Being poor is people who have never been poor wondering why you choose to be so.
September 11, 2005 6:32 PM   Subscribe

Being Poor ... what it actually entails. More from Body and Soul, and from Making Light, and from here's a whosit. And this article, in which ...they were trying to rescue people with a helicopter and the people were so poor they were afraid it would cost too much to get a ride and they had no money for a "ticket." Dupree was shaken telling us the story. He just couldn't believe these people were afraid they'd be charged for a rescue. ...
posted by amberglow (34 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
and one with an international perspective
posted by amberglow at 6:40 PM on September 11, 2005

>He just couldn't believe these people were afraid they'd be charged for a rescue. ...

Well, Thats very sad, but unfortunatly it sounds true.
posted by persia at 6:52 PM on September 11, 2005

I've heard of that before, but in a more general sense. One of my old training buddies (martial arts, not military) cut himself with a katana during real-weapons practice. He was so afraid that he wouldn't be able to afford an ambulance charge that the sensei ended up driving him personally to the ER. Sad part is, doing so cut his hospital bill roughly in half.
posted by mystyk at 7:02 PM on September 11, 2005

Yeah, ambulance companies do charge uninsured patients for treatment and transportation. It's a matter of financial necessity — without getting paid, they'd go out of business. I work for one, and even in a middle-class area we see people refuse treatment because they're afraid they can't afford it.

So I'm not surprised that some people tried to turn the rescuers down. "If I can't afford an ambulance," I can see someone thinking, "a helicopter's gotta be way out of reach."
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:03 PM on September 11, 2005

This isn't all that surprising. I live in a rural area where the closest hospital is eighty miles away -- air evacuation is very common and these people are billed. It isn't unusual for someone, eben the affluent, to decide to walk/boat/snowmobile out even at the risk of life and limb.
posted by cedar at 7:11 PM on September 11, 2005

Correct me if I'm wrong, but due to HIPPA hospitals cannot complain to credit reporting agencies if you don't pay them.
posted by delmoi at 7:47 PM on September 11, 2005

Also, I think some of these people are simply not even aware of the government services available to them. A friend of mine lives near SF and makes $28k/year (but he has 400k stock options...) He's looking into getting food stamps.
posted by delmoi at 7:48 PM on September 11, 2005

Wait a minute... you mean these people are being rescued for free? Does Rick Santorum know about this?
posted by herostratus at 7:51 PM on September 11, 2005

Correct me if I'm wrong, but due to HIPPA hospitals cannot complain to credit reporting agencies if you don't pay them.

(Healthcare Insurance Portability and Accounting Act= HIPAA)

Alas, you're wrong. Billing is a legit reason to have a portion of PHI, namely, name, address, SSN and amount owed. They can't hand your chart to a collection agency, but nothing in HIPAA keeps them from handing the debt over, along with the information needed to try and collect.

You can't pull tricks like "If you don't pay, your boss finds out why you were in the hospital" -- but you can file debt notices.

Finally, now that various rulings have gutted the criminal penalties of HIPAA, the amount of people who care about HIPAA is dropping. Civil penalties are easy to deal with, that's what insurance is for. Between that and a good team of lawyers, actually getting nailed for a violation becomes pretty implausible.

Back when getting nailed involved corporate officers going to jail, people paid attention.

As to the poor in New Orelans: They're not getting thier homes back. By the time the water and fires are done, the houses will be uninhabitable, and will be condemned unless gutted and rebuilt. They can't afford that. I fully expect a firesale on property in New Orleans -- and a few developers getting rich on rebuilt homes, near the CBD, and I fully expect that the city and the feds will be more than happy to work together to make sure that the "right people" get to rebuild and buy those homes. You know. Not "those people."
posted by eriko at 8:14 PM on September 11, 2005

When my cousin killed himself by wrapping his motorcycle around a utility pole, the utility company actually charged his widow for the pole.

