Sunday, November 16, 2014

Being Poor Is Expensive!


I've just finished an amazing book by a woman named Linda Tirado called, Hand to Mouth: Living in bootstrap America. What an incredible read! It illustrates, through Linda's awful personal experiences, just what the real cost of living poor is. And here's a hint: it ain't cheap. This is the important message she has to give us, and it's given me some firepower to write this blog entry. After all, it wasn't all that long ago when I was in Linda's situation, struggling to study for a final exam while surviving on nothing more than a giant bag of pretzels. The sad truth is, it's cheap to be rich, and it's ridiculously expensive to be poor!

Here's one example Linda writes to us about: She once lost an entire pickup truck because of one parking violation. She admits that she committed the parking violation which got her towed, but let's face it, we've all been in situations where we've had no choice on that count, haven't we? But Linda was not so lucky in what happened afterward. Having lost her vehicle, she was told that she could redeem it from the impound by paying $100. She didn't have $100, but told the city workers that she could get it to them by the end of the following week when her next paycheck came in. So she walked the many blocks it took her to get to work every day, sloughing through cold and wet weather, just to finally get the meager funds she could get to get her truck back. But when she came in after her next paycheck, she was told that she now owed over $1000! The city had been charging her a $100 per day storage fee! Now she owed nearly everything she made in an entire month! She couldn't afford that, and was blunt in that she could never afford it! After all, they were charging her more than her daily earnings each day, including the weekends when she didn't work! Well, they told her, if she couldn't afford to reclaim the vehicle, they would eventually have to sell the vehicle off to cover the charges. Thus, Linda lost her entire truck - the one thing she had going for her - all for parking it wrong just once. The injustice of it all!

This is just one of the many mishaps and pitfalls that come naturally from being poor in America. For all the bitching the GOP does about the minimum wage holding the economy back, minimum wage is nearly impossible to live on. There just isn't any margin for error! If you scrimp, save, buy only the barest of necessities and live off nothing but ramen noodles for weeks, you might be able to save $30 or $40, but you can bet something will come along that upsets the apple cart along the way. Something will go wrong with the rust-bucket car, some illness will come along, the last pair of work pants will rip, your shoe's laces will break... something will happen! It always does. And when it does, there goes any ability to save anything at all.

Small wonder that poor people make what appear, at first, to be bad choices. When the time comes along when they finally do get just a little bit of money, they spend it on things that naive suburbanites might judge to be bad. Booze, cigarettes, drugs, lottery tickets, etc. It might seem as if such behavior brings more misfortune upon those who engage in it, and therefore they deserve what they get. But what the affluent don't understand is that the influences work both ways. The behaviors are the reaction to the crappy situation, not necessarily the cause. After all, if your life sucks anyway, and it will go on sucking whether you get drunk or not, whether you buy cigarettes or not, whether you get high or not, why not blow your wad now? At least you get one small glimmer of happiness before you sink back to the bottom again! And as for lottery tickets, it's true that the odds are astronomical that one can win their way out of poverty. But better nearly impossible odds than absolutely impossible ones - which are the odds of not playing at all. It makes sense, really. And cigarettes are cheap therapy. The rich can afford to get prescriptions for antidepressants. The poor choose a pack of Camels, not because it's wise, but because it's the only thing that they can self-medicate with.

Linda Tirado gives us some great definitions. Poor is when getting $1.00 is a miracle. Broke is when $5.00 is a miracle. Working class is being broke but living in a place which might not be run-down. Middle class means being able to live in a nice place, and by nice Linda means nothing fancy, but the furniture is owned rather than leased. Rich is anything above that, and when you're poor, that's certainly how it seems.

For the American poor, life is spent almost entirely on logistics: Up at 6:00 a.m. to get to job #1 on time, work that job doing something mindless like stacking boxes or pricing items in the aisle, then off work at 2:00 to go to second job at 3:00, work that job until 9 or 10, then in bed to do it all again. All the while being stressed out about whether the heat, rent, or electric bills will be able to be paid. If anything goes wrong, anything at all, the whole apple cart gets overturned. Even one night of insomnia will mean that both jobs come into jeopardy. It's not unusual to see one personal or family crisis cost someone both minimum-wage jobs they'd been working at once.

