Poverty and the need to belong

Written By: - Date published: 8:03 am, October 25th, 2014 - 35 comments
Categories: Ethics, loan sharks, poverty, quality of life - Tags: , , ,

I’ve read a couple of thought-provoking accounts of poverty lately. The first was a powerful and articulate first-hand piece by Linda Tirado. Her post to a forum went viral, she has since written a book. The original post (and extracts from the book) appeared in The Guardian:

‘Poor people don’t plan long-term. We’ll just get our hearts broken’

Why do so many poor people eat junk food, fail to budget properly, show no ambition? Linda Tirado knew exactly why… because she was one of them. Here, in an extract from her book, Hand to Mouth, she tells her story in her own words

There’s no way to structure this coherently. They are random observations that might help explain the mental processes. But often, I think that we look at the academic problems of poverty and have no idea of the why. We know the what and the how, and we can see systemic problems, but it’s rare to have a poor person actually explain it on their own behalf. So this is me doing that, sort of.

Rest is a luxury for the rich. I get up at 6am, go to school (I have a full course load, but I only have to go to two in-person classes), then work, then I get the kids, then pick up my husband, then have half an hour to change and go to Job 2. I get home from that at around 12.30am, then I have the rest of my classes and work to tend to. I’m in bed by 3am. This isn’t every day, I have two days off a week from each of my obligations. I use that time to clean the house and soothe Mr Martini [her partner], see the kids for longer than an hour and catch up on schoolwork.

Nobody gives enough thought to depression. You have to understand that we know that we will never not feel tired. We will never feel hopeful. We will never get a vacation. Ever. We know that the very act of being poor guarantees that we will never not be poor. It doesn’t give us much reason to improve ourselves. We don’t apply for jobs because we know we can’t afford to look nice enough to hold them. I would make a super legal secretary but I’ve been turned down more than once because I “don’t fit the image of the firm”, which is a nice way of saying “gtfo, pov”. I am good enough to cook the food, hidden away in the kitchen, but my boss won’t make me a server because I don’t “fit the corporate image”. I am not beautiful. I have missing teeth and skin that looks like it will when you live on B12 and coffee and nicotine and no sleep. Beauty is a thing you get when you can afford it, and that’s how you get the job that you need in order to be beautiful. There isn’t much point trying.

I smoke. It’s expensive. It’s also the best option. You see, I am always, always exhausted. It’s a stimulant. When I am too tired to walk one more step, I can smoke and go for another hour. When I am enraged and beaten down and incapable of accomplishing one more thing, I can smoke and I feel a little better, just for a minute. It is the only relaxation I am allowed. It is not a good decision, but it is the only one that I have access to. It is the only thing I have found that keeps me from collapsing or exploding.

I make a lot of poor financial decisions. None of them matter, in the long term. I will never not be poor, so what does it matter if I don’t pay a thing and a half this week instead of just one thing? It’s not like the sacrifice will result in improved circumstances; the thing holding me back isn’t that I blow five bucks at Wendy’s. It’s that now that I have proven that I am a Poor Person that is all that I am or ever will be. It is not worth it to me to live a bleak life devoid of small pleasures so that one day I can make a single large purchase. I will never have large pleasures to hold on to.

Poverty is bleak and cuts off your long-term brain. It’s why you see people with four different babydaddies instead of one. You grab a bit of connection wherever you can to survive. You have no idea how strong the pull to feel worthwhile is. It’s more basic than food. You go to these people who make you feel lovely for an hour that one time, and that’s all you get. You’re probably not compatible with them for anything long term, but right this minute they can make you feel powerful and valuable. It does not matter what will happen in a month. Whatever happens in a month is probably going to be just about as indifferent as whatever happened today or last week. None of it matters. We don’t plan long term because if we do we’ll just get our hearts broken. It’s best not to hope. You just take what you can get as you spot it.

I am not asking for sympathy. I am just trying to explain, on a human level, how it is that people make what look from the outside like awful decisions. This is what our lives are like, and here are our defence mechanisms, and here is why we think differently. It’s certainly self-defeating, but it’s safer. That’s all. I hope it helps make sense of it.

There’s more, much more, read on…

The second piece described an American example, but a universal story:

Why the poor pay sky-high interest rates for the trappings of middle-class life

The love seat and sofa that Jamie Abbott can’t quite afford ended up in her double-wide trailer because she and her family walked into a new store called Buddy’s in Alabama.

