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poverty is a circumstance, not a value judgment.
July 9, 2014 9:43 AM   Subscribe

this is what happened when I drove my mercedes to pick up food stamps
posted by and they trembled before her fury (107 comments total) 63 users marked this as a favorite

 
... And affluence is a mindset, not the balance in your checking account.
posted by gemutlichkeit at 9:53 AM on July 9 [5 favorites]


"That’s the funny thing about being poor. Everyone has an opinion on it, and everyone feels entitled to share." Well said.
posted by stbalbach at 9:54 AM on July 9 [22 favorites]


Spare, direct, extremely well-written. Thank you for the link.

(And the young grocery store cashier is my new hero.)
posted by seyirci at 9:55 AM on July 9 [25 favorites]


When you’re scrambling, you hang on to the things that work, that bring you some comfort. That Mercedes was the one reliable, trustworthy thing in our lives.

This was a great line. The whole article brought tears to my eyes, thank you for posting.
posted by sweetkid at 9:56 AM on July 9 [15 favorites]


I think this is a really interesting article, especially because it comes from a writer who grew up in privilege, and went back to a life of extreme privilege once things got better. While I really love everything she says here, I think it's important to remember that she and her husband had a lot of things going for them.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 10:01 AM on July 9 [18 favorites]


Great article. I would have sold the Mercedes though.
posted by ian1977 at 10:01 AM on July 9 [6 favorites]


While I really love everything she says here, I think it's important to remember that she and her husband had a lot of things going for them.

This is a good point. It kind of reminds me of "Orange is the New Black", which in part owes its success to the fact that an affluent white woman is the focus. It's good for the public to become more informed about issues that low-income people deal with but it's unfortunate that it generally takes the voice of an affluent white person for anyone to pay attention. Nothing against the author of this article -- it is a well-written article -- just an observation about what people are most likely to listen to.
posted by Librarypt at 10:11 AM on July 9 [4 favorites]


Great article. I would have sold the Mercedes though.

A five year old C230 Kompressor in 2008 really doesn't go for that much though. You think Mercedes and the word "expensive" probably pops into your head. But the Kompressors were one of the cheaper option and the car would have run about $26K base MSRP new back when they bought it in 2003. Plus the market for used cars in 2008 was in the same toilet as most property which further devalues it. They would have been lucky to get away with 10 grand. Then what? You're out a fully paid for car.
posted by Talez at 10:12 AM on July 9 [113 favorites]


“Who are you, the soda police?” she asked loudly. “Anyone bother you about the pound of candy you’re buying?”

I love this young woman, and I wish there were more people like her to help make the process a little less painful. SNAP benefits are a lot easier to use with the advent of EBT, but last I knew (it's been several years since I worked in a grocery store), WIC was still like a giant flag saying, "I am poor, and I am here to inconvenience you with my poorness."
posted by obfuscation at 10:15 AM on July 9 [11 favorites]


Plus the market for used cars in 2008 was in the same toilet as most property which further devalues it. They would have been lucky to get away with 10 grand. Then what? You're out a fully paid for car.

Also, the Cash for Clunkers program took a huge number of the cheapest used vehicles off the road. That had the effect of inflating used car values. Car dealers send out a lot of mailers trying to get people to come in and trade in their cars, because there's a lot more profit to be had on a gently used 3-5 year old car than there is a new one.
posted by Fleebnork at 10:18 AM on July 9 [4 favorites]


Also, the Cash for Clunkers program took a huge number of the cheapest used vehicles off the road. That had the effect of inflating used car values. Car dealers send out a lot of mailers trying to get people to come in and trade in their cars, because there's a lot more profit to be had on a gently used 3-5 year old car than there is a new one.

Cash for Clunkers rebates could only be used on new cars paid for in cash or leased over five years. You weren't allowed to buy a late model with the money.
posted by Talez at 10:23 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]


she was right to not sell the car. it was the one thing they had that was working. they needed a reliable car, what with having babies and all.

i think it is is indeed very important to note the she grew up in privilege becase what happened to her could happen to anyone. as we discussed in the thread about being poor recently, some people think if you were poor, you must always have been poor.

it's great her and her husband recovered, but not everyone does.

if they would have sold the mercedes, they would have been stuck with a broke down honda (the reason she was driving the merc that day) and then they would have how many hundreds, thousands, or more in debt to either fix it or somehow get another car.


also "who are you? the soda police?" i can hear it in my head and it is DE LIGHT FUL. because i can also imagine soda cop's face. haha. that is just the best. yay cashier!!!

(jinx obfuscation - i took too long to type!!!)
posted by sio42 at 10:26 AM on July 9 [14 favorites]


i think it is is indeed very important to note the she grew up in privilege becase what happened to her could happen to anyone.

I feel like this is kind of the point of the article.
posted by sweetkid at 10:31 AM on July 9 [9 favorites]


My dad has exactly the same car and he never made more than $45k in his entire working life. It's not particularly valuable.

My attitude is that if you've never had to choose which bills you're going to pay this month, if you've never tried to figure out not what, but how you're going to eat for the next week, then I don't want to hear shit from you about being poor. Shut up. You don't know.
posted by 1adam12 at 10:32 AM on July 9 [46 favorites]


“Surely, you don’t need those,” she said. “WIC pays for juice for you people.”

If I ever utter the words "you people" with any sort of sneer or condescension, I hope somebody will slap the teeth out of my mouth.
posted by Iridic at 10:40 AM on July 9 [61 favorites]


Great article. Very well-written.

This reminded me of Jen Lancaster's piece about carrying a Prada bag to the unemployment office in Bitter is the New Black.
posted by SisterHavana at 10:41 AM on July 9 [2 favorites]


As with most victim blaming, I think the root of a lot of it is just plain fear. You look at someone who is hurting, and you try to find reasons that it couldn't happen to you. You just want to believe that you can avoid the same fate by making better decisions or being a better person or something.

It doesn't excuse it. It's still shitty and mean and delusional, and it needs correcting. But someone playing armchair food insecurity by policing someone else's groceries is probably motivated by fear at some level.
posted by ernielundquist at 10:41 AM on July 9 [27 favorites]


I don't want to hear shit from you about being poor. Shut up. You don't know.

The people you are referring to are the people that are paying for the bulk of the SNAP benefits in the article.
posted by saeculorum at 10:41 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]


Us poors pay taxes too, you know.
posted by winna at 10:42 AM on July 9 [72 favorites]


she was right to not sell the car. it was the one thing they had that was working.

I would have sold it. Or traded it in for a car that had more modest service/repair costs. Mercedes Compressors weren't that expensive -- but when something needs fixing on them, they're as expensive as hell.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 10:42 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]


I found this really interesting. I had a similar experience of growing up comfortably middle-class and going back to (and hopefully staying) comfortably middle-class but being low-income for a while in between. And I never received any criticism from anyone but myself. I felt embarrassed about my shoes -- ten-year-old sandals, but they cost like $90 new, those aren't WalMart sandals! I felt embarrassed about my phone, which was a $60 refurb but still, I had a totally unnecessary cell phone. I felt deeply, deeply embarrassed when the WIC worker, having ascertained that our house was awash in Ph.D.s and did not contain a television, said "I'll get you the farmers' market coupons, then, I assume you shop there?" I thought, I am a farmers'-market-going yuppie, I shouldn't be taking these checks for milk.

Apparently if you see enough bullshit on facebook about people on food stamps with iPhones it sinks in. Every middle-class aspect of my appearance made me feel like a thief.
posted by gerstle at 10:43 AM on July 9 [23 favorites]


> The people you are referring to are the people that are paying for the bulk of the SNAP benefits in the article.

In what way is this an entitlement to sneer at others or dictate their decisions?
posted by ardgedee at 10:43 AM on July 9 [28 favorites]


The people you are referring to are the people that are paying for the bulk of the SNAP benefits in the article.

I doubt most of their (hell, our) opinions on military strategy, city planning, education &c are worthwhile enough to be heard out by the recipients of those tax proceeds either.
posted by griphus at 10:44 AM on July 9 [24 favorites]


SNAP benefits are a lot easier to use with the advent of EBT

And self check-out stations. When I was on benefits for about 6 months after graduate school, I shopped exclusively at the Kroger with self check-outs. It wasn't worth it to deal with judgy cashiers at the nice grocery store with better produce.
posted by almostmanda at 10:45 AM on July 9 [7 favorites]


The people you are referring to are the people that are paying for the bulk of the SNAP benefits in the article.