So, no matter how callous and heartless something may seem, there's always some large corporation that thinks it's a good idea.
posted by clevershark at 8:22 PM on September 11, 2005

here, when you get killed in a car accident, and it was your fault, the ticket is presented to your next of kin.
posted by schlaager at 8:34 PM on September 11, 2005

If poor people actually followed half the guidelines in the "being poor" article, they probably wouldn't be so poor after a while.
posted by gagglezoomer at 8:35 PM on September 11, 2005 [1 favorite]

"Being poor is having to keep buying $800 cars because they're what you can afford, and then having the cars break down on you, because there's not an $800 car in America that's worth a damn."

One of the worst things about being poor is that you often feel the need to sacrifice long-term gains for the short-term good. My parents, for instance, borrow regularly from payday loan places. Of course, they aren't stupid, they know that they are predatory and charge terrible rates. But when you need $200 to eat, you aren't in the position to turn down a loan that ends up costing you $220 or more, no matter how smart you are.
posted by piers at 8:40 PM on September 11, 2005

Nebulawindphone: Call me crazy, but why not charge the insurance comapnies more instead of putting the burden of the ambulance on those least able to afford it?

Anyway, this comment to the Scalzi piece (there's no direct link), really resonates with the arguments I've had with other people about being poor:

This discussion, like all its ilk, has brought out the divide between those who emphasize sympathy and others who emphasize responsibility. The latter, in this case, are too keen to perceive Mr. Scalzi as ignoring the responsibility of the poor for their own plight. "Knowing how few choices you have" is a very good way to state the problem. It's not that it's impossible to make the transition from poor to non-poor; it's that to do so, one must follow a fairly rigorous path with little room for error. Whereas those already non-poor can make disastrously foolish decisions, from slacking off on a job to getting a liberal arts degree, and remain non-poor at the end of it.
posted by dame at 8:49 PM on September 11, 2005

Correct me if I'm wrong, but due to HIPPA hospitals cannot complain to credit reporting agencies if you don't pay them.

I don't know about HIPPA, but I know the local university hospital has garnished wages and social security and taken people's houses for debts owing. And this is a non-profit hospital. They also were not telling patients that they were eligible for free bed funds from the state.

When I think about this, I just think about how much I want to move home to Canada. This isn't a smug, "we're better" moment, this is just not being able to face the inhumanity of privatised health care. I know I am safe, I have insurance - but the women who work in the hospital cafeteria don't.

About the being poor list - there are some snarky versions going around, trying to discount it because it isn't like third world poverty. I don't care.

Poverty is, and has always been, relative. It doesn't negate the fact that in North America, thousands of families don't have money at the end of the month for groceries, elderly have to choose between prescriptions and food.

It doesn't negate that for many rural poor, all over North America, from the Arctic to the Gulf of Mexico, their lives aren't so different from the third world. Urban poor are luckier (I say this as someone who grew up on welfare in a big city) - they have more access to jobs and services - even simple things like floridated water. (Over ten years since I've seen a dentist - and no toothaches. Yay heavy floride levels in the 70s and 80s!). I have cousins from rural Nova Scotia who had lost quite a few teeth, even as young teenagers.

...'cos when you're laid in bed at night / Watching roaches climb the wall...

So which are worse, the big American ones, or the small German roaches that come in the hundreds? I say the German, but I've never been infested by American roaches (I guess it's too far north in Toronto, though no colder than New York).
posted by jb at 8:50 PM on September 11, 2005

If poor people actually followed half the guidelines in the "being poor" article, they probably wouldn't be so poor after a while.
posted by gagglezoomer

I don't think you really got it.
posted by jb at 8:51 PM on September 11, 2005

jb: What exactly didn't I get?

The general "gist" of the article to me was:

Let's all pout because other people have (or had) more economic power than us and, not only that, these people are in immediate geographic, if not socioeconomic, proximity to us.

Boo hoo, I have to eat a lot of noodles and I have less cool friends than everybody else.
posted by gagglezoomer at 9:11 PM on September 11, 2005

That Being Poor list started off with me mostly nodding in agreement (and remembrance), but then about 25 down (the cockroach over the lunch) I started to go 'Wha?" and became increasingly angry the further I read at the conflation of uncleanliness, poor self-image and ignorance with being poor.
Maybe my family wasn't poor enough to understand (after all we only had to cut one meal out of our daily routine, and we had enough money to make sure all of us kids got one (just one!) glass of milk per day). But poor doesn't mean dirty, poor doesn't mean uneducated, and poor doesn't mean feeling sorry for who you are. And my experience has shown me that money doesn't fix those things either. Dirty poor people that get some money, end up being dirty people who aren't poor. Lazy poor people that fall into money end up being lazy with money (but not for long usually).

