Posted by: emjb | July 4, 2007

Shame and poverty

It’s hard to explain, in a group of other moms, that you didn’t buy your son any shoes until he was almost a year old and absolutely needed them, in order to save money. That your hair looks bad because a good cut is about 50.00 and you have to space those out as long as you can, or cut your own. That paying money to fly in a plane, stay in a hotel, or rent a car is the kind of thing you only do in emergencies, and sometimes not even then. That you’ve borrowed money from friends and family to get by, and may have to do so again. That you’ve never had enough spare cash to open a savings account. That you are still paying (or in my case, presently not paying) a student loan on an undergrad degree that’s 15 years old and should have been done years ago.

It’s hard to explain all that, because of shame. Because people judge you, and because (if you’re honest) you’ve judged others, for having financial troubles, for not being able to figure out how to get what you need and keep ahead of your expenses.

We judge because we all want to believe that it can’t happen to us–that it happened to someone else because of a dumb choice they made that we would not. Sometimes, that’s true. I would be worse off if I’d picked up a drug habit, or had a shopping addiction.

But sometimes…well, sometimes you’re just poor despite your best try. You work hard, you try hard, you say no a thousand times a year to things you want that are too expensive. You go without things you need. But it’s never enough. You never get in the clear. You hope someday, that you will, that the steps you’re taking now in your career or your life will pay off. But you don’t have any reassurances about that. And in the meantime, life goes by and you have to walk dangerously close to the edge. You hope you don’t fall off. But it wouldn’t take much to push you over. Sickness, layoff, natural disaster, car collision, theft. It doesn’t take much at all.

I didn’t want to talk about this in relation to myself…still don’t. It’s like admitting a weakness, like airing dirty laundry. But flea wrote a post at her blog that reminded me how many people there are out there who look all right, who seem to be making it, but who are lying awake at night, wondering if they’ll get their utilities cut off, their car repossessed, their credit dragged down so far that there’s no hope of clearing it. Wondering what they’ll do with all their stuff if they’re evicted. Wondering if the local food bank will be able to help them feed their kids.

We’ve had some of those troubles, and avoided some of them…so far. I don’t know when it will get better, or how. I keep going forward because, what choice do I have? Because I don’t want to give up, because giving up is worse.

This isn’t a begging post, or an asking for sympathy post. I take responsibility for my choices, as much as possible. We are still above water, for now.

But I don’t want to have to pretend it’s all ok when it’s not, or be ashamed to be in this situation. I want anyone else who’s reading me, who’s in the same situation or worse, to know that someone out there is *not* judging them, is not going to give them a lecture about What You Should Have Done to Avoid This. There are far too many people in this boat with me for me to think we’re all a bunch of spendthrift idiots…even if I deserve everything that’s gotten me here, I’m pretty sure there are at least a few others who don’t.



  1. That kind of stress is often debilitating. After going from years of unrelenting stress about money to a place where I don’t worry about day-to-day money problems was a huge shock. I was horrified to realize how much of my time and energy I spent just worrying about lack of money and what that meant–rent, food, credit, transportation, etc. I’ve got some empathy here for you guys on that. I hope I don’t ever come across as condemning because of your finances.

    To a large extent, I’m horribly lucky that the thing I enjoy doing most pays well. Keep up the fight, friends. I’m always here to help.

  2. Yeah, I’m currently in a stressed-about-money state as well. I just started to make almost-enough to support a thrifty lifestyle, but will first have to dig us out of the hole we’ve dug while being always just a little short. Then the kid will come along…

  3. Nah, Dean, you’ve never been condemning of us, at all, always a good friend.

    Dr. C, I’ve been there. The one good thing about most newborns is that aside from childcare, they don’t need much, at least till they’re older. And baby clothes are pretty easy to find cheap at resale shops and thrift stores…I got Nathan a couple of nice play shirts for 2.00 yesterday.

  4. deanpence,

    On the conservative and often the libertarian sides of the culture wars, those with the least understanding of the predicaments of the poor seem to be those who have never been truly dirt-ass poor themselves, I find. Your experience is something of a secret weapon, and likely why you don’t fall in line with the majority a great deal of the time. Thank Pete you haven’t fallen into hatred of those who are now like you once were, Alexander Hamilton style. I still hate that guy.

  5. I love this post. I feel it so strongly. It’s terrifying to work your ass off and finally some sense of stability, only to have it shattered with the loss of job. Through no fault of your own. Tapping into savings, tapping into family….scared about what the future holds. Looking for a job for months on end. Having a family dependant on you….but, hey we live in the most prosperous, wealthiest nation in the world. Aren’t we lucky?
    Really — I am grateful for opportunities that are out there. I have been blessed and lucky. But it is still terrifying and scary to be out of work, wondering what the next step is…’re in my thoughts.

  6. Despite a master’s degree and 10 years of experience, I can’t break through my glass ceiling. Heck, I can’t even earn 50K. And I just had a baby.
    I’m frustrated because I haven’t given up, I keep improving myself and my marketability, and I just can’t improve our situation. Part of the problem is that my husband is not a go-getter and hasn’t made the most of his degree. But the other factor is just life–it’s complete unpredictability and randomness. Some times bad things happen to good people.
    I think the only thing being perpetually poor has taught me is empathy and sympathy for the striving. But I’m pretty damn sick of it. I grew up poor and worked so hard on my education and my experience to not be in this place. So I’m hoping that life’s fickleness will bless us at some point.

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