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Advice to Poor People

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Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past few years, you have probably noticed that America really hates poor people. In a relatively well known pet group I belong to on FaceBook, the admins approved a member’s GoFundMe post this morning. She was earning less money than usual because her job is weather dependent, and it has been raining. Therefore, her entire checks were taken up with rent, and she was at risk of having her utilities cut off. It seemed like an unfortunate situation that could happen to pretty much anyone who works outside for an hourly wage (and let’s be honest, that’s a lot of people). I felt bad for her.

What I want to do here is unpack some of that horrible advice as a person who’s been poor and also gotten out of it.

Then I made the cardinal mistake of the internet. I read the comments, and had an immediate flashback to seven years ago when my ex-husband got out of the Army and my family slid from solidly middle class to The Poor in a matter of months. Apparently, people haven’t changed at all in that amount of time, and they still love to give totally horrible advice to poor people. To paraphrase Al Bundy (and my husband’s reaction when I read him a draft of this post), these people’s response was like, “Where’s that hundred dollar bill I use to light my cigars?” They act like they’ve never struggled a day in their lives, and that it could never happen to them. What I want to do here is unpack some of that horrible advice as a person who’s been poor and also gotten out of it.

“Get a different job/a second job/a job”

Without contention, this is the most common piece of advice given to poor people, and on the surface, it seems reasonable. Jobs result in money, right? This is pretty indisputable. The problem is that working isn’t free. The person whose GoFundMe I saw today can’t get a second job because her first job has variable hours, and nobody will hire her part time without knowing her availability. She explained this patiently to the dozens of people who insisted that all she needed was an extra shift at Ye Olde McDonald’s.

My ex-husband tried this one on me, too. At the time that we slid into poverty, I was a stay-at-home mom to a 7-year-old who needed speech therapy, occupational therapy, and specialized dyslexia therapy, a 2-year-old, and a high-needs newborn whom I was breastfeeding. I averaged three hours of sleep a night, cooked all our meals from scratch, grew a lot of our food in a garden, and sewed things to sell to other people for grocery money or to trade for other things we needed.

For me to do as my then-husband suggested, and pick up a few shifts at the gas station, I would have had to work when he was home, so night shift. Then I would have had to come home in the morning, get my oldest to school, spend my day caring for a toddler and a newborn and coordinate my oldest child’s therapies, pick up my oldest, somewhere in there, do all the prep work, all the gardening (because honestly, we mostly ate what I could grow in the dirt at that point in time), and then go off to work at Valero. When would I sleep?

My milk supply would have tanked instantly (it was never good, and required intensive work on my part to maintain at any reasonable level) so then we would have had to buy formula. WIC covers some, but we would have had to buy more no matter what, so in addition to the toll it would have taken on me physically and mentally to essentially function on no sleep indefinitely, there would have been a financial cost as well. The few hundred dollars a month I could have made doing this would not make up for the cost. Even if the dollar amount lost would by my no longer being able to breastfeed would have weighed out in our favor, the physical and mental cost is unreasonable to ask of any person.

The details of everyone’s story will vary, but the reason a lot of people don’t just pick up a second job, or a stay-at-home-parent start working, the minute financial hardship hits, is never laziness. There is always some reason that they can’t do that. Variable scheduling, children’s needs, medical issues, it can be anything. We have become a society that forgets that people are not machines, and that life has to include more than just working nonstop for a hand to mouth existence.

“You should move to a less expensive place.”

This is another favorite of the average asshole if someone is having a hard time making their bills. It’s also something I looked into when I was the person struggling. Let me tell you about moving to a cheaper place, and why a lot of people who have fallen on hard times don’t do it.

First of all, moving is expensive. I shouldn’t have to explain this. We’ve all moved before. Remember how much money you had to pay your last landlord before you moved in? You had to pay your first month’s rent and a security deposit. Some places, those deposits can be pretty high. If you have pets, you probably had to pay a deposit for them as well. This can be hundreds more, and often non-refundable. Some places, you even have to pay your last month’s rent up front. Even in the cheapest areas known to American mankind, the dollar figure to move into a new place is going to have four digits. Some utility companies will also charge you to move your service, or if you end up in the service area of a new utility company, you’ll probably have to pay deposits at least for some things, so add probably a couple hundred for that. I’m no accountant, but I know it’s hard to come up with that kind of money when you’re already struggling to pay for the basics.

In addition to that, you’ve got the move itself. Unless you own a truck, or have a really good friend who does, you’re going to have to rent one. I know U-Haul always has signs out that say you can rent one for $40 or something similar, but it never ends up just that much. I’ve done daily truck rentals before, and even the cheapest one was still close to $100. That one was uncommonly cheap, too. We moved our stuff from one end of our apartment complex to the other, racking up the most minimal mileage charge possible. If we’d moved across town, it would have been more. Also, you’re likely to lose some hours at work for this move, so you’re losing money for that as well.