They are paying taxes. They are not personally, out of the kindness of their hearts, bringing gifts of nutritious food to those in need. I was lucky that I never went through this indignity (I would have qualified but my pride didn't allow it). And if I had, then the price doesn't have to be listening to judgmental, wrong-headed nonsense about how poor people are poor because they're stupid/lazy/immoral/whatever. Being poor doesn't mean you aren't entitled to a modicum of dignity or basic human decency.
posted by 1adam12 at 10:46 AM on July 9 [35 favorites]


I would have sold it. Or traded it in for a car that had more modest service/repair costs.

Well, be sure to check back when you're bowled over by crippling poverty, so we can judge every decision you make!
posted by kate blank at 10:49 AM on July 9 [53 favorites]


I have such mixed feelings about this article that I'm having trouble articulating them. I definitely appreciate the sentiment. I especially appreciate it when rich folks speak up for poor folks. But I have to say that reading this --
No one spoke to me, but they did stare. Mouths agape, the poverty-stricken mothers struggling with infant car seats, paperwork and their toddlers never took their eyes off me, the tall blond girl, walking with purpose on heels from her Mercedes to their grungy den.
-- felt like being slapped in the face. This is how rich people (NB I am 100% certain that what I think of as "rich" is not what 90% of MeFi thinks of as "rich") write about poor people even after they themselves have been poor. They still think of us as a nebulous, perpetually replicating other. They still think we congregate in worn down and grimy environs. They still think -- no, they KNOW they don't and won't ever truly belong to the underclass. They know they are much more likely to escape, they remain perpetually shocked that someone of their stature could be reduced to groveling for SNAP funds, and they carry and speak about themselves with this knowledge at the forefront of their minds.

Speaking from a wealth of experience, people who regularly visit welfare and food stamp office waiting rooms (which are, also in my experience, much more sterile and lifeless than grungy) do not generally think of ourselves as being situated in a "grungy den," let alone one for which we would or could ever claim any kind of ownership -- "their grungy den," i.e. from the author's POV, "not mine." We're all just waiting to endure the relentless grind of bureaucracy that's supposed to help us get some damn calories in our stomachs. Grungy. Christ on a pogo stick. And like people who get food stamps tend not to be tall or blond, like there's something inherent to height or hair color that prevents poverty? I dunno, man.

I'm sure it's completely unintentional because that's how privilege works, but with that precise choice of words, the author is putting herself on a pedestal above the scrum, above the people she apparently feels comfortable assuming belong in such a place. Yeah, you might get stared at if you pull your Mercedes up to the front door of a benefit distribution center -- this is assuming people inside are looking out and watching what sort of vehicles are pulling up in the first place. But if you do, it won't be because the struggling poors inside are astonished to find a tall, blond woman in our "grungy den." It'll be because you just drove a notoriously expensive car to the welfare office, and most of us had to walk, take the bus, or beg a ride off of someone else to get there.

Props to them for not selling her husband's car, in any case. A rock-solid reliable vehicle is precious beyond price when you're poor. Otherwise you tend get stuck in the vicious cycle of $200 used car purchases, breakdowns, and repairs, and if you live in a city without reliable transportation (read: most American cities, period), that means you're SOL in more ways than one.
posted by divined by radio at 10:50 AM on July 9 [145 favorites]


I believe over the next decade it's going to be more and more common for people to dip in and out of poverty like this. This recent thread I think nails it.

As more and more people dip in and out of poverty, having to take advantage of what's left of the social safety net, it will be interesting to see if the opinion about the poor changes. I've had a few conversations with a judgy family member about welfare and social programs and I've had to stop the person mid sentence to remind them that my wife and I were on WIC in college and my daughter was born through the miracle of Medicaid. I swear, one day I'm going to make a t-shirt that says "I was once on welfare" just to shut some people up.
posted by photoslob at 10:51 AM on July 9 [18 favorites]


As with most victim blaming, I think the root of a lot of it is just plain fear. You look at someone who is hurting, and you try to find reasons that it couldn't happen to you. You just want to believe that you can avoid the same fate by making better decisions or being a better person or something.

Maybe, but I think it's more resentment than fear. It's a belief that those who are poor deserve to be poor as a result of their choices or actions. It's a belief that hard work and doggedness are a route out of poverty and those who remain in poverty are, in their eyes, obviously averse to both.

Meanwhile, the person who holds this view knows that he/she is indeed working, trying hard, and **greatly and increasingly** resents the idea that his/her "hard-earned tax dollars" are going to those whom they believe aren't trying as hard.

Not defending the sentiment, but I'm surrounded by it so I've at least tried to understand it.
posted by kgasmart at 10:53 AM on July 9 [2 favorites]


WIC is not food stamps. You don't even have to be particularly poor to get it -- many middle class people would qualify. And there's way less stigma for using it.
posted by miyabo at 10:54 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]


also "who are you? the soda police?" i can hear it in my head and it is DE LIGHT FUL.

No kidding. Who has the time/energy to harass people at the checkout line about what they're buying? That's what the tabloid magazines are there for; open one, find a picture of Kim Kardashian or whomever and judge away.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 10:54 AM on July 9 [3 favorites]


I would have sold it. Or traded it in for a car that had more modest service/repair costs.

I'm kind of at that tipping point with my 2003 BMW (I'm not on food stamps or in such dire straits though). It's absurdly expensive to repair anything on it, but what would I get for it? About $4500, according to Blue Book. Then what? Can I buy a car that I know is as reliable for that? On craiglist for my area I see a 2004 Ford Ranger, a 1992 Cadillac, a 2003 Dodge Stratus, etc. Yeah, I'll take my chances with my BMW.
posted by desjardins at 10:57 AM on July 9 [14 favorites]


Well, be sure to check back when you're bowled over by crippling poverty, so we can judge every decision you make!

GTFO. This was a temporary blip in their middle class lives. I'm sure it was very uncomfortable for them, but this wasn't the intergenerational poverty that I grew up in and around.

The only welfare-getting families I ever knew that owned two cars were drug dealers.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 10:57 AM on July 9 [3 favorites]


Apparently if you see enough bullshit on facebook about people on food stamps with iPhones it sinks in.

Isn't it possible to redeem food stamps on somebody else's behalf? I'm thinking mostly of foster children, but couldn't someone also be shopping for an elderly or disabled relative? Maybe that's why someone could have an iPhone/designer purse/nice watch/big diamond ring and food stamps; they're doing their Christian duty of taking care of people. I suppose it would be un-Christian to gloat about that to the person judging you, though.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 10:57 AM on July 9 [3 favorites]


Cash for Clunkers rebates could only be used on new cars paid for in cash or leased over five years. You weren't allowed to buy a late model with the money.

That's not what I wrote.

This (past tense):
Also, the Cash for Clunkers program took a huge number of the cheapest used vehicles off the road. That had the effect of inflating used car values.
...caused an inflationary effect which lead to this (present tense):
Car dealers send out a lot of mailers trying to get people to come in and trade in their cars, because there's a lot more profit to be had on a gently used 3-5 year old car than there is a new one.
My second sentence was about the effects of CFC, which can still be seen on the used car market today. CFC reduced the amount of used vehicle inventory, driving up prices.

I bought a new car last year, and the dealership offered me $1,000 more than I was going to ask them for it. I'm sure they marked it up at least another 2-3 grand before putting it on their used lot.

I got a flyer in the mail last week offering me a deal to trade in my 1 year old car on a new 2014. Dealers make a ton of profit on "Certified Pre-Owned" vehicles.
posted by Fleebnork at 10:58 AM on July 9 [2 favorites]


The other thing that I really liked was that she talked about how when her kids wouldn't eat, the switched to formula, which is expensive. There's so much of the "breast is best" crap that shames women for not being able to breastfeed, and that's compounded when the mother is low-income.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 10:58 AM on July 9 [23 favorites]


You really can't tell shit by the way someone dresses or what they're carrying. Right this second I'm wearing a Ralph Lauren shirt that cost me $12 at Goodwill. I have a Versace shirt in my closet. I wouldn't buy those new in a million fucking years. I have an iPhone 4s, but if I got into a dire situation what am I supposed to do with it? Sell it and get a landline? That makes no financial sense. Live without a phone, I guess, but that makes it really hard to get a job.

