It sucks to be poor, but poverty comes in different shapes and sizes
I made 4200 bucks as an adult in 1991 and was well below the poverty line of 6900 bucks for that year. Let’s all hold off on shedding a tear for ol’ Mr. Smidlap, though. Here’s why.
I had lived away from home from age 20 in 1988. I had also always worked from age 16 until today. I was looking through a social security statement that lists your earning for your whole working life because I vaguely remember feeling pretty poor up until my mid-20’s. It turns out that I kind of worked my nuts off one year of high school to the tune of 3600 bucks. That’s over 1000 hours as a 17 year old making minimum wage of $3.35 an hour, but that’s not the point of the story. I quit college during my junior year in 1989 and moved to Buffalo, NY for my first tour of duty. My close friend was living there for college and offered up the couch in the apartment he was sharing with 3 guys from the track team. I think I was paying them about 90 bucks a month in the student ghetto. I worked a series of extra-shitty temp jobs while I tried to figure out what to do with the rest of my life and worked out with the team to stay fit. The place was a supreme and wonderful hovel and I scraped by until I finally found a temp job for somewhere along the lines of $7 and hour. I remember I hadn’t even mentioned to my folks that I was leaving school and I had no things to speak of except my classic cooler/nightstand and my clothes. I didn’t even have a mattress and slept on one of those egg crate type foam pads on the floor of my former apartment. It still didn’t seem to bad to me the whole time.
Buffalo was a terrible economy in those days and I felt lucky to have my lab monkey job preparing environmental samples for testing. I even brought my other buddy from New Hampshire and got him the same crappy job working alongside me. We were poor but having a great time. Then we lost our jobs around Thanksgiving of 1990 and the oil tank of the apartment we were all sharing was empty. We ended up on some state program (HEAP) that paid for our heating and electricity for the winter as we looked for work in a lousy economy. I remember clearly when the utility bills would come in the mail and we eventually stopped even opening them and just tossing them in the trash instead. You can’t get blood from a stone, after all. We were all smart but completely not savvy or networked or sophisticated in trying to find work. It might have been easier where we grew up about 300 miles east but we were determined to make it. Only one of the three of us had bothered to graduate college and got so pissed off at not being able to find decent work he enlisted in the Army (while the 1st Gulf War was starting). In other words, things were bad. Unemployment funds got us through the winter and spring and summer but by that time we had to figure something else out. We had one in the Army and the other went back to temporarily living with his folks and I ended up in my crappy little home town staying with an uncle who had a ton of space and liked having company around. It was better than moving back in with dear old Mom and Dad, who didn’t see eye to eye with me on much and especially how I would conduct my life.
Even in the year I only made 4 grand we managed a good time. Hell, we had enough money for beer and we had a dart board in the apartment and heat courtesy of the government. It gets pretty cold in Buffalo, if you hadn’t heard. I can’t say it wasn’t a little stressful, though. Here you are an intelligent and willing and able-bodied adult not able to find work. Ouch. The other years from ’89 to ’92 I barely got my head above the national poverty line and I paid rent and bills the whole time and had a car too. Well, there was that one year period rent-free with Uncle Junior but I otherwise supported my own sorry ass. I worked as a fry cook during those days and eventually made a failed move to Boston where I lived in a nasty boarding house full of criminals. They were your harmless dope dealer types and were kind of fun and depressing to be around all at the same time. They always had beer to offer. I used to ride my bike from the boarding house to my second shitty lab tech job in another crappy environmental lab. I remember going to Lallapalooza II that year of 1992 and being tossed on the stage during the Pearl Jam set. Once again, lack of big dollars didn’t ruin my early 20’s. I did mostly cheap stuff with my friends (a $2 cover charge was a no-go due to lack of funds in those days) and worked out all the time and was in great shape. If you look at the figures you might have thought it was a miserable existence but that was only partially true.
Lessons from my poor days
- If you start school you ought to finish if you can. Nobody cares if you are smart if you really have nothing to offer to an employer. Another thing worth mentioning is that school is not a terrible place to be during a recession. If you have to take the classes you might as well do it when your prospects are the most dim.
- Having a network helps. If we had moved back to the area where we grew up we likely would have been able to find work before unemployment benefits ran out and been able to stay independently in a shared apartment.
- Share housing if you can. I think the rent in that whole period was never more than $150 a month each and was often less than that. You’ll have more money for beer and liquor that way. The other upside of that is the social one. It’s great to have company around if you have 24/7 free every week.
- Try hard but don’t beat yourself up. Times will get better if you are a decent person. By 1993 I found my first real job with a chemical company. It wasn’t lucrative at first but they paid for me to finish my degree (favorite college hack right there) and the money got better with time served.
- When you don’t have any income go and try and do something/anything. Check your ego at the door and be a line cook. Hell, why do you think I’m so good on the grill now? Those low level jobs are staffed with a bunch of humorous underachievers too. You’ll feel like king of the world. I spent some time working in a friend’s deli too. Take some temp work in your field to get a foot in the door. I’ve gotten 2 full-time stable jobs from starting as a contract/temp worker, including the one I’ve had the past 14 years.
- Don’t be too choosy about where you live. Obviously you have to draw the line at personal safety but nothing entitles you to the Taj Mahal.
How poverty was different for me
- I was never hungry. I don’t remember a day going by where I didn’t have enough to eat. I couldn’t afford lots of common items but it wasn’t the worst thing in the world. It’s different from somebody who can’t function properly because of hunger. I hope I never have to find out and I hope the same for you.
- I had a foundation. I grew up half bright and had a few skills like literacy and math and limited knowledge of how the world works. I was lucky never to have experience the hopelessness that generational poverty can infect a young person with. I expected my situation to be temporary and for an eventual good outcome. I think some are already defeated because it’s all they ever knew or experienced. On the other hand most of my outcomes were positive in life up to that point so that period just felt like a bump in the road. I was lucky to have interested parents who knew that I had to learn to read so then I could read to learn. They did so at an early age and it builds confident to tackle other little things like a job loss.
- I had support if needed. Staying behind to try and tough it out was possible because I and my friends had family whom we would want to ask for help but we could. In case of emergency break glass and call family. I think it’s different and temporary-feeling poverty from the young person who had nobody in particular they can count on if the chips are down.
- It was just me. I had roommates but no spouse or children to add a sense of desperation at letting down another human being. I can’t overstate this. It’s different (or ought to be) if there are people counting on you. I like to think I would have made other, more responsible choices if I had a different family dynamic.
I think the mindset is the biggest thing that can get a person over a hurdle like temporary poverty. You know deep down there will be an end to the hardship. It’s the same thing with going from deep in debt and spending every dollar to saving and investing for the long haul. You know that set-backs are temporary inconveniences only.
How about you Smidlappers? Have you ever been poor for a long or short period? Ever have to do a crappy job for a long or short period of time when the chips were down? Do you think I got it all wrong on the topic? Let me know.