Living simply versus being poor…are they different?

Last night I was lounging with the Spousal Unit and found myself engaged in an interesting twitter conversation that provides the inspiration for today’s post. I was talking with a fellow blogger who made a few statements that really made me stop and think, but ultimately ponder the question is there a difference between choosing a lifestyle of simplicity where one’s income may be at or below the poverty level versus simply being poor. Now the blogger in question didn’t think there was a difference but based off 15 years of primarily working with low income folks combined with my own financial journey, I think there is a difference.

Since the Great Recession of 2008, it’s become almost chic to live a simple lifestyle. At first glance it appeared many folks were living beyond their means, yet at the same time it’s become common knowledge that for many the fact that while companies posted record profits in the years leading up to the Great Recession, for many folks their wages remained stagnant while at the same time health insurance costs rose. (Don’t forget I am old enough to remember a time when your employer sponsored coverage was a reasonable sum like oh $100 a month for the family compared to the last job I had that was charging $700 a month for a family plan) The result is that while there were some that were truly living a materialistic lifestyle and wildly spending, many were using credit cards and home equity loans to supplement the wages they didn’t earn.

But those days are gone; most of us realize that despite the lack of adequate wages and benefits, we have to reduce our standard of living if nothing else to have a nest egg for a possible rainy day. I know when I lost my job in 2007, we started cutting out things we truly didn’t need, changed the way we shopped and made different choices that allowed us to weather our family income dropping to the lowest point ever.

Yet even the toughest economic days that the Spousal Unit and I have faced in almost 14 years of marriage are nothing compared to what I faced as a poor young adult or growing up on the edge of poverty. I believe this is because when the economic shit started flying, we were already firmly entrenched in a middle class lifestyle that provided a level of social capital that is often unavailable when you are living at or below the poverty level.

I see it all the time in my work, unexpected things like a high electric bill, a need for a costly prescription or my personal favorite car repairs or worse complete car failure tend to push economically fragile folks over the edge. Year after year I have families that come the holidays they have to apply for assistance or right now we are working to ensure that kids in our community have access to school supplies come this fall. I know some would say well why don’t these folks plan better? After all the holidays and the start of the school year come every year, surely they can save and plan. Can they? The ability to salt away a few cents is highly dependant on having a few bucks leftover after bills are paid and for most folks living at or below the poverty level, there is never enough cash leftover. Instead these same financially vulnerable people often fall prey to predatory financial services like Rent a Center (this is often how the poor are able to obtain things like computers and televisions since at $15-20 a week with the item made available immediately versus saving for months, most see this as the way to go despite the fact financially it’s a horrible choice) or the payday loan places where for a post dated check you can access a few hundred dollars to get the car repaired or get Little Johnny’s medicine.

One of the hardest reasons it’s hard for the poor in my opinion to catch a break financially is because shit always happens. You live paycheck to paycheck, no bonus, no raise, and shit happens all the while the cost of living gets higher. Often poverty means not having access to a good credit rating which frankly dictates the rates you get on a credit card, whether you even get a credit card or on a larger scale where you live. Poor credit or lack of credit has a direct impact on the types of housing available to you; this in turn impacts the level of community services available to you. I know when I lived in some sketchy parts of Chicago 16-17 years ago, the libraries were poor, public transit was poor…you get the picture. Yet when I was able to move into better areas, the services were better and this was well before a global economic meltdown. Hell, now even my solidly middle class town in Maine is fighting to keep our library strong since if the town money counters had their way these services would be cut.

Compare all this to planned simplicity when you start off with middle class sensibilities. If you are already living in a solidly middle class or above area, you often can choose to unplug the cable because you know your library has free films and plethora of books that are recent and that there will be enriching activities for the family. You can choose to be car free or as we are car light with one car because your town is walkable with services you can access. In living simply when its planned simplicity you most likely can choose to and actually afford a spare freezer so that you can shop in bulk via a stock up store or farm so that your groceries cost less versus having to shop at the nearest store either because you lack transportation, can’t afford the gas to get to stores that offer better price deals. Many simply living gurus talks about the value of shopping the sales and buying in bulk, all nice things if you can afford it but for those truly struggling they often don’t have the same choices that someone whose income maybe similar but because they started off middle class and therefore have social capital they have more choices.

Even the world of work looks different when you are poor; in my early adult years I worked at jobs where I had no autonomy. Job started at the time specified by employer, ended when they specified and very few exceptions were made. Compare this to the types of work available to the middle class (even those whose incomes may be low) they work at jobs that offer the autonomy to work from home (saves of the childcare of needed) bring kids to work, etc. If you have to take off on short notice, you often are not worried that you will be fired.

Ultimately all these issues will impact how one is able to parent, if you are struggling to keep your head above water financially and dodging the latest financial crisis you love your babies as much as anyone else but poverty and struggle impact you. The fact remains you are less available or likely to be the parent volunteering in class, I have stated on this blog before my own challenges since the 5 yo started school. I have volunteered this school year but not nearly as much as I would like because even with a flexible schedule that I more or less have control over, most of what is required by the schools only works for parents who have no daytime employment. While I can control whether I write a grant report at midnight versus 9 am, I can’t control if I need to meet with a funder or colleagues at 10am. Yet I know I have it better than many, like a dear acquaintance whose girl is friends with our girl, she is a single Mom who works as a waitress at one of the most popular breakfast spots in town, yet her schedule gives her little time to ever do more than drop off or pick up her girl. As she recently shared with me, after she gets paid she basically has less than $20 a month yet her earnings are far more than government assistance would be which rarely pays enough for anyone to actually live. Unless they have one of the mythical Section 8 vouchers which with waiting lists across the country at record levels, good luck with that one.
So in closing having lived the struggle of poverty, seeing it daily with the population I work with both here in Maine and back in my hometown of Chicago, I think that when one chooses to live simply its not the same as being poor. In part because one plans to live simply they are able to make choices and decisions so they are better prepared to handle the unexpected. In many cases they have access to social capital to better weather the storms that crop up.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this…sorry for a lengthy post, but it’s a topic I am passionate about.

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