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?

Posted in: Philosophy

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