Abbott had no access to credit, no bank account and little cash, but here was a place that catered to exactly those kinds of customers. Anything could be hers. The possibilities – and the prices – were dizzying.

In some ways, the business harks back to the subprime boom of the early 2000s, when lenders handed out loans to low-income borrowers with little credit history. But while people in those days were charged perhaps an interest rate of 5 to 10 per cent, at rental centres the poor find themselves paying effective annual interest rates of more than 100 per cent. With business models such as “rent-to-own,” in which transactions are categorised as leases, stores such as Buddy’s can avoid state usury laws and other regulations.

By the next day, the Abbotts had a remade living room, two companion pieces, both of the same blended material, 17 per cent leather. The love seat and sofa retailed, together, for about $1,500. Abbott would pay for hers over two years, though she still had the option to pay monthly or weekly. The total price if paid weekly: $4,158.

Abbott has spent eight months now with the sofa set, and some days, she can shrug off the costs. She’ll sink into the cushions just before her kids get out of school and say she wouldn’t trade the feeling “for a million bucks.” Normal families have sofas, she says, and you’ll do what it takes to feel normal. But other days, like this one, a recent Thursday, the trade-offs felt more intense. It was a payday, and Donald called a toll-free number before sunrise to see how much was left on the family’s prepaid H&R Block debit card.

“Two hundred and thirty dollars,” he heard the automated voice say, and that number represented his latest weekly paycheck – the family’s total balance, and all they’d have for a week. Jamie and Donald smoked a cigarette in the bathroom and sorted through the grim math. It was less than they were used to, but sickness and an oversupply of drivers had left Donald with the shrunken paycheck.

By midday that Thursday, $51 of the $230 had already vanished, used for gas and cigarettes, and Abbott headed to Wal-Mart looking to spend as little as possible on groceries. … “We’ve always talked about the benefits and costs,” she said on the drive home. “Because with a family you can’t just say, ‘I want this, I’m going to get it.’ But growing up having the chair, the recliner, the love seat, the couch and everything, you just get used to the normal stuff. Sometimes it’s hard to break from the normal stuff and get to reality.”

There are common themes. The desperation and exhaustion of poverty. The poor decisions that make sense in context. The feeling of being trapped in a vicious cycle with no way out. And, overwhelmingly, the need to feel normal, to be what the rest of the world seems to be. To belong. The political right, which can only see “the poor” as separate from “us”, will never understand and acknowledge this.

35 comments on “Poverty and the need to belong”

  1. Julz 1

    For an Auckland/Aotearoa aspect go to this linkhttp://www.aucklandcitymission.org.nz/information.php?info_id=129&mwkcSid=ea11c7b81e1874aeb3bff09869ca76b2&mID=121

    to read the “Speaking for ourselves” The truth about poverty from those who live it.

  2. Ad 2

    Anyone got medium range stats on whether deprivation is getting better or worse here?

    • karol 2.1

      So your immediate response to reading personal accounts of people’s lives, telling of their debilitating experience of poverty is to ask for stats?

      Does it matter if more or less people are living like this? There are too many, and something needs to be done about it.

      The Nats are very good at hiding behind and manipulating stats. Then it just becomes a war of numbers, and the experiences of real people become invisible again.

      • greywarshark 2.1.1

        karol 2.1
        +1

      • music4menz 2.1.2

        I guess that anecdotal evidence is seen as more compelling than statistical evidence. Sadly, many of us know from experience that anecdotes don’t always tell the accurate story. I could tell of an experience of hardship that is quite different from Linda’s but, in my eyes, equally valid. But I have the notion that if my story didn’t fit the preconceived meme of ‘deprivation equals hopelessness’ it would be seen as lacking authenticity. Stats would probably be seen a ok as long as they support your argument.

        • karol 2.1.2.1

          Ultimately a good argument requires a bit of both – personal experiences plus statistical evidence.

          My concern as stated above, is that the Nats start with stats, which they are very good at manipulating to suit their purpose. Then if they talk about people, its done in a way that tries to fit people into the statistical narrative they have already established.

          Leading with, and using a narrative dominated by, the stats is also a very good way to distance themselves from the suffering and struggles of real people.

    • trp will be along soon..

      ..to tell us all how wonderfully the poor were treated by the clark-govt..

      ..(nine years of surpluses..!..didn’t they know..?..)

      ..and how my banging on about those nine years of neglect/marginalising of the most vulnerable….by that clark/labour-govt..

      ..is just my ‘pipe-dreams’..

