Are You Poor, or Just Broke?
February 8, 2016 10:45 AM   Subscribe

 
From the article:
Why do all these homeless people have cell phones? Sound familiar?
See also. All too often, I see politicians engaging in this kind of nasty rhetoric, it's happening right now with the current election cycle.
posted by Fizz at 10:56 AM on February 8, 2016 [1 favorite]


I was listening to a podcast on the French revolution and the host talked about the sumptuary laws, where only nobles were allowed to wear certain types of clothing. I just realized the "poor people shouldn't have TVs/smartphones/insert other nice thing here" is the modern version of that. It helps us get a quick shorthand for who is in which (socio-economic) class. By having a smartphone, they are "lying" about their wealth and spending power. Attempts to legislate what people who receive assistance are getting is an attempt to impose sumptuary laws for the modern age.
posted by Hactar at 11:12 AM on February 8, 2016 [55 favorites]


Who thinks like this? I can go the 7-11 and buy a prepaid phone for 15$ right now. Granted, not a fancy pants one, but phones aren't exactly an expensive luxury item in 2016. It's more of a necessity these days.
posted by adept256 at 11:12 AM on February 8, 2016 [11 favorites]


There are a lot of intermediate states between being poor and being middle class. I'm in a weird kind of broke right now - I make enough that I can have fun and buy a certain amount of random stuff, but not enough that I can really live like an adult, with buying a house or putting away real amounts of money for retirement. And I'd be screwed if I got a serious medical condition or accidentally got someone pregnant or something.

I am hoping my next career transition, whenever that comes, is enough to push me into an 'adult' income, although I fear this may not happen unless I go and get a doctorate.
posted by Mitrovarr at 11:13 AM on February 8, 2016 [10 favorites]


Eh, the difference between broke and poor is one minor medical procedure or a transmission on a car. I'm going to suggest there really is no difference between the two (and I did read the article). A broke person is no more likely to be funding a ROTH that the poor person, the broke person is no more likely to be able to handle an unexpected expense without having to borrow, both are paying a larger portion of their income servicing debt and just living than those who have money. Neither are in a position to demand anything or to be able to say, "Fuck it, I quit." Etc. Both are living paycheck to paycheck.

I've been poor, and I've been broke. I'd suggest the main difference is when I was poor I drank and smoked because I didn't have enough money for rent, but when I was broke if I drank and smoked too much I didn't have enough money for rent.

Or what Mitrovarr just said.
posted by cjorgensen at 11:14 AM on February 8, 2016 [19 favorites]


Eh, the difference between broke and poor is one minor medical procedure or a transmission on a car.

FTA, in bold:
3. Do You Have a Safety Net?

For broke folks who come from class backgrounds that aren’t as overcome with financial insecurity, there exists one very easy way out: a safety net.

A safety net can take many forms.

But the existence of a safety net signifies class privilege.
posted by Etrigan at 11:18 AM on February 8, 2016 [28 favorites]


I make enough that I can have fun and buy a certain amount of random stuff, but not enough that I can really live like an adult, with buying a house or putting away real amounts of money for retirement. And I'd be screwed if I got a serious medical condition or accidentally got someone pregnant or something.

This. I find myself going in and out of credit card debt. Nothing too serious (I go in and out of paying it off, but some months get carried over and it takes me awhile to get back on track) but there's enough debt that I occasionally find myself sweating or worrying. I'm still living at home with my family, and it's not something I feel entirely proud about (there's this kind of expectation in my brain that I should be in a better place financially for the age that I am and its hard to let go of that, so much stigma).

A few months ago I had a nasty fall during a run and busted up my face/teeth, needed some rather expensive dental surgeries. My family stepped in and helped out but I found myself having to push many other things to the side, money I was setting aside for other priorities were shuffled and/or just vanished. I've thankfully never been in a place of poverty, but we've always considered ourselves 'working poor'. Everyone in our family works shift-work, and we work mostly to keep a roof over our heads, and food in our mouth. I have very little in my savings account, and retirement....I try not to think about that.
posted by Fizz at 11:19 AM on February 8, 2016 [4 favorites]


My feeling is that the article is trying to get at class, probably for a largely lower middle class/middle class/upper middle class audience, and for some reason the writer is either reinventing Marx's wheel, doesn't want to say "class" for political reasons or has read social justice theory which doesn't focus on the structural.

The essay is trying to say "if you are working class in this country, your lack of money is going to be lifelong; your precarity is going to be lifelong. If you're middle class, you may fall into that fate, but you have a lot of other options and you may only be precarious for a little while. There is a difference between being working class and middle class."

The essay seems, to me, to be trying to explain as cultural something that is structural - "don't say you're poor if you're just broke because it's upsetting" rather than "understand that being broke isn't the same as being poor, and gear your personal and political action accordingly".
posted by Frowner at 11:20 AM on February 8, 2016 [108 favorites]


Very well said Frowner.
posted by Fizz at 11:22 AM on February 8, 2016 [2 favorites]


I can appreciate the distinction the article is trying to make, but honestly, everyone who's not in the upper middle class with a high net worth needs to be in solidarity, as there are a lot of holes in the "middle" class and people are increasingly falling right through them into serious hardship. Precarity is clearly expanding and even people who can afford nicer things in the short term are not finding true lifelong security in this economy. As long as they are mindful of their relative privilege, I think even people who are a bit better off are welcome, in fact needed, in a movement to reform the economic structure.
posted by Miko at 11:23 AM on February 8, 2016 [31 favorites]


I've been too broke to buy mangoes. I've been so poor, I've fought with fruit bats in the treetops to get a mango.
posted by adept256 at 11:30 AM on February 8, 2016 [1 favorite]


When I finished university I stuck around for another year because a) a lot of my friends were also staying, b) I had absolutely no career plan and c) the mid-'90s were not a great time to be entering the workforce in Canada, anyway. All was well until I got fired from my job at Subway and wasn't able to find another, what with my living in a not-large college town with thousands of other kids looking for part-time jobs, too. So I went on welfare, which had been gutted by Mike "let them eat dented cans of tuna" Harris. My rent was dirt cheap and I had housemates to share the cost of utilities and whatnot, and I still had only something like $6/day to spend on...everything that wasn't rent or bills, really. It was not the Best Of Times.

But if I'd really hit hard times, if I'd really needed to, I could have borrowed money from my parents or moved back in with them, and a few months later I went back to school at a different university, anyway. I was broke, but in no way would I say I was poor.
posted by The Card Cheat at 11:30 AM on February 8, 2016 [2 favorites]


Absolutely about class. And the safety net doesn't need to be in the form of assets that can be liquidated for cash. I consider my teeth a safety net; they benefit from regular cleanings and orthodontia (a vestige of my privileged upbringing) and allow me to get a number of customer-facing jobs that wouldn't be available if I had visibly rotting or missing teeth. A healthy body is another safety net. I have a lot more wiggle room if I wanted/needed to fast or subsist on very little than if I'd been fasting intermittently and eating subpar food my whole life.

Broadly understood, the safety net is the difference between being destitute and actually starving vs. "can you skate by for a bit until things improve?"
posted by witchen at 11:31 AM on February 8, 2016 [9 favorites]


I can appreciate the distinction the article is trying to make, but honestly, everyone who's not in the upper middle class with a high net worth needs to be in solidarity, as there are a lot of holes in the "middle" class and people are increasingly falling right through them into serious hardship

That's true, and yet I notice that there's important distinctions that remain. I live a life which takes me through a lot of class strata - more than I think is typical. And what I see is that when you are born into working poverty, you are deprived of more than just money - middle class people know how to work the system; middle class people speak with accents and vocabulary that get them taken more seriously; middle class people are socialized to select clothes and possessions which do not get them dismissed, even if those clothes and possessions are inexpensive or worn; middle class people have generally been to better schools, so they are more likely to be able to access information, both for fun and for use. All that persists, no matter how much money is involved.
posted by Frowner at 11:35 AM on February 8, 2016 [26 favorites]


Precarity is clearly expanding and even people who can afford nicer things in the short term are not finding true lifelong security in this economy.

I've stopped thinking about the possibility of retiring. I know that I'll be working right up until I probably get sick and/or are injured in some way that prevents me from doing so. I don't consider myself poor, but I do work and always think about my expenses. If I do spend a lot of money on a luxury item (cell phone, computer, car, etc.) I consider it an investment and think long-term. I recently built a computer but was currently using a computer that was 5 years old. Everyone in our family thinks about the family budget and even though I still live at home, we all pool our resources together.

I know at least three other people who are in similar situations, still living at home, working and helping their family (and themselves) to help keep everyone safe and warm and well-fed.

