I know enough about poverty in the U.S. to be something of an expert. I earned less than $9,000 last year, the year before that was less than $5,700.
That’s money earned with hard physical labor. I don’t qualify for unemployment and haven’t for years.
It’s not something I’m proud of; ashamed is more like it. In the U.S., being poor, unemployed, or underemployed, even during rough times like these, is like wearing a badge of dishonor. You don’t advertise or talk about it. You suffer it?quietly, because no one, really, wants to hear it.
Or, when they do, they seem to have little clue about what it means or how it actually feels, what it does to your sense of wellness, to your sense of place in the community.
“I couldn’t live on that for a month!” a friend recently declared of the $9,000 I earned last year. Then, he smiled, and said: “In a way, you’ve got an advantage over a lot of people who’d probably kill themselves if they had to live on that small of an income.”
I didn’t know what to say. It seemed like a compliment. I couldn’t be sure. Perhaps it was a slanted reference to some kind of resourcefulness that the poor are supposed to have when money’s scarce and steady decent jobs with living wages are difficult, if not impossible, to find.
Or maybe it was an unintended commentary on the shallowness of people whose lives are so fully defined by what they earn, what they wear and what they buy that they must kill themselves when those things are no longer within easy reach.
If so, it suggests that greed has made fools of us all. We thought we could have it all, but guess what? We can’t.
I felt sad for anyone who’d want to kill himself simply because he had to live on less. I may be poor, but I’m not destitute. I have friends, I have my health, and that’s plenty, but I’d sure like to pay my rent on time.
I no longer have to juggle my bills; I simply can’t pay them. I live on a wing and a prayer. I’m as resourceful as I know how, but without my friends, without Amber, I would be destitute.
Still, it hurts to be poor.
I get a queasy, sinking and embarrassing feeling each time I drive through town, for example, in a truck that chokes and sputters from an exhaust system that’s about to fall off the chassis. I don’t know a damn thing about trucks. I’d fix it, if I knew how.
I hope no one sees me when I drive through town, the only way, really, to get to work, but they do, and they laugh. I’ve observed them, my own hometown people, laughing at me.
“Hey, your truck smells like gas, really bad,” remarked a village elder recently as I approached my truck parked in front of the liquor store, where he lounged on a plastic chair, resting from his daily rounds through town.
“Yeah, I know. Thanks,” I said, hopping into the small, rusting and disheveled 25-year-old Toyota truck cab. He shook his head in disgust as I turned the ignition. It did smell bad, fire hazard bad, and it choked and sputtered as I drove away.
What could I do? It’s been hard to pull enough money together to buy parts. I need the truck to transport tools to the farm every day. I need the work. I’d take a bus but the bus doesn’t go to the farm, and it would be impossible to carry my tools.
I’ve thought about asking the boss to give me an advance but I don’t like doing it because it just puts me further behind and I hate the feeling of trying to catch up. I don’t like indentured servitude.
I traded some garden labor with a mechanic friend for repair work on my truck. He’ll do the work if I buy the parts. He doesn’t like working on cars but he’s a good friend and he wants to help out. I spent a couple of days weeding, trimming and potting plants in his back yard and earned about 12 hours of mechanical labor in trade.
In the off years, when steady work as a journalist or editor hasn’t been available, I’ve picked up work as a laborer, growing blueberries at the farm and installing landscapes. In fact, in this economy the best job prospects for the unemployed are the military and farm labor.
I’ve already done my military service and I’m grateful for the benefits I’ve received from it. I picked the latter opportunity, which, as it turns out, isn’t too bad. I like it. Unfortunately, farm labor doesn’t pay that well.
I’ve been lucky up to this point. At 52, I’ve managed to stay mostly healthy and I enjoy the physical labor. But it’s beginning to tell in ways that I never expected in my 20s and 30s, when such work didn’t seem to hurt as much or as long as it does now. The aches and pains are the same, plus some new ones, but they don’t go away very easily, and it takes longer to get things done.
I’m not complaining, but I worry sometimes how much longer I can trade hard physical labor for truck repairs, food and money.
“Jesus!” I declared recently to Amber’s and my own dismay, “Do you realize that in 20 years I’ll be in my 70s?”
“Do you have to talk like that?” she responded.
I don’t like it either but the realization that time passes more quickly with each day hits hard when you’re past 50 and broke and few jobs are available. Like many boomers of late, I have to ask: “How will I support myself when I’m old?”
“A lot of people mistakenly think you’re my sugar daddy,” Amber said recently.
