Being poor in North America

I was introduced recently to an article by John Scalzi on being poor.  If you have not read it yet, go and read it because my comments will make little sense otherwise.  (Then come back and continue reading this blog!)

Photo Credit: D Sharon Pruitt via Flickr

As I read the article, two things struck me.

First, I felt a bit uncomfortable.  I do a lot of the things on his list of statements and I don’t agree that they necessarily define “poor”.

  • Being poor is needing that 35-cent raise: I remember being a student and loving my yearly raise at the retail outlets I worked at.  I certainly wasn’t making gobs of money, but neither was I the level of down-and-out poor that seems to be portrayed in this article.
  • Being poor is stopping the car to take a lamp from a stranger’s trash: While I haven’t actually gone into a trash can, I have grabbed freebies from beside the dumpster on many, many occasions.  Lamps?  Yep.  Also: coffee tables, night tables, side tables, spice racks, boxes of books, computers, and even musical instruments.  Taking advantage of freebies doesn’t mean you’re down and out.
  • Being poor is a heater in only one room of the house: It actually makes sense to only heat the room you’re currently in… otherwise you’re wasting energy and money.
  • Being poor is never buying anything someone else hasn’t bought first: Again, not necessarily a bad thing.

Secondly, I was struck by the rawness and sincerity of many of the statements.  I really felt like Scalzi nailed down the state of being poor in America with a great deal of accuracy and empathy.  Many of the statements made me feel a little bit more humble and a little bit sad.

  • Being poor is knowing your kid goes to friends’ houses but never has friends over to yours: This was true for me as a child.  We rented a basement apartment for a number of years, while the majority of my friends came from rich families overseas.
  • Being poor is not talking to that girl because she’ll probably just laugh at your clothes: I’d like to think that I have not ever judged a boy for the quality of his clothes.
  • Being poor is knowing you really shouldn’t spend that buck on a Lotto ticket: There are members of my family who do this, and it makes me sad, because their finances are in very rough shape.  But they still do it anyways…

Finally, I was astonished at the intensity and bitterness of some of the commenters.  For some, I felt empathy.  For others, I had to admit, their “sacrifices” seemed to me like frugal choices I would make regardless of whether I was poor or rich. Logically, I know that there’s a psychological difference between choosing frugality and being forced into it, but at the same time, I wonder how much of their “poorness” is due to mentality rather than actual scarcity.

Have you ever felt poor?  How did you approach it?

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59 Comments

  1. On one level I have, but it was largely thanks to my own doing. Sure, I may not have had a lot of stuff or things,but I had what I needed and in the end I guess that’s what matters. My approach was to look for ways to get out of it and be disciplined with my efforts.

    • CF says:

      Discipline is the hard part I would say. It took me a few years in college to realize the effort needed to NOT be poor and constantly in debt.

    • Nothing wrong with what you have described. A lot of families go through it at different levels. Inequality now is worse than ever, so the story is familiar to a lot of people.

      It just tells you – do not despair and keep aiming for better.

  2. *sigh* That was kind of a depressing read. I have never felt poor, even when I was making very little money. I have always had access to credit, the knowledge that I would be able to pay it off, and, probably biggest of all, access to parents who could financially support me.
    I am very thankful for some of our systems in Canada, though. Yes, some have issues, but one of my co-workers is an example of succeeding. Growing up in a single mother with several children household, with her earning a very low income, my co-worker has moved from the bottom quintile of income to the top one, all thanks to a university degree. Our fairly affordable tuition and access to loans made it possible. Additionally the relative lack of stratification in high schools and post-secondary schools.

  3. I read the article and was also very uncomfortable and sad. Very, very raw stuff. It’s so sad because a lot of this stuff is cyclical. Being poor IS a cycle that is very hard to break.

    • CF says:

      That’s true – there’s just so fewer options to you when you’re *that* poor, that it makes it so much harder to break out of. If I was worrying about the difference between 10 cent and 12 cent ramen, I’m probably not going to have 5 bucks at the end of the week to stash in an emergency fund.