There's lazy and then there's poor. It's easy to help the poor, they just need opportunity. The lazy, well that's a much harder problem, but social programs like welfare don't do anything to make lazy people less lazy.

For some, providing opportunity will allow a path out of poverty. For others, I don't know if its counseling, hand holding, or just shrugging our collective shoulders and ensuring they have available shelter and food. But the poor is not a homogenous class.

apologies for the somewhat incoherent rant, but it's something I obviously feel passionate about
posted by forforf at 9:22 PM on September 11, 2005

Where does it equate poverty and being dirty? Cockroaches aren't a function of how clean you are or not. They are a reality of life in cheap buildings.

I know my mother feels ashamed of the roaches in her house. She tries to keep all the food in tupperware - they eat through cardboard. She stopped using her dishwasher (that my brother saved up for), because the dishes can't be left for even a few hours after dinner. But they just keep coming.
posted by jb at 9:25 PM on September 11, 2005

He just couldn't believe these people were afraid they'd be charged for a rescue. ...

Funny thing that.

One day, on my way to a local brew-pup I had 3 local thugs pull a gun on me. Later, one hit me over the head with a chair,

The chair caused some bleeding, and when the police showed up they called an ambulance AGAINST my wishes. The bleeding had already stopped, the gash was small and I wasn't worried about a concussion.

The three ambulance staffers passed me a contract to sign. The first line was 'we reserve the right to contact the fire department.' I left that line intact. The rest of the contract didn't apply or I didn't like so I crossed it out/changed wording.

I ended up saving over $900 by not taking that ambulance ride. So I don't find the "I'm not paying" idea all that odd.
posted by rough ashlar at 9:25 PM on September 11, 2005

jb: What exactly didn't I get?

That these are not saving money strategies. These are survival strategies. They are getting no farther ahead, they are, in Tawney's (now rather poignant) image, people who are up to the neck in water, just hoping the next wave doesn't bowl them over.
posted by jb at 9:27 PM on September 11, 2005 [1 favorite]

*watches point glide over gagglezoomer's head then go back for a second round*
posted by Anonymous at 9:54 PM on September 11, 2005

gagglezoomer: I have to eat a lot of noodles and I have less cool friends than everybody else.. You're obviously trying to troll, but I'll give you the benefit of the doubt.

Someone might call you insensitive for describing poverty that way, but you probably wouldn't listen. However your indifference reflects a fundamental political divide which is worth understanding: You and your kind believe you bear no responsibility for the poor's misfortune. On the other hand, reasonable people, with an ounce of humanity, recognize that a system which enables a stroke of luck (or an accident of birth) to segregate a life of wealth and fulfillment from one of sickness and need cannot be reconciled with the doctrine that all men are created equal.
posted by Popular Ethics at 10:31 PM on September 11, 2005 [1 favorite]

The Working Poor : Invisible in America by David K. Shipler is a good book on the subject for those who want some further understanding of the issue.

There are many reasons you can be poor and a plethora of factors to keep you that way. Thus the solutions to get out of being poor are also multi-faceted.

It is not as simple as working harder or getting a degree. Getting out of being working poor is often a combination of hard work, persistence, help (gov't and/or other), and good luck. It is unfortunate but true that a bout or two of bad luck can make all the other 'controllable' factors meaningless.

I know it is scary to think we are not always in control of everything, but that is the way it is.
posted by jopreacher at 10:38 PM on September 11, 2005

This thread just shows the insanity of private healthcare, especially ambulance healthcare...
posted by lerrup at 11:46 PM on September 11, 2005

Getting out of being working poor is often a combination of hard work, persistence, help (gov't and/or other), and good luck.

I know this idea - that poor people need chances and opportunities to lift themselves up out of poverty - is commonly accepted, but that doesn't make it any less ridiculous.

