Guest Post: The Right Way To Be Poor

In discussions of poverty, we sometimes neglect to differentiate between types of poor. I don’t mean the contents of one’s wallet, but rather the poverty narratives that we consider excusable (or, sometimes, even laudable) and those that we don’t.

In the beginning, I was one right kind of poor, the kind that even the most solidly middle class people go through when they first leave home. I was a student. Things are different when you’re a student. Having a ‘hungry day’ is a life experience, something that teaches you a valuable life lesson, something that will become a funny story to tell your kids later. Ramen noodles are an inside joke. Student poverty is cute and funny because it’s expected and because it’s temporary.

With some exceptions, students can expect their poverty to end with the completion of their degree. Their poverty, as with their education, is an investment. Once they graduate, they will be able to work full time and their earning potential will be much higher than that of those who did not go through such a hazing.

That’s what many politicians and voters think of when they think of poverty – a hazing ritual that marks the transition of the individual from childhood into stable financial adulthood. We don’t need minimum wage increases, they argue, because the people asking for them are just entitled teens who don’t want to go through the same hardships as everyone else. They resist social change in the same terms that frat boys resist anti-hazing laws.

There is a right way to be poor as an adult, too, and that’s where I am now. Plenty of people might still look down their noses at me for my choice not to pursue wealth, or even question my dedication as a parent when staying at home means that I can’t afford to send my son to the very best preschool, but these people are in the minority.

In most circles, my decision to stay home and be a full-time caregiver is seen as a maternal sacrifice, part of the self-denial image we mothers are pressured to cultivate.

But there are types of poverty, and my status-granting poverty was bought with my privileges:

Being debt-free:

Despite having a household income below the poverty line for my area, my family is debt-free. I can hear Dave Ramsey grunting in satisfaction from here. Of course, it helped that I came from a family that could afford to pay my university tuition. According to American Student Assistance, about two-thirds of students earning bachelor’s degrees from private non-profit institutions had debt averaging nearly $30,000 in the United States. Graduating without that burden meant that I was starting my adult life on solid ground.

Having savings: 

Before I went SAHT (Stay-At-Home-Troglodyte), I worked. I didn’t earn much, but it was more than I would have earned for an entry-level position without my degree. During this time, we tried to live as much on my spouse’s salary as possible, putting mine aside in savings. Of course, doing this required a second income. Single people, especially single parents, do not have the luxury of this strategy. It also depends on wages earned. At $10.25 an hour, Ontario’s minimum wage is barely a liveable wage, if at all. Having extra money for savings and rainy day funds is simply beyond the means of many.

Being in good health:

My spouse and I are both healthy and able. Considering that most of the easily available jobs – those minimum wage positions – often require standing for hours and some amount of physical labour, being healthy has had a large impact on the number of employment opportunities open to us. At nearly 2 million bankruptcies in 2013, unpaid medical bills account for the largest source of bankruptcies in the United States. Being in good health also means being able to walk longer distances to reach a grocery store, and the ability to get groceries home without the need of a car (which means saving on gas, maintenance, and insurance, in addition to the cost of the car itself).

Being able to plan ahead:

Because we are a two-parent single-income household, we have time. We can plan our meals to reduce cost and waste, we can walk or ride our bikes to stores instead of needing a car or a bus pass, we can shop around for better deals. Because we have savings, we have the cash on hand to buy better quality boots when they are on sale – saving money not only on the initial purchase, but because good quality footwear doesn’t need to be replaced as often – rather than whenever we can no longer go without buying them. This is part of the Cycle of Poverty, by the way. People who have no extra money in their budgets are stuck buying the cheapest replacements when something breaks, meaning that it will be likely to break again soon. Or perhaps they can’t afford the cost at all, being forced to wait until the damage is greater and the cost of repair larger. It costs a lot of money to be poor.

Having role models and connections:

I grew up around middle class professionals, meeting my parents’ co-workers, waiting in my parents’ offices watching the dynamics, seeing the dress codes, absorbing the flow. As a result, I can walk into an interview and be near-guaranteed to impress everyone. I feel confident and comfortable in that environment. And, if all else fails, I can always pay the bills in the short term by doing contract work through my parents’ professional connections – as I did for extra pocket money while I was in university. I was raised by well educated professionals, and that opens a lot of doors.

I’m the right kind of poor because I am poor by choices. I am the right kind of poor because I can, at any time, choose to re-enter the workforce and stop being poor. I am the right kind of poor because I am a member of the alternative middle class – the ones who have access to material wealth but reject it in favour of emotional fulfillment and the “things that really matter in life.” I am a member of the inoffensive poor, the poor who do not challenge the belief in a Just World.

But I am not representative of my class. I might be poor in the right way, but only because I have been given every advantage to be.
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