Posted by: emjb | March 12, 2005

The powers that be, force us to live like we do

When do you consider yourself poor? I ask this question to myself a lot, because I often run into people, online or in person, who seem to have more ready cash than I ever have. But I have a place to live, clothes to wear (if I shop carefully) and more than enough to eat. So by the standards of much of the world, I’m not poor.

But if the place I live is small, the clothes I wear worn until they fall apart and replaced only at need, and the food I buy rules out my ability to buy other things I need—does that make me poor?

Perhaps we need another term—poor-ish. None of the things we go without bothers me as much as our lack of savings—a surprising number of Americans like us live without any real savings to speak of, no hedge against catastrophe except whatever’s left on our credit cards—and of course, that’s a temporary and expensive fallback. But after the necessities are paid for, there never seems to be anything left.

With the baby coming, we’re working harder on this than ever, and think we can be out of debt, if we’re lucky, by summer. Then we can save for things, like a house or a car, that we might need in the future. And pay for the kid’s upkeep, of course. Still, a musician and an English major are not two people destined to make a lot of money in their lifetimes. Savings will most likely always be a struggle for us—will entail sacrifices in what we pay for day to day. Should we have made different choices, ignored our preferences and gone into more lucrative fields? Would the unhappiness of working in say, insurance (as I once did, and made decent money) be a worthwhile price to pay for security?

The assumption is, there are lucrative fields and non-lucrative fields, and it’s the luck of the draw if you are born with a talent and desire to work in the lucrative ones. The compensation is supposed to be, poverty is worth putting up with for happiness. Or in our case, we find ourselves unable to give up our happiness to escape poverty. Are we weak or strong for making that decision? Does our happiness really make up for the fact that one medical catastrophe or something similar could bankrupt us? Should that fear be enough to make us drop what we love and find what will keep us safe? Are we right to hope that, somewhere down the road, we can find ways to make our talents pay more? Or is this pretty much as good as it’s ever going to get?

Human beings are a risk-taking species, with all the good and bad things that implies. But we also crave safety and suffer when we feel uncertainty and fear about the future. Too much stress can even shorten our lives. And poverty, of course, can and does translate into less health care and poorer nutrition for many, depending on how poor they are. My health insurance is good, Matt’s is minimal, and dental coverage is nearly nonexistent for both of us. So we go to the doctor, but it’s been years since either of us saw a dentist. We have just become fanatical about brushing and flossing instead, in hopes of keeping our teeth in shape. We probably go too long between new glasses and eye check-ups, too. These are the choices you make when you’re poorish. Choices many, many Americans make. So we have more than the poor of other countries, but compared to what it would be the healthiest to have, we still fall short. Thinking “people in other countries are even poorer than I am” isn’t really that comforting when you’re debating whether that persistent cough is worth paying for a doctor visit, or whether you can afford to have a test run that your insurance doesn’t cover.

It’s not really surprising that so many of us play the lottery. It’s the ticket off of the razor’s edge we walk, between happiness and fear, what we love and what we need.

There is still shame in being poor, a feeling of failure. Even if you know, intellectually, that you have worked hard and done the best you can, poverty seems to stamp all your efforts with a big fat “failure.” If you were really good at what you do, you wouldn’t be poor.

Which is ridiculous. But hard to fight, all the same.

So will we always be poorish? It’s hard to see a future in which that’s not true. But we can’t seem to change what we are. Mostly because we don’t really want to. We don’t want to be poor either. And yet, if those are the only two choices, then we’ve already made our decision.

But I can’t help feeling, deep down, that’s there’s got to be a way to make a world with more choices. I just wish it was here already.

(Title of this entry stolen from the Pretenders song “Back on the Chain Gang”)

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