Growing up working class in a good year and flat-out poor in a bad year shaped me as a person, and it continues to shape me even in middle age. I have never shied away from talking about my working class roots in this space and even now when I know that this space is well-read, I refuse to shy away from uncomfortable discussions because money is a source of shame for many of us when the reality is that it doesn’t need to be. For many years, my family’s humble roots were a source of both shame and the anxiety that nearly destroyed me. It takes a lot of work to manufacture a reality that is not yours or to live a life of half-truths because you are afraid of being judged.
Growing up, my parents rarely had two nickels to rub together much less any spare nickels to salt away for a rainy day. My parents weren’t financially savvy folks, in part because they didn’t have enough to be savvy with. My mother did grow up middle class but in marrying my father, she effectively turned her back on that life which meant that my brother and I rarely saw any of the fruits of her middle class upbringing. Instead we saw the legacy of my father’s upbringing under Jim Crow which meant my parents, loved and lived for 33 years with little in the way of any safety nets. When times got rough there was food from the food pantry and in one particularly bad period there was time at a homeless shelter.
I entered adulthood with little in the way of understanding how money operated; I was in my early 20s before I stopped cashing paychecks at the currency exchange and actually got a checking account. Even with a checking account, I still made a few mistakes and underestimated a few times and ended up being overdrawn. The cost of not knowing was pretty damn expensive and thanks to a few good mentors and a partner who was patient with me, I learned how to manage my basic money and steer clear of predatory schemes designed to part me with my money.
Yet I have never forgotten just how hard it is to be broke and nowadays, it’s a whole different world for those struggling with financial scarcity. Many of today’s low-end jobs no longer pay with a paper check that can be taken to the bank that the check is drawn. Or, for that matter, brought to the currency exchange where, for a fee, the paper check can be turned into actual cash which one can use to pay bills.
No, we are living in a world that is increasingly paperless which means for the truly vulnerable who are living paycheck to paycheck, they are forced to use pre-paid debit cards which their paychecks are loaded onto. Ideally, folks would use traditional banks and credit unions but in the US, there are millions who are unbanked for a variety of reasons: fear of banks, past fees owed to a bank, low credit scores, etc. It’s not nice, it might not even be the wisest decision, but it’s the reality for millions.
Which is why today when I heard that the Rush Card prepaid card has been locking people out of their accounts, I must admit, it took me back to my own years of extreme scarcity. The Rush Card prepaid debit card is a card marketed by hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons as an alternative financial product. It also seems to be laden with fees and as of right now is experiencing technological issues that are in essence preventing people from accessing their own money.
While this situation may be a joking matter to some or a way to bray about how much smarter they are because they had a helping hand in life or a better start, it’s no laughing matter when you work, are paid for that work yet can’t pay your bills because you can’t access your money. It goes without saying that the typical consumer of a prepaid card probably doesn’t have access to an emergency stash of cash for the unexpected like being locked out of their prepaid account.
America is a place of excess and scarcity where we spend far too much time lecturing the poor for their “excess” without ever questioning the systems that keep people locked into scarcity. The poor and working class often pay a higher price for their money than Jane and John Middle Class will ever pay. Comfortably middle class people often pay little to nothing to use their own cash but the truly struggling are virtually locked into a maze of scarcity with few solid pathways out. It’s always been hard for folks from humble beginnings to get ahead and frankly in 2015, we have pretty much blocked off all the pathways for all except the most exceptional. Jobs with unreliable schedules and no guaranteed number of hours, stagnant wages with the ever increasing cost of living. Underfunded schools that don’t prepare kids for the future, higher education that is increasingly out of reach and the list goes on.
So instead of tsk-tsking and blaming people for their plight perhaps a moment of gratitude and empathy is what we all need along with a commitment to level the financial playing field.
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