Going through the many stages of life, people fall on tough times. Sometimes, it can get so tough you aren’t able to support yourself or your family.
Here, people share things that only people who’ve experienced poverty will understand.
Lots of school systems do free lunches for kids under 18 during the summer. When I was a kid I remember my dad taking us to get lunch at the school then go play disc golf, soccer, or do something else free and fun, it was a blast and I had no clue it was because we were poor.
Dollar theaters, and sometimes they have a free afternoon/evening show for kids with the purchase of a parent ticket. Many movies were seen by the three of us for $4 with a shared popcorn and coke.
My mom left us when I was 6, little brother was 2. She had her own stuff to work out, but she wasn’t there to help out. My dad was an assistant teacher at the time,working to become a teacher, which was plenty to support us with her help, but alone and suddenly without any help he struggled. He ended up getting a second job, but we were still pretty poor for several years before he got his teaching position.
My dad was amazing at making us feel rich on basically nothing.
I had to move out on my own when I was 17. I had no money at all and drove an old clunker car. I got a flat tire to match the flat spare in the trunk. I went to the Discount Tire on the East Side of Indianapolis, where I was living, to see if they could patch it.
When they got it on the rack, they said that belts were showing around the tire–in fact, all of the tires–and I would have to replace all four tires.
I thanked them, went outside, sat in my car and started crying. The manager came out and knocked on the window. He said that he had a set of tires that would fit my wheels that someone left when they got new tires. I told him thanks, but didn’t have any money. He told me not to worry about it and when I graduate, to come back and buy my tires from them.
I have been both very poor and very comfortable. Here’s what I have noticed.
When you are broke, you can’t plan ahead or shop sales or buy in bulk. Poor people wait to buy something until they absolutely need it, so they have to pay whatever the going price is at that moment. If ten-packs of paper towels are on sale for half price, that’s great, but you can only afford one roll anyway. In this way, poor people actually pay more than others for common staple goods.
When you are poor, the “system” is set up to keep you that way.
For example, how much do you pay to cash your paycheck?
If you aren’t and have never been poor, you probably said “Pay?”, because you don’t. Your check probably goes via direct deposit right into your checking account.
But what if you have bad credit history such that you can’t get a checking account?
Well, now you have to go to a check-cashing service and pay money to get it. This means that, out of your already low check, you get to a few dollars down. If you are lucky, you can find a grocery store that will give you fee back in certificates to the store, but even then they might charge you a small fee on top of that.
How about this: How much is your car insurance? Did you know that if you bad credit it’s higher? So, now that you are poor, you get to pay more money for your insurance.
And you’ll find that the only landlord that will rent to you (at a place not in the absolute worst part of town) will ask you to double your deposit, since you’ve had financial trouble in the past.
It gets worse.
Your bad credit combined with your shaky job history and non-existent savings means your options for transportation are severely limited. If you need a car, you will have to go to one of those lots. You ever drive a car into the ground? I mean, put 200k miles on it and drive it until it just doesn’t want to go anymore? Then you take your jalopy into the local, reputable dealer and they give you 20 bucks and a chocolate bar for it.
What do you think they do with it?
They certainly don’t sell it at their lot, that’s for damned sure. They aren’t going to park your ridiculous hoopdie next to their brand new cars, just being in the same vicinity of it drops their value.
No, they usually have a deal with (or ownership in) one of those lots. Those lots are in bad parts of town. The office looks like a tool shed. They offer financing at rates that would make a loan shark uneasy. Their cars usually have a lot of miles and are “guaranteed” only to make it off the lot. Some of them will even rig up the cars with tracking devices so their repo men can find you easier.
That lot will sell this hunk-a-junk to the kind of person who, more than anyone else, needs it to start every day and get them to work.
When your car breaks down, what do you do? You probably take it to the shop to get it fixed. What if you had no money, and no credit cards?
And what if you were a week into a job in which you were as replaceable as a number 2 pencil?
Well, hope you don’t have any kids. At least then you might be able to call a friend or family member to help you out. If you have kids, now you have to find someone to help you drive them to your child care provider (which you can barely afford as it is anyhow) and take you to work, then pick you and your kids up. If you don’t have kids, you can probably at least take a cab today.
And then you can fall into another trap: You can get a short-term loan! At 300% APR!
People who have credit don’t get these loans because they are predatory and crappy. They take advantage of people who have no other options. Ordinary people may know a little about them, but usually just say “What kind of stupid person gets themselves into that?” without realizing that it’s not a stupid option so much as a last resort for many people in poverty.
When you are poor…you pay for everything…many things that other people don’t have to pay for or just don’t have to worry about. This is one of the fatal flaws of the bootstrap-mentality in which fixing poverty is simply a matter of will.
When you’re that far down, the deck is stacked entirely against you. The world is rigged to keep poor people poor.
