone’s self-assessment regarding whether they can afford something or whether it’s “worth it in the long run” (or whatever the pleading phrase might be) is just plain wrong, and deriding them as cheap, selfish, or petty for refusing to put themselves in danger is in itself a selfish thing to do.
*I’m sure there are incidents where an objectively wealthy person is stingy in a way that’s harmful to others, but I think that’s a rather different dynamic, and it’s not what I’m discussing here.
"Stop being so serious, you’re wasting your youth! You should be out having fun!"
"You’re young and free- you don’t have a mortgage or children to take care of. What reason could you possibly have to worry about money?"
"Sharing apartments and eating ramen are just part of being young- you have to accept that and just focus on having a good time!"
"Reach for your dreams! Don’t settle for a boring job, do what you’re passionate about, even if it doesn’t pay well!"
"You’ll regret it forever if you don’t enjoy yourself now!"
Who hasn’t heard advice like this? Whether on Tumblr, from parents or teachers, or from friends of the same age, I’ve found these ideas about what young people should do and be to be widespread in the culture I live in. And honestly, if I hear something like that aimed at me one more time, I very well may explode.
Having spent the past few years of my life around people who are predominantly upper-middle-class, I’ve become accustomed to a particular idea of what it means to be a young person. Young adulthood, post-college graduation, is seen as a transitional period where the young person is not expected to be fully independent or to have their life fully worked out. The emphasis is on self-discovery and personal growth, the parents are still around to provide financial and emotional support, and the assumption is that whatever money woes occur during this period are temporary. Doing what you love and/or having fun, it is understood, will either lead to or give way to a stable, lucrative career that will fund an upper-middle-class lifestyle. These are the assumptions that lie behind most advice to enjoy one’s youth without worrying about money or career- because, it is implied, someone else will be there to help if times are tough, and eventual financial security is a given.
I find it incredibly frustrating to try and discuss my current situation with people who have this attitude toward young adults. Besides people making assumptions about my life that simply aren’t true- like that my parents can and will help me, or that I can depend upon having a good, steady job in the future- I hate to have my very real financial concerns dismissed so readily. I worry about money because I have to, because no one else is paying for my rent or schooling or ongoing medical needs, because I have had no opportunity to amass savings, because my debt is looming over me and I don’t have the job-finding resources many of my peers have access to as a result of their socioeconomic status. It’s not a matter of just having to eat ramen and share an apartment for a few years. It’s being chronically financially insecure, knowing that I’d be unable to weather a serious emergency, and having no definite prospect of a time when that situation will come to an end.
All in all, I like my life, and I have taken some financial risks for the sake of living more enjoyably right now and doing what I’m passionate about. I’ve gone into substantial debt and endured a lot of personal turmoil to go to grad school, and I’ve limited my work hours this summer for the sake of relaxing and spending time with my partner rather than making more money. But was that all worth it? The latter was, but more and more frequently these days, I’m starting to doubt the former. The personal and monetary toll of pursuing my dreams has been great, and when those dreams are no longer sounding so achievable or attractive to me, I’m starting to feel like it was all a huge, expensive mistake. “Follow your dreams!” and “Do what you enjoy!” were dangerous messages for me, conveyed by well-meaning but ignorant advisors who didn’t understand my true situation, which found me at a point in my life where I was confused and vulnerable.
Perhaps the older people providing this kind of advice to young adults don’t remember what it was really like to be that age- the juggling of responsibilities, the importance of working toward future plans, the fear of insecurity. Perhaps these particular people just didn’t have to face substantial hardship when they were young, and assume that all young people live their lives similarly sheltered from difficulty. Conditions are certainly different today than they were when my parents were growing up; it’s much harder to get by now without a college degree, and the experience of looking for work has changed with changing technology and economic conditions. People of an older generation, especially those who have secure work situations and retirement plans, may not realize this. I know that I’ve had conversations with my own parents where they outright refused to believe how difficult it was for my college friends to find jobs, even with degrees from a prestigious university.
There’s also something to be said for the idea of taking time to figure out what you really want, following your dreams, and possibly enduring some difficulties in the moment in hopes of eventually achieving a loftier goal. Certainly, many poor kids aren’t encouraged or given the tools and information to explore every life path that really interests them. But “You can do anything you set your mind to!” is a double-edged sword; it may represent much-needed encouragement for some people, but it definitely ignores the very real limitations that exist for others. This kind of encouragement may be appropriate on an individual level in some situations, but when generalized or used by someone who doesn’t know the details of the life of the person they’re encouraging, it’s just ignorant and unfeeling.
Not everyone has the same options- or even access to the idea that options exist- and not everyone can functionally afford to wait for a job they like or chase a non-paying opportunity rather than taking a job in order to survive. Some young people, believe it or not, don’t have supportive parents or savings to support them while they take it easy, and have financial problems far more serious than not having quite as much spending money as they would like. Using your youth to follow your dreams and have fun is a great ideal, but it’s just not possible for many young people (including me!) to do that, and dismissing our worries with uninformed optimism not only ignores and misrepresents the realities of our lives, but provides us with one more person we can’t feel safe around.