For some people, selling off every non-essential thing they own might only pay the bills for a month. Then what?
posted by desjardins at 11:09 AM on July 9 [63 favorites]


See, this is the thing: all of us poor people have been encouraged to feel guilty about having anything nice, even though it's poor people who make the nice things in the world. She is entitled to decent things, for reals, just like you are, just like I am.

In a sane world anyone who said otherwise, or even let on that they were thinking otherwise, would get immediately and thoroughly ostracized.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 11:11 AM on July 9 [24 favorites]


divined by radio, the passage you quoted jumped out at me too as being super uncomfortable and I couldn't figure out why, so thank you for articulating my feelings better than I could!
posted by Phire at 11:20 AM on July 9 [3 favorites]


For those discussing selling the car, the 2008 blue book (without knowing options included in the car) is around $13,700.

So yes, selling the car probably would have been a smart option, even if it's not super-valuable.
posted by yellowcandy at 11:22 AM on July 9


here is the lovely shitmobile I could buy for the blue book value of my car
posted by desjardins at 11:22 AM on July 9 [5 favorites]


I'm sure I'm preaching to the choir by posting this on Metafilter, but I am amazed at the level to which some people are so gleefully anxious to catch someone as a welfare or food stamps cheat. I see it in my Facebook feed all the time, "I was at the grocery store today and the person in front of me using food stamps HAD ON REALLY NICE SHOES!", as if this is supposed to fill me with uncontrollable outrage at the abuse of the system.

I suspect some of this stems from, as noted upthread, the need of people to comfort themselves with, "*I* always make smart, sensible decisions, so of course could never possibly find myself in this situation", combined with wanting to morally justify being against virtually any social program that assists people in dire circumstances.

Honestly, I feel this way about the "Obviously they should have sold their car" discussion going on in this thread. It just reeks of, "I, smart person, know much better than these people how they should have lived their lives".
posted by The Gooch at 11:29 AM on July 9 [24 favorites]


My second sentence was about the effects of CFC, which can still be seen on the used car market today. CFC reduced the amount of used vehicle inventory, driving up prices.

I'm not sure how a rebate that specifically applies only to new vehicles dries up used vehicle inventory. If anything, those people who would have otherwise bought a used card when the old one broke down got a new car instead increasing stock. It wasn't literal cash. It was a cash rebate against the purchase of a new car. You couldn't just take any less than 25 year old car in and walk out with $4.5K in cash. You needed to specifically trade in the car, which was then removed from inventory because it was scrapped, which was then applied to only a new car.
posted by Talez at 11:31 AM on July 9


I have an iPhone 4s, but if I got into a dire situation what am I supposed to do with it? Sell it and get a landline?…

For some people, selling off every non-essential thing they own might only pay the bills for a month. Then what?


Oh my god, I really loathe it when people bring up smartphones as a luxury item; they're such a good tool for getting things done, and they're a pretty cheap option for doing so! My parents of all people got a little pissed when we got iphones, because we were particularly broke for a spell. We 'traded in' our cable internet and our dumbphones for past-generation iphones with the most minimalist data plan available. It cost us nearly nothing to do (we were out of contract), and it ended up saving us money each month. And we were still able to do things like look for (better) jobs and our bank balance before every purchase so we didn't overdraw, and become, you know, more broke.

For us it was about actually making things sustainable. Later that year we traded in our engine-explosion-prone 10 year old subaru for a lease on a brand new car. Mostly because we could plan and budget for a couple hundred bucks a month, and there'd be no surprises; no maintenance, no tires, no failing DEQ inspections, no dmv fees (they were waived by the dealership….my wife is a SHARK at negotiation). In a perfect world, fuck no would we be driving around in a 'new' car. We're in a 'rebuilding year' as it were in terms of our savings, we are paying down a ton of debt and saving as much as we can. Financial surprises hurt that plan, and its more beneficial for us to get a cushion under us. So it doesn't make obvious immediate financial sense to lease…but in a holistic view, its one of the only ways we've been able to stay ahead, considering how much we'd have to pay on any older cars.

I'm all for downsizing in a crisis, I've sold many nice things that were of value to me personally and financially, but there's a difference between just selling all your shit, and actually making life work. Sometimes that's a bit counterintuitive on the outside. No waaaaay should we be driving around a 'new' car and even live in the neighborhood we do.
posted by furnace.heart at 11:32 AM on July 9 [24 favorites]


selling the car and driving around in what? she said the Honda wouldn't start and they had two small babies. Also as she mentions, they were pretty much scrambling to get work all the time, so would have needed two cars and the time sink to sell the car and get another car and upkeep that car doesn't sound like something that was doable for them, or at least seemed doable at the time.
posted by sweetkid at 11:33 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]


The reason people nitpick and point fingers and judge every single thing people on government assistance do is because to them, the person is not being sufficiently degraded or humiliated for needing that assistance. It's really intensely gross.

And seriously, refusing to see that keeping a car despite its SHOCKING STIGMA as being from a formerly somewhat luxurious life because it was reliable and fully paid off makes more sense than selling it to deal with further car payments and the absence of that dependability? Moronic.
posted by elizardbits at 11:36 AM on July 9 [51 favorites]


The reason people nitpick and point fingers and judge every single thing people on government assistance do is because to them, the person is not being sufficiently degraded or humiliated for needing that assistance. It's really intensely gross.

Actually I think the main reason people nitpick and judge is some sort of magical thinking whereby they believe if they can just figure out what those other people did to deserve their poverty, they'll be able to stop it happening to them.

"Since I would sell my car and not buy a smartphone when I was struggling, I'd never end up as poor as those people on food stamps," or so they (desperately want to) believe.
posted by lollusc at 11:44 AM on July 9 [24 favorites]


I'm not sure how a rebate that specifically applies only to new vehicles dries up used vehicle inventory. If anything, those people who would have otherwise bought a used card when the old one broke down got a new car instead increasing stock. It wasn't literal cash. It was a cash rebate against the purchase of a new car. You couldn't just take any less than 25 year old car in and walk out with $4.5K in cash. You needed to specifically trade in the car, which was then removed from inventory because it was scrapped, which was then applied to only a new car.

That's how. The used car doesn't get re-sold, it gets scrapped. Therefore it's no longer in the used car inventory to be sold to someone looking to buy a used car. Therefore the supply of used cars is less than it would otherwise be, which, ceteris paribus, drives up prices across the market for used cars.
posted by gauche at 11:44 AM on July 9 [3 favorites]


Transaction costs are a thing. In an ideal world, they would have bought a 16k Honda instead of a 35k Mercedes, and had 19k more to throw at the problem. But if you already have a 5 year old Mercedes, it costs quite a lot to sell it and buy a 5 year old Honda, especially since there's a good chance any given used car has undisclosed problems under the hood. Do you plan your life under the assumption that things will turn south in the future? I guess I do now, but I didn't when I was 22 and I don't think anyone does at that age.
posted by miyabo at 11:45 AM on July 9 [4 favorites]


They had two cars a Honda and a Mercedes. She was only had to drive the Mercedes to the WIC office one time because her Honda was broken.

However that is irrelevant. The family went through a period where their income collapsed and they were unable to buy food. Government assistance allowed them to get through this without having to conduct a fire sale on their assets, lose their housing and or starve. This is actually a good thing. Government programs should work like this. The idea that we only help people who have exhausted all other means of refuge is a terrible idea. Once a person is destitute, they are going to have a much harder time returning to productive middle class tax payer; than if we help out earlier.
posted by humanfont at 11:55 AM on July 9 [100 favorites]


Nevermind that selling the car (then buying a different, possibly less reliable used one as many have pointed out) would maybe have net enough for like 6 months of mortgage payments on a massively upside-down house that they were going to short sell anyway. Doesn't really make much sense to do that IMO - in fact, it's kind of short-sighted, which is exactly the kind of thinking people are always yelling at poor people for. When you're poor, you really can't win.
posted by misskaz at 11:56 AM on July 9 [7 favorites]


Not at all what I'm saying about selling the car. You sell the car for $13K, let's say. You buy a super-reliable used car for $8K (of which there were many at that price point, according to Consumer Reports from 2008) and use the $5K for emergency expenses.