  3. adam 3

    This is happening here. Think DTTTTR and other cowboy outfits targeted to rip off the poor. Those bloody red trucks that drive around auckland, they suck income like the vampires they are – a stake through the heart of the lot of them. Think over crowding in west and south Auckland – just look at the rise of beggars all across Auckland and the homeless. This is a real and present issue – and the ideologically rigid nature of liberalism is exasperating this issue exponentially.

    Ad – figure and stats don’t mean shit – this is people we are talking about. And to destroy your little bubble, most people who fall into the poverty trap (and yes it is a trap) then fall out of the system. Hell how the hell do you think they keeping the stats so low?? They are not doing anything, there are no new jobs being created no matter what any of the sick twisted trolls may try to throw up in this debate.

    I also firmly agree with Orwell, cigs should be cheap – who care the health cost. Most poor people smoke – so why tax excessively for a simple pleasure? Is it so middle class have something else to put the boot into the poor for? It’s just an attack on the poor. And while we’re at it, the price to go to the pub should be cheaper too – this has become a middle class luxury. Pubs are now full of middle class wankers and drunks. Pub culture has been destroyed to undermine working people, and with it – the discussions, the music and the laughs.

  4. just saying 4

    Cue the judgmental pricks honing in on smoking.

    It enrages me that the representatives of the middle-class have made life so much harder for the poor “for their own good” by putting up the price of tobacco. Sacntimonious arseholes.

    Last week I was talking with a woman who is living hand to mouth with her very sick husband, in a caravan park. To say they’ve had a hellish last few years would be an understatement. She kept coming back to talking about smoking, saying things like “me and my husband we just smoke, what else can we do?” She was skin and bones, and all too aware of the many people who would be just gagging to point the finger and feel superior. Just as I was saying goodbye she said “I don’t care what people think – they should be grateful that all we are doing is smoking, we could be doing a fucking lot worse”.

    • wekarawshark 4.1

      I think it’s life on the other side of the line. Some people simply lack the imagination or compassion or simple decent humanity to understand that they have never been there and are incapable of understanding what it’s like and they should STFU and listen to the voices of people who live there.

      Others use their ignorance and lack of experience to bolster their prejudices (aka arseholes). Reality will never mean anything to those people.

      The first can educated, I have no idea what to do with the second.

      I found Linda Tirado’s work some of the best descriptions of the dynamics of poverty and why people who’ve not experienced it are incapable of understanding why poor people do what they do.

      Rest is a luxury for the rich. I get up at 6AM, go to school (I have a full courseload, but I only have to go to two in-person classes) then work, then I get the kids, then I pick up my husband, then I have half an hour to change and go to Job 2. I get home from that at around 1230AM, then I have the rest of my classes and work to tend to. I’m in bed by 3. This isn’t every day, I have two days off a week from each of my obligations. I use that time to clean the house and soothe Mr. Martini and see the kids for longer than an hour and catch up on schoolwork. Those nights I’m in bed by midnight, but if I go to bed too early I won’t be able to stay up the other nights because I’ll fuck my pattern up, and I drive an hour home from Job 2 so I can’t afford to be sleepy. I never get a day off from work unless I am fairly sick. It doesn’t leave you much room to think about what you are doing, only to attend to the next thing and the next. Planning isn’t in the mix.

      I smoke. It’s expensive. It’s also the best option. You see, I am always, always exhausted. It’s a stimulant. When I am too tired to walk one more step, I can smoke and go for another hour. When I am enraged and beaten down and incapable of accomplishing one more thing, I can smoke and I feel a little better, just for a minute. It is the only relaxation I am allowed. It is not a good decision, but it is the only one that I have access to. It is the only thing I have found that keeps me from collapsing or exploding.

      http://killermartinis.kinja.com/why-i-make-terrible-decisions-or-poverty-thoughts-1450123558

      http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/sep/21/linda-tirado-poverty-hand-to-mouth-extract

      • wekarawshark 4.1.1

        sorry r0b! hadn’t read your post yet (picked js’s comment up from the comments feed).

  5. Draco T Bastard 5

    That second article is about how the rich screw over the economy and society in the first place to create the poor and then they work to take even more from the poor. They give nothing back.

    Read this and compare the two articles. How the rich destroy society becomes apparent and we’re seeing it today.

    • johnm 5.1

      1000% right. The rich hoarders starve a society of its life blood until it becomes a treadmill desert.