  4. “Being poor is knowing your kid goes to friends’ houses but never has friends over to yours”
    Not sure if this is true – we were definitely not rich (lower middle class most of my youth), but I went over to friends houses with more and money and less money than our house – because their homes were rich in spirit and love. Never wanted to bring anyone back to our house because we were definitely lacking in that department.

    • CF says:

      It’s great that you had what sounds like an awesome group of friends! I can’t remember a single time that I brought friends back to our florescent bulb lit basement suite. I don’t remember if it was a conscious choice or not, but it certainly stuck with me.

  5. After reading that article, I’d really like to know what he considers “being rich”? I agree with a lot of your counter arguments.

  6. I’ve definitely done a few things on that list and wouldn’t consider myself poor because of it. While we may have struggled at times, I would never classify my family as pooor because we ALWAYS had food to eat. I think being poor really means struggling to feed yourselves. I can’t even imagine…

    • CF says:

      I would tend to agree. Sometimes I *felt* poor, like when my family would eat the same thing for a week or cook all of our meals out of the rice pot, but we never lacked for anything we *really* needed.

  7. Pauline says:

    I have been broke but never felt poor. As a student with a micro flat, eating noodles and bread, I felt so free and independent that it was worth all the sacrifices. I did buy second hand, celebrate small raises at work and get free furniture, but I thought I was smart for doing that instead of going into debt.

    • CF says:

      There’s definitely something liberating about the broke student lifestyle. Perhaps it is the sense of hope that people lose when they start feeling poor.

  8. Vix Money says:

    What an article. It is eye opening seeing some of the comments and going through some of it as a child, but never thinking we were poor. Parents definitely shielded us from a lot of the financial problems and worries. I definitely was teased for my clothing in high school, but I figured that was just high school. I think mentality is part of it, as I agree with some of your comments like making use of things that other people throw away. I second My Money Design’s comment on what he would consider ‘being rich.’

    Thanks for sharing!

    • CF says:

      Thank goodness for parents eh? :) My parents always focused on the good stuff that we had and never complained when things were lacking. I certainly never felt like we were suffering while growing up.

  9. I read the entire post and yes that is reality for many people who simply can’t make ends meet. I also don’t agree that pulling something off the side of the road with a “free” sign means your poor it could also mean you are smart with your money. I’ve had many friends growing up from when I was young that had to go through some of those points and still some today. Everyone’s situation is unique and I respect that, and never judge, only love. It’s a sad existence for some but many laugh,love, and live life more so than some people who have money who are miserable and don’t understand how lucky they are. It’s like that saying… “Someone,Somewhere has it worse off than You”. Thanks for sharing this post it’s just another reminder after last weeks Welfare Food Challenge I participated in how this world is not always fair to all. Mr.CBB

    • CF says:

      Thanks for your comments! I don’t think many of my friends do the frugal/poor things that are mentioned in the article, but I would like to think that they would respect those that do. I know I tell many of them about the free stuff I find, or the money I shave off of meals, and no one has judged me for it (that I know of…) which is heartening.

      I’m still impressed with the meals you pulled out of the Welfare Food Challenge btw. ;)

  10. Savvy Scot says:

    I love to plan waay ahead, so I don’t think I have ever had to take drastic action. I have turned down nights out or cut back on spending in my student days when I saw cash flow problems. I also agree with some of your comments – especially the one about only heating the room you are in! I’d like to think I will continue to be frugal in that sense forever!

    • CF says:

      That’s a good point. If you can plan ahead for emergencies or times where money is expected to be tight, it can make a big difference to your finances and stress levels.

  11. shelley says:

    wow, I don’t agree with most of his statements. Just because you don’t have the best of everything does not make you poor. If you have a roof over your head and food in your belly, you are richer than most of the population. Frugal choices don’t make you poor, in fact they help to make you rich.

    • CF says:

      I agree – that’s why I wonder if it’s part of the mindset (ie. I *have* to be frugal rather than I *want* to be frugal) that makes you feel “poor”. Thanks for visiting and commenting!