$5K is a lot of money when you're dead broke. It's ~40% of her annual after-tax income for that year.

Also, assuming that a five-year-old Mercedes is going to be trouble-free is a very poor assumption. It's empirically not true. And repairing that car is more expensive, on average, than repairing a Hyundai or Toyota.
posted by yellowcandy at 12:01 PM on July 9 [1 favorite]


the tall blond girl, walking with purpose on heels

Divined by radio, I thought your point was super good AND ALSO I read this phrase in particular as her asserting that she was very attractive (and white), even as an impoverished mother of twins, so she definitely deserves our respect because she's not gross like the grungy poors.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 12:07 PM on July 9 [13 favorites]


I read the "grungy den" comment differently. It made me think that no one should have to go to grungy, dirty places to get government help, whether they're recently/temporarily poor or people who come from generations of poverty.
posted by sweetkid at 12:11 PM on July 9 [10 favorites]


Do food stamps take savings into account for eligibility purposes, or only income? I know you can't get Medicaid (at least in some states) if you have more than $2000 in cash or liquid assets, but cars are not factored in.
posted by desjardins at 12:12 PM on July 9


Anyway, if no one deserves help unless they've made perfectly rational economic decisions, pretty much everyone I know is hosed.
posted by desjardins at 12:13 PM on July 9 [18 favorites]


I love how even when presented with a story of someone who was temporarily impoverished and got back out of poverty, people still say they were Doing It Wrong. This family objectively did not Do It Wrong, as they are no longer impoverished. What other measure could there be? It is literally proven that none of their actions harmed their ability to turn things around. This insistence that people should live every aspect of their lives with 100% efficiency and perfect logic is just so ridiculous and inhumane.
posted by misskaz at 12:15 PM on July 9 [58 favorites]


“Surely, you don’t need those,” she said. “WIC pays for juice for you people.”

Not only is this appalling for the obvious reasons, it's also completely idiotic because JUICE IS ALMOST AS BAD FOR YOU AS SODA. But of course, juice is less pleasurable than root beer, which is the real problem for people like this: poor people must be constantly involved in public displays of self-denial in order to be "good" poor people, rationality and proportionality be damned.
posted by en forme de poire at 12:16 PM on July 9 [8 favorites]


SNAP definitely asks about assets, including bank accounts. (I'm not sure about WIC - the usda site is down so I can't look it up.)
posted by obfuscation at 12:17 PM on July 9 [1 favorite]


As more and more people dip in and out of poverty, having to take advantage of what's left of the social safety net, it will be interesting to see if the opinion about the poor changes. I've had a few conversations with a judgy family member about welfare and social programs and I've had to stop the person mid sentence to remind them that my wife and I were on WIC in college and my daughter was born through the miracle of Medicaid. I swear, one day I'm going to make a t-shirt that says "I was once on welfare" just to shut some people up.

Around April 15th (US income tax day) a couple of years ago, my brother-in-law posted on Facebook "I wish I at least had a picture of the lazy ghetto family I am supporting with all these taxes!" So I posted a picture of me, my wife and kids, and our WIC card. That changed the tone of the conversation pretty quickly. I had a job and we were scraping by, so maybe he didn't know. We definitely didn't match his image of people on government assistance.

I don't have time to dig up the study right now, but read that the majority of people on WIC or SNAP are there temporarily. They hit a rough year, someone gets laid off, and they are poor--for a while. If you are like the author of this article, or like me, the truth is you've already paid far more in taxes than you are going to get back during eight months on SNAP. I'm the one who paid my own benefits, as much as anyone is, and this is why I pay them, so they will be there for me when I need them. Same thing for everyone. No matter what the GOP claims, there's not some clear bright line between makers and takers. We all make; we all take. When one person files an insurance claim, everyone else who pays health insurance premiums doesn't get to scrutinize them and say "we are the ones who are paying for that operation, after all!" WIC and SNAP and unemployment (which we also drew) and Social Security are things we all pay and we all draw from when we need them. If you never file a health insurance claim, or never need SNAP, good for you. But there's nothing about you that's better than the person who gets a $100,000 operation or needs SNAP for a year and a half, or five years, or ten, except for better luck.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 12:19 PM on July 9 [138 favorites]


The Clash got this right in 1982.

You have the right to food money
Providing of course you don't mind a little investigation, humiliation
And if you cross your fingers, rehabilitation

posted by workerant at 12:20 PM on July 9 [2 favorites]


I would favorite divined by radio's comment a million times if I could. I read this earlier today when it came around first on twitter and then on facebook and it kind of sent me into a brief paroxysm of rage for exactly this reason: despite what the article is purportedly saying, she seems to really need to distance herself from the reality of poverty. Also, great, she made it down and back again. Many don't. Many - even tall and blonde people, horrors - end up staying right exactly where they land for equally no fault of their own. Maybe because they don't have a reliable car and that is just the one last straw that they can't get past. Maybe because their marriage doesn't hold together, who knows. But something about the patronizing tone of this article really set me off. Still, it's gone viral enough that maybe it will do some good, get through to those who haven't grasped that the downwards class slide can in fact happen even to good people. But I kind of doubt it, because after all, they kept their car and if that's enough to derail metafilter, than it's more than enough to completely stop any semblance of rational thought on some other sites.
posted by mygothlaundry at 12:23 PM on July 9 [6 favorites]


Yeah, the way she distances herself from poor people is kind of gross, but it might be rhetorically necessary. She's trying to write for people who distance themselves from the poor in exactly the same way and convince them that THIS COULD HAPPEN TO YOU.
posted by straight at 12:39 PM on July 9 [8 favorites]


I'm one of the cheerful haters & I keep thinking Dickens would have turned her into a wonderful character in, say, Hard Times.

The noisily self-shaming penitent who draws attention to how snooty and indifferent she once was to the steaming misery of the world: "I grew up in a white, affluent suburb, where failure seemed harder than success..."

But thanks to a rude lesson, of the riches-to-rags-and-back again variety, finally discovers she has something of true value to teach us all: "But what I learned there will never leave me. We didn’t deserve to be poor, any more than we deserved to be rich. Poverty is a circumstance, not a value judgment. I still have to remind myself sometimes that I was my harshest critic...

(I don't believe the author was doing poverty the wrong way. I just found her essay a little insufferable.)
posted by Jody Tresidder at 12:41 PM on July 9 [2 favorites]


I read the "grungy den" comment differently. It made me think that no one should have to go to grungy, dirty places to get government help, whether they're recently/temporarily poor or people who come from generations of poverty.

sweetkid, I agree with you about that particular phrase - I think the "grungy den" is specifically the church basement, and she mentions earlier how uncomfortable everyone felt there - but it does also bother me that the anecdote that literally gives the story its title is the one where she complains about the reactions of other people dealing with poverty, and yes, talks about them like she is different from them. The rest of the article is really good.
posted by capricorn at 12:45 PM on July 9


"their grungy den" is one of the shittiest things I've heard a nattering well-off person say in awhile.
posted by stoneandstar at 12:52 PM on July 9 [2 favorites]


and yeah, yeah, I know, I'm supposed to be grateful as a poor that this lady is talking to the middle-class so I don't have to. I guess I am, because I am sure as shit over trying to explain this stuff to the rich and obnoxious. But if I ever meet this tall, blonde asshole, jesus.
posted by stoneandstar at 12:53 PM on July 9 [3 favorites]


The only welfare-getting families I ever knew that owned two cars were drug dealers.

Well, be sure to check back when you're bowled over by crippling poverty but still own a car, so we can speculate that you must be a drug dealer!
posted by kate blank at 12:57 PM on July 9 [13 favorites]


That's how. The used car doesn't get re-sold, it gets scrapped. Therefore it's no longer in the used car inventory to be sold to someone looking to buy a used car. Therefore the supply of used cars is less than it would otherwise be, which, ceteris paribus, drives up prices across the market for used cars.

