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I Learned the Hard Way What It Really Means to Be Poor

If you don't think you can fall into poverty, think again. And Trump, together with a GOP-led House and Senate, are going to make it so much worse.
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There is nothing easy about being a single mother in this country, especially if you’re not able to draw a living wage. Not surprisingly, it’s about to become unimaginably worse with a GOP-led House and Senate, and Donald Trump in the White House, all of whom have prioritized ending Obamacare and repealing Medicaid expansion, which could result in more than 20 million people on the poverty line losing their health insurance. Tax cuts for the rich would mean the Republicans’ demand for balanced budgets would ensure assistance and welfare programs are guillotined—good-bye food stamps, housing and energy assistance, and other necessities of life. The reality for many of us living near or on the poverty line as we go into 2017 is complete uncertainty: The programs that are a deciding factor between staying afloat or descending into free fall are no longer our tenuous anchors to safety.

Three years ago I was married. I owned property and a $10,000 van. I paid my rent with ease and even had some savings in the bank for the first time in my entire life. I guess I was considered middle class. I was certainly not what you’d call the working poor, or “in poverty.”

The official government definition—at least as recently as 2015—is that an individual who earns an annual income of less than $12,082 was considered to be “in poverty.” This rate goes up exponentially for each family member you add to the equation, so that for two people it’s $15,391, and for three it’s $18,871, with slight variations taking into account the ages of those people (the bar for pensioners is a little lower). This seems pretty simple enough for us to understand: Poverty is measured by income, and has used this yardstick since the 1960s. In 2008, however, something else was published alongside the Census Bureau’s traditional measurement of individual or family income: the Supplemental Poverty Measure Overview, which is now heading into its seventh year and seventh report.

Unlike the Census Bureau and Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) conclusions about poverty, thresholds used in the SPM are “derived from Consumer Expenditure Survey expenditure data on basic necessities (food, shelter, clothing, and utilities) and will be adjusted for geographic differences in the cost of housing.” This is a much more complicated means of assessing whether people are poor. It concludes that more people in the U.S. are poor than the government thinks: an additional 2 million people.

But even if the government doesn’t consider you to be poverty-stricken, chances are that if you have no savings, no credit, no regular income, no assets and no support, you’re probably poor. Unsurprisingly, the cliché of the single mother as a welfare recipient is true for a very good reason. Single mothers are way more likely to be poor than married mothers: In fact, 39.6 percent of single mothers are poor, and 51.9 percent live in extreme poverty, extreme poverty being defined as having incomes of less than half the government’s definition of poverty.

By the end of 2014, I had quickly become a poverty statistic.

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I have been poor before. I am like a lot of people who struggle with income insecurity: I lack the stability that family money provides, and I work as a freelancer, which means I do not receive health care, holiday and sick pay or maternity leave from my employers, not to mention an office, office supplies and other items employees take for granted.

I am freelance not by choice, but because I entered into a field—writing—which rapidly has become saturated and devalued by the prevalence of internet substitutes for print journalism, for low cost web series over lavish TV productions.

I became freelance because, quite simply, I couldn’t find steady, stable work.

***

For most of my post-college years, I’ve struggled to survive on a freelance wage. Multiple times I’ve been unable to afford rent or utilities, and have relied on boyfriends, friends, or low-income jobs to provide me with a place to live while I wait for the next check.

In 2013, after six months living in a beat-up, broken-down van in a parking lot with my husband, it looked like my career had taken an upturn and I earned about $150,000 that year just from writing film and television scripts.

I bought a $10,000 camper van outright, the idea being that if we had to move back into the van again in the future, we could get rid of husband’s and at least have one that worked. I leased a brand-new safe car that would not break down, ready for my first baby. I’d never owned a car that was less than 20 years old before. My credit score was around 800 and I had savings. I paid $2,000 a month for a two-bedroom rental in Venice Beach which we hadn’t even lied to get, and I had health insurance. I felt extremely middle class. I was middle class.

I felt guilt, naturally, as all of us who have lived in poverty do when we finally clamber out of it. I saved and counted pennies and chided my husband to be more aware of what he spent: He earned very little and was disastrous with money. He, having claimed bankruptcy shortly after we met, did not understand my fear of debt and my fanatical desire to save lest my freelance luck run dry. He wanted to cruise, quit work while I was earning, and use my credit card to buy some land and serious vacation time. He stopped working full time, and used our savings to pay for bills, saying that I should be the breadwinner for awhile. It became a major point of contention between us, just one of many that pulled us apart. When he walked out on me and our 8-month-old son, he took with him our savings, my van, and stopped paying me even the modicum of funds he had been contributing to our family (on average about $700 a month for three years). He then assiduously tried to go after any other assets I might have through court. With a new baby to care for, no family nearby, no way of working (he claimed I was a flight risk and my passport was taken) I sank quickly, from disability onto unemployment, from unemployment onto WIC and foodstamps, and then, after a girl in DPSS tipped me off on how to apply, onto Calworks—government cash aid.

