The Cost of Being Poor

Imagine watching the clock as you speak to a customer over the phone at your $9 an hour job on a Wednesday afternoon. Job number one of three. You try to rush the customer off of the phone because it is 3:07 pm and your shift was over at 3:00 pm. The bus comes at 3:14 pm and you rely on it to get you home by 4:32 pm just in time to stuff your mouth with leftovers and change into your uniform for job number two. You have to leave by 4:55 pm to walk the block and get there by 5 o’clock sharp. You mentally prepare for all this as you wrap up the call with the customer.

You thankfully make it off the call in time to sprint for the bus. Sweaty and out of breath you sit down and close your eyes. It’s a long, slow, loud ride but you still take the opportunity to attempt to decompress. You try to think of happy thoughts but other things creep in and you make a mental note of how much your check should be this month. Just as you get to the part of the script where you’re wondering what’s more important between electricity and water it’s time for you to hop off the bus.

You speed walk home, unlock and open the door to find…no electricity. Life has decided for you…once again. You forgot something, once again. You rummage through the pile of half read magazines and stuffed envelopes on the kitchen table for the last bill to see what it will take to get it turned back on. $102. You have to decide what to dip into or who to “borrow” from. You scroll through your list of contacts realizing that you literally owe everyone you know money. Okay, that won’t work. You consider getting another payday loan. Nope, you defaulted on the last few because the fees were higher than expected. You didn’t bother looking at the time because you needed the money either way and figured you’d worry about it later.

Instead you consider dipping into your rent money. You know from prior experience that it’ll take your landlord at least 60 days to fully evict you and you’ll find a way to make up the money by then…hopefully. Either way, you’ll cross that bridge whenever you arrive to it. As you pace the house, deep in thought, you suddenly are aware of a breeze hitting your big toe. You look down. Drats. A hole in your last decent pair of shoes. You have to look presentable for job number three as a hostess so there’s no way around it. You need to buy another pair of shoes. 

You just got these last month but they were only $15 and I guess you get what you pay for, huh ? Even the $15 is hard to stomach. It may seem small but no amount is small if you cannot afford it. You could get the $140 pair of shoes that you know will last you at least a year. Maybe even two years if you treat them nicely. But you don’t have $140. And if you did have $140 you’d need most of it to pay your electricity. Or cover your rent. Or buy food. Or save up for a car so you can stop depending on the undependable city bus. Or pay down a number of loans or pay people back. So you settle again for the $15 shoes that you’ll replace each month, shelling out a total of $180 a year plus tax.

The story never ends. Never ever. Everything is a trade off, not of want vs need but of needer vs needest. Even if you spent every single penny as wisely as possible you would still fall short of your NEEDS. There seems to be no end to it. So you indulge in wants anyway. “If I’m going to struggle and be miserable every day why not waste some money on smile ?”, you think to yourself. So you dip into the rent money, the grocery money, the whatever money and you engage in vices too. Drugs, alcohol and whatever else just to feel a slice of paradise as it pushes you even further into the hole.

More than 40 percent of Americans say they struggle even to make ends meet each month and would be unable to cover an unexpected $400 expense without real hardship. They’re living similar to the way described above. Americans making less that $25,000 a year only have a median bank balance of $500 at any given time. This means that one small setback could take 18 months to come back from in many instances. Any type of change in your life or routine can be devastating. If you get sick you cannot afford any type of unpaid leave. Taking care of yourself during a case of pneumonia could literally equate to homelessness. That is the life that almost half of Americans are living right in this moment.

Even worse, the number of people living like this is steadily increasing as the bridge between the rich and the poor grows wider and wider with every passing year. Middle-class has dwindled so much that it is nearly indistinguishable from the working poor. 

What can we do about this ? How can we somehow balance out the wealth ? How can we give people the tools, education and inspiration needed to creatively find their way into at least living comfortably ? These are questions we’re hoping to eventually answer. In the meantime, tell us what you think ?

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