Kill the poor police!

I grew up in a house with no cable television (granted cable barely existed when I was younger) and we rarely ever had more than one television set at a time. Most of the time, our televisions were only black and white and if we were lucky we were able to receive more than five channels. So it’s no surprise that I am really not a big television person.

My first taste of cable TV came in 1991 in my first apartment but I quickly realized I couldn’t afford it and pretty much didn’t have cable again until the late 1990’s when I married the Spousal Unit. The man was pretty attached to the idea of cable television and since cost wasn’t an issue, I said why not? By and large though television ain’t my thing, I prefer to kill my brain cells on the internet.

When it comes to actual television sizes, I have never owned a television larger than 27 inches and that one was gifted to us. I currently own two television sets, a 10+ year old 13 inch and a 22 inch which in TV land both are considered small and seen as strange. I learned this tidbit when my old 13 inch died last year and I went to buy a replacement and after walking around Best Buy I actually had to ask where the small sets were and the clerk looked at me like I was an alien. I did learn though that smaller television sets weren’t terribly inexpensive and that larger sets were probably a better deal.

All that said, many people like television and for people with limited financial resources television is often seen as one of their only forms of entertainment. After all, TV can entertain all the family members and is fairly economical compared to things like museum visits, outings to theaters, and visits to a first run movie theater. I mean have you been to a museum lately? A few months back, the seven year old and I went to the Museum of Science in Boston, just to walk in the door for one of us was over $20! By the time I splurged for 2 inexpensive add on’s in addition to our admission, I was out $60!

The reason I have TV on the brain is that last night while cooking dinner I was listening to Marketplace Money as I do most Sunday nights. The subject was how the poor spend money which considering that I work with low income families, definitely caught my attention. The first family interviewed was a young family with 4 kids, living in a government subsidized house, dad was the stay at home parent and mom worked since the childcare costs if both parents worked, meant work didn’t pay off. Nothing surprising there since childcare costs are crazy and if you need to put multiple kids in childcare unless you are a higher wage earner, in many instances even breaking even would be a dream.

What really caught my attention was that Tess Vigeland, the host of Marketplace Money questioned the family on why they had not one but two larger sized televisions and cable television. It seems the family paid less than $200 total for both sets and cable is their only luxury.

Funny thing is Tess’s question is in line with the questions that many ask of the poor, how they can afford cable, large TV’s, internet and cell phones. What I want to know is on what planet are people living on and when did the poor police become a very real thing?

Being poor sucks, I know this first hand since only in the good years of my childhood were we even working class. The thing is growing up in the 1970’s and 80’s it was a different world. One where getting a job only required going into a business and filling out an application. Televisions only required rabbit ears and back in the good old days things like TV’s were actually expensive.

The funny thing is that many of the items that are considered “luxuries”, but only for the well-heeled actually aren’t very expensive at all. A pay as you go smartphone via AT&T can be had for a mere $65 a month which apparently includes unlimited texts, calls and 1 GB of data for email access and browsing. Call me crazy but that isn’t too bad of a deal especially if said smartphone also serves as one’s only phone line. Hell I pay almost $30 a month just to keep my home land-line.

However the poverty police believe that proper poor people are not worthy of things such as communication devices, never mind maybe the poor person wants to better their lot in life? Sorry, you are shit out of luck. I admit I get ragey when I hear people being judged for things like internet access at home. Have you actually used the internet at the public library? Assuming you are in walking distance of your local library which many aren’t (when I last lived in Chicago, getting to my local library was either a drive or a ride on the bus), most libraries have time limits on using their computers. These limits tend to range from 30-60 minutes which if you are looking for an actual job is nothing and if you have homework, you may not have time to get the work done. Even in the lower grades of elementary school it’s not uncommon at times for assignments to be given that require access to the internet.

I am sorry, but in 2012 if you don’t have consistent access to the internet you are at a distinct disadvantage. Hell, even the daily newspapers (provided you still have one of those in your area…New Orleans Picayune anyone?) aren’t cheap. So are we basically saying that the poor don’t deserve knowledge and access to useful things and maybe even a little entertainment?

While I personally am not big on TV, even I own one and I actually pay for basic cable or extended cable because sometimes I don’t want to be online but knowing what’s happening is a useful thing and both of my kids like to watch, okay, primarily the little one.

Policing poor people is dehumanizing and frankly doesn’t do anything towards creating a more just and equitable world. Instead of judging the ways that the poor and financially insecure try to survive in a world where the deck is stacked against them, how about looking at the systems that keep people poor and create imbalances where wealth is held by few and most of us are closer to those poor folks we try to police.

PS: Many question why the poor even have kids but had my own parents used that logic I wouldn’t be here. I am glad they chose to have my brother and I even though they didn’t have two nickels to rub together.

