Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Princess... The New Face of Poverty

We are in the midst of a strange phenomena regarding class division, or the blurring of the lines in class division, in this country. Poverty used to have a certain look and feel about it. We all assumed we could tell by looking who was doing well financially, and who was barely surviving. Not so in 2011, although there are still a great many people who think they can. If you happen to be one of those people, let me clue you in... you can't tell by looking.

And if you happen to be one of those judgmental, jumping to conclusions sorts who huffs and puffs about how nicely dressed the food stamp user ahead of you in line at the grocery store was, I invite you to consider some possibilities outside of the box you have built around your thoughts. What leads you to believe that if a woman is wearing a pair of designer jeans and nice shoes but using food stamps, that she must be a scam artist who is screwing the government over and / or has her priorities all wrong and is splurging on mall shopping sprees while decent tax payers foot the bill for her childrens' food? There are several other scenarios that are much more likely. I'll cover some of them in the name of sharing.

Jamie and I don't look like we are living on the verge of collapse, unless you know exactly where to look. I am not sharing any of this because I feel like I owe anyone an explanation, and I certainly don't offer it up as an apology. I am sharing because I think this is an ever-growing issue, and awareness leads to questions, and questions lead to thinking, and thinking leads to growth, and sometimes change, and once in awhile compassion, and I think that all of those things are very, very good for all of us, rich, poor, and in between.

 Yes, our home is in a poorer neighborhood, and we are one of only a couple of white families on the street, but once you stepped through the front door, you might think we are one of the hipster families who are snapping up renovated old homes in transitional neighborhoods by choice, not circumstance. Our home is lovely. It has dark hardwood floors, built-in alcoves, arching doorways, and cool vintage reproduction tile in the bathroom. In the living room you would find an Eames rocker, a Macy's sofa and chair, a vintage organ in perfect condition, and shelves holding some pretty fantastic artwork and knick-knacks.

In the kitchen, you would find one-hundred-year-old table and chairs in fantastic shape, covered in an Indian print table cloth, and plants in modern white vases, a fantastic Five After Flatware clock above the sink, and on the counters, a variety of stainless steel appliances, such as a toaster, blender, electric tea kettle, and Kitchen-Aid Mixer.

Look in our closets and you will see some trendy, expensive clothing and shoes. Joe Jeans, Free People, Seven For All Mankind, Donna Karen, Guess, Converse sneakers, Steve Madden stilettos, etc... When we go out, I am sure most people assume us to be, at the very least, solidly middle class.

Alas, rainbows are visions, only illusions, and rainbows have nothing to hide. So let me break it down for you...

Back to that gorgeous living room. Everything in it belongs to Jamie. She had the nicer living room furniture, so when I moved in with her, we kept hers and got rid of mine. Mine was totally crapped out. When she moved out of the home she had shared with her boyfriend, she had a great job. It was not at all above her means to purchase nice living room furniture on a credit card. The organ was a $20 thrift store purchase. The art work and knick-knacks are largely thrift store purchases.

Moving on to the kitchen, the table and chairs are a family heirloom of Jamie's, the cool clock was one of the only non-necessity purchases I made for my home during the small handfull of months that my new business was actually turning enough of a profit to support a livable income, and all of the stainless steel kitchen gear was accumulated while we were both partnered with our exes.

Interestingly, I have heard many political conservatives say that people in situations such as ours should sell all such items of any value. And then what?

As an off and on again hard up person throughout my adult life, my experience is that even very expensive items go for just pennies on the dollar at garage sales, Craigslist, and consignment shops. So you sell your thousand dollar sofa for a couple hundred bucks, people act like you are being outrageous for asking for twenty dollars for the hundred dollar blender and try to talk you down to five, etc... We could probably sell literally everything in our home and still not make enough to cover one month's rent, for a now empty house. Plus, in the long run, it is much more fiscally prudent to keep the high quality things we already own. Most of it will last for many, many years, if not a lifetime, and some of it will last beyond our lifetime. Not so for the cheap crap we would have to replace it with. Attention Wal Mart shoppers, your bargains are actually screwing you. That blender that is forty dollars cheaper than mine will be dead in six months. Mine will probably still be functional in ten years.

Now. Moving on to the clothing. Please, please, please cut people wearing nice clothing a break when you see them using food stamps. Every single person I know who is financially suffering to the point of qualifying for government assistance, yet well dressed, could tell you in complete honesty one of the following:

  • The clothing isn't new. Their financial situation is. They bought the nice stuff back when they could afford the nice stuff. (That would be Jamie.)
  • They wear ratty sweats or pjs at home, and put on the one and only (or one of two) nice outfits they own when they leave the house, so that they look presentable. Oftentimes, these outfits were birthday or Christmas gifts from a family member. (That would be a whole lot of people I know.)
  • They receive hand-me-downs from friends who have more of a wardrobe budget than they do. (That would be me.)
They are incredibly savvy thrift store shoppers, and can spot a quality piece of clothing sandwiched between two stained up old t-shirts from a mile away. They paid less than four bucks for the two hundred dollar jeans they are wearing, and would have easily spend four times that at Wal Mart for an ugly pair that would be all crapped out in six months. (Again, that would be me.)

So there you have it. It is entirely possible to give all appearances of being middle to upper middle class, but actually be dirt poor, without having done anything illegal, morally reprehensible, selfish, or irresponsible.

Dig deeper. If you were to look a little more closely into our home and our closets, you could spot the telltale signs that not all is as it appears at first glance. We have six people living in a three bedroom home that is less than 1000 square feet. My daughters have mattresses and bedding, but no bed frames, because, hey, I can't afford it. And, their mattresses are totally crapped out and uncomfortable.

Our dishes and glassware are not sets. It is a mish-mash of whateverness, many of which have chips, some of which are plastic, and who the hell cares, because we can certainly eat and drink from the just the same, but there you go, a sign that we aren't what we appear at first glance.

The dogs and cat have been reduced to off-brand pet food that is probably mainly sawdust, and I am sure we will both go to some sort of bad pet owner hell for it one day.

I saved the best for last, though. We both used to be part of the crunchy-granola bourgeois. Secret anti-perspirant? Toxic! White Rain shampoo? Oh my god, have you read the ingredient label? Non organic milk? Really? Do you hate cows and your family? It's all true, of course. It really is. And in the best of circumstances, I think that is information that everyone should have, and act accordingly. It really is awful. However, when you are counting change you find in the couch cushions to buy shampoo, you probably aren't going to come up with enough for the sixteen dollar bottle of safe stuff from Whole Foods, but it is highly probably you can scrounge up the dollar and nine cents for the White Rain from the dollar store. "One organic, locally grown apple has more nutritional value, and is better for your body than ten commercially grown apples that had to be shipped across the country." Well, no shit, but one organic, local apple does not go very far between six people. Just like one slice of a local, organic tomato has a bazillion times more nutritional value than six packs of Ramen, but the six packs of Ramen will keep everyone full for the night for a buck, and the tomato will mean sending children to bed hungry. For now, the produce is whatever is on sale.

We may cringe while we're doing it, but we are doing what we can do. We have made our peace with Family Dollar and Big Lots, and can tell you where every cheap Mexican grocery store in Phoenix is. We're grateful they exist. And besides, we're usually the best dressed women in the store. What an ego boost.

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