I also realize that by many people's standards, I would be considered well-off. It's all about your perspective.
posted by Fizz at 11:36 AM on February 8, 2016 [3 favorites]


(I mean, "deprived" here also means "valuing middle class habits of dress and speech for no reason except prejudice" - knowing how to deal with a large bureaucracy is genuinely organically a skill; having been socialized to wear khakis is not.)
posted by Frowner at 11:36 AM on February 8, 2016 [1 favorite]


I completely agree with all that, Frowner. I think the issue I see is that this binary discussion ignores an enormous swath of people. For instance, I have had a good education and grew up in a family that was mostly employed all the time, and had some lucky breaks, and present like a middle-class person. Yet there have certainly been times I've done without (dental care, winter coats, etc), and times when my family could not have provided me any support, the reality that no one in my family has any savings or anything to pass along, etc. My clothes and speech cannot create that for me. What it means is that a disability or other sudden change can thrust someone like that into the ranks of "poor" or "permanently lower income," no matter what their polish. I feel like the very perspective in this article is an entrenched upper-middle-class perspective that misses what "poverty" and "working class" really are: a persistent lack of ability to accumulate assets, with both short- and long-term consequences.
posted by Miko at 11:38 AM on February 8, 2016 [12 favorites]


When I was poor, I kept thinking I could go to my wealthy uncle for money if things got really bad. Then I lost part of my front tooth and couldn't afford to fix it, and I relied on food stamps, and I was living in a truck, and I switched to my psych meds to the cheaper, worse ones. And I still didn't go to my uncle, and I think that was the right decision. Would he have given me money? Possibly, I'm honestly not sure, but I am sure it would have permanently damaged my relationship with that half of my family.

In the author's view, people like me might not be considered poor. Because I am educated and white and know lots of successful people, my "class experience" would probably count as non-poor. Because I do in fact have a rich uncle, this might, in her view, constitute a "safety net." And because, after several years of what I would call poverty, I got a job and now make about median area income, my state might be deemed "temporary."

This falls flat to me. Those criteria are slippery, hard to measure things. And she is missing an important 4th category: how much suffering does your lack of money cause? My lack of money was not about "getting drinks with coworkers." It was about physical hardship, lack of access to needed healthcare, and I think that matters.

Yes, we should be more aware of social class when we are talking about poverty. But if your definition of poor could be read to exclude a guy in a truck with a fucked up mouth unable to quiet his racing thoughts, I don't have much use for it.
posted by andrewpcone at 11:41 AM on February 8, 2016 [24 favorites]


I like this entry on Tumblr from the author--which I am going to guess was a response from people probably calling her out as not knowing what it was like to be poor.
posted by Kitteh at 11:45 AM on February 8, 2016 [3 favorites]


Not understanding the difference between being broke and being poor fuels 99% of my parents' ugly libertarian classism. They were broke for a few years while my dad was getting his PhD and starting out as a junior professor. Because of this, they think they know what it's like to be poor, and since they wound up being reasonably successful, that means anyone who is poor can also be successful if they just... get a PhD and then get hired tenure-track at an R1, I guess?
posted by soren_lorensen at 11:53 AM on February 8, 2016 [36 favorites]


> I can appreciate the distinction the article is trying to make, but honestly, everyone who's not in the upper middle class with a high net worth needs to be in solidarity, as there are a lot of holes in the "middle" class and people are increasingly falling right through them into serious hardship.

> Yes, we should be more aware of social class when we are talking about poverty. But if your definition of poor could be read to exclude a guy in a truck with a fucked up mouth unable to quiet his racing thoughts, I don't have much use for it.

Some people seem to be reacting to a simplified or cartoon version of the article instead of the article itself. As a reminder, from the conclusion of TFA:

Being broke is a struggle. Being poor is a struggle. (Let’s face it: Being human is a struggle.) Just make sure you’re talking about the right fight next time you name yours.


This is not someone trying to draw lines or exclude anyone or deny solidarity. This is someone trying to add clarity to how we talk about these things.
posted by languagehat at 11:56 AM on February 8, 2016 [8 favorites]


I'm acquainted with a fair few people who would identify as middle class (i.e. they have middle class habits, manners, aspirations, all that kind of capital), but nevertheless find that this set of equipment is not enough to help them get out of the cycle of low-quality, poorly remunerated, part-time and contract-based work that constitutes most job growth, these days, and as Miko says, may (still) never be positioned to accumulate assets. The white-collar specialized service and creative work they hope to do just isn't within reach, so much, because it just isn't available, so much.
posted by cotton dress sock at 11:56 AM on February 8, 2016 [4 favorites]


I think her "clarity" is itself an oversimplification, that's all.
posted by Miko at 11:57 AM on February 8, 2016 [10 favorites]


when you are born into working poverty, you are deprived of more than just money - middle class people know how to work the system;

Also, the system is largely designed for the middle class, regardless of whether the middle-class person knows how to work it or not. (Well, it used to be anyway - it's been ratcheting gradually towards the wealthy for a long time now, but a lot of the old foundation remains)
posted by anonymisc at 11:59 AM on February 8, 2016 [4 favorites]


I think this piece is actually using old ideas to further mystify the deterioration of the middle class. Some "middle class" folks are, actually, poor.
posted by cotton dress sock at 12:00 PM on February 8, 2016 [14 favorites]


Yeah, maybe what I mean is not "oversimplification" but "false distinction." Cultural and individual factors can confound the basic reality that for some, there are long-term financial resources which create the foundation of future earning power despite economic fluctuation, and for some, there are not. Ascension to the cultural middle class is no guarantee of long-term access to those resources or ability to maintain them.
posted by Miko at 12:12 PM on February 8, 2016 [4 favorites]


Ascension to the cultural middle class is no guarantee of long-term access to those resources or ability to maintain them.

This reminds me of the old Spanish nobility, which had many members as poor as commoners who nonetheless clung fiercely to their status as nobility. They had the cultural capital of nobility, but none of the, you know, capital.
posted by clawsoon at 12:17 PM on February 8, 2016 [3 favorites]


Actually, as I think about culture and class, I find myself feeling like the author is also trying to get at some difficult-to-express things.

See, I know a lot of broke/poor middle class people, and I know some (and spend time with many other) poor working class people.

I am constantly astonished by how class-segregated we are as a society - most of my middle class friends, even the broke/poor ones, don't actually spend a lot of time in the social worlds of working class people.

There's a difference. It's not an absolute difference, like no middle class person ever ends up living out of their car or crying on the bus because they have nowhere private to cry, or having to give their baby a pauper's funeral and no grave marker, etc. It's the difference where those are just things that sorta happen - terrible things, yes, but not rare. And jail is a biggie - even poor middle class people tend not to know a lot of people who've gone to jail. Part of this is about the way class and race intersect, but not exclusively. That whole "I used to drink because I could not afford the rent no matter what but I could afford a beer; now I can't drink because if I don't drink I can afford rent" thing - think of that persisting for lots of people around you unto far into adulthood. Not just broke college students or your one friend, but lots of people.

The level of degredation and immiseration that can be visited upon working class poor people so far exceeds anything you're likely to encounter even as a poor middle class person, it's incredible. It's like, waiting in the welfare office and getting treated shittily by the social worker, except that's everything, forever. It isn't just a vague difference, and people think it's a vague difference because most of us live in an intensely class-stratified world.
posted by Frowner at 12:23 PM on February 8, 2016 [44 favorites]


By this metric, I think that for most of my adult life, I've been in a weird situation of being poor but not broke. I grew up super poor — my mom kept it a secret from me, but I'm pretty sure there were several years where she was bringing in well under 10k a year, because the job market was/is absolutely brutal to newly divorced single moms who hadn't ever worked outside the home. But I had a knack for standardized tests, so I ended up getting routed into the private-school-equivalent gifted programs at my school, and the housing market wasn't quite as fucked yet, so we could afford to stay in the school district with the good g-and-t program, and I write pretty, so I ended up getting into college, and then I got into grad school when I realized that I never, ever, ever wanted to expose myself to the real market unless it was absolutely necessary, and now I look and sound like tech industry, so colleges keep giving me fellowships to look and sound like tech industry.

Even though I've always earned waaaay less money than my peers, I've never felt broke — largely because the habits I developed as a kid (never, ever, ever spend money on anything, don't even consider going on trips, do not buy anything fancy ever, and in general never, ever do things that look like they're going to cost money) mean that aside from a couple of nasty scares related to the wretched bay area housing market, I've never been broke; like, aside from a couple of bouts of couchsurfing caused more by me picking a really impractical metropolitan area for a poor person to live in, I've never been exposed to much genuine risk, because I am pretty good at living super cheaply — not as good as my parents were, but better than most of my peers are.

The problem with never having much money but not minding because of having very, very, very frugal habits is that I am absolutely poleaxed by anxiety whenever I'm in totally normal middle-class environments that I never experienced while growing up. So like on the one hand, I never learned how to do middle-class stuff when I was a kid — dressing fancy, eating fancy, cooking fancy — and whenever I'm in those situations I'm certain I'm doing middle-class wrong, even when I'm not. And on the other hand, I have to force myself to look for networking opportunities, conferences to travel to, etc., instead of just dismissing everything in that category as WAY TOO FANCY NOT FOR THE LIKES OF ME — as something that I can probably figure out how to make do without, and so I should figure out how to make do without, so that someone else can have the opportunity and so that I don't end up taking up an undue amount of space.

once when I was in college I took my mom out to see a movie and then to a restaurant — a kinda cheapo run-down college-town Indian place. My mom hesitated to go into the restaurant, though — like, actually paused on the threshold and said "I don't know is this place expensive this seems expensive it's too fancy let's go somewhere else" — because anything that wasn't fast food took her out of her comfort zone. Because I was a little shit, I thought less of my mom for thinking that that place was "too fancy." But because I still am a little shit, I'm only now realizing how many real opportunities I've squandered for that exact same reason; I have a number of times found myself metaphorically standing on the threshold and then running away because TOO FANCY MIGHT BE COSTLY AND I DON'T KNOW HOW TO BEHAVE IT'S NOT FOR THE LIKES OF ME I WON'T DO IT IT'S FOR THE BEST IF I NOT DO IT EVERYONE WOULD PREFER I NOT BE AROUND.