  12. I think one of the things that isn’t explicitly mentioned in your post or the original article is choice. While I will do things on the list, because they are frugal, I have choices. If I want to become a “freegan” and dumpster dive, I can, but I don’t have to. I may choose to only heat one room, but I have choice in the matter.

    • CF says:

      Yes, I think choice has a big part in whether you feel poor or frugal. If you can choose to do these things, you might feel frugal but if you HAVE to do them, you may feel poor. Good point!

  13. I’m gonna have to read that article, because lots of the things that he thinks being poor means, I definitely don’t agree with. Though I do remember growing up and always having to shop at the cheaper department stores, and never being able to get anything trendy. I remember having such a hard time telling my mom that flare jeans weren’t just a trend but they would be around for ever. I also never really liked having friends come over, but it wasn’t so much that I was ashamed of people coming over, I just preferred going to their houses to play with all their new to me toys haha.

    • CF says:

      lol @ flare jeans…

      I think as children we don’t really notice differences in wealth quite as much, which is a good thing. I think it becomes more noticeable in high school.

  14. eemusings says:

    Wow, amazing post.

    And I’ll echo everyone who has mentioned how hard it is to break the poverty cycle.

  15. No, I can say for sure that I’ve never felt or really been poor. Never worried about having a home or food to eat. I’ve been very lucky. I do think some people choose to live in a way that some would consider poor, but they are perfectly happy and content that way. Truly poor people don’t know if they will have food or clothes or shelter, and I think that would be so distracting, it would be hard to do much other than get through today.

  16. Being poor is heating only one room because you simply can’t afford to heat the others – not because it’s practical to heat only the room you’re in, and not because you have the option of turning on the heat elsewhere when you move to a different room. It also usually means struggling to find a way to pay for your choice to heat that one room.

    Being poor is taking things from dumpsters and always buying second hand because you have no other choice, not just because you are being frugal.

    And that’s the crux of it: Poor may vary in appearance from one person to another but might be defined by always choosing less because you HAVE to.

    Each person deals with their circumstances in different ways, but I guess the point is to understand how very frightening and frustrating it is to have your options limited by poverty. I’ve been in that place. I never want to feel that fear again, but I am grateful for the understanding and empathy it taught me.

    • CF says:

      I think you can have your choices limited but still not feel “poor”. I’d take a lot of broke college students as an example. I think a lot do things like refuse to turn on heat or eat cheap ramen because they do not have the money to pay for more. But I don’t think that they would feel the hopelessness of being poor. Perhaps because they have hope that things will improve at the end of their degree? I don’t know.

      I know for myself, my family has slept on the floor because we couldn’t afford beds yet and we cooked our meals out of one pot for the longest time because we hadn’t bought any kitchenware, but I did not feel poor. Again, perhaps because I felt like things would get better.

  17. Yeah.. I am with you.

    The author would be wise to do some charity work or spend some time in a soup kitchen. It is clear that they have no idea what it really means to be poor.

    • Umm… from everything I’ve learned, the author is spot-on. We may choose to do some of those things to be frugal, but the key is choose, not be stuck between a rock and a hard place.

    • CF says:

      [edit on my last answer, which I realized kind of got off topic]

      I don’t disagree in the sense that yes, when you are poor, you lack the choices that you have when you are frugal. But I disagree with categorizing those actions as being only “things that poor people do”.

  18. This makes me sad. I have never been truly poor before and I cannot imagine.

    • CF says:

      It makes me sad too, but at the same time, it makes me wonder – what are the choices that people can make to break them out of this poverty cycle, why aren’t they making those choices,and what prevents them from making those choices?

