Many people are born into poverty that they will never escape.
They do everything in their power to leave it behind, but without a robust local economy, education, or a support network to rely on, it’s easy to stay poor. For some unfortunate souls, the drop from making ends meet to homeless is swift. They lose a job, have a divorce, or are saddled with heavy expenses from a sudden yet unavoidable burden. Those folks are driven to asking each other and strangers for money to survive daily, and it’s easily understood, because their situation is relateable, misfortune could strike any of us at any time, and the lucky people in this world think to themselves “there, but for the grace of God go I…”
But for many folks who become poor, it is not something they are familiar with, and it doesn’t happen quite that quickly. It happens over time. Rent, bills, and food costs rise at a faster rate than pay raises or promotions. Children, elderly parents, or hard-up relatives may lean heavily on them. Illness or business changes reduce hours or cut benefits. Unforeseen expenses crop up, and debts compound exponentially. Eventually, the amount of income simply is less than the cost of staying alive. Once someone gets to that point, it’s almost impossible to escape.
At what point do you ask friends and family for money? You don’t want to “take handouts” or be a “freeloader”, but you need help…
Let’s take a look at the spiralling nature of poverty:
As soon as money gets scarce, people start taking extra shifts or overtime at work if it’s offered, and they look for new or supplemental jobs. For those with limited education or skills, it’s harder to find good work, even though they work ridiculously hard. When all that is still not enough, the first things to go are luxuries like entertainment media, personal accessories, travel, eating out, electronics, and clothing.
When ends still don’t meet the next tier of expenses is cut back; people stop driving and ride the bus instead, or worse, they drive without insurance. They pull their kids out of day care and ask friends or family to watch them instead. Access to the internet is no longer a priority, nor is cable tv. Bigger ticket items are the first to go, but little things go too, like dryer sheets, window cleaner, plastic sandwich bags, paper towels, face tissues – they might be nice, but people can do without them or substitute for them.
The next wave of cutbacks is in terms of quality. Brand loyalty is lost as the lowest bidder gets the sale. Generic and store brands become the norm, as well as shopping at dollar stores, closeout shops and second-hand stores. They now have to buy smaller quantities as well, which is more expensive in the long run. Buying in bulk is not an option so they now have to shop more often too. Seen as frugal, buyers in this market are still not considered poor, yet they are bordering on or are on their way to poverty, with little recourse to move out of that level.
When limiting spending is no longer enough, people seek external resources and cut all non-critical expenses. If they have not already done so they apply for government social services or lean on community organizations who provide limited support. They start going to the food bank to save money for other expenses. They stop drying laundry in a machine and start hanging it up. They no longer replace broken items unless they are critical to survival. They cut down to one telephone for the family that is shared, and sometimes the phone service is shut off to ensure other bills are paid first.
If a person is still in need and hasn’t already depleted it, any savings they may have built up gets spent next. This is also the time that any investments get sold, retirement funds are distributed, credit cards get maxed out, items of value are pawned or sold, and often the next step is paycheck loans. These options cost a heavy price as they are often penalized with high fees and interest rates. Buying back items of value is often too prohibitive and people lose any equity they might have built up in an investment they can no longer afford to keep. Dealing with exorbitant fees and fines only makes the money dry up quicker.
Personal hygiene and home cleanliness suffer next. There comes a point that people are unable to afford laundry at all, so they wear the same clothes many times over before washing them. They take fewer showers since they can’t afford the soap, hot water bill, or laundry for clean towels and clothes anyway. This is also the time many people turn to stealing toilet paper and hand soap from public restrooms or their workplace. Also, a major problem with less cleaning is increased vermin, disease, and re-infection.
Soon parents or caretakers end up eating less food or less nutritious food in order to give more to those who are in greater need. They often begin to buy less nutritious food in favor of more calories-so at least everyone can eat something. If they’re lucky and they work in a place where someone’s desk houses a candy jar, or snacks are treated as communal, they can score some calories at work. If not, they may be the person stealing lunches-not because they love to, but because they need to supplement their diet. This type of erratic and unhealthy eating can lead to serious health problems later on.