One of the reasons why the idea moving away from the United States has always been appealing to me (other than the baseline fact that the United States is a shitty place to be a poor person in) is that as a poor person who sort of infiltrated the middle class by dint of a few flukes — being white and male, growing up in a place with good gifted and talented programs in the public schools, having a knack for standardized tests, writing kinda pretty — I already feel like I'm living in a foreign country. So if I lived somewhere else, I'd have a good excuse for feeling out of place all the time, which, paradoxically, would allow me to feel somewhat less out of place.

iceland? does iceland let people in? can i move to iceland? I promise I won't take up much space.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 12:28 PM on February 8, 2016 [40 favorites]


It's like, waiting in the welfare office and getting treated shittily by the social worker, except that's everything, forever.

Right! I've been treated like this a few times. The DMV, that time I went to a free county clinic in 1989. Imagine my whole life being like those waiting rooms.
posted by thelonius at 12:29 PM on February 8, 2016 [3 favorites]


I watched a youtube video about sharing among the homeless and the poor. Not that this is any gold standard, the video implied that proportionately, poor people shared more than well off people. If you are broke, because of whatever, and you indicate need to a truly poor person, they are liable to share some of what they have with you, if you have a positive relationship with them, however small. This is where the broke and poor comes in. I think people help each other all the time. Poor seems a steady state, broke implies the steady state, whatever it is, is temporarily disrupted, but, with remedy.
posted by Oyéah at 12:30 PM on February 8, 2016 [2 favorites]


The level of degredation and immiseration that can be visited upon working class poor people so far exceeds anything you're likely to encounter even as a poor middle class person, it's incredible.

Uh...I'm finding myself kind of bristling at what you're saying here. You're sort of endorsing this notion that these are two separate cultural worlds, and that they just won't cross, no matter how poor a "middle-class" person becomes. I'm here to tell you your experience is not universal. I can see that you're drawing some conclusions based on your current milieu, but I'm reflecting on my life and finding abundant counterexamples. I just don't feel comfortable with the distinction you're making, that these hardships never happen, at that "level," for people who don't have long-term financial security. I'm sure you don't mean to offend but I'm not sure you'd be saying this if you haved lived inside a lower-income existence as a "middle" class person.
posted by Miko at 12:30 PM on February 8, 2016 [7 favorites]


And what I see is that when you are born into working poverty, you are deprived of more than just money - middle class people know how to work the system; middle class people speak with accents and vocabulary that get them taken more seriously; middle class people are socialized to select clothes and possessions which do not get them dismissed, even if those clothes and possessions are inexpensive or worn; middle class people have generally been to better schools, so they are more likely to be able to access information, both for fun and for use.

I could be wrong, but I think what you're describing here is often referred to as "cultural capital," maybe? I know that a lot of people consider Ruby K. Payne's work on framing poverty to be very problematic, but I do find it interesting how much attention she pays to the cultural capital built into different classes in the U.S., and how insistent she is that people become fluent into cultural capital by class.

My biggest problem with her, as a non-educator, is the judgment she levies at different class norms, because it slides into blaming people for class circumstances that are beyond their control and chiding them for not behaving aspirationally. As was referenced in another class-studies post recently, the essayist Siderea wrote:
This may come as a rude shock, but while most people would appreciate more money, not everybody wants to perform middle-classness. There are probably quite a lot of people who would prefer to move up the economic ladder not by going to college and taking up desk work and changing how they dress and speak, but by getting raises and being paid overtime when they work it and not having to endure wage theft and getting to dress and speak as they are accustomed.
Anyway, the larger point seems constant: Money is only part of the broken system. Cultural capital is another.
posted by sobell at 12:32 PM on February 8, 2016 [9 favorites]


And cultural capital simply isn't cash. It can certainly reinforce systems that reward with cash, and bring some access to certain systems that result in cash, but one cannot be directly exchanged for the other.
posted by Miko at 12:34 PM on February 8, 2016 [2 favorites]


I'm sure you don't mean to offend but I'm not sure you'd be saying this if you haved lived inside a lower-income existence as a "middle" class person.

Just for clarity's sake - my life has been pretty much defined by living a low income existence as a "middle" class person. That was my childhood - the poor[er] kid in a rich town. I am fortunate to have a union administrative assistant job, and there is a question on the front page right now where someone is absolutely desperate to get out of an admin gig that pays well over $10,000/year more than I make right now, mid-career and unlikely to make a lot more.

My point is that I think a lot of middle class people confuse my kind of existence for poverty, whereas I see it as doing, really, pretty well.

posted by Frowner at 12:36 PM on February 8, 2016 [14 favorites]


> Uh...I'm finding myself kind of bristling at what you're saying here. You're sort of endorsing this notion that these are two separate cultural worlds, and that they just won't cross, no matter how poor a "middle-class" person becomes.

I hold that no matter how poor a middle class person becomes, they can never know the experience of having grown up in and having learned to expect a world that makes clear that the best thing you can do is die, and the second-best thing you can do is go away and be someone else's problem, and the third-best (if you can't quite die or go away in a timely fashion) is to feel so grateful for whatever scraps of human decency you happen to receive, while always letting the person giving you the scraps know that you know that you don't even deserve scraps.

I mean I'm writing in a super florid style here, but I'm looking over what I've written and it seems true. You have to come from poverty to feel properly guilty about taking up any resources whatsoever instead of doing the polite thing, which is to say, going away and dying.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 12:36 PM on February 8, 2016 [30 favorites]


Okay - I guess then it's odd to see what might almost be called "poorsplaining" about "imagine if your existence was XYZ," when for some of us at least, large swaths of our existence have featured those things, and might again at any minute. Maybe it's just a matter of assuming more experience living on this margin, not assuming that normalcy is saturated middle-class-ness.
posted by Miko at 12:37 PM on February 8, 2016


Institutionalization, dehumanization, being located (against one's will) within various bureaucratized systems and processes (and maybe fixed within them) may be experiences that are common for people fitting the "poor" definition in TA, further elaborated by Frowner; they may shape aspirations and possible worlds, they may be anticipated; they inform the texture of life, identity, all that.

"Middle class" people who think or hope (because they've inherited anachronistic expectations) they're going to break out of X shitty, poorly paid work to do Y and get Z, when Y no longer exists for many (or most) of them, and Z is, simply, out of reach, are going to have another kind of experience when they figure this out, and when they have interactions with those bureacratized systems and processes.
posted by cotton dress sock at 12:42 PM on February 8, 2016 [6 favorites]


The level of degredation and immiseration that can be visited upon working class poor people so far exceeds anything you're likely to encounter even as a poor middle class person, it's incredible.

I've been told this several times, mostly by hereditarily wealthy people who've never seen anything like the hardship I have. And almost never by people born into poverty. It gets old.

Is my experience the same as it would be were I from a poorer family? No, of course not. But to suggest the experiences are so irreconcilably different is just nonsense. Comments like this divide higher social class people from lower social class people, when we are in fact have much, much more in common with each other than either of us do with actually rich people.

Our common enemy is an economic system that tends toward precarity, and a culture that sees this as inevitable or even good. And honestly, it is also a rhetorical mode on the left which increasingly derails that commonality with important but not-always-related issues of social class.
posted by andrewpcone at 12:43 PM on February 8, 2016 [11 favorites]


Okay - I guess then it's odd to see what might almost be called "poorsplaining" about "imagine if your existence was XYZ," when for some of us at least, large swaths of our existence have featured those things, and might again at any minute. Maybe it's just a matter of assuming more experience living on this margin, not assuming that normalcy is saturated middle-class-ness.

Perhaps this is a hazard of large internet communities...In real life, I have so many, many conversations with middle class friends where there is the assumption that some struggles are not chronic, and I talk to other friends who tell me how painful it is when the middle class friends say stuff that shows that they just sort of...assume....that they will be able to manage interactions with the police, that they will not be fired for being late too many times, that they don't know anyone who went into the army because it was the best job available, that they can't imagine anyone close to them going to jail, etc. I have many conversations where it's clear that to my middle class friends I lead a ridiculous existence - why am I, an intelligent person, a secretary? Why am I not making more? Why can't I go on trips like they do? And then to my poor friends, my job would be a miracle for them, except they'd never get through the selection process (due to the minimum education requirements) even though they're smart enough to do the work.

It gets very frustrating just to try to convince people that....basically, that a union secretary job is fantastic, and my big employment hope is that I can stay here til I die, basically. And I often feel, on these our internets, that this is not a common perspective.
posted by Frowner at 12:49 PM on February 8, 2016 [18 favorites]


I am homeless. I do freelance work online. I had no phone for over a year at a time when I owned two tablets -- at a time when tablets were new and expensive as hell. It was a job I could put in my backpack.

Being homeless is really hard on computers. I got both my laptop and tablet ruined in a rainstorm last May while traveling. It took a couple of months to be able to afford a cheap tablet as a replacement. Around the same time, someone gifted me an old laptop of theirs.

