First, let me get one thing straight.
I’m not here to extend a confession as if someone is not reading, or as if I want any kind of sympathy or charity. I’m here to tell you about my experience with poverty, and how my thoughts and perceptions about poverty have evolved over the years. I’m here to tell you the truth about poverty.
I’ve been poor for all of my life, and currently just barely out of the running for state assistance benefits. I make about $100 too much to be considered “at poverty level” or “the highest need.” Yet, when I file my taxes I still qualify for credits intended for the poor. In fact, for the past few years, I belonged in the State Assistance Club. When my son was born I enrolled in the WIC program so I could get extra food benefits, only to drop out completely after several months of being limited in the things that I could buy at the store. Cheerios, plain only, in a certain size. Only a certain type of tuna, not all types. Only block cheese, whole wheat bread only, etc…you get the idea.
From approximately 2014 to 2016 I was on food stamps. Or I should say rather—we were on food stamps, my family and I. We subsisted on an income of less than $2000 per month. Our rent was about $1000 per month, cheap by Portland standards. At least we had that on our end. That, and financial aid money from my husband’s school kept us afloat.
Then in the summer of 2016, I got a job that I coveted for so long—an accounting position at my alma mater, Portland State University. It wasn’t so much the fact that it was an accounting job, it was more so the opportunity to work at a university that I enjoyed being at so much during my undergrad years. Even though it was a part time position, things were moving in the right direction. But we still qualified for food benefits.
It wasn’t until I got a full time position that put us out of the race for food stamps. Although my husband graduated last June, he’s still on the job hunt and things are still hard, especially when there are no longer financial aid money to utilize.
There have been many days in the past where I’ve felt shameful about my lack of prosperity in life. During my four years working for a local credit union, I handled a lot of accounts. Numbers flashed before me every single day. High numbers, that is. I helped a lot of individuals from my generation and knew exactly how much they made. I also knew how much they spent, and the numbers were both equally monstrous. Often, I’d sit there next to the quiet hum of the computer, and browsed through people’s accounts during slow times. Those who were around my parents age, I understood if they had a lot of money. But for those who weren’t, for those who were younger or my age, I’d stew in silence at how much they had and how much they made, and wondered what was wrong with me, why was I still stuck in the position of bank teller, a position that only pays a few dollars above minimum wage. After all, wasn’t I a college graduate? What the hell was I doing there wasting my time looking at other people’s accounts? Why wasn’t I out there earning more money??
This attitude unfortunately was born out of self pity, and it’s not something I feel great about admitting. And that’s the thing that is worse than being poor—your attitude about being poor. I grew up in poverty, and one of the things I’ve realized lately is that poor folks are perceived poorly by their upper middle class peers. You’re lazy. You sit around all day and complain about why you’re so poor, why the whole world is against you, why God hasn’t given you a piece of the pie yet, when in reality you haven’t so much as gotten off your seat and made some changes. In reality you haven’t experienced an enormous amount of rejections and disrespect yet. In reality you’re scared, and you don’t know what to do, how to make the changes happen.
Without realizing it, I trapped myself in the mindset of a true poor person—someone riddled with self pity, not self confidence. Someone who fits the stereotype, which is ironic because I’ve been trying to avoid stereotypes all my life.
This epiphanic realization came to me recently following the publication of Elizabeth Kolbert’s article in the New Yorker. It was called “The Psychology of Inequality” online, and “Feeling Low” in the print version. In the article, she discussed something called a “tax on the poor”—the fact that people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are more likely to play the lottery versus those who are not. And they play it so much that it feeds into the system, thus becomes an informal, unwritten tax. Poor people put their money, whatever little money they had, into a bucket for a chance at a larger bucket of money, never knowing that the odds are stacked against them.
That example reminded me of my father immediately. I exclaimed in my head, “my dad used to do that all the time!!” We were always poor when we lived in Vietnam, but he never failed to play a game or two. Even after we came to America, he remained an avid lottery player. He never won anything except for $50 one time. And I’m certain he must’ve spent thousands on those lottery tickets.
So it goes without saying that when you’re poor you hope to get rich and any chance, no matter how small, is worth trying. But as Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in her article, research shows that even for those in the 1%, the truly rich do not consider themselves rich, nor do they acknowledge that they are rich. Instead, they dismiss their prosperity as something minute, something that they worked hard at earning, something less in comparison to their peers. For example, “My neighbor has a private jet that takes him anywhere he wants. That’s rich.” Never mind the fact that they have a million dollar mansion with four new vehicles and a half a million dollar income.
This proves that no matter if you’re rich or poor, you will never be in perfect alignment with how you actually are. When you’re poor, you submit to a lot of self pity and when you’re rich, you submit to a lot of self entitlement.
I’m glad that I don’t work at that credit union anymore. If I am, I would still be subjecting myself to the same level of self pity. I’ve come to realize that the first step in getting out of poverty is changing your way of thinking. It’s not saying “hard work will do you good!” because it’s easier said than done. It’s not hoping and wishing that others will understand you. It’s the mindset. It’s taking the “feeling low” factor out of the equation and refusing to let it back into your head. I know that I’m not always going to be low income. I’m going to be middle class someday, and it may not happen as soon as I would like but I know it’s going to happen because I’m going to try. And I feel like I’ve accomplished something here today by admitting that hey, I used to be that person who was jealous of her peers and engaged in a lot of self pity, but now I’m not. I can only do what I can, and as long as I’m trying that is what matters.