Someone has to sweep the streets, serve the school lunches, work the cash registers at Wal-Mart, and so forth. Sure, a guy can be a really good employee and make manager, but for every manager on the job, there must be ten peons. And as long as we allow companies to decide who works and who doesn't, there's going to be a certain percentage of the population that remains unemployed no matter how hard they try to find work. So even if they're thrifty and determined, most poor people are going to stay poor. There just aren't that many slots available in the middle class.

So, no, it absolutely isn't their fault. They work as hard or harder than anyone else, on the whole. If they didn't, Wal-Mart and McDonalds wouldn't be drowning in profits.

Now, if you want to change the existing economic structure - say, by putting more power in the hands of labor, by socializing medicine, etc. - that might very well make a difference.
posted by Clay201 at 12:07 AM on September 12, 2005

I'm honestly not surprised they expected to pay for a helicopter ride. Fucked up, yes, but not surprising. This is what you can call typical to a society that is beginning to succumb to cancerous privatization.

Not to say all of it is bad.

I have known greatly educated poor people. In fact, my friend growing up had nothing - nothing - and a neighbor gave him a 286 to play with. He learned BASIC on that 286, hacked into the school library system, and used their backbone to surf the web in text mode.

This was in 1998.
posted by Dean Keaton at 1:31 AM on September 12, 2005

gagglezoomer: I have to eat a lot of noodles and I have less cool friends than everybody else..
It appears that your experience of 'the poor' is limited to the kids in the crummier dorms. Maybe when you're older you'll understand how lame you sound now (not that'll impede your career or anything. Good luck with that.)
posted by maryh at 2:08 AM on September 12, 2005

What Clay201 said. If our infrastructure provided basic healthcare, retirement, housing etc. then lower level jobs would be sufficient for many, providing that the minumum wage was raised to, say, 1972 levels in real dollars.
posted by nofundy at 7:18 AM on September 12, 2005

I swear I've seen this linked to from MeFi before...or at least I've seen it elsewhere on the 'Net.

I can really relate...I'm sleeping on the floor, with a few odds and ends from Goodwill, waiting for the health and dental coverage to kick in next month, eating ramen most nights.
posted by alumshubby at 9:33 AM on September 12, 2005

You and your kind believe you bear no responsibility for the poor's misfortune.

Exactly. And of course, they assume that because they have faced hardships in their own life (daddy wouldn't buy them a porsche, just a honda), that they have earned everything good that came their way. That only by dint of their own extraordinary effort, good judgment, and virtue, have they succeeded. They deserve their success.

Clearly, those at the bottom also must deserve their fate. Because one in a thousand poor people manages to rise to the middle class, this means we can hold each and every one of those who don't manage the same feat responsible for their failure.

Seriously, caring more for the people at the bottom is essential to self-preservation. If you make sure that those who do "unskilled" labor have enough to put a reliable roof over their head, feed and clothe their families, and even afford something nice like a car, they are far less likely to revolt and upset the whole system that keeps the rich on top.

When you put someone in a position where they have nothing, that means they have nothing to lose. Some of those who have nothing to lose who are particularly desperate, violent, and perhaps mentally ill (going without treatment of course) will get angry enough to commit violence against those who hold the reins of power and wealth. Maybe I'm wrong - I haven't seen this happen yet. But seriously, people with nothing to lose are dangerous. We haven't reached critical mass yet, but it's only a matter of time, I think.

I'd like to ask those who think they deserve their life of privilege - what makes you so great that you deserve all the advantages that have been handed to you on a silver platter? Do you really think you are a better human being than all those who are less fortunate than you?

Those of us who know how much we owe to a mere accident of birth are more able to put ourselves in the shoes of someone less fortunate.
posted by beth at 10:01 AM on September 12, 2005

Samuel Johnson:
Poverty is very gently paraphrased by want of riches. In that sense, almost every man may, in his own opinion, be poor. But there is another poverty, which is want of competence of all that can soften the miseries of life, of all that can diversify attention, or delight imagination. There is yet another poverty, which is want of necessaries, a species of poverty which no care of the publick, no charity of particulars, can preserve many from feeling openly, and many secretly.