      • It’s really hard to break out of that cycle. If you’re on some type of support, earning $100/more a month means you could lose $400/month for your family of four or five for food. You find yourself waiting for an opportunity to make $500/month instead, but often don’t reach it because you can’t take the stepping stones in between. Many states are now making it so that if you have any type of savings whatsoever, it counts against your benefits. So the motivation to actually save in order to improve your situation is discouraged by the system itself. The people who truly take advantage of the programs are generally less effected. The people who want to get off of them and get better are forced to either stay on it and not improve their situation, or improve their situation and not eat, pay rent, or any other series of difficult decisions. This has been my experience with people I know in the US.

  19. I think a good portion of people who are technically poor consider themselves lower-middle class, which could explain why you’ve had some of these experiences before. Some of them are frugal choices, but only if they’re actually choices. I had a really hard time reading some of these…the emotions he brings up are raw and real.

    At the same time, regardless of how poor I was, I’d find a way to not wear goodwill underwear. I’m sure someone out there has some type of program that helps people find the stuff new (and sanitary.) I’d find it at all costs.

    • CF says:

      That is a good point, and also the points you made above as well. I admit, I do forget that “the system” often punishes people for trying to earn more money.

  20. I read this post awhile back and did my own version http://poortorichadayatatime.blogspot.com/2012/02/you-know-your-poor-when.html

    Yet when I did mine, I was not bitter, I actually find much of what I wrote to be humorous.

    I cringed when I first read this post due to the resentment and bitterness of the one who wrote it and from some of those who responded.

    Just because you are poor, does NOT mean you need to always feel it and be such a negative ninny, it truly is a STATE OF MIND.

    Also I have found even in poverty, too many go on without skill sets to make do, or have very poor money management skills as with any level of income. It is this group that I have found to be so bitter, with the exceptions of those who are so poverty ridden they can not even afford the needed basics and really feel the pinch of poverty.

    A positive, healthy mindset and being able to see your daily blessings go a long way in feeling normal, wealthy and even joyful.

    • CF says:

      Yes, I agree completely. Being positive about your choices goes a long way towards maintaining a healthy state of mind. Even when your choices are limited or constrained, you still have choices.

      Thank you also for the link to your post! Heading over to read it right now.

  21. I read the article and I immediately felt guilty for ever thinking I was poor or joking about being poor, because I was nowhere ever close to being in that situation. It really tugged on my emotions and broke my heart.

  22. agentfang says:

    I think being poor is not really being able to afford food and shelter. All the extra stuff you have like cell phones, laptops, tvs, and cars are non essentials. Going from pay to pay to pay off bills… being on welfare, needing income assistance are the essential line to keeping afloat.

    I’ve always felt “poor” cuz my salary was on the lower end of the spectrum, but I’ve always had a roof over my head and food on my plate to eat. I am thankful that I never have to suffer what some people have gone through of scraping by in life.

    I think everyone can always turn their lives around and make the most of it. How comfortable are you in life to make a change?

    • CF says:

      I’ve never suffered as a result of not having enough money but my family has gone though some pretty lean times, past and present. I would agree with your last point. There’s always *something* that you can do to make changes for the better.

  23. In North America, a lot about being poor is more about perception of hardship compared to others, rather than about absolute poverty. When I was a student paying my own way and working many hours a week, I still had quite a decent standard of living, but what made me feel “poor” at the time was the fact that I was near the bottom in terms of having to do that out of need. It’s all relative, though! Travel to Ethiopia or another truly poor country and you will see real poverty.

    • CF says:

      That’s one of the reasons why I felt like the original article, though compelling, may have done a disservice by categorizing certain activities (like only heating up one room at a time) as being “things poor people do.” Context is important.

  24. Wise Dollar says:

    I think that some good points are made about being poor but there is a cross over with being frugal on some of these points. There is absolutely nothing wrong (in my mind) with re-purposing items that are no longer wanted to needed by the original owner. Being the quintessential DIY guy I fix up a lot of stuff that I find and keep or sell it. My wife and I shop at thrift stores. Do we have to? Not by a long shot but it’s fun and you can find some really cool things there.

    • CF says:

      I guess it all comes back to the “choice” factor right – being frugal implies that you feel like you have a choice. I love finding things and putting them to new uses. The environmentalist in me likes it too. ;)

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