I Am the Working Poor

First of all, it’s important for you to know how normal I am.  Average-looking girl of average height and average build from a middle-class household in a middle-class neighborhood.  I might be just like you. 

I have a degree from a performing arts conservatory and another one from a University.  Sure, they are both theater degrees but they have to mean something, right?  I slowly paid off my student loans after college, never carried too much of a credit card balance, worked and planned and struggled, got married, had two kids, got an inheritance, bought a condo, paid off all the debt…

Not too long ago, we were in a great place.  We owned a home, had no credit card debt, had retirement accounts and a small money market, and were looking forward to me getting a part-time job once the kids were in full time school; something that would provide extra money for a nest egg and maybe a vacation.  Something that wouldn’t require too much child care.  It was a good plan. It was smart and right and fairly average and middle-class.

And then it was gone.

It sounded like this: ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPP!  Like the sound of a needle ripping across a Judas Priest album because you were supposed to be listening for an important phone call for your dad but instead you turned up the music really loud and he just came storming into your bedroom and you are seriously busted.  Like that.  If you have any recollection of record player needles or Judas Priest you might know the sound I mean.

Retainers for lawyers quickly took the retirement accounts and, eventually, the money market.  Living a life that was carefully planned out at a much higher take-home meant hemorrhaging money each month.  The debt began to rise and, eventually, became what many are now telling me is probably insurmountable.  And more legal fees and car repairs and being unemployed for a long time, and then being under-employed, and then being unemployed again, and now being under-employed again and child care costs and gas and the mortgage….

Are you married?  Is your spouse employed?  If he or she is suddenly gone tomorrow…if you wake up expecting your spouse to be there and he or she is not…can you pay all the bills and care for the children on your own?  For how long?

Many of us are precariously balanced, guys.  In homes that are underwater, staying home caring for young kids while the other parent works, or living a life built upon the sum of two steady jobs – as if one or both couldn’t go away tomorrow.  That’s not uncommon at all, is it?  That’s most of us.  And it’s a house of cards.  And, for some reason, we have the audacity to feel secure – we believe it only happens to other people - right up until the moment when it all comes tumbling down.

I read a blog by a dear friend the other morning. She wrote about seeing an eviction happen as she was walking to her home in DC.  And one of the commenters wrote: “This story could make me sad but it doesn't. This story makes me think of one thing, work.”

Now, first of all, that comment is poorly punctuated. 

But, ignoring that, it is an example of something that is very wrong in this country.  We seem to react to poverty with anger.  And while that is an appropriate response to the cycle of poverty in this country, we aim it in the wrong direction. 

We’re pissed at poor people.

That is SO messed up!

I work a minimum of 40 hours per week right now.  Some weeks I work more.  I am paid $4 more per hour than the brand new minimum wage that Illinois requires.  That minimum wage hike we just passed in November, remember?  And my paycheck covers my mortgage and my childcare.  Period.  No food, no utilities, no condo assessment, no high-interest credit card payments.   None of it.

At the minimum wage plus $4, I am the working poor.

What am I going to do?  I don’t know.  I honestly don’t know.

I qualify for food stamps (well, now it’s called SNAP)– a program the newly elected Republican majority has vowed to eliminate.  FOOD.  In one of the wealthiest countries in the world, we want to deny food to people who have the unmitigated gall to allow themselves to be poor.   Well, sure.  Shame on me.  I am college educated and I work full time and I care for my kids and I should be ashamed of myself.  Shame. On. Me.  Just rest assured that I am truly enjoying it.  Poverty is sexy and fancy-free, ya’ll.  WooHoo!

One minor emergency…an accident or my 2008 Scion breaking down or a health issue…one small chunk of sudden, unexpected loss…and I could easily miss a mortgage payment.  If I were renting, I would be one minor disaster away from missing a rent payment.  You’d be amazed by how quickly that can happen. 

But those things only happen to other people.  So you’re safe, right?

And if that were to happen to me, if I were to be cast out on the street, well, maybe someone would want to feel sad about it but maybe she just wouldn’t be able to.  Because she can only think of one thing: WORK.

Hey, blog commenter Susan Murray Girdis from Golden Gate University? 

You can suck it, lady. 

Not because I care what you think about ME.  My skin has become unprecedentedly thick.  No, think what you want about me, but I do care how you vote.  You and the people who liked your comment and the people who make thoughtless, ignorant remarks on blogs and Facebook pages across the nation: I care how you vote.  If I am going to live in a society where politicians have convinced themselves that $10 an hour is a livable wage; who believe that people who are so poor that they need government help to feed their children are somehow taking advantage of the system; in a society where people ignorantly assume that poverty only results from a refusal to work, then I really care how you vote. 

Being poor SUCKS.  No one is poor because they prefer government cheese and medicare to some high-paying job that is at their disposal.  And cutting off food to hungry kids won’t make anyone’s situation better.  And losing your home is sad.  For the love of Pete!  Why would I have to tell anyone that losing your shelter (in the winter, no less) and having your belongings thrown into the street to shatter or be picked over by scavengers is sad?!  It’s SAD!!!  How is it possible to be so judgmental about lives you know nothing about?  How is it that we have become so blindly and inexplicably furious at the least fortunate of us that we have lost all sense of humanity?

Denial, maybe?  Denial that we are…many of us…MOST of us…one big, sudden change away from a life we no longer recognize?  I get it.  That’s some scary shit.  And fear generally turns to anger.   Maybe it makes sense.  But it isn’t right.

In one of the richest nations in the world, it would behoove us to show a little more compassion and spew a little less venom in the direction of people in need.

So I guess, in that way, I do care what you think.

And I hope we all do better in 2015.

Wanna email me? Do it! mamabunnyandpip@gmail.com.

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