My story is an unusual one: Rarely do people suffer quite so much from divorce, but a confluence of circumstances and bad luck and ill health conspired to bring me low, and keep me here for over two solid years.

I find being poor with a child way more difficult than being poor as a single woman, though I would not recommend either. It’s exhausting, necessitating frequent trips to the bank to juggle cash in between accounts and try and avoid overdraft charges and make payments and hustle for the next bit of cash. It’s debilitating, the constant daily stress is unbearable, if I’m being honest. It’s isolating. I rarely get to hang out with friends unless it’s at their home, eating their food, and drinking their drink accompanied by my son, and I have enough money for the gas to get there. But most of all, poverty makes me feel bad about myself. Really bad. It does not help to hear people tell me to:

a)  Meditate

b)  Do yoga

c)   Talk to a therapist

d)  Budget

e)  Change my attitude

f) Quit fighting with the world

I am 37 years old. I have done my share of internships and sleeping on sofas. I have ticked all the boxes which are meant to ward off the situation I find myself in. I had no debt at all before my divorce, I have an undergraduate and graduate degrees, years of experience. I've published a book with Penguin, I have trained myself in a specific field, I have earned awards and achieved some kinds of recognition.

The problem, I would like to suggest, is not my attitude to life.

We live in a system that means if you lose a job or your primary source of income at the same time as you incur significant expenses due to a life change which affects your ability to work—a life change such as illness, mental illness, having a child, divorce, moving, caring for a sick family member, for example, then you are, to put it bluntly, screwed. Unemployment and disability and Calworks: None of these is a safety net.

So it's not an attitude change that I need. I need employment that provides me with a living wage, a wage which will cover my rent, my food, my insurance, and my son’s child-care costs.

****

For some reason, the latté is always the first thing I reward myself with when I get my cash aid. I am sure that other poor people reward themselves too—with gum, a beer, a movie ticket. Maybe cable TV, Nikes, and manicures, sometimes with cigarettes and chocolate and booze. No one admits to this, of course. The working poor is a hated class in America, even lower than people on the street who at least have accepted their fate and don’t aspire to have a roof over their heads and paid utilities (the nerve!). With this in mind the working poor admit to cleaning homes and prostitution and eating ketchup sandwiches. The affluent in this country are treated as deserving, and should be rewarded with luxuries. We do not admit to blowing our money, because we have a responsibility to uphold. Those of us who live in poverty—REAL poverty—need to suffer 24/7 and that anything that does not directly contribute to the basic necessities of surviving is frowned upon. Which is why we need to keep fighting against the way we're depicted in the media. The working poor are regarded as untrustworthy; aid needs monitoring so that any money is spent responsibly, sensibly, on mere necessities and nothing more. Programs which pass through Congress and the Senate are restrictive and punitive. WIC is a forbidding and complicated system which gives pregnant women and new mothers checks to spend on "food" with which the government has contracts. It buys you cornflakes, genetically modified peanut butter, apple sauce, beans, rice, milk, wheat bread and the like. EBT will not allow the purchase of prepared foods, alcohol, hot drinks and more, although smoothies, soda and cupcakes will pass the checkout without signaling any alarms. To continue claiming Calworks I had to see a therapist for months who declared that I had PTSD from an abusive marriage, and I had to sign up for "job retraining" at my local community college.

A recent article in Bloomberg stated that nearly all Americans believe they’re middle class, whether they earn $22,000 a year, or $220,000 a year. I can believe it. I lived in Venice Beach for several years where the predominant bleat from stay-at-home moms living in million-dollar houses they owned was that they were "too poor." One mom, coming back from her third foreign vacation in seven months, stated that she couldn’t afford preschool for her 3-year-old. The Westside Waldorf, her preferred choice, is approximately $28,000 a year. Another mom put herself and her child on MediCal while her partner brought in upward of $200,000 a year and paid $4,000 a month in rent, $1,200 a month tuition for pre-K, and they own two cars. He even gave her a monthly stipend he deducted from his taxes by forming an LLC and claiming her as an employee. Another mom who frequently voices concerns about money lives in a three-bedroom beach bungalow with a yard, two gardens, and a back house, purchased for her and her husband by her parents.

Clearly I’m talking about a very specific population here: extremely affluent women with professional partners and/or wealthy families earning six figures living in one of the most expensive areas in the country. But their seriousness when they claimed they were struggling, their very use of the "poverty" made me question what poverty is—particularly when very few of us seem to understand ourselves.