And let's consider how difficult it is to even work two minimum-wage jobs. Jobs which pay that low tend to punish those employees who work at other jobs brutally. Bosses want you to stay late if work is busy, and leave early if its slow. They don't give a damn if staying late puts the other job at risk - the other job that the employee just happens to be depending on just to survive. They care about their bottom line, even though they are fine, financially. Yes, I know that the line between a profitable and an unprofitable business is a precarious one, but you can't blame an employee for being distracted if they're worried about being evicted just because they got sent  home early.

Rent is exorbitant. What many people in the working poor are forced to do about it is move constantly. Landlords, desperate for tenants to pay their ridiculously high rent rates, will sometimes offer the first month or two of rent free if the new tenant pays the third month in advance. The working poor do this, then when they inevitably fall behind, they leave, taking the money they would have used to gain back one month back of the overdue rent at their old apartment in exchange for putting down a payment on the new one. And round and round the cycle continuously goes. It never dawns on landlords that their tenants might stick around if they charged less, or were more understanding about the occasional financial setback.

Banks don't understand. If you don't have enough money, and remember, the system is rigged to make sure you don't, then the bank will charge you for not having enough. Yes, I know the arguments about needing to provide a disincentive for overdrawing funds, but when such overdraws are unavoidable, is the punishment deserved? Let's say that some online subscription you forgot about nearly a year ago helps itself to its renewal fee from your account. Suddenly, the last $40 you had this week is gone, and you are now overdrawn three cents. But the size of that overdraw doesn't matter. Because you thought you had enough for lunch that day.  So you bought a $3.00 latte in the morning and then a $4.00 sandwich that afternoon. You aren't anywhere near an overdraft by your mental math. But you have actually now been charged $35.00 for your original three-cent overdraft, plus another $35.00 for the overdraft on the latte, and another $35.00 for the overdraft on the sandwich. You are now $112.00 in the hole without even realizing it! There went one-third of your paycheck before you even got paid! In a fair world, you would only be -$7.03 and would get a chance to pay that back right away, maybe by emptying out your penny-jar. But the banks don't give a shit about fair. We might as well call this what it is: a poor tax! But it's not even a tax, because tax money gets taken and applied to projects which improve infrastructure, pay soldiers or provide social security retirement. But poor people at the banks who get "feed upon" don't even have that consolation. The money they got charged just went to help the banker buy another Lincoln.

There is one golden thread that one can use to climb out of poverty, and that's education. But tuition rates have increased at more than double the rate of inflation for many decades. Thus the one thing that can legitimize a worker enough to get his/her ticket punched, a degree, is lost as a realistic goal. Politicians are always yammering on about providing money for education. Why do none of them ever talk about the immense need of bringing tuition costs down?

Speaking of which, how merciful is it of us to make it impossible to pay the tuition off? Laws have now changed so that not even bankruptcy can absolve someone of their tuition bills. It's either pay, pay, pay, or watch your credit rating be destroyed.

Ah, yes. Credit rating. Three institutions, elected by no one, accountable to no one, sit in judgment over every future purchase you may ever make. Want a mortgage? A car loan? Then you must get the approval of these self-appointed gods first. But tuition debt makes this impossible. And what's worse, many jobs have the audacity to hire only people of good credit rating. They tell us that it is a judge of character. But come on! So many people have bad credit due to no fault of their own! What kind of a judge of character is that? No, it's a judge of character of the employer, not the potential employee. The employer who demands such a test is an asshole! I can somewhat understand if the job involves the handling of large amounts of money, but why require a credit check for a laundromat worker, seamstress, or janitor?

There's only one realistic way to get out of tuition debt if you are a member of the working poor. You can fucking die! The debt will never get passed on to your family. (Although it wouldn't surprise me in the least if someone tried to pass a law that would get that changed, too!)

This is how M.B.A.'s and Ph.D.'s end up as bums on the street. Think those hobos have it bad in winter? Hey, at least they got off of the fucking hamster wheel!

