Perceptions of poverty and how to overcome it

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??

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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.

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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.

Work – Life Perceptions in the 21st Century

How the work landscape has changed in the past few decades

It’s an obvious path — you finish high school, go to college, finish college and then start working. Then you work for a certain amount of years before you get married and have children. Once the children come, what happens next?

I’ll admit, I never gave much thought to the decision on how or who should be responsible for the upbringing of my kids once I have them. Because my path was so typical (as mentioned above) it wasn’t until I had my first child that the thought of going back to work was incredibly difficult for me. The thought of being away from my child for many hours in a day was terrifying, but the thought of not having enough income was also daunting, now that I have another mouth to feed.

At that time, I had the help of my mother. Thankfully, she came to my rescue. She watched my daughter for eight hours a day while I went back to work full time, even though she was still working herself — she did the graveyard shift four days a week at a food production company and came home in the early hours of the morning, babysat my child and slept whenever the baby slept. This was incredibly difficult for her as she was nearing her mid-sixties and almost at retirement age. Luckily, she did retire several months later.

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Whereas I feel like I had a choice to back to work or not, my mom has been working her whole life. For more than thirty years, she braved a variety of manual labor jobs, from being a food vendor, carrying all her pre-made food in two large baskets straddled between her shoulders, to working in a freezing cold environment preparing meals for airlines, she has done the hard work, the kind of work that I simply cannot imagine doing for more than a year. And that is simply because educational opportunities weren’t readily available for her during her youth (we lived in a third world country); hence, when one doesn’t have the education to obtain office or administrative jobs, one ends up doing manual labor that is a test on their physical self.

But for many women like my mom, who chose to go to work, the choice to go to work isn’t so much of a choice — it’s a necessity that is detrimental to their personal life. In a recently published HBR article, written by a professor at ESSEC Business School France, it identified four different perspectives on work-life balance — a hot topic in today’s world.

The author states that our perceptions on work & life are impacted by what you saw your parents do while growing up. Based on what people experienced, they typically fall into one of four categories.

A) Intentionally adopt their parents model completely

B) Intentionally reject their parents model completely

C) Unintentionally adopt their parents model

D) Unintentionally reject their parents model

While I do agree with the findings of the author, I also think that is quite skewed in the scheme of studies. She only studied 78 parents and conducted 148 interviews to people who work in two specific industries — law and accounting (ahem, only people who are middle or upper middle class) and between the ages of 30 to 50 years old. This study clearly does not take into consideration people like my mom, who fell into the “lower income” category for many years and did not have an appropriate educational level to be qualified to work in law or accounting.

Now, it doesn’t take a college degree or research to tell you that the results are clearly and blatantly obvious. While I don’t believe that I fall directly into one of the categories, I do believe that I have had mixed perceptions about work and life balance. Several years ago, when my first child was born, I would’ve fallen into the “Unintentionally reject their parents model” scheme of things. My perception of my parents’ choices to generate income was skewed in the fact that I had more time with one parent versus the other, and I equated that with their level of love for me.

You see, because my mother worked a lot, more than ten hours a day, six days a week (because we were so poor), I saw my father a lot more. He was always around, but there was always a sense of disdain coming from my mom because my dad was what you would call “a starving artist.” He was a poet, a writer, and a comedian (not a professional one though). He could make everyone laugh, write fantastic poems & stories, and be the life of the party, but when it came to making money, he wasn’t so good at keeping jobs. Needless to say, my mom was the more reliable person who could keep on going with her job. It’s the type of tenacity that took me awhile to appreciate.

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The struggle is real

When I was young, I felt a sense of resentment towards my mom because she was never around. This feeling lasted all the way through early adulthood. It wasn’t until I became a working mom myself that I understood the need for her to work — because my dad wasn’t the main breadwinner in our family, she had to be. She was forced to be in a position that wasn’t so typical in our society back then. I don’t think she wanted to be a working mom at all. I think she wanted to be like all the other mothers, her sisters and sisters-in-law, who relied on their husbands to make the money so they could stay home and take care of their children.

So, yes, my perception of work-life balance is truly impacted by what I saw growing up. I knew that I didn’t want to be away from my kids all the time, but at the same time, I enjoyed going to work. I still do. It took me awhile to realize that going to work and being away from my kids is actually a beneficial thing for me and for them, for it allows me the opportunity to provide for them — you need money to pay bills and provide food & shelter, after all — plus, as the cliché mentions “Absence makes the heart grow fonder” I’ve found that I truly miss them and want nothing more than to be with them at the end of the day.

But back to the study — while there were valid points made, I also think there needs to be more studies done to broaden the horizon for work life balance perception from all aspects of life. To only ask a person who makes $80,000 a year whether or not it’s a challenge for them to work all the time is frankly, not great data to rely on, especially for those who only completed high school and are struggling to get by with a small income and a family to raise. To speak only to the privileged is to do a disservice to the underprivileged.