Does being on Medicaid, food stamps (EBT), and cash aid define a person as poor? Apparently not. In California at least, you can earn 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Level before you are ineligible for foodstamps, which means those earning $22,000 a year and considering themselves middle class are, in California at least, eligible for government assistance. Does receiving financial aid make you poor? On the flipside, more incentives for middle-class families mean that those who are not traditional seen as poor are now receiving federal aid for college, aid which was earmarked for students living in poverty.

The thresholds of poverty are pretty mind-boggling to those of us who live in a major city where you can’t get a studio for less than $1,200 a month in rent, and even a room in an apartment share will probably set you back at least a thousand a month. Room shares in private houses—where two people share a room—are currently around $500 a month in Los Angeles.

I left my home in Venice Beach recently because it became too expensive, and I moved twelve miles inland to one of the few cheap(er) areas left in Los Angeles so that I could find a two-bedroom house I could afford. I wanted two bedrooms so that I could rent out or use the spare room for extra income, and when no one was there, I could use it as a studio for my photography, and eventually, hopefully, it would become my son’s room. I would have preferred to move to another state, but I had a court order preventing me from moving more than ten miles from my ex-husband. Every time I tried to convince him to leave as well he would growl a "No." My credit had gotten so bad that I had to take an overpriced place because no one else would rent to me and I had no one to co-sign my lease. These aspects of my life are extremely personal, and I would prefer to keep them private—but another thing about poverty is that I am forced to share these facts to keep receiving EBT and CalWorks and child-care assistance and fee waivers and child support from my ex and some degree of understanding from people who clearly have no idea what it’s like in this situation. I am forced to regularly rip open the most deeply personal aspects of broken finances for further inspection and humiliation, and, consequently, judgment.

That's right: I am no longer allowed privacy. I have to produce bank statements, check stubs, tax returns, and income verifications for everything I do. I have to produce these to be told that I’m too poor to borrow money at an affordable rate, but I might be able to borrow money with a large down payment and a higher interest rate. I have to produce these to be told I’m poor enough to receive assistance, or poor enough to ask for more child support from my ex-husband, or poor enough to receive discounted utility bills, sympathy, judgment, unhelpful advice or sneering contempt. Why am I going back to school? Because my cash aid will stop unless I retrain. Can’t you get financial aid? No, I’m not eligible for either financial aid or loans because my degree is from a different country. How can I afford child care? Because the government pays some of it while I retrain. Why don’t I get a minimum-wage job while my son is in child care? Because that job will automatically stop me from receiving free tuition, cash aid, and child-care bursaries, plus that job would not pay me enough to cover the $15 an hour it costs to send a child to preschool without those bursaries. Don’t I get child support? No, the government takes it to cover the costs of the benefits I’m claiming.

Poverty in America is complicated. It comes with reams of paperwork and bureaucracy and caveats. Miss a form about your income and no more food stamps or cash aid until you’ve sat in line for six hours straight at DPSS. Sometimes it stops for no reason, as if they're just checking to see if you’ll notice. Qualifying for one scheme often discounts you for another. You get lucky enough to have child support, then they’ll take it from you with one hand, and use the other to give it back to you in the form of a government-issued debit card which deducts $3 every time you use it at an ATM.

Poverty makes you lie. It makes you lie an awful lot. There is no way anyone can live off the money they give us, yet the money they give us they insist must be our only income, our only lifeline. A lot of us in poverty lie about income, because if we declare anything—even the $20 the neighbor gave us for watching their dog for a couple of hours—our cash aid will automatically readjust and lower to take it into account. We lie about bank accounts, and assiduously empty any we might have and keep savings hidden when it comes to reapply for EBT, because if the government sees you have even a couple hundred bucks in your child’s savings account given to you by grandma, your aid is cut off. We lie about partners and boyfriends and girlfriends and anyone we are not married to who might be giving us any kind of financial help at all, no matter how small. Even though our rent is deemed too expensive, we cannot tell anyone about the AirBnB folks who bring in an extra $600 a month, because that is deemed income as well. We lie about credit cards and family help and that mini-break we took where we went out of state for two nights and paid 25 bucks to camp in a forest and forget about our complicated, painful lives even though we desperately needed to pay our electric bill instead. Of course many people don’t lie, let’s not tar everyone with the same brush and give the Republicans fuel. But I can guarantee that many more of us do, and we lie because we could not survive without these lies, so rigid, so narrow, so restrictive is the government’s definition of what need is.

 

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Ruth Fowler is a Welsh sceenwriter and journalist living in LA. Follow her: @fowlerruth
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