Fair enough then. My apologies.
posted by Talez at 12:57 PM on July 9 [2 favorites]


Around April 15th (US income tax day) a couple of years ago, my brother-in-law posted on Facebook "I wish I at least had a picture of the lazy ghetto family I am supporting with all these taxes!" So I posted a picture of me, my wife and kids, and our WIC card.

I want to travel back in time and give you, like a thousand Facebook thumbs-up for that. Awesome. Thank you.
posted by kate blank at 1:00 PM on July 9 [26 favorites]


"their grungy den" to "our grungy den" would fix a lot.

What really strikes me about this article, and what I'm sure a lot of yous already know, is how quickly the current setup will fuck you raw if you have kids in today's USA.

This couple had means to go back too, God help all the ones who don't.
posted by The Power Nap at 1:01 PM on July 9 [3 favorites]


In 2010, due to circumstances I had solidly placed myself in, I had the thought that I was truly, utterly, and irrevocably fucked. Financially, emotionally, and in almost every other way possible.

My life up to that point had been nothing short of a nitro-fueled fast track to self destruction.

My girlfriend who I had lived with and treated incredibly poorly for the last year was done with me. My immediate family who I had manipulated and bled money and assistance from was done with me. My employers (potential and real) had long been done with me. My friends (or so I called those people who still would occasionally pick up the phone when I called) were done with me.

I had lost my wallet on my last debauch, so I had no valid ID, SS card, or any other documents except a long-expired, stained passport which had, years ago in a happier time, joined me in a river for a swim.

All of my clothes and personal belongings were at my mother's house, which due to an issue regarding a missing sum of money, were totally lost to me short of a burglary or home invasion. I had already been spoken to several times by the police at her residence in my attempts to get my belongings back, so there was no way I was going to attempt that again.

My car, a paid-for, year-old 2009 Toyota, was currently in the shop after an accident with a on-duty member of law enforcement a month prior, after which I thankfully was not arrested, but the car was a hairs-breadth away from being totaled by the insurance company. (Repairs totaled: 19,600 and the car was worth 23,000).

On the day I had agreed to vacate my ex-girlfriend's apartment, her mother graciously allowed me to gather two plastic bags of food, the contents of which I will never forget: An almost full loaf of bread, several packages of frozen TV dinners, two packages of Oscar Meyer Bologna, 2 large bags of chips, and 10 packs of ramen.

Also that day, after a morning of frantic dead-end phone calls, I finally heard back from an old buddy who was managing a halfway house. After conferring with the owners, he agreed to allow me to come in as an indigent, with a 30-day contingency to find a job and begin paying rent + a percentage of back rent. I had no other choice, so I agreed to the terms and gave my ex the "good" news.

As my ex-girlfriend and her mother drove me to the halfway house, we sat in awkward silence punctuated by half-hearted attempts at levity. I have no idea what they were really thinking, but I was just trying to work up the courage to ask for $10 for cigarettes.

As we turned down the avenue the house was on, I finally decided that it was now or never, and I blurted out my request for the money. My ex sighed, and turned into a plaza that had a bodega. Without saying a word, she walked in, and came out a few minutes later with a single pack of smokes. I was quite disappointed, as I had really wanted two.

Soon after, sitting on a sheetless twin bed in an empty room for two, the hasty goodbyes of my ex and her mom fading, the terrifying thoughts began to coalesce in my mind.

How do you get a job with no ID? I miss her so much! How long will the food last? How long will this pack of smokes last? What happens after 30 days? I don't have any clothes, toothpaste, soap, socks, underwear, nice shoes... I don't have anything.

I did, however, have my phone. For the past year, the service had been paid for by my mother, and although she apparently she had tried to cut off the service, it was somehow still on. It had suddenly stopped working for a few hours the day before, but I had then received a text message from the carrier saying "Welcome to AT&T, your new number is ****!" Given my situation I wasn't going to ask any questions, it was working for now, though I knew it could get cut off at any time.

I mentally polled my available options: Suicide and bank robbery seemed to be the things which were consistently at the top of the list. Then it occurred to me that I had the Toyota that was being repaired. Even with the accident on record, I figured I could get 18K for it, to buy myself some time and have a buffer against my seeming inevitable homelessness. The issue was that I had no ID, and the title to the car was among my belongings at my mother's house.

I called my father, and begged him to mediate and negotiate some kind of agreement with her for my stuff and to have a duplicate ID sent to my mom and then to me.

He called me back after an hour and told me that my mother had stated that my stuff was going nowhere, and certainly not to me, and that if a duplicate ID showed up at her address (the one on my lost ID), that it was going straight into the trash.

I was devastated. The last glimmer of hope, of a way out of my mess, had been taken from me. I was doomed to struggle in vain for a job (pointless without having ID), until my 30-day grace period at the house was done. Even that wouldn't matter in the end anyway, because by my calculations I had a week's worth of food left even if I stretched it out.

Today, I can honestly state that the events listed above were the absolute, best thing that have ever happened to me. The abject terror which I met and walked through for the subsequent months has given me the confidence to embrace nearly every one of my fears, the firm desire to change who I was and what I had been doing in light of the terrific consequences I faced as a result.

I didn't sell my car, in fact I still have it today. It turns out my mother had sent everything to my dad, but he told me that she wouldn't give it to him. I ended up getting another job with a photocopy of my old ID pulled from the files of a previous employer. The good people at the halfway house fed me, clothed me, and supported me emotionally. I was OK.

Honestly, though, my experience hasn't given me some earth-shattering, eye opening, empathetic view on poverty. The problems I pined for yesterday, are today's tragedies. First-world problems, sober problems, whatever you want to call them. They are my problems. I often marvel at how perspective within my brain works. Of how I used to view the rare bottle of soda I could afford as a true treat, and how easily I take it for granted today. Of how I sometimes have guilty thoughts that I should be infinitely grateful that I have a stable home life, a pantry full of food, and a bank account, and not be infuriated about the dog pooping on the carpet or the antics of my employer.

I absolutely needed help and I absolutely received help. The funny thing is that during this time I applied for food stamps and I was denied because of the year-old Toyota. But in the end I didn't need them. More than help from the state, I needed patience, humility, and acceptance. I believe that most people are good, and they are willing to help where they can. Sharing a dinner from Applebee's, buying an extra Dollar Menu item from McDonald's, freely giving to me what was given to them.

I lost the old buddy a few months ago to the same disease I had been suffering from. The world lost a good man who only had lost his path, but before he did, saved my life.

I'm glad I didn't sell my car, I don't know what would've happened if I had possessed that much money back then, or how reliable the replacement beater would've been.

My experience taught me that poverty sucks, but for me... tension, fear, happiness, and peace are there regardless of how much or how little I have. They wear different masks, are called different things, and objectively are more easily classified as "needs" vs. "wants" but they still kinda feel the same to me.
posted by Debaser626 at 1:09 PM on July 9 [45 favorites]


My son is active duty Army enlisted. My daughter-in-law is pregnant. They're happy to get WIC; nutrition isn't cheap, though enlisted pay is better than it used to be (thanks, Bill Clinton & Congress). Good nutrition for gestation and early childhood saves a crapload of cash later for all sorts of stuff. Plus, feeding people is a mitzvah. There's no non-jerkface way to say to the person paying with food stamps or WIC Hey, I'm happy to see tax money going to good use. Have a nice dinner. But I can think it very loudly.
posted by theora55 at 1:17 PM on July 9 [11 favorites]


My son is active duty Army enlisted. My daughter-in-law is pregnant. They're happy to get WIC;

OK, total aside, but our young men (and women) who are serving friggin ACTIVE duty should not need to be on WIC.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 1:21 PM on July 9 [20 favorites]


They are paying taxes. They are not personally, out of the kindness of their hearts, bringing gifts of nutritious food to those in need.