My son has observed that we get more "complaints" about our sorry, poor homeless selves by other people at the library whenever we get a new computing device. We think it is jealousy. Like "How dare you have something nice when I play by the rules and I can't afford a new computer."

I increasingly think it is also fear and anger. Even rich people seem to feel no sense of security these days.

I find myself in a really weird space, because my plan is working and my income is going up and I am paying down debt and making plans for the future while perma camping. I was homeless for at least a year before I understood how upper class my mother's expectations were. We had one family vacation growing up. My mother sewed a lot of my clothes. We were always cash strapped. My parents had also put such a large down payment on the house that their house payments were about 40% of what the neighbors were paying.

One of the differences between the chronic poor and other classes is hope for a better future. Their lack of hope for a better future is not about any one thing. But that lack of hope is creeping its way into every strata of society and fueling some really bleak sounding discussions on MetaFilter.

I don't have that problem. I struggle to make ends meet every single month and I don't currently have enough income for housing. But I am seeing progress towards my goals and my life is getting better. And I think that sometimes really gets under the skin of people who clearly and obviously have more material wealth than I have but whose insecurity and fear runs very deep. I think seeing a homeless person who isn't anywhere near as hopeless as they are just cuts some people to the quick. And they feel a need to be vindictive in order to shore up their feeling that at least they are better off than "some people."
posted by Michele in California at 12:50 PM on February 8, 2016 [44 favorites]


My situation: I grew up culturally middle-class: Whole wheat bread, high value placed on education, stoicism and professionalism.

However: My parents were always poor, but never broke. Not by the definitions of the article, but by the usual definitions of those terms: We always had both less income (poor) and less debt (not broke) than our culturally working-class neighbours.

And, indeed, I've been lucky to break into a solidly middle-class income as a result of the focus on education and my lucky aptitude for it. So you could say that - using the definitions of the article - we were indeed "temporarily" poor, but it was a "temporary" which lasted for a couple of generations. The cultural capital did - eventually, partly - pay off.

It doesn't pay off for everyone in the same situation, though, as some of the stories above make clear.
posted by clawsoon at 12:51 PM on February 8, 2016 [2 favorites]


My son has observed that we get more "complaints" about our sorry, poor homeless selves by other people at the library whenever we get a new computing device. We think it is jealousy. Like "How dare you have something nice when I play by the rules and I can't afford a new computer."

I don't think it's jealousy so much as misunderstanding what they are seeing, and true, legitimate anger that people who do play by the rules feel when they can't afford something they feel entitled to.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 12:54 PM on February 8, 2016


And even for those who achieve that success after a few generations, unless you can amass some serious personal savings, it can all be lost very easily - a major illness or debilitating injury, lengthy and costly longterm care providing for someone, etc.
posted by Miko at 12:56 PM on February 8, 2016



Okay - I guess then it's odd to see what might almost be called "poorsplaining" about "imagine if your existence was XYZ," when for some of us at least, large swaths of our existence have featured those things, and might again at any minute. Maybe it's just a matter of assuming more experience living on this margin, not assuming that normalcy is saturated middle-class-ness.


And if I can continue for a second - I am really, really not trying to convey "oh, your life is precarious but you are not being crushed down into raw misery, so suck it up you privileged person".

Where I'm coming from is my experience of two things:

1. Seeing working class (non-college educated or first-generation college) people being driven out of political projects by either hostility, ignorance or bad planning, such that political projects which are about economic justice are not cross-class, and do not represent the needs of the most vulnerable people, but purport to speak for them - through no bad intent of the organizers!

2. Seeing middle class people grossly underestimate what is needed to alleviate hardship for working class people, politically speaking. Again, not through anyone's fault or because anyone is terrible, or because there's some "virtue" in having to live in an illegal semi-converted garage heated intermittently by propane.

There are some personal/friend circle things, too. Part of the difficulty here is that a lot of the pivotal stuff that I think about is identifying-details level stuff, so I don't want to talk about it specifically, especially stuff that is about friends. I recognize that this makes me sound much more hyperbolic and 'splainy than is helpful.
posted by Frowner at 1:03 PM on February 8, 2016 [15 favorites]


I don't really understand the difference between "poor" and "broke" as the writer defines them. It seems like she's saying that being "poor" is permanent and being "broke" is temporary, but it's not as if you know while you're "broke" that it isn't going to last forever. You're only going to know if it's temporary in retrospect. So you'll only know if you were "poor" or "broke" in retrospect?

I don't think that her definitions map exactly onto class definitions, either. Class has more gradations to it than she acknowledges in this article, and many, many people don't fit neatly into the class structure anyway.

What about someone who expects her poverty to be temporary because she's an economic migrant? That person is going to be very broke, and is not going to have a safety net or class privilege, but she's also looking at her current living situation as a life phase/temporary. I guess you'd call her broke, but not because of her ~excess~ of cultural capital, etc.

More broadly -- what about people who aren't permanently impoverished "poor," but who also aren't middle class "culturally" (like working class people, for example)?

I'm not saying that the writer needs to talk about EVERY possible socioeconomic/financial nexus in the universe. Who could? But I think her definitions are too simplified and too vague to be useful in analysis.

A poor person is someone who lives in poverty. These are people who are working multiple jobs to get by, struggling to put food on the table for their families, and facing financial hardship all day long, every single day.

But that's also broke people. In fact, I would say that it's MORE likely that someone who is hustling like that is a broke or working class person rather than "permanently poor," because someone who hustles like that must still have hope that they can get access to money if they work for it. The people I've known how have been in real poverty long-term tend to think of money as something you've got to take or that will have to be given to you as a gift, because you can't really hope to get it as easily and straightforwardly as by just "earning" it at a straight job. YMMV, but that's been my experience.

I can tell that I'm not poor in the way that my father or my ex were/are poor because of that specific distinction, tbh. I think of money as something you earn, and that you have some control over. Whereas they think of money as a gift from Lady Luck, and something that comes and goes pretty much regardless of what you want or do.

For folks in the midst of poverty, there often isn’t a “way out” of their struggle. For the most part, their hardship is part of their way of life.

I don't think that hopelessness is intrinsic to being poor. Pretty much anyone who doesn't have any money dreams of having it, ime. How realistic those dreams are and to what extent you're able to pursue them is different depending on your class and on your budget, though.
posted by rue72 at 1:06 PM on February 8, 2016 [3 favorites]


Another side-track: There's also a difference between middle-class cultural capital and upper-class cultural capital. Sometimes things seem to be harder on people with upper-class cultural capital and no economic capital. I'm thinking of people whose striving parents sent them to exclusive upper-class private schools during flush years, but then ran out of money, or people who were offcasts from the old rich.

Middle-class cultural capital is focused on the kind of boring education that eventually gets you a job as a professional, or, failing that, an administrator-ish job; upper-class cultural capital seems to be more focused on art, style, and telling others what to do, things that lead to much rarer and more competitive permanent careers. If you don't make it as a curator or get handed your own hedge fund, you're kind of stuck. What's left other than being a stylish alcoholic, charming your way into one temporary situation after another?

(I'll admit that's based on very little experience with actual upper-class people, so it may be complete bunk.)
posted by clawsoon at 1:09 PM on February 8, 2016 [6 favorites]


rue72, I agree with that mostly. There's no real differentiation between poor and broke. It's another way to create division in this country.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 1:09 PM on February 8, 2016 [1 favorite]


And even for those who achieve that success after a few generations, unless you can amass some serious personal savings, it can all be lost very easily - a major illness or debilitating injury, lengthy and costly longterm care providing for someone, etc.

Yeah, I would definitely be broke if I didn't live in Canada, given my daughter's emergency C-section and two-week spell in the NICU when I was between jobs. Social safety net makes a big difference.
posted by clawsoon at 1:11 PM on February 8, 2016


Middle-class cultural capital is focused on the kind of boring education that eventually gets you a job as a professional, or, failing that, an administrator-ish job; upper-class cultural capital seems to be more focused on art, style, and telling others what to do, things that lead to much rarer and more competitive permanent careers. If you don't make it as a curator or get handed your own hedge fund, you're kind of stuck. What's left other than being a stylish alcoholic, charming your way into one temporary situation after another?

Haha, you hit on my family profession!

But honestly, as someone with exactly that "cultural capital," the answer is hospitality. Do you want a pleasant, welcoming, refined atmosphere in which to drink and eat delicacies and discuss whatever snobbish subjects cross your mind? NO WORRIES I GOT YOU.
posted by rue72 at 1:12 PM on February 8, 2016 [4 favorites]


I meant to include this in my first comment:

My son one day talked about games and how some games have moves that win harder when you are losing. If you have the right card or whatever, you can go from being in a terrible position to having the advantage very suddenly. But if you do not have other options, if all your best stuff is like that, you are never going to actually win because you cannot consolidate your position.

And I told him that was brilliant and I did a blog post about it. I think a lot of chronically poor people know how to do something brilliant when they are behind the 8 ball, but they lack the skills and mindset for consolidating their gains.

This is part of what some seemingly "classiest assholes" are probably talking about when they say "The poor just need to make different choices."

