Poverty is the new Black

Times are tough, during this never-ending great recession its hard to find anyone who has not either been affected directly or knows someone who is going through hard times. Even folks who are still working and earning decent money have been rethinking how they had been living and cutting corners much to the irritation of our national economy. After all we have a system designed to spend cash not save it, but wise folks with jobs are seeing their credit lines reduced and realizing that should they get the pink slip, they need to have a plan.

For those searching for work, jobs are hard to come by. I keep hearing the figure that there is one job for every 6 folks applying…needless to say someone ain’t gonna get a job. Its one of the reasons that unemployment benefits are being extended and we see folks using entitlement programs such as Medicaid (or whatever cutesy name they call it in your state, here in Maine its called MaineCare) and food stamps. Even without jobs folks gotta eat and healthcare is needed.

Now before I launch into what I am about to say let me state I have been poor as an adult with a kid. When my son was born, I had to receive government assistance for the first year of his life. I was 19, my then husband was 21 and we had no jobs. I had quit my job a few weeks before my son was born and we needed to eat and pay rent. My ex husband came from a well off family and while his Mom was helping us we needed more help. So I went down to what used to be called the Public Aid office aka the welfare office. I fit the demographic at that time, young, Black and with kid and was promptly signed up for benefits. A whopping $268 in cash, a medical card and about $220 in food stamps. Yes, I still remember the amounts…some shit you don’t ever forget. Now this was back in the early 1990’s well before welfare reform and long before someone decided that food stamps benefits should be given on a card.

No, back then you received an envelope filled with colorful paper that did not look like money. Let’s just say that when you went to the store everyone knew you were on welfare. It was embarrassing but I was fond of eating so I did what I had to do, when elder boy was a year old I got a decent (about $10 an hour job and this was when minimum wage was still less than $4 an hour) job and let the welfare benefits go. To say I was happy about that was an understatement. Yet in that first year of my son’s life the benefits allowed us to eat, granted we weren’t eating lobsters and steaks but we had the basics.

So as someone who is intimately aware of poverty both having had it touch my life as a child and as an adult, I generally understand that sometimes folks need help and I don’t begrudge folks that help since ideally in a society we will help those less fortunate that ourselves.

Yet when I read this article yesterday, it left a funny taste in my mouth. In case you don’t feel like reading it, the basic story is you have young educated folks many who are not the normal food stamp demographic who are out of work and they are receiving food stamps. They use their food stamp benefits to buy local and organic foods. On one level I really don’t care what the fuck they are buying, I mean it’s better than using your benefits for Twinkies and Doritos. I think what gets me is the fact that from the tone of this piece you have folks who are single (this is a group that used to have a hard time receiving benefits) who are well-educated and in some cases and I am guessing have access to resources yet they are choosing to receive benefits. From the article, it seems many are artists and well in this economy jobs are hard to come by. Now I will be honest and say this is where I channel my inner Republican but I can’t help thinking if you are single and broke and educated you most certainly have more options than a poor woman with kids. Shit, you can work the 2nd or 3rd shift at a gas station and survive…get 2-3 roommates or hell if all else fails move back home and help chip in on the rent.

In an environment where many (often with kids) are struggling yet often miss the cutoff for benefits by a few dollars to see privileged folks almost boasting about their new found poverty is a smack in the face to all the working poor. Those would be the folks who struggle day in and day out regardless of the economy, who work hard and never get ahead. I was talking to some friends about this many who are dealing with their own financial woes as extended students in graduate programs and they mentioned never in a million years would they choose this path. If times got tough enough they’d either go home or as I stated, bunk up.

It seems to me that certain career paths are always going to be dicey from a financial perspective and sadly art school and MFA’s are not known as money makers by and large, it’s just a fact.

Yet we have young folks who are embracing poverty as if it’s the latest style. Funny thing is that any of us who have been impacted by poverty know that there is nothing stylish about poverty. It’s not something you do for a season in most cases, hell I consider myself one of the lucky ones in that I was able to escape and maybe that’s why the idea of seeing folks almost delighting in their new found poverty status rubs me the wrong way. Shit, no one wants to be poor, get any job, do whatever you can because most of us know that for many entering poverty is much like the Hotel California. You can check in any time you like but you just can’t ever leave.

PS: If any of you hipster kids stumble across this, I say shop more wisely, I remember I used to have to shop the sales and shop wisely to make my benefits last all month and even then by the last days of the month we were eating the dregs of the pantry The fact that you spend freely at Whole Paycheck is what makes me question your true need.