But let's suppose they were. Let's suppose they were specifically paying the SNAP bill for the person in front of them. If they complained haughtily about the recipient also buying a little soda, do you know what they'd be? Why, they'd be an asshole, that's what!
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:37 PM on July 9 [9 favorites]


American culture sure seems to get a lot of mileage out of shaming others. It seems to bolster one's own insecurities about social standing and status. Sometimes I wonder if we would be better off with some sort of hereditary aristocracy, if only so the conversation could go someplace else. I suspect that the US would find some way to mess that up too.
posted by ZeusHumms at 1:50 PM on July 9


the state of the thing, from the author's personal blog
posted by and they trembled before her fury at 1:55 PM on July 9 [2 favorites]


I thought everyone got government cheese when I was growing up.
posted by waitangi at 1:59 PM on July 9 [3 favorites]


I don't understand why people (including the author) are saying 'What are they supposed to do: trade in a paid-off, reliable car for payments on one that's not reliable?' Of course not. You sell the car and buy something cheaper, outright, that is just as reliable, and has the bonus of being cheaper to maintain and insure. Thus freeing up a few grand that you currently have tied up in the depreciating asset that is a car.

We can agree on the larger issues, such as that there are some appalling attitudes to welfare recipients, without pretending that you can't buy a reliable car outright for (much) less than $13,000.
posted by Salamander at 2:09 PM on July 9 [3 favorites]


Yeah, the whole just-world, money-as-proxy for intelligence, or work ethic, or value-as-a-human-being thing doesn't stand up to even the most facile scrutiny.

I mean: take Person A, who makes $343,927 a year, which by some accounts puts them in the 1%. Person B makes $11,670 a year, which is the 2014 poverty level for an individual in the lower 48. So we're supposed to assume that Person A is exactly 29.4710368466 as intelligent, hardworking, and worthy of having a cell phone or a decent pair of shoes as person B? Come on.

The people you are referring to are the people that are paying for the bulk of the SNAP benefits in the article.

My bank balance does not magically gift me with knowing what being poor is like. It makes me basically as ignorant as I could possibly be about what being poor is like. If you want an informed opinion about SNAP, don't ask my ignorant ass. Ask someone who's lived it.

Sometimes I wonder if we would be better off with some sort of hereditary aristocracy, if only so the conversation could go someplace else.

While we're talking about alternate systems, maybe we could try something completely bananas and give everyone a guaranteed income so people don't have to suffer penury for no reason.
posted by amery at 2:22 PM on July 9 [6 favorites]


Salamander: We can agree on the larger issues, such as that there are some appalling attitudes to welfare recipients, without pretending that you can't buy a reliable car outright for (much) less than $13,000.

The point is that all the talk of the car is a distraction -- it's not a luxury good. It's a car that she might be able to trade down for another comparable car to make a few grand, but that few grand isn't going to be the difference between her needing the assistance and not needing it.
posted by tonycpsu at 2:22 PM on July 9 [14 favorites]


I thought everyone got government cheese when I was growing up.

Yeah, my sister had this moment when we were in our late teens where she just burst out with the epiphany of the whole thing, that she had always thought we were just going to the cheese store.
posted by cortex at 2:29 PM on July 9 [4 favorites]


A phone, especially a smart phone, is priceless - especially when trying to find services, friends, resources, news, get emails, or even some entertainment.

I do a lot of contract and consulting work, where I usually know the end date. When that date comes close, I pay my phone bill about 4-5 months up front. (T-Mobile will let you do this). So, if I end up having no other resources, I'd at least have that phone. At least, access to service if I had to get another phone and SIM.

In fact, during the month that I became homeless, jobless, motherless, and had to suddenly relocate across the country for a couple of months, that phone indeed became my most prized possession. Also - I will always be grateful for T-Mobile, for when I explained the situation I was in, bumped me from my 200 minutes a month plan, to a 2000 minutes a month plan, and made it retroactive - so I wouldn't be stuck with a huge bill at the end of the month because I had to reorganize my life, and my phone was crucial for doing that.
posted by spinifex23 at 2:29 PM on July 9 [7 favorites]


I'm all for downsizing in a crisis, I've sold many nice things that were of value to me personally and financially, but there's a difference between just selling all your shit, and actually making life work.

The irony is, "the poor" (as if all poor people were the same) get critiqued individually for having nice things (like televisions, or refrigerators, or smartphones) and then critiqued for having cheap things (like the 30$ shoes which last a year when they should buy 150$ shoes that last five).

There is literally no way to win. Buy something cheap, someone will say you're poor because you think "like a poor person." Buy something expensive because you found a deal, someone would say you shouldn't waste your money on non-essentials. I've heard about people getting shit for buying a fucking birthday cake. This is ridiculous.
posted by Deoridhe at 2:43 PM on July 9 [42 favorites]


Because if we can blame the poor for their own situation, we can better reassure ourselves that we won't be poor in the future.

The world is just, after all.
posted by miyabo at 3:00 PM on July 9 [4 favorites]



I don't understand why people (including the author) are saying 'What are they supposed to do: trade in a paid-off, reliable car for payments on one that's not reliable?' Of course not. You sell the car and buy something cheaper, outright, that is just as reliable, and has the bonus of being cheaper to maintain and insure.


I don't know what the point of saying things like this is, though. It just seems like trying to show that you can be poor better than the people who are/were poor (general you, not just Salamander).

I mean what is the point? Selling the car and buying a new car that is equally reliable but cheaper is a time sink, and they didn't feel like they had that kind of time. Selling the car wasn't part of their "get out of this" strategy or just their "manage life for now" strategy. Is the idea that if they sold their car they wouldn't need government assistance? This goes back to the point made upthread that this is how government assistance is supposed to work - you are supposed to be able to rely on it when you need it and not have to get rid of everything you own and spend a lot of time and mental energy on that process while also trying to get back on your feet.

Also they did get back on their feet, so clearly their strategy worked (for them, as has been pointed out correctly they have advantages a lot of people don't have in this situation).
posted by sweetkid at 3:01 PM on July 9 [9 favorites]


people act like they're temporarily poor when the reality is they're temporarily rich
posted by sxtxixtxcxh at 3:04 PM on July 9 [7 favorites]


"their grungy den" is one of the shittiest things I've heard a nattering well-off person say in awhile.

Yeah, even if their grungy den indicates reference to the gummint rather than the poors themselves who frequent that den, it's still a statement that comes from privilege, from someone doesn't have to spend a large part of their life waiting in grungy dens with their hat in hand.

I swear, one day I'm going to make a t-shirt that says "I was once on welfare" just to shut some people up.

It won't. There's a large contingent of people who, even if they've been on welfare, simply don't have a clue, and wouldn't get a clue if somebody hit them with a big clue stick. They were on welfare because they had no choice, things were going badly for them, it wasn't their fault, but by THEIR OWN HARD WORK AND INITIATIVE they pulled themselves up by their bootstraps. And now they get to look down at those lazy and indifferent slobs who are sucking them dry due to the exorbitant taxes they now must pay. I certainly don't know, but from the tone of the article and the way the tall, blonde girl distances herself, I wouldn't be surprised if she thinks she didn't/doesn't deserve to be in a grungy den. Temporary setback and all.

We definitely didn't match his image of people on government assistance.

Well, as someone I called out for a comment he made said to me, "There's a black family in our church, and I happen to know them. They're very nice." (you know, as opposed to all those others who don't attend my church and are not so nice)
posted by BlueHorse at 3:21 PM on July 9 [1 favorite]


People are only focusing on the car because the entire piece is about the car and how it represented to her the comfort of her recent middle class lifestyle. About how her car and her blond hair drew "wonderment" from the "poverty stricken mothers" at the WIC office. Blech.
posted by geegollygosh at 3:28 PM on July 9 [2 favorites]


I would like to see the magic that gets a random lady of the street blue book value for her used Mercedes. Folks keep throwing around that 13,000 number like it's real money. If you want to sell your car for cash, Blue Book is such a fantasy it might as well be Harry Potter.
posted by Megafly at 4:24 PM on July 9 [25 favorites]


Re: the car thing, I'm not well versed in the intricacies of SNAP (I live in Australia) but my understanding of it is that she was not eligible for SNAP unless she had less than $2,000 of liquid assets excluding her principal residence and vehicle. Please correct me if I'm wrong, the exact rules / thresholds vary by state.

So if she had sold her car and kept $5,000 cash as an emergency fund she would have lost access to SNAP.

In Australia the welfare means testing is lot looser (you get full benefits up to $200,000 in assets, scaling down to zero at $700,000 in assets). Principal residence is excluded, but not vehicles. So you could have $100,000 in cash and still be drawing benefits if your income is zero, so you should not be drawing down your assets if you go through a rough period - when you get employed again at the end of it you should still have roughly the same asset base as when you went into crisis.