We often hear talk of raising the minimum wage to $10 per hour. Yes, many of the make-work jobs will be lost this way, and businesses will downsize where they can, but for the employees who stay, this will help. Even then, $10 per hour at a 40 hour week is $400, before taxes.  After taxes, that's more like $330. (And, by the way, why is anyone making less than $25,000 per year paying anything in taxes?) Can you survive on $330 per week? I can't. Neither can you.  Unless maybe if you didn't have kids, or rent, or tuition. But, of course, we all have those. And this is what we are only proposing we increase the minimum wage to. What are people living on now? $7.25.  That's $290 per week.  Maybe $245 after taxes.  Ridiculous! We all have unexpected expenses, we all have medical risks.  One doctors' visit could ruin any of us.

Speaking of minimum wage, I understand it's a good idea. But one form of minimum wage gets overlooked, and that's the minimum wage for waiters and waitresses.  The minimum in Wisconsin is currently $7.25. When I was a kid in high school (25 years ago, already!) minimum wage was $3.25. Minimum wage for tipped employees was $2.10. Minimum wage is  now $7.25. And the minimum wage for tipped employees? It's $2.33!  Essentially remaining unchanged for 25 years! What the fuck! We're talking about raising the minimum up to $10, and we're letting the poor waitress at the mom and pop greasy spoon slave away for that little? If every one of her customers tipped very, very VERY well, she might earn the same amount as the dishwasher! But how realistic is that? It's not fair, especially to the one waitress who has to stay late on those slow nights, knowing full well she can't make ends meet, and can't escape her drudgery to work a job where minimum wage is nearly triple her current earnings! How about raising the minimum for tipped employees too this time?

A massive one-third of Americans live on minimum wage or just a little bit above. The people working at McDonald's aren't just teenagers anymore. The average age of a fast-food worker is 29! And of those people who aren't working at minimum wage, many are working for $7.30, or $7.50. They receive their annual raises in nickels! For such people, their income is essentially minimum wage as well. And after all this, employees have to do things like stand on their feet all day, not take restroom breaks, and still smile at the customers. Seriously, would you smile after all that?

This isn't the American Dream. In fact, the American Dream has become just that - a dream.

Here in America, we are all comparatively rich in the sense that we have certain basic things most people don't. For example, nearly every household has clean water, a flushing toilet, a television and a radio. That's fantastically rich by any worldwide standards. But when you live in a wealthy country, these basic amenities are illusory of one's quality of life. After all, what's the use of having clean water if that's all you have to live on for an entire week?

I'm much older these days. I turn 44 this next Friday. I've experienced a lot of setbacks. I haven't been able to accomplish most of what I set out to do. Still, the lot I have in live has been slowly improving. In spite of Governor Walker opposing my educational aspirations at every turn, I have been fortunate enough to land in a manufacturing job with a tremendous upside. It pays me more than I made as a junior accountant, and gives me overtime pay on top of that. It also gives me $5,000 per year for schooling, which is a benefit I've begun to take full advantage of. But even with all this, I still struggle. I have to work all the time, with only a brief respite at a karaoke bar on the weekends, and often not even that. I know I've been very lucky. I've been in good health, and although I am now supporting my father, I've at least had a parents' home to go back to. But what if I lived in a region of the country where manufacturing wasn't available? (That's most of the country, by the way.) What if I didn't have the means to a vehicle? What if I'd been a parent? I can't even begin to imagine the riptides I would have to overcome if I'd been born black, or had come from poorer parents.  Would I even have what little hope I now do? If I had relatives who cared less, or died younger, would I be living on the street right now? For that matter, could something still go awry that will take away what little I have?

I'm not sure. I only know that, as fortunate as I've been, the situations of most people are much, much worse. I feel as though I'm climbing a ladder, but the foundations of that ladder on fire beneath me, and that's because the whole building is burning. The permanence of my improving station in life depends upon those economic fires getting put out, I know it, and that means that I feel an obligation to make sure others do well also.

But good luck with that when travesties like our recent election take place.


Eric

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