Rich people who pay cash for a house pay a lot less for that house than someone who needs a mortgage to get it. Being rich doesn't necessarily mean you live on more money per se. Staying poor usually means getting bled in some way, for higher interest rates, etc. Being poor is very expensive and typically involves paying too damn much for goods and services more well off people would get for less.
posted by Michele in California at 1:18 PM on February 8, 2016 [16 favorites]


Do you want a pleasant, welcoming, refined atmosphere in which to drink and eat delicacies and discuss whatever snobbish subjects cross your mind? NO WORRIES I GOT YOU.

So the rich prefer to be served by the former rich, because everybody else is too irritating? Huh. Interesting.
posted by clawsoon at 1:20 PM on February 8, 2016 [2 favorites]


Whereas they think of money as a gift from Lady Luck, and something that comes and goes pretty much regardless of what you want or do.

It's interesting/ironic that this is presented as a more impoverished view of wealth when really it should be the reverse. Higher up on the economic ladder, money is a gift from Lady Luck. Rich people money comes from investments and trusts, and/or the salary you "earn" is symbolic more than it's tied to actual labor that you perform. With a stroke of a pen, your money can be multiplied without you ever breaking a sweat. At the same time, high up in this rarefied tier of wealth, you can lose a few digits if the stock market fluctuates. You have relatively little control over that.

And the lower you go, socioeconomically, the more every dollar matters. $9/hour in wages times the hours you can scrape in minus your rent and the food you carefully budget for...Lady Luck is nowhere to be found in those calculations.
posted by witchen at 1:35 PM on February 8, 2016 [10 favorites]


There was an author a number of years ago who said he found a bunch of ways in which the lower and upper classes in America were similar to each other and different from the middle. There were things like more freedom around emotions, sex, and money. It was a bit of a caricature, but the stereotype of the tightly-wound (culturally) middle class person - the person who would never depend on Lady Luck for anything - exists for a reason.
posted by clawsoon at 1:47 PM on February 8, 2016 [1 favorite]


Seeing working class (non-college educated or first-generation college) people being driven out of political projects

That's one reason I sort of take issue with the article; because I think that, inadvertently, it contributes to that alienating effect, driving a wedge between clusters of people who could be co-advocates. At least the experience of limitation and hardship, even in the context of an ultimate safety net of family money or access to a brighter future, might act to create greater empathy that could be politically profitable. And those who sometimes appear temporarily broke are actually striving working-class people who may or not achieve a precarious middle class position, temporarily or for life, but who will not be able to raise their descedants or relatives to that level and might not be able to stay there themselves, depending on what fate, health, and commitments deal them. In any case, people who have financial limitations of any sort could certainly agree on a lot of shared political projects.

As for #2, I can share that frustration. My career and education have brought me into contact with a lot of people for whom hardship is abstract or distant and who have very little information about subsistence-focused living. Some are definitely, multiple-generationally, class-secure. I don't know if anyone or anything can get through to them, but they are a minority of people. Many of the rest, though, are in a more tentative position than it seems like they are, even if their life has been soft as they've ridden the wave of 20th-century wealth gains that many others were structurally locked out of, because things are changing and their foundations are eroding, as well. I'm increasingly feeling like it's productive not to participate in the somewhat-illusory division of cultural classing (I wish we had better language to talk about social segmentation and income levels separately, even as they interact) but to break the illusion of security that many such people have, presenting some honesty around the situation, highlighting how poorly this economy is working for, say, three-quarters of people, how we increase difficulty for everyone - including them and their offspring - by providing so minimal a level of social support and allowing opportunity to tightly constrict, and how freaking leveraged most of them are anyway. I don't have a solution, but I feel like reinforcing a class division that a lot of those folks don't even realize that they're on the wrong side of (despite current comfort) won't help.

At the individual level, it's all always more complicated than that. But I don't think attempts to distinguish the "real" poor from the "temporarily" poor are getting us anywhere when my goal would be how to ensure that even people with low income throughout their lives or any point in their lives can be ensured access to opportunity and a good quality of life.
posted by Miko at 2:07 PM on February 8, 2016 [2 favorites]


But I don't think attempts to distinguish the "real" poor from the "temporarily" poor are getting us anywhere when my goal would be how to ensure that even people with low income throughout their lives or any point in their lives can be ensured access to opportunity and a good quality of life.

The whole point of the article is language policing, which is always a major fail in my opinion. I didn't like the article.

I mean, using le mot juste is a fine art and can open doors and all that. But going around on your high horse telling people "You are talking wrong and it is hurting people who are worse off than you" tends to go bad places, no matter how you do it. There is a time and a place for talking with people about "When you use X word or phrase that way, it causes problems." But this is not it and this article is not likely to have the effect the author seems to want.
posted by Michele in California at 2:18 PM on February 8, 2016 [7 favorites]


I like this article, and I agree with her. By her logic, I have been 'broke' for 10 years... which is something in between broke and poor, I suspect. I often think about the idea that I have a way out, which gives me comfort, but it doesn't change the fact that I'm broke. Rambling... anyway, great piece.
posted by schmopera at 2:39 PM on February 8, 2016


because most of us live in an intensely class-stratified world.

Ima intentionally take this out of context to make a tangential point: It's America that is intensely class-stratified.
America's class-based culture and institutionalization is neither normal among nations, nor inevitable. (Nor I think, unfixable.)

Day to day, you go to life with the situation you have, but don't ever assume that things are this way because they have to be, or because these societal problems haven't been successfully solved elsewhere. I grew up in a different country that invested its wealth more wisely to allow the people opportunity (enabled by security); ie the American Dream except actually functioning instead of the grotesque carrot-on-stick sham it has become here. The difference affected so many things I could write an essay and only scratch the surface.

Class differences existed, for sure, but it was nowhere as bad as the class-stratification of the USA. A lot of people have US norms as default norms for lack of growing up in a different country, but I would like to see US class norms having their feet held to the fire as often as possible :)
posted by anonymisc at 2:54 PM on February 8, 2016 [8 favorites]


"It gets very frustrating just to try to convince people that....basically, that a union secretary job is fantastic, and my big employment hope is that I can stay here til I die, basically. And I often feel, on these our internets, that this is not a common perspective."

Yeah I straddle both realms, having help sometimes from middle class family, but having joined up with the highschool dropouts and chronically poor in my highschool years and beyond.

When I think poor I am thinking, no TV, your bed is just a mattress on the floor you found by the dumpster, your carpet is ripped up, the AC leaked all over it but you can't fix it so there's just exposed floor everywhere, your porch/apartment balcony is rotting out so you have to step carefully not to fall through and avoid the holes and rusty nails sticking out. There are roaches. There is no hope of there not being roaches. Most everyone does drugs and you can be a hermit or hang with people on drugs/drunk. The cops are at your apartment regularly to deal with domestic violence situations. You know where the staircase someone got thrown down the stairs the other day is, you can hear that other couple screaming and banging around all the time, you're always debating if and when to call the cops, people who are living off disability/vet and have serious mental illness issues hang out and tell you about how to ward off the aliens and what the voices tell them. The food is ramen noodles/soda/chips/crackers etc- if there is food. Jobs are food service, gas station, etc service industry low wage. People have trauma histories, undiagnosed learning difficulties, physical health problems-- no one goes to a doctors unless it's the ER. There is no such thing as dental care, when your teeth rot you go insane until you find someone who will yank your tooth out, no anesthetic. If your a woman you probably have or have been offered to do sex work or participate in trade, or marry into stable housing. Even some men I know managed to do this, my cousin lived on his girlfriends stripping and sex work for years until she had their daughter and started trying to do straighter work, he moved back in with his dad, then died.

I do feel like this underbelly world of people who are really living through all kinds of horrible stuff and there is no end like, like people are falling apart and breaking and fall through the cracks and they just die, they get into worse and worse addictions to cope, they stop being able to handle the work schedule and get physically ill/mentally ill and become homeless or overdose.

I can remember reading advice on metafilter about how you shouldn't have kids until you have 70,000 dollars a year and my eyes nearly popped out my head and I'm like WHAT? I hear people talk about how hard it is to live on 30,000 which is so very true, however I can't even dream of making that much because I certainly can't support myself on the 10000 or so a year I tend to make; but I DO have a safety net and managed to get some support from government aid, which was and is an excruciating process and I often would just rather rot like they want me too if I didn't have a kid who I know deserves better whatever people want to think of me.

I think the reason it matters to talk about how grueling and awful poverty can be is that some people think they had it rough and as Frowner discussed have no idea the level of intervention and changes that are needed to lift people up out of this. This is not, "haha I ate mac and cheese every night during college and didn't get to party as much as my friends, we had to share four of us in a place to make rent, but we made it through!" and yeah I DO think, for my parents they knew poverty but got good jobs right out of college, so it got better- and you forget how bad it was and you forget that some people never got out and it looks bleaker and bleaker and more horrifying to be earning close to minimum wage when you're past your twenties you have kids to support, your body and mind start breaking.