Whether someone with $100,000 in cash in the bank should be on welfare is another question, but it does prevent people from combusting all their assets when they go through bad times. This has links to inter-generational poverty, etc.
posted by xdvesper at 5:39 PM on July 9 [11 favorites]


I don't trust anyone who uses a third-person pronoun to refer to the poor. Given how skewed the income (mis)distribution is, anyone who can call the poor "they" is either sitting on a pile of dirty money or (more likely) lying to themselves about how vulnerable they are. The poor will always be with us because we are the poor.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 6:07 PM on July 9 [4 favorites]


You Can't Tip a Buick: "I don't trust anyone who uses a third-person pronoun to refer to the poor. Given how skewed the income (mis)distribution is, anyone who can call the poor "they" is either sitting on a pile of dirty money or (more likely) lying to themselves about how vulnerable they are."

Oh FFS. I have a desk job with health insurance (despite being certifiably underpaid relative to "market value" according to multiple salary surveys) and my husband is an underemployed bartender. We are basically paycheck-to-paycheck and would/will be screwed if either of us gets fired, but there's no way I'd say "we're poor".

You might say that's our children-of-the-middle-class privilege speaking. I would say it's because making that claim would be insulting to our neighbors who are actually poor. At no time in recent memory have we worried about paying rent, or wondered whether we would be able to eat, or anything like that. Compared to my neighbors, some of whom are elderly and walking up and down the streets scavenging cans and plastic bottles, we are damn affluent.

There's a line somewhere between class solidarity and appropriation. IMO, those of us on the "not regularly hungry" side would do well to not stomp all over it.
posted by Lexica at 9:58 PM on July 9 [8 favorites]


Not at all what I'm saying about selling the car. You sell the car for $13K, let's say. You buy a super-reliable used car for $8K (of which there were many at that price point, according to Consumer Reports from 2008) and use the $5K for emergency expenses.

This is almost a fumbduck derail on its own, but i'll engage for a minute.

When is the last time any of you, or you specifically had to buy a good, solid, reliable used car RIGHT NOW. Like, preferably tomorrow?

It's a bullllshiiit hassle. And no matter what you do, you did it wrong if anything bad happens and it's your fault. I just did the whole insurance total-out dumb hassle and then went car hunting.

First of all, even before cash for clunkers the market for ~8k cars like you're talking about has been fierce. It's like renting in SF or something. Unless you have a mechanic lined up to inspect it right then, that day when you look at it someone will just buy it out from under you. I observed my parents do this dance, and then did it myself over the past month and a half.

So i did all the Right Shit, got the car inspected, ... and then several days later heard a weird noise and realized it had a bent front strut that finally just broke. Two struts had to be replaced, and the shop cut me a deal because they know my dad... for $540... that i didn't have. The previous owner went "oh well you must have done something stupid since you got it from me a week ago" and started ignoring my calls. The shop that did the inspection will likely do the same.

There was a "line out the door" to look at this car, because it had all the paperwork back to the dealer and had gotten every recommended maintenance and everything and was just immaculate. There were 4 other people who were going to look at it that day, even, and it was a holiday weekend.

So i followed all the rules a "smart car buyer" is supposed to, found a low miles really nice car at just a little bit below bluebook because the owner was moving, and still got moderately fucked for money i didn't have. I traded a known quantity car that had one owner for being the third owner of a newer, admittedly somewhat nicer car that was an unknown quantity and i see it as a net loss.

In the situation this person was in, i'd rather have a known quantity car than some extra money and a "cheaper to deal with" car.

See, when you're broke as fuck the more things you can make consistent, recurring expenses that you can see coming miles away the easier your life gets. Even if you know you're going to not have enough, or overdraft, or be completely broke after you pay for it you can at least structure your shit and go ok, i can deal with this.

If you've owned a car that long, you'll know exactly what's paid for and what it needs. Especially if it doesn't have a ton of miles, you can generally look out on the horizon and go "I can pretty much just drive this as much as i want until X miles before really having anything go wrong i can't just ignore". Lower mileage, younger cars don't just break, and mercedes aren't awfully built or anything either.

Whenever i have a car for a while, i'll develop a list in my head of what needs to be done and how urgent it is. If i get a new car, i basically have to start from scratch on that and everything is a surprise. This is the sort of like, false value shit that gets foisted on you as an "improvement" in your situation when you're poor.

5k isn't shit, compared to knowing for sure you won't have to do some $1000 repair in a month because right before all your money went down the toilet you just had the 60k mile service done or whatever. Especially considering that, at least in my snarky experience, the default amount of a car repair is basically $500. I've had a broken window motor and switch be $600(on a nissan! it wasn't a fucking BMW or anything). That's just like the default car service amount unless i buy the parts and do it myself.

But yea, to get back to my original point, having been super fucking broke and on EBT for a year and a half, and also in my teens, my thought process now is that if i have something that works and is paid for that actually does something worthwhile for me then just fucking keep it. Sure, sell your top of the line TV you can still get close to a grand for on craigslist, or stupid stuff like jetskis or whatever. But i wouldn't judge anyone for keeping their car they knew exactly what was up with if unless it was a fucking Maserati or something.

And oh my god, don't even get me started on the fucking iphone thing. I was just pooping on that in another thread.
posted by emptythought at 2:16 AM on July 10 [22 favorites]


PeterMcDermott: GTFO. This was a temporary blip in their middle class lives. I'm sure it was very uncomfortable for them, but this wasn't the intergenerational poverty that I grew up in and around.

The only welfare-getting families I ever knew that owned two cars were drug dealers.


And there you have it, folks: a poverty-supremacist.

Tell me, PMD, just how many generations does a family have to be poor before they're authentically poor? Because, after all, as parents with small children, being unable to pay bills and put food on the table without assistance surely should have seemed like an "uncomfortable" blip to them.
posted by IAmBroom at 3:33 AM on July 10 [1 favorite]


I don't trust anyone who uses a third-person pronoun to refer to the poor.

And Jesus said, Let her alone; why trouble ye her? she hath wrought a good work on me. For ye have the poor with you always, and whensoever ye will ye may do them good: but me ye have not always.
posted by sfenders at 3:34 AM on July 10 [1 favorite]


I mean: take Person A, who makes $343,927 a year, which by some accounts puts them in the 1%. Person B makes $11,670 a year, which is the 2014 poverty level for an individual in the lower 48. So we're supposed to assume that Person A is exactly 29.4710368466 as intelligent, hardworking, and worthy of having a cell phone or a decent pair of shoes as person B? Come on.


In a sense, it's telling that one never hears people identifying stereotypes, getting pissed, and demanding "You're twenty times as intelligent, moral, and successful as the average low-income worker? Why aren't your actions twenty times as meaningful, you wasteful piece of shit?"
posted by mr. digits at 6:24 AM on July 10 [4 favorites]


This was a weird article for me to read. I posted an anon Q on Ask recently about how to keep going forward in a crisis because I am in a crisis. I also have a nice car.

I spent three months carless before getting the car, in a rural area with no buses, because I was so overwhelmed by the task of buying a car. I am slightly crippled by joint problems and can't do jack with cars; friends and generous local mechanics deal with even minor stuff like replacing windshield wipers and putting air in the tires. The idea of my being able to find a "reliable" old Honda was laughable. Living in the sticks I can't go hopping through eleven CL ads a day. I had to find something I liked, bring it to my mechanic for a look, hope to not have to repeat that process much given how hard that was in that situation, and buy.

At the time I had a wee wad in a savings account, which was not enough for a reliable old car, and banks here do not lend tiny sums to turn a wee wad into a slightly less wee wad. (Probably more predatory lenders do; I don't know, it was not an option presented to me at the time. Bank offers car loans for cars up to a certain age only.) It was buy a beater or buy something reasonably nice and stretch out the payments at a decent interest rate so I had a very reliable thing with low payments.

I went with reasonably (maybe more than that) nice.

Then a year later my health got worse while child support was abruptly shitcanned and oh dear.