With the economy in the state it’s in, it’s clear that now is a difficult time, financially speaking, to be a young person in the United States. Unemployment is rampant, the job market is cutthroat, and higher education is ever more expensive, sending many people into substantial student-loan debt. I know very well how scary a situation this can be; I graduate with my master’s in a year, and even though both of my degrees are from top-tier schools, I’m still terrified that I won’t be able to find a job that allows me to pay off my loans, live from day to day, and make some kind of progress toward a state of greater financial security.
One statistic I’ve seen mentioned in discussions of this economic climate is that at present, 85% of college graduates will return to live with their parents. I’m not clear as to the methodology of this study, or what exactly it means- for how long? directly from college, or after some time? But I can definitely believe, from other information and my own experiences, that a fairly large percentage of young people are choosing to save money by living with their parents instead of paying for their own independent housing.
Thinking about this issue has required a switch in perspective for me. For a long time, I’ve thought of going back to live with one’s parents as a privilege, connected to the privileges of having parents who can afford to provide financial help and other kinds of support. It’s something that I don’t have to fall back on. There is simply no longer a place for me in my parent’s house, and they can’t afford to support me as well as all my younger siblings who are still at home. Their location, lack of Internet access, home conditions, and general environment would conspire to make it incredibly difficult for me to keep on top of the current fast-paced, highly competitive job market. Between that and the personal details of our relationship, it’s impossible for me to move back in with my parents.
But clearly, most people are looking at moving back in with one’s parents not as a privilege reserved for those of well-off parentage, but as the opposite: a marker of one’s own lack of money and financial security, a consequence of economic disadvantage that is personally and practically difficult to endure. It means giving up one’s personal space and autonomy- very important things- and running the risk of disapproval and teasing from peers, potential romantic partners, or the parents themselves. For a lot of people, it’s not something they want to do, it’s something they have to do in order to stay afloat in a bad economic situation, and it requires distinct sacrifices on their part.
Thinking about this issue is bringing up questions of interest to me about different experiences of poverty and how they work in relationship to each other- how one person’s experience of hardship can be another person’s longed-for privilege, while both are still experiences of financial disadvantage on a larger scale. What do you think?
Recently, The Heritage Foundation released a report on poverty in American, largely trying to debunk the idea that poor people are poor. They included facts like the majority of people living in poverty have refrigerators, microwaves, and air conditioners. Never mind these things might be attached to a rental unit of some kind… it’s not like those items listed are big-ticket items, particularly when bought used.
I met a family the other day who, according to the Heritage Foundation, is living in the lap of luxury. I’ll let you folks make up your minds.
I was at the Salvation Army last week and was looking at the appliances. There was an older microwave for $5. A woman in front of me (I’ll call her Ann) at the register bought the microwave and was telling her kids they’d get microwave popcorn again. It looked like that $5 microwave made those kids’ day. Now, that microwave would have been included in The Heritage Foundation’s analysis because she also receives WIC, and Heritage Foundation is especially interested in those receiving federal benefits.
I know she receives WIC, because she asked me if all the grocery stores in town took it. Ann just moved here about three weeks ago and was staying with a friend who was now in the process of moving away. I talked to her for about half an hour outside the store. She asked if I knew which hotel was the cheapest and cleanest, because she couldn’t afford the rent here (college is about to start, so the cheapest rentals are gone) and she’s on a list for a housing voucher.
I helped her put a suitcase on a luggage rack on the top of her car to make room for the microwave in her trunk. She mentioned she was glad to have a place to work and, she hoped, a place to live. I asked where she moved from. She said Denver, and that she and her kids were living in their car for a few months (in the midst of a heat wave) because her landlord kicked her out and she had nowhere to go. Ann said she never signed a lease and the landlord evicted her with just a few hours notice because her two-year-old was too noisy. She was afraid to go for DFS for help because she thought they’d take the kids, what with them living in the car. She interviewed for a job at a fast food place here about a week ago and starts this Monday. She’d been out of work for about 5 months when she moved up here.
I gave her the phone numbers for every community resource I could think of, pointed her towards the hotels I knew were cheap and clean, and offered to help in any way I could. Ann said that I’d helped, that she already knew how to get along the best she could, and that “being poor takes skills you don’t know you have ‘til you need them.”
But according to Heritage Foundation, she’s not poor. She and her 3 kids are living in a hotel here that has a fridge, a queen bed (or two), a $5 microwave she bought, and she’s living in the lap of luxury (as defined by them)? I don’t think so. Their report exemplifies what I (and others) call “Poor people can’t have nice things.” Basically, if you have a very basic amenity, like a microwave, you’re obviously not poor. Apparently, being poor involves some kind of “noble suffering” and if you aren’t suffering Oliver Twist-style, you aren’t poor.
I can see Ann and her kids were struggling. But that’s seemingly not “low” enough for folks at the Heritage Foundation. I don’t care what “amenities” people in poverty supposedly have - to me, one person being one paycheck away from homelessness or food insecurity is one too many. One in seven Americans currently rely on food stamps to eat. And never mind those folks trying to subsist on the goodwill of others and/or unemployment. I’m not going to quibble about a cell phone or a television.
I hope she’s doing alright, the job works out, and the kids get microwave popcorn.