But I also agree with those who don't like the "real" poor vs not really poor differentiation she's trying to make, I think also that with backing from research like that of the ACES study (and it's actually a robust entire field of research on how socio-economic status impacts health from pregnancy through birth, childhood and adulthood) would add to the level of impact. I feel like she has something worthwhile to say because there really is a tendency to think of ones self as poor or low income regardless of how lucky or wealthy or privileged and to stop and think sometimes what that actually means for people much worse off, like conversations where lower middle class people talk about how hard it is to hire childcare workers on say 35,000 or 60,000 (or 200,000!!!) salary and how they can't possible pay better wages when that means the people below you are working for 15000 a year or 20,000- and ALSO raising kids. But I feel like this opens up the topic but doesn't actually help create clear "lines" about who is or isn't allowed to say they are poor- or educated about how horrible what some people are going through actually is and why what one person means when they say "poor" might mean something totally different than what someone else means. And other reasons why people who have disabilities they can't afford to get tested for, diseases they can't get treated for, learning disabilities they can't get help with, and a lot of this BECAUSE OF the conditions of being poor... we need to raise wages and bring in a LOT of supports, trauma care, healing, prepared healthy food, secure housing that doesn't kick people out for poverty etc etc.
posted by xarnop at 3:01 PM on February 8, 2016 [16 favorites]


the problem with cultural "middle-class" is that it's implied that somehow this position is achieved as a function of birth or manners or taste in music, rather than a consequence of making certain decisions vis a vis your relationship with other people. What decisions do you have to make to take a managerial role? What does it take to become an academic? What did you do for the company that got you promoted? etc. And many of those judgements are negative ie. what are you not doing. How many middle-class people are just "doing their job" while they see decisions that are not right, that hurt other people? It's easier to be rich by accident than middle class by accident because taking on, broadly, a "managerial" role in society requires a continuous set of judgements, and if you fail to make the right judgements you get demoted. It's why being "middle-class" is full of such anxiety.

Which is the problem when you get down to politics. Rich people aren't superheroes, their wealth and power depends upon legions of other people willing to do the dirty work, one way or another. What "dirty work" do middle-class people have to do? What would you be willing to risk your "middle-class" lifestyle to achieve politically?
posted by ennui.bz at 3:16 PM on February 8, 2016 [1 favorite]


I've had a number of discussions lately with my boyfriend, who grew up in a developing country and has lived in desperately poor areas, about relative poverty and how just because American poverty doesn't fit what he's seen elsewhere, it can still be an insurmountable barrier.

That said - his perspective is kind of echoing in my head when I've read this sort of thing since. I know I have a lot to understand in this area, so I'm asking: can some of the people with more expertise on this thread point me toward great works that discuss respectfully discussing the American/western/wealthy-country poor in the context of global poverty?

I know how much privilege is held by upper/middle class Americans compared to working-class Americans, and yet: there are a lot of poor people who won't ever have a shot at accessing literacy, fluency in English, a K-12 education, student loans, public transportation, emergency healthcare, food stamps, public housing, a somewhat-functional judicial system, internet, clean water, etc. I know none of that is news to anyone and I know that it doesn't make any form of poverty any easier but surely there is a way to acknowledge that in these discussions without totally minimizing all struggles. Ignoring the global poor in an article about poverty that isn't explicitly about rich countries is pretty privilege-laden too, right? What am I missing?
posted by R a c h e l at 3:28 PM on February 8, 2016 [5 favorites]


some people think they had it rough and as Frowner discussed have no idea the level of intervention and changes that are needed to lift people up out of this

Acknowledged and agreed. Question: are the people featured in this article positioned to lift anyone up? Given this (tl;dr most new jobs are bad jobs, e.g.)?

Toronto's Goodwill just had to file for bankruptcy. Just saying.
posted by cotton dress sock at 3:49 PM on February 8, 2016


wrong link. goodwill stuff here.
posted by cotton dress sock at 3:55 PM on February 8, 2016


But that lack of hope is creeping its way into every strata of society and fueling some really bleak sounding discussions on MetaFilter.

Indeed. I remember the old saying about some people falling through the cracks. Well those cracks are getting wider in extreme and we basically have an earthquake on hand that will swallow a lot of people. Many of our esteemed "leaders" are openly happy about this and have managed to create a narrative that many people buy into. That they alone made themselves a success. That lack of money is a fault and must indicate a lack of intelligence or of course, laziness. I suspect security firms patrolling around and outside gated communities while the rest of live at Walmart is the future.

We lived in a small apartment and moved up to a townhouse and as a kid, my sisters and I would be made fun of by some other kids who lived in fully detached houses. We were the lazy welfare people. Even as a kid I knew we weren't on welfare but just didn't have the money to get a full house and I knew that the kids saying these things must have got it from their parents or some relatives. My mother lived in a shack with 5 brothers and ran away from home when she was 13, and moved from foster home to foster home. So I had some knowledge that we were better off than others, having seen where she grew up. I struggle to understand how it is that people even completely unaware of how society operates and the direction in which it is going can be so dismissive of others. These are serious issues. I understand that experience really brings these things to the fore, but my history teachers would say this is how it was, and this is how it largely still is, though I suppose these days that would be labelled liberal propaganda or teaching with an agenda.

Hope can be aspirational, but when faced with the bullshit we face every day, hope not only dies, it burns and scars you when it's crushed.
posted by juiceCake at 4:07 PM on February 8, 2016 [2 favorites]


Question: are the people featured in this article positioned to lift anyone up?

Ironically, I am gradually establishing some security for myself via gig work. It gives me control over when, where and how much I work. I keep trying to share that fact with other people in attempt to help provide a real solution to help others supplement their income under similarly difficult circumstances. So far, most people do not take me seriously.

When I had a corporate job, I lived in constant fear that I would get fired or have other drama due to constantly needing to take time off for health reasons. And I also was extremely frustrated that overtime was demanded when the powers that be wanted it, but absolutely not available ever "at will" in any fashion. This meant I couldn't earn extra when I felt well and had a gun to my head when they wanted what they wanted.

My current freelance income allows me to work more when I feel up to it and take time off without fear of losing my source of income. Yes, not working means I am not earning. But it doesn't mean "And fuck you, now you also have to look for a new job, with a resume with a black mark of having been fired."

A stable corporate job absolutely did not work for me. What I am hearing is that many other people similarly cannot manage to fit regular employment into their life due to health issues or other personal factors. I see gig work, when done right, as the solution to this situation. But no one seems to be able to relate to my view of that and, so far, I feel I have not succeeded in conveying to other people how to make this a solution for some people.

I am aware that a lot of gig work and seasonal work etc is very much handled like the employer is an evil overlord and the workers have no control over their schedule or how much they work or how much they earn, etc. That is not my situation. I work when I want, where I want, as much as I choose and I am getting better at what I do and my hourly wage is gradually going up and I see this as a solution and a path forward while the rest of the world decries gig work as the root of all evil.

I feel, like, yes, I am positioned to lift up others. But it may never happen. I don't know if the problem is prejudice against gig work or prejudice against me because I am homeless or random..whatever. I don't know. But, for whatever reason, 4 years of putting up with classist bullshit has failed to cure me of being a bleeding heart who wants to help when I see others suffering and I am currently frustrated that I feel I have an answer that can work for some people and I don't know how to effectively spread the word.
posted by Michele in California at 4:31 PM on February 8, 2016 [5 favorites]


The comedian, author & activist Dick Gregory addressed this very thing directly in his autobiography with a quote from his mother: "We ain't poor, we're just broke," which he further explained as "Poor is a state of mind you never grow out of, but being broke is just a temporary condition."

The sad part is, the Gregory family actually was poor, and this was something his mom said to try to make the kids (and probably herself, too) feel less bad about their situation.

Reading this thread, I think there's maybe a grain of truth in the poor/broke distinction with some people having cultural capital and others not, but that still doesn't pay the rent, put food in the fridge, gas in the tank, and so on. If you can't get a decent job, at some point your education, ability to appear/act middle class, etc, don't matter all that much any more.
posted by Nat "King" Cole Porter Wagoner at 4:32 PM on February 8, 2016 [2 favorites]


And the fewer the decent jobs available, the less they matter, as the highly privileged circle the wagons.
posted by Miko at 4:49 PM on February 8, 2016 [2 favorites]


> For broke folks who come from class backgrounds that aren’t as overcome with financial insecurity, there exists one very easy way out: a safety net.

I would argue a safety net isn't a way out from anything. It's there to catch you when you fall.

Problem is the safety nets for the broke aren't much better than for the poor.

The number one cause of bankruptcy and foreclosure in the US is because of medical debt. Even if you are gainfully employed and insured you can still end up with thousands of dollars of debt. I'm 45 an finally making a decent living, but I am very cognizant that I am one downsizing or one surgery away from losing everything, and I am not broke.

I should do well if everything falls my way over the next couple decades, but I am still close enough to broke, and not far enough away from poor to know there really isn't a difference. Perhaps if we did actually have reasonable safety nets it would matter.
posted by cjorgensen at 5:00 PM on February 8, 2016 [2 favorites]


The difference between poor and broke hit home for me right after I graduated from college. I was living in a crappy apartment with six other women and we were all varying levels of broke. I grew up middle-class and comfortable and was fairly confident that I wouldn't always live paycheck to paycheck. The roommates decided that we were going to go to the town food bank individually so we could get as much food as possible. I went to the food bank and got my box of food and it just felt so wrong to me. Not because I felt judged, but because I was using a resource that I, relatively speaking, didn't really need. I realized that there are people who haven't been as lucky as I have and that it was not right or fair for me to get food at the food bank.