My office only has a unisex bathroom so it has the facilities for men and women. Naturally there’s a tampon machine, and tampons are only 5 cents. Once a month I’ll work late, get a roll of nickels and fill up a grocery sack with tampons for my wife.
After selling plasma, I would walk to a fast food joint and eat the crackers and ketchup for dinner
The barely legal human farm of plasma “donation” sometimes called a biomat. They just want your blood juice so they can sell it to patients as a treatment at an obscene markup. You sit or stand in an assembly line until the employees (the only people in the whole building paid less than you) look up from their GED prep materials long enough to play pin-the-needle-in-the-poor-guy and then try to avoid eye-contact with you until the blood-o-matic finishes sucking out your lifeforce. They pay between $25 and $50 per donation, with $5-20 bonuses for being a repeat visitor. They usually just do walk-in appointments and wait times can be anywhere from 1/2 – 3 hours, so it potentially pays less than minimum wage.
You can get new car parts from the junk yard for virtually nothing, with added discounts if you remove them from the junkers yourself. I had a 12-yr-old car in college and when it blew a tire, I went to the junk yard and found a decent set of tires. Bought all 4 for $70, which reduced my food budget to $16 for the next two weeks. Some lady in the grocery store saw me with a calculator trying to figure out how much ramen I could buy with $16 and handed me a $20. It made me cry. (I’m glad I’m not poor anymore. But I’ll always remember that lady.)
The first four years of my life were spent in abject poverty.
As a child, I would ask my Mom if we could get a candy bar. She would explain to me, at age 3, that we could get the candy bar, but if we did, it meant we couldn’t afford a 2 liter of soda. She would phrase it like so, “If you get the candy bar, it’ll be gone in a few days, but if you get the soda, we can have soda for the whole week.”
Amazingly, I knew enough to understand that soda for over a week was a better deal than two days of a candy bar.
As a side effect, I was regularly told “No” when I asked for things I wanted… mostly Lego sets or He-Man toys.
Around age 6, my father’s stake in a mineral prospecting company finally paid off. Turns out he had been putting every dime he had into it since before I was born. We went from surviving on mayonnaise sandwiches to having 2015’s equivalent of $10,300 per month in income. My little sister was around 2 or so at this time, and she was getting everything she wanted. For the first 6 years of my life, I had learned that asking for things I wanted would always end with a “No”, so I never asked for anything.
My parents weren’t able to put it together until my grandmother got very sick and came to live with us. The whole family was out shopping, and my grandmother knew I loved Legos, but I didn’t ask for a set of them. Meanwhile, my little sister had a Barbie doll and a My Little Pony in each hand.
She stopped and asked me, “You don’t want a Lego set?” “Mommy and Daddy always tell me no, Grandma. We can’t afford them.”
I have only a very vague memory of this, but before she died, my Grandmother told me this story and said that my Mom broke down in tears in the middle of the store, sobbing. My Dad had a look of defeated failure on his face (according to her). Apparently, it simply never occurred to them the reason I never asked for anything was because I had always been told no.
For Christmas, I got three Lego Technic sets.
When I was child, this fast good place ran a special kids meal where it was two mini burgers that were attached to each other like a weird conjoined burger experiment. Sometimes we would go. My dinner was 1.5 of the mini burgers, my moms dinner was the half I didn’t eat and she would fill up on the free refills of soda.
It’s not the things we bought.
I grew up in a level of poverty, in the entire 1980s and some of the 1990s, that modern politicians will swear to you doesn’t occur in modern America. After all, we have food stamps and welfare, and anyone still poor after that is obviously just a lazy drug-addict bum.
It’s not the things we bought. We lived on powdered milk and rice and ramen (and before that, those old Won Ton Soup packets that I just realized don’t exist anymore) and Gov’t cheese. Tuna can after tuna can. Bread from the discount rack at the local bakery, about 9 minutes away from growing mold, but hey, at least it was only $.19 a loaf.
It’s the things we scavenged.
Hauling food out of the dumpster at 7-11, because they threw away piles of chip bags that were a day over their expiration. Manager caught us one day, they apparently told the employees to stab a hole in each chip bag after that. No big deal, we just had to sniff each bag to make sure nothing was contaminated. Checking neighbors’ trash bins – rescuing half a damn pizza some idiots had ordered the night before, then threw away after a handful of slices. Hauling in furniture from alleyways – my littlest sibling, my sister, received a twin bed mattress that had a grotesque brown stain on it. No cares given, we scrubbed that thing with bleach over and over, and she slept on it for years.
And then there were times when the welfare checks or food stamps didn’t arrive, and the trash bins were not producing food. I grew up in a fairly rural area. When that happened?
I know that in winter, Grey Squirrel tastes gross. Sure, people from the South can claim that their brown and red squirrels are delicious, but I would rather eat poo out of a pig’s butt than eat another bite of squirrel meat. Or jackrabbit. Or goddamned dandelion greens.