That hope and fear are inseparably, or very frequently, connected with poverty and riches, my surveys of life have not informed me. The milder degrees of poverty are, sometimes, supported by hope; but the more severe often sink down in motionless despondence. Life must be seen, before it can be known. This author and Pope, perhaps, never saw the miseries which they imagine thus easy to be borne. The poor, indeed, are insensible of many little vexations, which sometimes imbitter the possessions, and pollute the enjoyments, of the rich. They are not pained by casual incivility, or mortified by the mutilation of a compliment; but this happiness is like that of a malefactor, who ceases to feel the cords that bind him, when the pincers are tearing his flesh.

That want of taste for one enjoyment is supplied by the pleasures of some other, may be fairly allowed; but the compensations of sickness I have never found near to equivalence, and the transports of recovery only prove the intenseness of the pain.
posted by holgate at 11:27 AM on September 12, 2005 [1 favorite]

Getting out of being working poor is often a combination of hard work, persistence, help (gov't and/or other), and good luck.

I am writing this little comment on this little site from a comfortable desk at a white-collar job that affords me an almost six-figure salary, health care benefits, internet access and enough downtime to write this little comment on a Monday at noon (I'm not taking lunch time to write).

Why? Did someone else give it to me? Did I earn it? Was it luck? Do I somehow deserve it more than someone else?

Read on to find out.

#1: Someone else gave it to me.

My father was the youngest in a lower class family in Chicago. Seven kids, a mom trying to raise them, and an abusive, alcoholic father, living on the west side in a crappy apartment and getting by as best they could.

After a stint in the army, an attempt to go to college that ended prematurely due to lack of funds, and a long series of overlapping jobs, he got a part-time job nights as a security guard for IBM. Rather than nap (he had another job during the day) he read the programming manuals that the employees left out, taught himself to program, and applied for -- and got -- a full-time programming job at IBM.

That took discipline and intelligence, certainly. It also took luck (to end up at that job), being white (can you imagine a self-taught African-American security guard being offered the same job in the 60s?) and more luck (that the person doing the hiring didn't throw out his resume because he was their security guard and didn't have a college degree).

If he hadn't done that, I wouldn't have my interest in computers, and though I never finished college either (lack of funds) that interest in computers and access to them because my father had enough money to buy them for home use put me where I am today.

He also made me learn to type when I was nine. So you can blame him for the length of this comment. ;)

#2: I earned it.

Long story short, the money I did scrounge up for 2.5 years of community college came from simultaneously working multiple part-time jobs (for a time, three of them), and my first part-time job in the industry I originally pursued (not my current one) came from working for free at the firm while holding down two part-time jobs to pay the bills.

#3: It was luck.

I mentioned that my first job in the industry I originally pursued was not in the industry I work in now. I took a big risk seven years later, when I decided to quit my full-time (but dead-end) job and work part-time at 1/3 the hourly rate while looking for a new job in a new industry.

After several weeks the company I was part-timing for said "we want to hire you full time, but we don't have a job in your industry open, so we want to pay you to learn this new industry." I jumped at the chance, and never looked back -- they paid me to learn what now earns me that aforementioned salary.

Now tell me how I could have planned THAT in advance. And if you believe that my being white didn't have at least some impact on the decision of the folks who owned the company (which was staffed entirely with other white people), then you're being naive.

#4. I deserve it more than someone else.

Guess what? I feel I deserve this more than someone who didn't put the time in at multiple part-time jobs, and/or working for free to expose himself to opportunities that presented themselves.

Guess what else? Despite feeling that way, I know it's just a feeling, not a fact. I don't "deserve" it any more than anyone else. Me having gotten here doesn't make be a better or more deserving person. It's a situation I work to maintain every day, and someday I might not be able to maintain it any more. Or luck might pull me out of the game. If a huge pile of unpayable medical bills pulled me down to poverty, would I be a lesser person for it? Hell no.

I also know that if I felt like my father's efforts to pull himself and his future children out of poverty were somehow an entitlement, or that my luck in obtaining that second chance at a good career, all-expenses-paid, was something that I had control over...well, if I felt that way, I'd be a schmuck.
posted by davejay at 12:26 PM on September 12, 2005 [1 favorite]

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