Since then, no matter how broke I've been, I've never been able to apply for any kind of social benefits because I do not deserve them. I've always found ways out of brokeness, but I have too much respect and compassion for those with harder struggles than me to avail myself of their support systems.
posted by bendy at 5:04 PM on February 8, 2016 [1 favorite]


everyone who's not in the upper middle class with a high net worth needs to be in solidarity

My distaste for the rich is purely theoretical. No matter how stupid or counterproductive, my distaste for the middle class is visceral. I doubt I'm unique.
posted by ridgerunner at 5:39 PM on February 8, 2016 [2 favorites]


spend some time around the rich and you'll learn how to properly despise them, I assure you.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 6:24 PM on February 8, 2016 [9 favorites]


Since then, no matter how broke I've been, I've never been able to apply for any kind of social benefits because I do not deserve them

As someone who pays for social benefits (at least tax-funded ones), please use them when you qualify for them. They are not (in my personal opinion) there only to save the worthiest of the neediest from homelessness at the last dire minute, they are there so people don't have to struggle with basics; so that you have a bit more wiggle-room, more time and energy left at the end of the day to invest in yourself for the long term, building that better future for yourself - a better future that you will pay forward to others with the taxes from your higher earnings.

It doesn't matter to me that you could soldier through it without assistance. This view might not be the dominant one in the USA, but the USA has a disastrous habit of getting moral about benefits instead of getting practical. I don't like moral language like "deserve" being applied to benefits. That buys into some of the same principles that leads others to want to drug-test recipients because addicts deserve punishment instead of help. Or that accepting benefits is a mark of a lower kind of person. Or that shaming people is part of helping them, etc. The premise itself remains rotten even when used with kindness and generosity.

Benefits should be a practical matter for society. Invest in putting a solid foundation under everyone in society and society reaps a profit of greater overall prosperity, health, and happiness.
posted by anonymisc at 6:39 PM on February 8, 2016 [26 favorites]


spend some time around the rich and you'll learn how to properly despise them, I assure you.

I'll take your word for it. There's a reason I live in a county without a single McDonalds or traffic light.
posted by ridgerunner at 7:20 PM on February 8, 2016


Okay - I guess then it's odd to see what might almost be called "poorsplaining" about "imagine if your existence was XYZ," when for some of us at least, large swaths of our existence have featured those things, and might again at any minute. Maybe it's just a matter of assuming more experience living on this margin, not assuming that normalcy is saturated middle-class-ness.

I largely agree with you, but it's worth considering the distinction between someone who is culturally middle class but intermittently enduring periods of situational poverty, with the kind of experience chronicled in this New Yorker article about evictions in Milwaukee. That is not the kind of experience that almost anyone who is culturally middle class will live year after year, despite any number of temporary setbacks.

Ignoring the global poor in an article about poverty that isn't explicitly about rich countries is pretty privilege-laden too, right? What am I missing?

The article is about relative poverty -- the experience of being poor in a rich country, and the nuanced distinction between being temporarily in that condition versus being multigenerationally in that condition. You are talking about absolute poverty, in how much more deprived in absolute terms someone living on the margins in, say, Somalia is than in New York. My understanding is that people feel relative poverty much more intensely, because we understand our world through comparison with what we see around us, not through abstract numerical standards.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:27 PM on February 8, 2016 [2 favorites]


I mean I get the relative poverty thing, but my main beef with being poor is less about comparing my stuff to other peoples' stuff and more about knowing that I'm statistically significantly likely to die younger than is strictly necessary.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 10:38 PM on February 8, 2016


I mean like for example the shitty air quality in my neighborhood due to all the freeways that got run through it in the mid-20th century isn't troubling because the people in the suburbs have better air, it's troubling because it might kill me.

also it sucks that every rental contract I've signed in the last decade makes me claim to be totes okay with the lead paint that the landlords don't want to deal with.

also it sucks that I'm inevitably going to be kicked out of my terrible house in a neighborhood with poisoned air and poisoned soil the second the neighborhood gentrifies enough for it to be worthwhile for the landlord to knock this place down and sell it to someone who wants to build a mansion, and it sucks that when that happens there will be literally nowhere in this metropolitan area that I can afford.

I mean, it sucks. It doesn't suck in relative terms, it sucks in absolute terms. And it doesn't suck because I'm comparing my stuff to my landlord's stuff and having a sad, it sucks because my landlord has the legal right to basically wreck my life at will. the "poverty is about relative wealth not absolute wealth" line overlooks how being poor is less about having less stuff and more about having a bunch of people with the legal right to just totally fuck you for no good reason if they want to.

Money isn't the ability to buy like consumer goods or whatever. It's power.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 10:49 PM on February 8, 2016 [24 favorites]


I agree with what she's getting at in principle, but I thought she tipped over into semantics to the detriment of her larger point. Yes, language is important. Class and safety nets are also relevant. But she seems to assert hard and fast definitions of "poor" versus "broke" -- two colloquial and relative terms.

I think she means that "broke" is transitory, as in "I have spent all of my cash before my next payday" while "poor" is a state of poverty, as in "it is impossible for me to make ends meet." Sure, you can be broke but not remotely poor. Or broke but less poor than other poor people. You can also be poor but not broke. Or broke and perceiving yourself as poor because you are unwilling to lean on your family even in times of emergency, which may be for very good reasons but who gets to judge whether your pride or self-protection is valid enough to count you as truly poor or just broke? And so forth.

I dunno, can we make more useful distinctions between relative levels of privilege and economic disparity without just reducing it to a matter of instruction on word choice?

I really don't like this rhetorical trend of the imperative mood.
posted by desuetude at 11:11 PM on February 8, 2016


I hold that no matter how poor a middle class person becomes, they can never know the experience of having grown up in and having learned to expect a world that makes clear that the best thing you can do is die, and the second-best thing you can do is go away and be someone else's problem, and the third-best (if you can't quite die or go away in a timely fashion) is to feel so grateful for whatever scraps of human decency you happen to receive, while always letting the person giving you the scraps know that you know that you don't even deserve scraps.

I'm from a middle class background but have firmly learned and internalised those lessons.
posted by Dysk at 11:53 PM on February 8, 2016 [3 favorites]


I dunno, can we make more useful distinctions between relative levels of privilege and economic disparity without just reducing it to a matter of instruction on word choice?

I really don't like this rhetorical trend of the imperative mood.
posted by desuetude at 11:11 PM on February 8 [+] [!]


This appears to me to be less a prescriptive series of commands about how language must be used and more a tactical distinction drawn between two related words in the interest of establishing a useful interpretive framework. The thing that's happening in the article works sort of like "perhaps it would clarify your thinking if you used these particular terms in this particular way; you're talking about something different from poverty when you're talking about temporary lack of money, so let's take advantage of the English language's wealth of synonyms to draw a distinction between the thing you're talking about and poverty," rather than working as a prescriptive claim of the type "this means this and that means that and you're wrong for saying anything else." It's less about claiming that there's a pre-existing distinction within the English language, and more about using the English language to draw a new and useful distinction between categories, categories that are in reality qualitatively different despite how they're frequently conflated in language.

That said, though, I fucking love me the imperative mood. if I had my way every political article would start in the imperative.

Actually, check that, if I had my way, every political article would start with "Hwæt!"
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 2:03 AM on February 9, 2016 [2 favorites]


My father was middle class but I am poor. My children don't really understand that I'm poor and that's the way I like it. Hopefully they won't be poor. How people treat you as you get older with no prospects is completely different from how things seem when you're younger and have your life in front of you. Being poor affects your ability to see possible change and it absolutely makes people who aren't in the same situation see you differently, even people who've known you for decades. Countries like Australia and the USA sometimes like to pretend that they don't have a class system but they do and while it may not seem so obvious when you're young and optimistic it is there and it's harsh.
posted by h00py at 6:29 AM on February 9, 2016 [4 favorites]


I've thought so much about these issues, and am finding this discussion interesting to think about. I just want to add one perspective, rooted in my own long-term relationships (both professional and personal) with a couple of (otherwise very different) poor communities in the US, in which I have deep lifelong friendships.

Marx did not propose communism as a solution to individualism, but as a condition for the freedom of individuals to thrive and choose their own happiness through creative labor. He was very specifically in the liberal enlightenment tradition in doing so. The means were different from those expounded by the theorists of capitalism as progress, but the ends were the same despite the 20th century totalitarian nightmares that unfolded under a banner of Marxist thought. The point was to achieve human freedom from want, not to ensure all individuals had the same things or were yoked to any other single collective purpose. Marx had a limited understanding of things like religion and art and the family as social values and goods that might not translate into economic capital (and yet do not, for Marx or especially Engels, ever reduce to the mechanistic crudity of Bourdieu's "cultural capital" arguments either; it's another topic, but here is where one must know Durkheim and Weber and Freud as a corrective to the economists and rational philosophers).

