Tweets by @AndyTehNerd
I’m not always going to “look poor”. If you see me drinking a beer at a local meetup, that’s because I was living on ramen noodles and bean burritos the rest of the week. If you see me driving my car to said event, that’s because I made room in my budget for rising gas costs by once again not purchasing any health insurance whatsoever for myself. If you see me wearing a new shirt, that’s because the pre-paid cell phone I carry with me is never used, ever. If you see me paying rent, that’s because I had to sacrifice paying day care costs, and thus custody of my only child.
That being said, read this:
- I am poor, I exist, and I’m right here. Hi! Many people who meet and get to know me without knowing my background are rather surprised to find this out. It matters to me on a very personal level when people do things like make nasty comments or assumptions about poor people, or assume that everyone in a given space is wealthy, thereby erasing the fact that I exist and am present. There are better reasons to not be classist (namely: it’s just plain wrong) than worrying about whether a poor person will hear you, but assuming that I’m not poor or that poor people are not present adds insult to injury and creates another communication barrier.
- I may not look like what you imagine poor people should look like- but neither do most poor people. I’m smart, well-spoken, and a careful dresser. I’m highly educated because of financial aid. I avoid doing certain things and remember to do others because I don’t want to “look poor” and be judged for that. Then again, the commonly held stereotypes of poor people- that we’re stupid, “trashy,” lazy, waiting for handouts instead of taking care of ourselves, and so on- are just that, stereotypes, not true assessments based in reality. Just because I don’t match the stereotype doesn’t even necessarily make me unusual, just one more of so many different faces of being economically underprivileged.
- I need and deserve as much space to talk about my experiences as you do to talk about yours. Talking about money- especially money one doesn’t have- is considered crass and impolite, but I can’t be fully myself without bringing that up. I know it makes people uncomfortable sometimes, but honestly, that’s not a good enough reason to expect me to keep quiet. As much as anyone else does, I deserve the right to talk openly about my background, my challenges, the reasons behind decisions I make- the realities of my life.
- Being poor has substantial, everyday, direct effects on my life, and if you spend time with me, you will have to deal with those effects. Nearly everything I do, every decision I make, is in some way affected by my financial status. If you’re close to me, you will watch me struggle with money and financial decisions on a daily basis. If you want to do something with me, it has to be something I can afford. If you give me advice or recommendations, you will have to take into account my budget, or else your attempt at help will just sound laughably insensitive. There’s no way around it.
- Being poor also has a large indirect impact on me in terms of how people think of me and the community I come from. Stereotypes of poor people abound. People frequently assume that my parents are unintelligent, ignorant, and bad parents. They treat me as an anomaly, an escapee from a uniformly horrible situation that they can pity and make fun of. People who know me treat me as an exception to a classist rule, not realizing that their upholding of that rule allows people who don’t know me to stereotype and mistreat me. That’s the world I live in.
- I don’t want your pity. For me, pity is one of the most hurtful sentiments I can experience. It assumes a really troublesome hierarchy; if you are able to pity me, you must be better than or above me in some way. Also, it’s completely useless, and doesn’t do anything to actually address or talk about the reality of my situation. It’s a copout, and it’s often a way to shut me up so that I stop “making people feel bad.”
- Yes, I know full well that there are many people in this world who are worse off than me, but that doesn’t invalidate my experiences. I’m aware that I am privileged in many ways, and that in a broad view, I’m better off financially than many, many people. Between privilege and luck, I’ve found myself in a position where I will likely no longer be poor once I’m a full-fledged independent adult, and I’ve been thinking a lot about how to handle that in an ethical way. But that admission doesn’t make the substantial disadvantages that I have experienced and continue to experience disappear. They are still real, painful, and very important to my life.
- Me saying that you are (economically) privileged doesn’t mean I’m calling you a bad person, that I want you to feel guilty, or that I don’t think you deserve to have a good life. I don’t go around wanting people to feel bad. In fact, I rarely bring up things like this- too rarely, probably- because I know that people will take it personally and get defensive. Being poor is so much a part of me that it’s very emotionally difficult to handle when people totally dismiss the idea that there are substantial, important differences between my experience and theirs. But I have a responsibility to challenge the ideas- often unspoken, but present everywhere- that wealthy people are morally and functionally superior to poor people, that poor people could be wealthy if they only worked hard, and that my background, my family, my current reality can be dismissed with choice insults and assumptions that I’ve brought this on myself. If that makes you feel bad about yourself and your behavior, well, it probably should.
- If you can’t deal reasonably and respectfully with me being poor, I’m not going to be able to keep you in my life. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: I can never forget that I’m poor, or behave like I’m not poor. It is with me every moment, in everything I do and every decision that I make. If you constantly lean on classist stereotypes, if you insult my background, if you patronize and pity me, if you yell at me for “making you feel bad,” if you won’t let me talk about my financial struggles or get too uncomfortable to let me continue, if you forget every time that I can’t afford to do the things you want to do or don’t share your experiences and perspective- well, I’m sorry, but you’re not worth being around. I have no interest in spending time with someone who will not give me the space to be myself, or who cares more about their own zone of privileged comfort than respecting another human being.
—Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five
The Early Days of Eugenics: A Scientific American editorial from 1911 praising the new science of eugenics also hints at the darker side of this philosophy.
This article may have been written 100 years ago, but make no mistake - there are still people today who would apply such a horrid philosophy to the poor, queers, autistics, trans peeps, people with disabilities, etc.
Pro-choice means the ability to choose parenthood, even when it is looked down upon.