“I am, sweetie, I am your sugar daddy.”
Where do people get these ideas? I haven’t paid my share of the rent in more than two years, not since the economy tanked. It’s been hard on both of us, but mostly on Amber.
“Maybe you could get a job as a bartender,” she said, offering encouragement. “You’re good with people.”
Not really, not that good, I think. I’m an angry white person, a displaced cynical journalist, who’s beginning to understand what it means to live on the financial fringe, to be an economic outcast. If you don’t have money in the U.S., it’s assumed that you’re not a player; you’re little more than a sorry loser.
I’m not saying that’s the way things really are, I’m not saying I’m a loser, but it feels that way sometimes. It feels that way when people laugh at me as I drive past in a smelly, choking rust bucket. The looks I get seem to say, “Why don’t you just fix the damn thing?”
I love my truck and I’ll get it fixed as soon as I can, as soon as my finances allow, and I probably could grow into a likeable bartender. I’ve got other friends who’ve spent their best years tending bar, who would teach me how, but I like what I’m doing. I like growing plants.
Unfortunately, no one tips at the farm.
“When you get the money,” my mechanic friend said, “you’ve gotta replace that leaky exhaust system; it’s really bad to drive around like that. That’s how they used to kill Jews.”
He was born and raised into a Jewish family and says things like that when he gets frustrated at my apparent lack of concern about odorless deadly gas leaking into my truck cab.
“Don’t worry, Larry, I drive with the windows down. Soon as I get some money together, I’ll let you know.”
One disadvantage of being poor, I guess, is that even if you don’t want to kill yourself, you’re much more at risk of dying from hazards such as leaky and broken exhaust systems, or bad tires and brakes, or, as in the case of so many uninsured men and women my age, from unattended ill health.
I’ve been fortunate and I count my blessings for my health, for friends like Larry, and for my partner, Amber, who has picked up the slack where I’ve been lacking. And for the healthcare assistance the Veterans Administration offers to indigent veterans like myself.
The feeling of contributing little, or sometimes nothing, is the most devastating part of being poor in the U.S., especially for a man who is supposed, at my age, to be easing into retirement and living the “good” life, driving a nice car and smoking expensive cigars.
I blame mostly myself. It’s not just a bad economy that’s made things tough. The choices I’ve made have also been a factor. I’m not a “player.” I hate corporations and people who think they’re superior because they wear suits. Were it not for the lack of adequate financing, and feeling bad about it, I’d say my life is pretty good. Why throw it away simply because I’m broke?
“You’ve gotta be yourself,” Larry said as we sat in the garden one recent afternoon. I lamented the lack of a steady, good-paying job. He said: “Not everyone can work the nine to five routine, put on a coat and tie and play the game.”
Think of all the poor damned souls who have sacrificed the better part of their selves just to make a buck, he added. They’re mere shells, not fully realized individuals, even if they do have money and all the toys to go with it.
On the other hand, I thought, how many fully realized individuals do you know in the U.S. who earn less than $10,000 a year? In India, maybe, but not the U.S. Americans are definitely not enlightened when it comes to living on less.
I’ve recently picked up extra work writing for two online publications but it’s tough to get the juices flowing sometimes, especially after a day of working hard in the field, especially in the midst of harvest; and the pay for writing and editing doesn’t appear to be what it once was when print dominated readers’ attention.
Still, I push myself the best I can and try to make the most of my opportunities, and learn to live with less.
Recently, I managed to get enough money together to fix the thermostat, which was causing my truck to overheat. Larry patched it up, put in some new plugs and wires, and said, “OK, let’s turn it on and see what happens!”
I turned the key and she started up without a hitch, and the temperature gauge held steady on the cool side. Great, I thought, at least she’s running cool and on four cylinders now instead of three, thanks to the new plugs and wires.
“Oh Jesus!” Larry cried. “You can’t drive this thing. Turn it off!”
The fuel pump’s gone bad, he said. It’s leaking like crazy. We drove to the auto store for the third time that day, each time buying more parts which, when added together, came to a total of more than $150.
It may not sound like much but it’s a bundle, and a burden, when you’re struggling to pay the rent. Being poor certainly has its pitfalls, none yet that are worth giving up my life for. I certainly wouldn’t kill myself for a reduction in monthly income of $9,000 or more to less than $1,000.
Yet, it hurts me bad when Amber asks: “Are you going to have your share of the rent this month?” And I say: “Well, it’s not looking too good, honey, but at least my truck’s running.”
Stacey Warde is a writer and blueberry grower in Cayucos, Calif.