Lifestyles of the broke and unemployed…how to stay losing and lose it all

Every now and then either in my online or offline life, a topic comes up and it dawns on me just how few people are really versed in that topic. Most of the time, it matters not to me, I mean the reality is no one can know everything about a topic and there are plenty of topics I am clueless about.
Case in point as I was furiously trying to get caught up on work this afternoon, I was listening to NPR’s Marketplace Money with Tess Vigeland. I enjoy this show though sometimes the advice is a bit off the mark, today there was a discussion about finding a job in this economy. With only one job available for every four folks in need of a job, that means someone is going to be ass out! Well, the so-called professional that Tess was speaking with suggested that unemployed folks need to do more than just look for a job, that’s so 1900’s…I mean survive and looking for a job? Screw that shit! Nope, you need to be bettering yourself while you are unemployed, learn some new skills! OK, maybe you don’t need to learn some new skills, well you need to volunteer, show that you aren’t some parasite on the ass of us working stiffs
On the surface this sounds reasonable at least it did to many when I tweeted my irritation about this advice. Only one person said maybe that was a bit much to expect. I am sorry but having spent 18 months unemployed not that long ago, let me tell you being unemployed is no picnic in the park. Lately the rhetoric thrown around is that the extended unemployment benefits serve as a deterrent for many to seek gainful employment. Well let’s take a look at what an actual unemployment check looks like. Back when I was receiving unemployment benefits in 2007-08, for 26 week, I received a whopping $242 a week! Let me repeat that, I received $242 a week! That was way less than what I actually made when I was employed. If you think it’s gotten any better since my time on unemployment three years ago, let me share this fact with you; in the 3rd quarter of 2010 the average American who was receiving unemployment benefits received a whopping $295 a week! Even in expensive places like New York City, the maximum unemployment benefit is $405 a week with the average unemployed New Yorker receiving a sweet $330 a week!
Turns out that when one is receiving unemployment depending on their overall family income there are no other benefits they can receive because those unemployment checks are far more cash than a TANF check would get you. If you are fortunate maybe you can add a few SNAP benefits aka food stamps to the mix but by and large, when you lose your job, all you get is that unemployment check.
In my case, I had the lousy misfortune of losing my job which by the way I lost because the department I was teaching in at the career college I taught at was closed. Teaching business classes wasn’t profitable enough to the blood suckers so my ass was toasted for no reason. No cause, just sorry we closed the department and you are jobless.
The same year I lost my job was the same year that several of the Spousal Unit’s clients decided to reduce their expenses and longtime clients stopped outsourcing work to him. In a one year period our family income was reduced by over 60%! In 2008 our income was roughly $38,000 for a family 4. Yet according to the powers to be that determine who is poor, we weren’t poor, hell we weren’t technically even playing in the poverty playground. Yet we all know $38,000 is not enough for a family to live on. The reality is if it were not for my in-laws sporting our ass’s long term, I doubt we would have become homeless but pretty damn close.
Mind you I had graduated with my shiny new master’s degree in 2006! This was not supposed to happen to us but oh it did and it was bad. The 18 months I spent unemployed were more or less the beginning processional to our dance with bankruptcy. By the time I landed a job in late 2008, we were behind on all but the bare essentials. I tried for months to work with Visa, MasterCard and Discover but those bitches decided my meager $5-10 a month payments were not enough and sent their top bitches on my ass otherwise known as the bill collectors.
During the time I was at home sitting on my ass enjoying the hard work of others for my whopping $242 a week check, I watched my own kid as I could no longer afford childcare. I stopped using all but the basic paper goods; to this day we still use cloth napkins. I took up bread making, not because I aspired to be a bread maker but because it saved money. I clipped coupons, and basically figured out how to stretch what money we did have. All the while, squeezing the life out of my networks and spending hours a day submitting resumes. I offered up some volunteer consulting services, even ended up doing some freelance grant writing to supplement our income once the unemployment ran out.
The reality is though there was no way I could have managed a regular volunteer gig, as gas cost money and so did childcare. I suspect that is the reality for many of the millions who are unemployed, volunteering is luxury when you are living on Survival Street and for perspective employers to expect it is ludicrous.
In the ideal world people would have a nest egg for such occasions but that’s not realistic for many who are just getting by. Having had the kiddo in 2005 and graduated grad school in 2006, any nest egg we had was long gone, the reason I had gone back to work was to get the debt squared away and rebuild the nest egg but reality had different plans than we did. Life happens.
I fear as I hear more and more employed people refer to the unemployed as “them” and so called experts suggesting what for a number of unemployed people is simply not realistic advice that we are just all working towards creating a permanent underclass. The truth is being unemployed sucks, we should not have to prove ourselves while unemployed just because the hiring authorities are clueless. If a candidate has a work history, and other credentials stop creating added barriers!

Talking money…one size does not fit all

On Sunday afternoons when I am cooking I generally have the radio on (yeah, I know how quaint I listen to an actual radio versus an iGadget) turned to my local NPR affiliate and around 4 ish, Marketplace Money with Tess Vigeland is on. If you have never listened to this show, you should check it out; it does a great job of talking about all issues related to money including the employment landscape. So it was with great interest that I listened to a special last week that was produced in conjunction with the New York Times Ron Lieber that talked about money through the ages. Basically a snapshot of where your financial priorities should be starting from the teen years up to age 70.