They pay you less than a living wage to keep the cost of the product down. So the only products you can afford are the ones that contribute to the oppression of those just like you. And you keep buying things at their low low prices, letting them say “hey, we’re only selling it this cheap and paying our employees this little because it’s what the customer wants!”. Because when you’re getting paid minimum wage behind the grill and a McDonalds burger costs about a quarter of an hours work, and something decent costs you three hours work, and you’re working 80 hours to make rent so you don’t have time to cook proper meals anyway, you have to buy the cheap shit they mass produce using your blood, sweat and tears, and the cycle continues. When the disability benefit adds up to about 3 quarters of the average rent for a bedsit slum in your area, they wonder why you work yourself sicker or commit fraud. When the bar has heating and your bedsit doesn’t and a pint of beer is only £2, they wonder why you drink.
And then these liberals, these yuppy liberals come to me and say, “hey, Cydne, why do you shop in places guilty of using child labor? Why do you eat McDonalds? Why don’t you shop in local stores, why don’t you go vegan, why don’t you live like I live?” When they’re earning £25,000+ a year and I can’t even reach £5,000, and they’re wondering why I’m more likely to pay 99p for a KFC snack wrap than £5 for a meal at the local organic hippy cafe? Are you kidding me? And you’re wondering why I eat meat, when a pack of vegan sausages is £3 and a pack of cheap pork sausages are £1, and I’m having to work out what I can eat while autistic?
And that’s the real crime we commit, isn’t it? Living-while-poor, the greatest crime, to both liberals and conservatives alike. One side demonizes us for being lazy and stealing from the government and having high rates of crime, the other demonizes us for not being able to live as liberally as they do, because if we hate the system so much, why do we contribute to it so much? Because they don’t give us the choice not to. Because they push us into this corner where it’s between buy cheap shit from disgusting companies, or go without shoes and food.
And if you dare to chastise us for the choices we make to survive, you better work out how to get us into a situation where we don’t have to buy from these companies to survive, because no matter how much change you dropped in the donation bucket at Glastonbury this year, no matter how many wrist bands you wear, no matter how much shopping you do at charity stores for your thrift store chic look, I’m still poor.
Powerful and true.
I’ve had the good fortune to mostly know people (through Tumblr, especially) who are sensitive to how financial limitations can influence things like wanting to buy ethically made clothing, or eat vegan, or otherwise constrain one’s own choices in service of a particular ethical consideration. Knowing these people has broadened my understanding and led me away from stereotyping all vegans or all people concerned with ethical clothing as inherently classist or ignorant. However, I’ve spent enough time among wealthy liberal or even radical-identified people to have seen the opposite as well: people who care deeply about a particular social issue, which is fine in itself, but who out of simple ignorance or downright classism fail to consider how others’ choices are constrained by poverty and oppressive systems, as the OP describes.
I admire and support those who work to live in a way that is more humane and less oppressive, even when (as with some arguments in favor of vegetarianism) I don’t necessarily agree with their assessments of what is necessary. I especially admire those who can do so on a tight budget, knowing from my own experiences how difficult that can be, and in deciding for myself how I want to eat and what I want to buy, I often find the suggestions and information they provide useful. But I find it incredibly exhausting to be around or listen to people who have (legitimate) concerns about ending oppression on a large scale, but fail to incorporate an understanding of oppression as it works with regard to the people right in front of their faces.
This is why, if somebody asks me, I’m very happy to give them tips on how I’m able to be vegetarian on a budget. But this is my life, and my income. Money makes decisions for all of us that we’d rather do differently if we had the change.
I once lived a couple blocks away from a grocery store, up a somewhat steep hill, with a child and without a car, in the middle of winter. Healthy, fresh, homecooked meals were far from my mind in even those somewhat favorable circumstances.
Think that poor people are just lazy? That maybe if they would just get something other than fried chicken for dinner they wouldn’t be so fat? Then boy do I have a challenge for you!
For a week:
- You must walk or take public transportation for a week. What? Your town doesn’t have public transportation? HAHA, you lose and must walk EVERYWHERE!
- If you work at an office job, before you go to the grocery store, you must engage in some sort of strenuous physical activity. This is to simulate the minimum wage jobs that the less privileged have. Doesn’t walking to the grocery store and carrying home bags of food seem so much more fun after you’ve been standing all day/run a fast mile!?
- Remember, you can only buy what you can carry. Even if it’s to the bus stop. Factor in time it takes for you to walk/ride the bus home. (Hint: Those frozen chicken breasts will start to go bad! Don’t even get me started on the much cheaper frozen vegetables!)
- Thought about going to the farmer’s market? Sorry suckers. The inner cities don’t have farmers markets. Furthermore, most of them are not allowed to take WIC or food stamps. You’re stuck going to your local grocery store.
- Ideally, this would be done in an inner city setting. If not, remember that you’ll want to go to the grocery store when it’s light outside. Those neighborhoods often have hazards not present in your suburban neighborhood after dark. If you live on the bottom floor, keep in mind you’d probably have to be walking up stairs too with your groceries.
- Did I mention that you’ll have to find childcare for any children you have? It’s that or take your toddler with you on this venture. If you’re carrying a baby you’ll only have one hand to carry groceries with.
Sound fun? Oh, you’re not willing to do this and think that I’m exaggerating? Try googling grocery stores in an inner city neighborhood. Shocked at how far they are? Calculate the time it would take you to get to said grocery store from an average neighborhood using public transportation or walking. Add 10-30 minutes for the bus breaking down and/or you being tired from working all day. Now google convenience stores/mini marts/fast food places nearby. I won’t ruin the surprise for you by telling you how much closer they’ll be.
Are poor people really lazy? Or are they systematically given more numerous and less nutritious food options in their neighborhoods?
(I am not the expert on this, so please feel free to add to this challenge or change parts of it. I’m just trying to get some of these people to put themselves in another person’s shoes.)