  6. johnm 6

    Pullyabenefit with the sanctions and benefit cutoffs and now benefit advocates having government funding support cutoff and Smirky John and Double Dipton wanting to sell off state housing for charities to administer and refusing to do anything except blah blah twaddle about child poverty are set to make things much much worse this term of the smug and comfortable, they’re so because their smug world is fenced off from reality, a reality they will not face and cannot.

  7. Colonial Rawshark 7

    Let’s raise taxes on alcohol and tobacco it’s good for public health they say. No Lefty government (or any govt) would ever reduce them. Or open up spaces to being smoking again. Good for the upper middle classes who don’t smoke. The working classes and under classes who do…too bad. It’s just another way to descriminate and isolate you You’re not wanted.

    On another note, the power elite are the last ones to realise that in the long term, they are slashing their own throats:

    http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.co.nz/2014/10/dark-age-america-hour-of-knife.html

    Arnold Toynbee, whose immensely detailed exploration of this process remains the best account for our purposes, called those two the dominant minority and the internal proletariat. The dominant minority is the governing elite of a civilization in its last phases, a group of people united not by ethnic, cultural, religious, or ideological ties, but purely by their success in either clawing their way up the social ladder to a position of power, or hanging on to a position inherited from their forebears. Toynbee draws a sharp division between a dominant minority and the governing elite of a civilization that hasn’t yet begun to decline, which he calls a creative minority. The difference is that a creative minority hasn’t yet gone through the descent into senility that afflicts elites, and still recalls its dependence on the loyalty of those further down the social ladder; a dominant minority or, in my terms, a senile elite has lost track of that, and has to demand and enforce obedience because it can no longer inspire respect.

    Everyone else in a declining civilization belongs to the second category, the internal proletariat. Like the dominant minority, the internal proletariat has nothing to unite it but its relationship to political power: it consists of all those people who have none. In the face of that fact, other social divisions gradually evaporate…The higher someone stands in the social hierarchy, the more access to influence and wealth they have; that’s their payoff for cooperating with the system and enforcing its norms on those further down.

    As resources run short and a civilization in decline has to start cutting its maintenance costs, though, the payoffs get cut. For obvious reasons, the higher someone is on the ladder to begin with, the more influence they have over whose payoffs get cut, and that reliably works out to “not mine.”

  8. greywarshark 8

    Comfortably off people don’t like the poor on benefits, and don’t want to help them or see them have pleasure from anything that the better-off might have contributed to.

    So they shouldn’t have chocolate biscuits, buy themselves an expensive radio/sound unit (this was a big moan about a bennie in the 1970s. How dare she buy an expensive one on a social welfare chit.) The chocolate biscuits get taken from a bennies grocery choice in the supermarket when there is a crackdown on food purchase being ‘necessaries’.

    People are infantilised and disrespected and disparaged when they are bennies Every bad example when exposed, bolsters the frame of distaste and resentment that forms a barrier between those managing okay and those needing help. And it is so strong that bennies themselves will turn and adopt the same disparaging tone when they can move up and out. It’s a downer on their standing in their new environment if they admit to being an ex-bennie and express compassion for the other bennies. Paula Benefit is an example but she has been able to turn that past experience to her and Nact’s advantage.

    • Colonial Rawshark 8.1

      Bene’s get treated like pre-schoolers by some govt departments. And let’s not talk about the security guards around all the WINZ offices nowadays.

      • just saying 8.1.1

        I reckon they’re shooting themselves in the foot with the security guards, and, down our way at least, they’ll be quietly phased out.

        There is someone I’ve been having a “debate” with for months about beneficiaries. She has been adamant that beneficiaries (for some reason she has never wanted to put into words) exaggerate about the hardship of their lives and the way they are treated by WINZ. She has a position in which she can help or hinder beneficiaries who pass into her orbit so I’ve been chipping away at it with her.

        There was a meeting at the WINZ offices (which also include community group meeting rooms) and she was treated to their charms – stopped from entering, made to provide ID, her name, address and ID number written down on the clipboard, and then escorted to the room like a prisoner being escorted to the dock. When the subject of beneficiaries came up at the meeting she was suddenly on fire – quoting all my lines from over the months, the ones she previously she had been so quick to counter. She has since been passionate about being as much help as she can be and angry at how people are being treated.

        Thing is, loads of comfortably complacent people like her are being rudely awakened by those guards. And that wasn’t what the powers that be intended at all.