I probably should have turned off the radio since generally speaking I think most financial advisers and planners are greatly disconnected from the real world. Too many of us are unemployed or underemployed, a good third of Americans have credit scores below 600 and frankly just surviving is the name of the game. The problem with so much of the advice even from so the called guru’s that have a more down to earth approach like Dave Ramsey is that there simply is no one size fits all approach. There have always been exceptions to the rule the problem is there are now more exceptions to the rule and these folks deserve real advice that takes into consideration not everyone works at a job that pays a living wage, offers adequate benefits and even retirement accounts. Hell, I haven’t had a job where I had access to a retirement account in about 12 years!

Anyway back to this special, it starts off with a kid looking to go to college and a specialist is brought in to tell the kid that he can and should work to save towards his education and that state university is his best bet. On the surface that sounds like sound advice especially oh say 20 years ago when college costs were reasonable. I used to think such advice was valid but my son now attends a private Catholic university and only because in the end they gave him a scholarship package he/we could not refuse. Yet he still has had to take out a smallish loan. In today’s world going to college sans loans is pretty hard to do for anyone who considers themselves middle class. Hell for shits and giggles I just looked up the tuition for the University of Maine which is our state school here in Maine (like y’all didn’t know I was in Maine) and after scouring the site it looks like the total cost excluding the various fees for 12 hours a semester and room and board is somewhere in the ball park of oh say $13,300. Which is tad cheaper than the $18,000 my esthetician is paying for her son who is a sophomore at UMaine. See, those fees are tricky bastards, I am learning that with my own son who has called me more than once in a state of panic because there is some fee/cost that we didn’t know about. Point is annual tuition at even a basic state university will set you back a good $15,000-20,000 a year!

Let’s talk reality… how many kids do you know can work summers and earn that type of scratch? I have said it here before and I will say it again, most kids can’t and unless Mom and Dad truly saved from day one it’s hard to avoid loans. Let’s not even discuss what if what the kid wants to pursue isn’t offered at your state university then it gets tricky, at that point its private school or an out of state university system. So telling a kid to work, save and go to state university while it sounds good is probably not realistic. Even the current idea of going to community college is not always accessible as enrollment at such schools is surging to accommodate the influx of adults looking to retrain or finish their education. The result is more and more community college systems are being stretched thin with some programs even having waiting lists.

Moving on, since I am at the tail end of my 30’s, I listened to the couple in their 30’s who was struggling with debt after getting advanced degrees and now adding a baby to the family. Of course the advice was get serious about that debt, make a budget, and get more aggressive about retirement. I am pretty sure that an adviser would give me that advice and I would say oh really? Why don’t the financial advisers ever discuss the fact that with rising gas prices, food costs, etc that sometimes staying within your budget is not about the latte effect but simply about not having enough money? Recently I have had to readjust our family budget for these various factors, the result less discretionary income and less to go in the savings pot. For this couple over the years they had used credit cards to supplement their lack of income while in school. Speaking of school with more and more adults returning to school in their late 20’s and above that impacts the family budget. I know it did in my family. By the way more and more families supplement inadequate wages by using credit cards yet no one ever talks about that.

Most financial advice assume a basic trajectory for all that looks like high school, college, young adulthood, marriage, babies as if everyone follows this path. Yes if you follow that path chances are good you might have a good shot at financial stability or at least better odds. Problem is you have folks like me, who did high school, marriage, baby, work, divorce….remarriage, college, grad school, another baby, and work again. I suspect many people follow a path similar to mine and it can and does impact your financial stability or lack thereof. Right now while most of my friends have youngish kids like my daughter I also have a kid in college so my finances look a lot different than if I just had one or two younger kids. It impacts everything I do even down to my ability to plan a vacation or not…

Moving along though at the end of this piece there was a 70 yo woman featured who despite having lead a life that was clearly middle class had absolutely zero savings for retirement. As a result she lives off a meager social security check and money earned from dressmaking, her monthly income on a good month was about $1400. Oh dear the financial specialists seemed stunned and while they offered up some ideas (reverse mortgage) to stabilize her finances I thought the reality is working all your life is nothing new if you are poor or working class. One rarely retires and when you do, it generally means your time on the planet is drawing to a close. Middle class and above privilege says that when one gets to a certain age they should expect to sit back and relax. Personally the woman in the clip had a wonderful attitude and seemed to be willing to go with the flow, yes she should have made better choices, she admits that but in chasing the American dream she always thought things would get better. In many ways I suspect that is how most of us live, assuming things will get better or that we will have enough time to get our finances in order but rarely does it happen that way for many.

I guess the point of this rather long post is that for me until we as a nation start getting serious and acknowledging that nope we aren’t a classless society that even money management issues on some level are elitists and classicists. Since my own financial crash of 2007 I have spent countless hours poring over financial planning guides only to decide most are hard to implement based off our lifestyle (my partner is a full time freelancer and my salary is small) instead crafting a plan that makes sense to our family. Yet in light of the new financial realities facing many in this country we need a new breed of financial adviser one who understands the realities facing millions. That maybe all you can do is put $25 in savings and acknowledge that while more would be better it’s better than nothing. We also need to get back to a place where we look out for one another but that is a whole other post.