Why am I off about this? Because there is a bit of epistemic closure here around the idea of socializing wealth as a path to equality which reduces working-class and underclass poverty to conditions of abjection and subjugation. Yes, they're that, and yes, high levels of inequality and lack of social mobility have increased the number of people for whom advancement or comfort or even safety are out of reach entirely. But my main point is that this reduces poor people to objects of social policy. And that is not the extent of a person's being. Poverty, even abject poverty, is also a condition that has forged many of the world's greatest minds and characters. Great art comes from poor communities, in my opinion frankly greater art than comes from the comfortable. The poor who understand their condition in theological frameworks are not *only* dupes or opiated masses, by their own reckoning they are faithful believers who understand their condition in ecstatic terms that give meaning to their lives and purpose to their actions, and every time they are mocked by the better off for this authentic religious experience, the possibility of economic solidarity takes a hit. No one wants to be poor. But there are positive values at work in poor communities and their cultural systems that hold lessons for the wealthy about the limits of materialism as a path to satisfaction, and about how to live sustainably and in a balanced way that Marx projected as his communist utopia: everyone has what they need to live a decent life, no one has an advantage over anyone else, but not everyone needs to be engaged in the constant pursuit of growth, profit, and material accumulation, at least not all the time.

Why does this matter? The romanticization and pseudo-dignification of poverty is an old tool of hegemony, and that's not my point. My basic point is that, given an equal society with equal opportunity and a decent, safe, dignified, basic living standard for every member, not everyone would choose to be a hedge fund trader or an entrepreneur. At the class level where such safety exists, in fact, many seem to want to choose a life in the arts or in the helping professions and forego the greater wealth to which their privilege entitles them. And some choose lives of adventure or creativity or activism that eschew material gain as goals at all. What if that freedom to choose existed for everyone? What if schools really did function to equalize privilege, or taxes actually were designed to assure a basic level of security for everyone before anyone else could accumulate more for her/himself?

Nothing but money matters when your kid is sick and you can't afford a doctor. But there's a reason you are so desperate: you love that kid, and that love has no economic value and no price. Your frustration is not that you aren't rich; it's that you are not permitted to express the same love a rich person feels for their child in that moment in which money should be no real object, at least within reasonable standards of care. I want to make sure we note that some of the poorest communities are also full of some of the most loving, creative, innovative, thoughtful, and other-directed people in our society, forged in the crucible of deprivation and fear, and honor that as a critique of wealth, not just a critique of poverty.
posted by spitbull at 8:13 AM on February 9, 2016 [4 favorites]


I'm living in a studio apartment whose $450 (all bills paid) rent is being subsidised by the VA thru a program administered by St. Vincent de Paul. It's a six month subsidy, and it runs out at the end of this month. SVdP is trying hard to get me into a longer term program, but it's not looking good.

I applied for SSI a little over a year ago (mental health issues), and was denied on appeal. I have had no income other than food stamps for that whole time. In 2014, I found some temp jobs, but still lost my apartment and spent a year in a transitional housing/homeless shelter.

I just turned 52, and no one will hire me. I've applied for jobs that should have been a slam-dunk for me, but was denied every time. Finally, I found out thru a SVdP case worker that the two questions asked when someone calls to check references is 1) dates of employment, and 2) would the former employer re-hire me. And number two gets me every time. I've got a lot of good qualities, but I have a hard time dealing with situations involving (for lack of a better term) stupidity. I've left many jobs because of disagreements with supervisors. I understand that this is all on me, and (sadly) would probably react the same way if presented with the situations again. Like I said: mental health issues.

But as my old First Sergeant used put it, I said that to say this: there is a difference, to my mind, between "broke" and "poor". I was "broke" in the days when I would pawn my laptop for gas money to get to work. Now, with literally 37¢ in my pocket, no job, no vehicle, and soon to be no place to live, I'd have to say that I'm "poor". Simply because even with the good graces of various aid organizations at my back, I know that I will never return to the position I was in years ago, with a steady job and a decent rental house.

And I know that it's my fault. I'll end by pointing out that true poverty is a black hole: once you cross the event horizon, it's impossible to escape. If you're truly poor, the word "broke" never enters your mind.
posted by landis at 10:23 AM on February 9, 2016 [3 favorites]


I would favourite you, landis, except for the "I know that it's my fault" part at the end.

On the other hand, I just finished working with a guy in his early forties with similar challenges. A great worker in many ways, but a bridge-burner. He's got about one more job left in this very small industry, I suspect, unless someone takes him under their wing and works very hard to protect him from himself; after that, his reputation (already well-spread) will doom him at any new job he tries in the industry.

So far he's been able to jump from job to job in different industries, everything from carving bears at the side of the road with a chainsaw to AV guy at a science centre to airport security to IT. Hopefully his jumping luck stays with him.
posted by clawsoon at 11:14 AM on February 9, 2016 [2 favorites]


I mean this is a sort of trite suggestion, but always remember that there's no shame in lying about your references. find a friendly co-worker who's willing to claim they were your supervisor and give their number as the reference, or even invent a recent work history whole-cloth. Employers do not deserve the truth. The only reason to tell the truth to employers is if you think you're very likely to get caught, and if getting caught will cause you serious problems.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 12:17 PM on February 9, 2016 [3 favorites]


Landis, it isn't a black hole that you cannot escape. The current system has an incredibly sucky approach to trying to help people. That's why I have never stayed in a shelter and have done my best to seek "middle class" solutions and, as much as possible, avoided most aid organizations and was very picky about who I took aid from when it could not be avoided. Many of them do all they can to treat you like shit and undermine your personal agency.


I blog for people exactly like you. Please check my blogs. If you need to be pointed to a specific one, memail me.
posted by Michele in California at 12:53 PM on February 9, 2016 [2 favorites]


Michelle in California, yes, the system sucks but I have been fortunate enough to have many good people in that system that have gone above and beyond to help me. Good for you for never going to a shelter, but when it drops below freezing and your only choice is concrete or a cot in a shelter... well, that's an easy one. Everyone's situation is different, and not everyone can make the choices you have.

You Can't Tip a Buick, it's a valid suggestion, but I don't really have the social resources required for it. Thank you, tho.

When I say that my situation is my fault, what I mean is that I don't seem to have whatever it requires to function in the economic and political arenas of this country. And my mea culpa is along the lines of "It's not you, it's me". I certainly don't want America feeling bad about itself.
posted by landis at 10:04 AM on February 10, 2016


I am aware that not everyone can do what I have done. I also know that most people for whom the system works who go above and beyond for some "misfit" are doing their damnedest to force a square peg to fit in a round hole and cussing the square peg as "uncooperative" when the cuts required to make them fit simply cut too deep and they give up on trying to fit.

My oldest son will never fit. There is no hope he will ever fit into normal society. He is functional because it was not my goal to make him fit. He has been told since early childhood that he needs to find his niche and not carve himself down in some vain attempt to try to fit.

Your remarks suggest you spent some time in the military and the type of social friction you describe is typical of very bright people. Good soldiers often do not fit well into civilian society. My dad was career military and so was my ex husband. They were damn fine soldiers. They both had serious social challenges in other settings. I have read a lot on that subject. That's a common tale.

I am sorry I don't know how to package my message such that other people can understand it. It doesn't seem to work to post it publicly like I did in this thread. It also doesn't seem to work to message people privately. People mostly do not respond when I do that.

I was a military spouse for two decades and I was a fulltime wife and mom who homeschooled my special needs sons. I started websites because of audience demand for information I knew. Since being homeless, no one wants to hear that I am competent and know what I am talking about.

I have a wealth of knowledge about how to help square pegs find a sqauarish hole that doesn't require them to carve themselves down and doesn't require them to let others carve them down to try to force them into a more conventional shape. And I wish to hell that you would flip that coin of personal responsibility that you are carrying and, instead of using it to justify your failure, use it to find a path to success.

It won't be easy. But I believe sincerely that it can be done.
posted by Michele in California at 10:30 AM on February 10, 2016 [1 favorite]


There's a difference between "justifying my failure" and frankly acknowledging the state of affairs in my own life vis a vis the realities of poverty in this country, and I find your condescending tone pretty fucking irritating.

As to your whole 'square peg/round hole' example, I have been fortunate enough to have many people at various organizations help me search for round holes of sufficient diameter to accommodate my little square peg; no one has ever suggested that I take the knife to any but my sharpest corners. In short, I have been treated with compassion and understanding in virtually all my dealing with social services in my area.

Perhaps one factor in our differing views on aid organizations is that, aside from food stamps, I don't deal with government agencies that much. St. Vincent de Paul is basically my interface to Social Security, the VA, etc. The people there do a great job of dealing with bullshit on my behalf. My life isn't good, but without the folks there it might be nonexistent.

I just posted initially to give a different take on the broke/poor debate. I didn't expect to basically be chastised for doing poverty wrong. You may see my attitude as "justifying my failure". I see it as an rational assessment of my existence in is fucked up country. It doesn't mean I give up just yet, but I do have pretty clear view of what's in front of me.
posted by landis at 1:22 PM on February 10, 2016 [1 favorite]


I am absolutely not chastising you and there was absolutely no intent to condescend.

Best of luck.
posted by Michele in California at 1:34 PM on February 10, 2016


As someone who pays for social benefits (at least tax-funded ones), please use them when you qualify for them

I have used unemployment money a lot (no longer live in CA). I've paid into the system with every paycheck and as long as I'm "laid off" I take all of that that I can. That's my money.
posted by bendy at 2:13 AM on February 24, 2016


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