I totally understand why this lady kept her car. Even somebody in a worse spot would and it would be a rational choice. Selling would not really bring in much if anything, and then what? And never mind how hard it is to sell a car and buy a reliable new one when broke, especially when you are rural and car-clueless.

And I love my car! It is my transportation budget, my recreation budget, my stress relief budget all rolled into one. It was a terrible choice for a now-poor person; its repair and MPG costs are not great. But it is a perfect choice for a person going through a bad time. It is a pleasure to travel. It is a nicer environment than my home. It has terrific safety ratings, which is a thing that is usually overlooked in talks about what the poor should drive. Also, you know the thing with seniors and big sedans with good suspension? Me and my joints totally get that now, and having a car that leaves me in less pain after a long commute is a joy. My computer is on its last legs, my phone is starting to get flaky, my house needs repairs, I'd like a new pair of shoes, but my car is nice.

I had for a while been making jokes about how I am married to my car; it is reliable, keeps me warm, carries heavy things for me, treats me well, I love it; it's fulfilling a lot of basic spousal duties! Ha, ha. The crisis made this slightly less funny because the truth of it is a little too much now.

Recently I read an article comment from somebody saying they'd lost a molar and didn't care and could chew fine without it, but got it replaced because in their social circles, going around with a missing tooth was something that made people uncomfortable. Again I thought about my car. Yes, there are plenty of rich people who drive old heaps, but you can get away with that if you're rich. Here it is a little sign of "Look, I'm not a total mess, and you need not worry about me being the one to drive the kids to the activity this week." There are significant social costs to missing teeth and beaters, and they are worse if you are not otherwise at a point where it can be written off as 'eccentricity.' My kid is quite unaware that she's poor right now and I am doing everything I can to keep it that way. It was her father who had 'my' car, what I drove before the three months with no car, repo'd out of my driveway one night, and that was more trauma than she needed. Eventually replacing it with something that even a little kid could recognise as 'nice' was a huge relief. Your mom's got it together, you don't have to worry.

There is so much more going on with these sorts of decisions than just cash.
posted by kmennie at 6:50 AM on July 10 [14 favorites]


Props to them for not selling her husband's car, in any case. A rock-solid reliable vehicle is precious beyond price when you're poor. Otherwise you tend get stuck in the vicious cycle of $200 used car purchases, breakdowns, and repairs, and if you live in a city without reliable transportation (read: most American cities, period), that means you're SOL in more ways than one.

I grew up in 2 households, due to divorce. Dad was solidly middle class. Mom was not solid. A lot of my career (I am under no illusions that I have a career is based upon anything other than luck, public schools, finding a group of friends who pushed each other, parental involvement and support and a thousand other things I don't actually have control over) has been based upon always having quick access to $200 cash. To pay for the repairs the god damned Datsun is going to need so I can make it to Quick Recall, or Chess Club, or Dad's house, or any of a thousand other plans caused by that car's biweekly maintenance.
posted by DigDoug at 6:53 AM on July 10


A lot of my career... has been based upon always having quick access to $200 cash

This is another good one i could riff on.

After spending basically all of college and the surrounding end of highschool/beginning of Real Life™ being broke(and i don't mean upper middle class white college student "broke", i mean "oh fuck, what are we going to eat". And not because we spent the money on beer and could call our parents for more) having that $200 around at all times is, and was a big deal.

For the first time in probably two years, i recently had to empty out my savings because of a trainwreck of back to back bullshit situations. I don't make a lot of money, but i always made a point of having +/- $1000 socked away for just whatever. Even if it ended up just getting spent on a modest trip to somewhere to crash at a friends place in another city or stay in a hostel, at least it was there.

Before that though, even the $200 ready to go was a big deal when i was broke. If anything provides you with more than the usual amount of money, it went in there. Thrift store flip, gift, selling some thing you never use, etc. I once made $200 when i had $200 just so i wouldn't feel bad about going out of town and partying with friends for a few days... by cleaning up and rebuilding a bike from a frame and parts i found in the dumpster(including painting it!). The kids who got it were thrilled and thought it was cool, and now i had cash. But i wasn't going to spend that backup cash if i didn't sell it.

The big wheels in life that jam generally cost a lot more than $200 to unjam, but it's the little day to day ones that will sink you death-by-a-thousand-cuts style if you can't pony up $200 for the real life toll.

What if you have a sudden, surprise job interview for a really good job, but you have to dress professional and all the stuff you have is obviously thrift store crap that will make you look poor/unprofessional? There's no way you're getting out of that one for less than $100 even if you buy everything cheap at h&m. And then you have to commute over to wherever the place is, and...

I realized pretty early on into my first apartment how big of a deal that small amount of ready to go for anything cash waiting in the wings made a difference. The people who always had it available just didn't know how big of a fuck-over it could be to not. And trying to explain it to them was like trying to explain why most stupid youtube videos are funny to an alien. who doesn't even understand the concept of humor.
posted by emptythought at 12:33 PM on July 10 [4 favorites]


Oh my god the comfort wad of emergency cash. I didn't know it was a thing other people did. (Maybe because it's almost always a secret stash.)
posted by zennie at 2:09 PM on July 10


A lot of my career... has been based upon always having quick access to $200 cash

The other thing you have if you are middle class (or above) is access to cheap credit to buffer the inevitable emergencies that seem to come when your cash is low. Unexpected car repair? I can put that on an unused credit card for a free 30 day loan, as compared to getting a ridiculously expensive payday loan ("Up to $700" said the ad I saw yesterday, which doesn't cover much of a serious car problem). If I needed a bigger or longer float, I could get a home equity loan or a signature loan at my credit union, with nonusurious terms.

Those kinds of buffers prevent a $200 problem from ballooning into a $2000 problem, in the same way that the assistance programs the author accessed prevented a serious but temporary income problem from turning into starvation or homelessness. Buffers and safety nets are incredibly important for exactly that reason, and are way cheaper than letting people fall all the way.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:45 PM on July 10 [9 favorites]


This is a harmful side effect of the American Dream - since it's believed that anyone can advance financially and socially in they put in enough work, then if someone's poor, people assume that it's their fault.
posted by BiggerJ at 8:49 PM on July 13 [1 favorite]


I was 23 and hungry: accepting food stamps
posted by yeoz at 6:00 AM on July 27


That is really, really rough. From reading around, it sounds like you basically take a vow of poverty when you join AmeriCorps VISTA - they pay only 105% of the poverty line, you cannot take a second job, and you cannot quit before your 1-year term is up without stiff penalties.

I feel pretty strongly ambivalent about whether or not this is a good thing. I mean, I get the point, and I'm sure it helps keep the costs of these programs easy to justify even to pretty right-wing constituents. But I suspect that the people who most need this enforced empathy don't look for these opportunities in the first place, and if you're struggling to feed yourself it is tough to have much energy left over to help others. And it seems like that should be the point of the program, not poverty tourism.
posted by en forme de poire at 12:26 PM on July 27


From reading around, it sounds like you basically take a vow of poverty when you join AmeriCorps VISTA - they pay only 105% of the poverty line, you cannot take a second job, and you cannot quit before your 1-year term is up without stiff penalties

This sounded crazy to me, but a minute of searching and holy crap, it's true. I had no idea they were paid so little. I think I was paid almost that much when I was in the Peace Corps almost twenty years ago if you added together the living allowance, rent money, and the readjustment money you got for each month, and of course you were earning it in a poor country where a US poverty level wage got you a very nice standard of living.

I'm surprised that they are filling the program at such low stipend levels. It seems wrong that they aren't paying the volunteers at least at the minimum wage -- it's no problem if you come from a family that can help you out every month, but otherwise you are hosed.
posted by Dip Flash at 12:55 PM on July 27 [1 favorite]


It's because it's basically an unpaid internship with a fig leaf.

I know someone who is very smart, and has the tests/grades/extracurricular projects to show it and was trying to get into a fairly highly regarded medical school.

They were denied, and told their grades and qualifications were great, but their extracurriculars weren't flowery enough. Maybe try americorp or peacecorp?

Their parents were solidly upper middle class, and they didn't need the money from that "job" at all.

That's the people its targeted at honestly. And the few people I've ever talked to or heard of offline doing it fit that mold.

It's just another class hoop, sadly.
posted by emptythought at 3:15 PM on July 27 [2 favorites]


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