Aside from those costs, which should really be obvious to anybody, you’ve got the elephant in the room that I ran up against when I attempted this myself. Most landlords have an income requirement, and if you’ve fallen on hard times, you probably won’t make the cut to rent a different place anyway.

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There will be a few people who suggest getting a roommate at this point. That could actually work for single people, or childless couples, but for families who are trying to afford a 2 BR duplex in a questionable neighborhood and just missed the income requirement, getting a roommate isn’t the remedy they need.

“Sell all your stuff.”

People make this suggestion all the time, and I wonder if they’ve ever been to Craigslist as a seller, or hell, even as a buyer. Anyone who’s ever attempted to sell something knows that they’re not going to get very much for it, and anyone who’s ever shopped those types of pages knows that it’s the place to go for a bargain because prices are always negotiable. This is unsurprising considering that the economy sucks, and we are all looking to spend as little money on everything we can. With that in mind, it’s highly unlikely that any of us are sitting on a goldmine that will solve all our financial woes.

The other thing is that this is straight out of the Captain Obvious playbook. From personal experience, by the time a person even tells others that they’re struggling financially, they’ve already sold everything they could.

I will never forget selling off all my high quality baby gear, leaving myself just basic cloth diapers, one sling, and an umbrella stroller. I remember when a woman in a Mercedes came to buy my Stokke high chair, which I’d paid over $300 for less than a year prior, and as she tried to get me to accept $60, I told her, “Whatever I get for this is all the money I have to feed my family for the next two weeks. Please be kind.” I got $90, just $20 less than I asked, and bought beans, rice, cheese, flour, sugar, eggs, and a few new vegetable starts that I could plant in the garden (I’ve never been good at growing things from seed), I even splurged on two blocks of tofu and a bottle of cooking oil since it was on sale. But then those things were gone, and I didn’t have another Stokke high chair to sell.

Soon after, the double stroller sold. That bought a week’s worth of gas. My organic bamboo velour cloth diapers sold on a site that specializes in this (Yes, that’s a thing.) That was two more weeks’ worth of beans and rice, no tofu this time. I sold the gold bullion coin I got as a wedding present. That turned on our cell phones for one month. I sold the high quality baby carriers I’d barely used. This brought enough to turn the electricity back on when it got cut off on a 105 degree day.

Then, there was nothing else to sell, and we still had the same needs. I’m not sure anyone understands just how little you can get for things, or how temporary a bandaid that is. Also, what if I had always been poor? What if I had bought my baby gear at Wal-Mart? What if I never owned an expensive Swedish high chair, or trendy baby wraps and cloth diapers? That’s a lot of people’s situation. What if the highest value thing you owned was never worth much to begin with, and everyone thought all your problems would be solved by selling it? Ridiculous, right?

Use logic. Nobody wants to ask for help. People have usually exhausted all options before they admit to others that there is a problem. A person who is telling you about their issues has already sold anything they could sell.

“Go see a church/a charity. Get a loan. Use a credit card.”

People love to act charitable, and some people really are, but the simple fact of the matter is that there’s not enough help to go around when it comes to charitable organizations. Churches often help their own members, and sometimes there are larger organizations like Catholic Charities that help the entire community, but these resources are limited, and far more people ask than are approved. It seems like a lot of people who have never been in the situation of needing help seem to think that charities are a wellspring of free money ripe for the picking for anyone who needs it.

This is not the case. As I was writing this, my husband told me the story of the time he was unable to pay his ex-wife’s electric bill (This was during their divorce proceedings. He was responsible for all her household bills until it was over.) He’s self-employed, and his business was down a bit that month, and oh yeah, paying two houses’ worth of bills is hard for almost anybody. So he called the electric company and told them he couldn’t pay it all, and asked for a payment plan. They said they don’t do payment plans, and told him to contact the churches on a list they gave him. He contacted the churches, and unsurprisingly, they had already given out their charity funds for the year. There is more need than there are funds. It’s not the fault of the charities or the churches. It’s a statement about our economy.

People often are also told to put it on a credit card. This is problematic for two reasons. First, if the person has a credit card, it’s probably already maxed. As a person who has been in that position, I can assure you, when there’s credit card balance available to put a bill on, that’s what you do. By the time a person is asking for help, that’s no longer an option. Getting another credit card is out of the question at this point because high credit usage scores drop a person’s credit worthiness, and lenders won’t give them the time of day.

Bottom Line

The situations I have highlighted here are not isolated incidents. They are common. Any conversation about a person who needs help is going to focus mostly on what they should be doing to help themselves. People don’t seem to realize that by the time someone asks for help, they’ve already done everything they can do, largely because this country is such a hostile environment for anyone who lets on that they’re not doing great.

Next time you see a person ask for help, even if you can’t do anything for them yourself, at least be kind. If you feel the need to offer advice, before doing so, think to yourself, “If I were in this situation, would I have already thought of this?”

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Anastasia Bernoulli
Aging Millennial Engineer