The winter is hard when people can’t pay the heating bill and have to use all the sweaters and blankets they have to keep warm, and holidays are reduced to a few special meals with no travel and few gifts involved. The summer is hard when kids can’t get meals at school and they need adult supervision which takes wage earners out of the workforce. For these folks, there are no summer camps or vacations trips. Kids also get recruited to find resources in the summer since they’ve got the time and energy. In the fall, these kids get little to no “back to school” supplies, unless they come from social programs or hand-me-downs. Kids also miss school when parents can’t get them there, or worse, when they need someone to care for a younger child.
Some people take to sleeping outdoors or in cars during the summer months, but if they can’t save enough for first and last month’s rent or now have ruined credit, they are heavily burdened in the fall when it’s time to find a permanent residence again. If they haven’t been able to repair damaged clothing, keep a permanent residence, keep a phone consistently active, or if their credit isn’t great, it becomes even harder to keep or find work. They resort to offering day labor which is notorious for low benefits and dangerous working conditions. It’s also at this point that a lot of people turn to working on contract or under the table to earn a higher wage, disregarding the legal implications that eventually come back to haunt them.
It is at this time I’ll briefly mention 2 things: the relief that sex can bring, and the results, which are a big part of life. Poor people know that pregnancy comes with certain benefits, tax breaks, and increases in social services as well as support from the community at large. Having another child can be a way to spend time with the ones you already have while increasing incoming resources which can be spread throughout the family. Another child may seem like a mouth to feed but they can also earn and receive resources that they share well into adulthood. They help take care of household chores, other children, and elders. And babies are cute and bring everyone together, they’re a ray of sunshine.
But back in adulthood, the stresses of working long hours, odd hours, side jobs, or harder tasks begins to take its toll. Adding on the stress of bill collectors who believe they have the right to use social engineering or bullying to enforce compliance only makes it worse. The stress of telling children “no” to even their smallest requests, including asking for their parents’ time, is heartbreaking for any parent. These stresses worsen interpersonal relationships and decimate self-esteem. This is when mental health concerns like anxiety and depression either develop or worsen.
Physical stress mounts for the worker who gets less sleep, poor nutrition, less healthy exercise but more repetitive or damaging exercise, joint problems from inadequate shoes or clothes, and much more. These people are at a higher risk of ongoing health concerns like blood pressure problems, chronic pain or fatigue, diabetes, asthma/breathing problems, reocurring infections, and a myriad of back problems, as well as problems with their bladder, liver, kidneys, or gallbladder. And of course, many either don’t have access to healthcare due to not being full-time employed, or don’t pay for it because it’s too expensive-they may have federal minimum but if they can’t afford a prescription, a co-pay or a deductible, it’s the same as being uninsured.
At this stage, the wage earner is overwhelmed with responsibility, shame, and stress. They show it outwardly if they don’t have healthy coping mechanisms (which is most of us) and often turn to crime or drugs to cope with the struggles of daily life. Alcoholism or drug abuse may seem expensive, but it’s often self-medication which is far cheaper than seeking professional mental health services. From shoplifting to burglary, sex work to dealing drugs, the crimes of the poor are done out of necessity, not frivolity.
*as you were reading through these stages, ask yourself at what point would you insert asking friends or acquaintances for money?
Remember, when you ask those people for money, they often respond by asking questions like “what have you done with your money thus far?” “how did you get to this place?” or “how do you plan to get out of this situation?” they’ll start listing off solutions like the ones you took back in the beginning stages, and then when you tell them that you’ve already done those things they often brand you as uncooperative or argumentative, a person who’s unwilling to put forth the effort to get yourself out of this situation. As if you just love going days without a source of protein and not showering on the regular. As if people are really poor due to a lack of effort or self-restraint, as if the poor are simply the section of society unwilling to delay gratification. As if you want to look into your kids’ eyes and tell them no, there is not any more where that came from.