  9. joe90 9

    I imagine this nasty wee scam will arrive sooner than later.

    http://articles.latimes.com/2013/jun/08/business/la-fi-rent-a-tire-20130609

    • Draco T Bastard 9.1

      And it will help drive even more cars off the road and thus more people into poverty because they’ll no longer be able to afford to go to work. Which means that the government will have to make up new benefits so that the poor can be disparaged and businesses get hidden subsidies.

  10. Aerobubble 10

    Key retook power with votes from mortgaged up citizens, so of course this means they want less collective rights, no breaks, etc. Poverty is fear to many of where they maybe very soon. It therefore matters that the media keep pressing home anything, any issue, that makes poverty threatening, harsh. So stop watching when the media brings up the language of hate and derision. Dignity is a right we give away when presenters us poverty to drum up viewers.

  11. Clemgeopin 11

    Very powerful writing in both cases. Very moving and thought provoking. Will the ruling classes, the politicians, the rich, the selfish crooks and the greedy corporates take note of the implications, is the moot point.

    An interview that touches on poverty:
    http://www.stuff.co.nz/entertainment/62688630/Russell-Brand-causes-controversy-over-9-11-comments-in-TV-interview

    • Descendant Of Sssmith 12.1

      Power companies are one of the worst in this regard.

      Contact energy give a 22% discount if you pay your profit and executive salary extortionate power bill on time.

      The wealthy must piss themselves laughing at the brazenness of their cheap power while beneficiaries in particular, but students and poor working people as well, who can’t afford often to pay their bill pay an extra 22%.

      And yeah they do laugh about it – just like they do about credit cards cause they can pay the balance off every 30 days so they just have free credit for 30 days, or get cash discounts from the shops or their business mates because they can pay in cash.

      And yeah the poor get none of that but apparently it’s their own fault – regardless of capability, or capacity, or education, or intellect, or illness, or accident, or family advantage/disadvantage.

      Every rich person is apparently self-made, was born with nothing, developed their own IQ and skills by themselves in a cave Outer Mongolia and need nothing from anyone else.

  12. Heather 13

    I have been trying now for 4 weeks to raise the issue of leaflets from a shop we received in our letter box, not showing the full price anywhere on the leaflet for the item.
    The only amount shown is a weekly amount $29 for a 50 inch TV, $11 for a lawn mower $12 for a fridge.
    I am concerned that you can not find out the full price because they have different arrangments for Good, Average and Bad credit. They will come to your home and arrange it.
    I think this is misleading but no one wants to know Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Consumer Institute, Citizens Advice, Fair Go, Radio Live and the Commerce Commission said I might get any answer in 2 months.
    While the people owning these operations continue to be able to sell with the customer having years to pay, the customer will end up paying so much more in interest, than the item is worth. The owners of the Hp Store will be laughing all the way to the bank.

    • les 13.1

      Have seen rent to own contracts…cost of item 5-600 dollars….cost to customer 5-6000 dollars.Direct sales..door to door…would you like a new iphone…heres a catalogue…you must want something!Only $28 a week.

      • Clemgeopin 13.1.1

        The crookedness and the exploitative greed of the uncontrolled free market, the dodgy dogma of the rogue right wing.

  13. Aerobubble 14

    Ebola gets to new York. What group avoids health centers, lives destitute? And would likely wander the streets infecting people. The homeless. We built the welfare system to protect us all.

  14. Tracey 15

    i am reading follets book, fall of giants…

    so far he has described nobility and working class life in russia and wales from 1898 -2014

    when i read the first persons account it echoes the descriptions of the working class over a hundred years ago…it scares me, its startling similarities

  15. Chooky 16

    This post is why it is so important the Labour Party elects a leader that the poor can identify with…I would say this leader is Nanaia Mahuta

    ….and this Post shows why it was such a travesty and crying shame that the Labour Party did not give space and step aside for Hone Harawira and Mana/int to win the TTT seat ( also shame on Peters NZF and shame on the NActs, but they would wouldnt they try and kill off Hone and Mana/Int)

    …the Mana/Int Party would have brought in flax roots socialist politicians who are the most concerned with the needs of the New Zealand very poor and marginalised

    • johnm 16.1

      Chooky 100% right 🙂

    • Clemgeopin 16.2

      Yeah, we missed out on some really good, intelligent, caring people like Hone, Harre, Minto and Sykes and instead got the usual self serving pro wealthy uninspiring RW selfish spinners like Key, Joyce, Dunne and Seymour.

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