I guess I’m just saying that it’s not what “insanely poor” people BUY, since they’re insanely poor – they can’t afford to buy ANYTHING. You can keep the electricity and rent paid, or you can…. nope, there is not other choice. Food? Medicine? Clothing? Furnishings? Blankets? All of this is crap you can pull out of the garbage.
There was a shoe shop downtown that would throw out their old stock. They would throw out the lefts shoes, then wait two weeks and throw out the right. If you were timely with hitting the dumpster you could get new shoes if you didn’t mind waiting a couple weeks to complete the pair.
My mom would buy a small personal pizza for my brother on special occasions like if he did really well on a test at school or something. Even though it was only like $2, she couldn’t afford anything for herself so she would eat his leftover crust. She told me he would always tell her “Mommy are you hungry? Go buy one just for you” and she would just say “No I’m not hungry, I only want a little snack”.
She only just told me this a few years ago and I was shocked because by the time I came along my dad had gotten a good job and we lived just like anyone else… I had no idea that my older brother grew up like that.
I learned how to be resourceful when I was dirt poor. That skill set is still with me. Nowadays, I’m no longer poor but I could not put myself to buying something that I do not need and if I did; I feel like crap. Some people get a high from shopping, I get that crap feeling when I buy something.
I was so poor once that I would go to Long John Silvers and order a water and crunchies (which used to be free) then sit there and watch the people that would dine in.
It was amazing how little they ate. And then they would leave without dumping their tray off in the trash.
Fries, hushpuppies, chicken, fish… all untouched. No I didn’t eat a piece that was bitten off of.
I once saw a woman order a 2 piece fish and more for her kid, that ate 1 hushpuppy and a few fries, and then left the rest of it there. It was the best I had eaten in weeks.
Glad that’s behind me now.
Powdered milk. I once worked in a call center and an old lady called almost in tears that cable went up by $1.50. Her line that she repeated more than once was that she couldn’t afford fresh milk and had to buy powdered milk. Unless it’s due to a lack of refrigeration available or some sort of allergy, only the very poor would buy powdered over fresh milk.
I knew a guy that would go to a livestock feed store and buy antibiotics and some other medications there that were meant for farm animals when he got sick. There was another med he’d get at pet stores too. He’d just cut the pills into smaller pieces to try to guess what the proper amount was.
It’s apparently crazy cheap for certain medications and doesn’t require a prescription or government oversight like it would at a normal pharmacy.
I had a really odd childhood. Until age 9 my family would have been classed as upper middle class. Then my father left and my mum spiraled into psychosis.
From 9 to 18 we were dirt poor.
I remember being 10 years old and our weekly treat was to go to the cafe (I think they went bust) and they did a 99p 5 piece breakfast. We shared that among my mum, brother, sister, and me. One of us got the extra item; we’d take turns.
As an adult, I have made sure my children will never know poverty because of excellent memories like that. Nothing motivates you more than memories of fighting over a solitary sausage.
A buddy of mine went through a tough time a few years back, and I didn’t know about it until he told me about a year ago. One thing that stuck with me was that he made just enough money to survive. By survive, he meant literally enough money to pay rent, utilities and the cheapest, worst food he could buy. He couldn’t afford transportation. Not even the bus.
He told me about a span of a few months he went through where he literally only ate water, dry noodles and peanut butter. For a few months…
He worked at a restaurant and they cut his hours. He couldn’t find other work. His first big reality check was that he had to sell his car to make rent one month. The next month he started selling other “unnecessary items”…like his old TV, some old appliances and his nicer clothes.
He got to the point where he was doing his laundry with dish soap in his sink. He couldn’t afford deodorant, razors or any of the things we take for granted…so he’d steal them from the grocery store. He didn’t like to do it, but he had no choice. He never got caught.
When he told me all of this, I was floored. I wish he would have told me when it was happening. But I know the stigma attached to poverty. I would have helped any way I could though. At that time, I was by no means living a fancy lifestyle, but I could have thrown him a $20 spot here and there to help him put some groceries in the house or some toilet paper in the bathroom. Just thinking about it makes me ill.
Growing up my family had it’s moments of struggle. Our public transport system at the time had tickets which were simply hole-punched with the date and month, not the year. So we’d save them and store them neatly in envelopes marked by month and concession or full fare. After a few years of saving tickets we pretty much had free train and bus travel for the next 10 years… until they changed the ticketing system to electronically stamped tickets with bar codes.
In university I used to buy a 10-20lbs bags of potatoes, freeze dried chives, and gravy mix in bulk (not the supermarket packs which are $1 for 2 cups of gravy, restaurant sized packs that make 8 liters)
That was often dinner, usually at the end of the month when money got tight. Sometimes I had even saved enough that I could have mashed potatoes made with some sort of dairy, or bacon grease.
I also had a cheap tub of protein power for weight lifters, it was gross. But I would blend it up, usually with water hold my nose and gulp it down. It was actual protein, and slightly more healthy then a week long diet of potatoes.