Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Poor Dears

This post has been a long time coming. I'm not sure why, except that I think I don't know how to articulate exactly what I'd like to say on this subject, and so even though I want to talk about it, the post sits in the draft folder. Plus, I've been hesitant to write about it because really, who wants to write about something that they can't find words for? (I'm going to leave the preposition where it is.) However, just yesterday, the term I'm going to write about came up, again, and I had to let the words flow.

What term? The word poor. As in, Please give to the poor. Or, I'm so poor I had to live off of food stamps for a while. Or (and this is where I get annoyed), When I was in graduate school, we were so poor we had to have a DIY wedding.

I'm not disputing the fact that many people in their lives, me included, have had to watch their pennies. With four kids, a mortgage, a home equity loan, and the fact that we aren't independently wealthy nor are are we supported by our parents, Tim and I still are very careful to watch most of our pennies. But when we were graduate students, with two children and one income (a stipend at that) I still would not have called us poor. When I was a kid and was forced to eat hamburger for the third night in a row (just in a different form) because it was the cheapest piece of meat at the market, I still would not have called us poor. When I was single and living in my own apartment and making next to nothing, I would not have called myself poor. Frugal? Yes. But if there is money in the bank (at least a little) and the ability to pay mostly everything and furthermore, the hope to get past that way of life, I would not call you poor.

The thing is, the wrong people are calling themselves poor. It's not the people on food stamps or the folks that line up at the unemployment office. It isn't the people who come in and need bags of food from the elementary school. It's the people who, when you really look at what they have, still have far more than many do. And I want to say this to those people:
  1. You are in college, getting an education that is being paid for by your parents, or one that is funded by a scholarship of some sort. You have clothes in your closet and a cell phone in your hand and food in front of you at least three times a day. You are far from poor.
  2. You are in graduate school, getting an education that is funded by the school, and yes, you need to pay for your own wedding, but you actually have money to do that. You have flowers and a dress and tuxes and food. You are not poor.
  3. You drive an SUV, all over the state. You go home to a house, with heat. You buy organic vegetables and prepackaged foods. And you have your daily cup of fresh brewed Starbucks, from the local shop up the street. You are not poor.
I glanced quickly at the federal poverty guidelines, more out of curiosity than a plan to paste any numbers in here. At any time, over the course of my life, have I been near the threshold for poverty? I thought. I don't know what my parents made during those years of eating far too much hamburger and canned vegetables, and I'm guessing they don't remember anyway. But based on the fact that we had a house, and two cars, and clothes on our backs, I'm going to say that while my parents might not have always paid off the credit card each month, we weren't in a dire situation.

I do know what my life was like the year the girls were born. Tim and I were both graduate students. I was blessed to be in a program that paid tuition and gave a very generous stipend ($20,000 that year). Now, that was Ann Arbor, and during that time, we paid $885 per month for a two-bedroom apartment, plus we had twin baby expenses, car insurance, renter's insurance, and groceries to buy. But based on that stipend number alone, if Tim hadn't been paid anything, my little family was already above the federal poverty guidelines of $18,100. Close, but no cigar. And as I said above, I still would not have called us poor.

Some people will balk at this post. I'm okay with that. And to be honest, I don't want to know what you make or how you make it or what you want to make or what you think of me. I just want people to be careful of what they say. If you're poor, there's nothing wrong with it. At all. You're in an unfortunate situation, one in which I'll do my best to help you, as much as I can. But let's all use the correct terminology here, people.

Funny how quick people are to call themselves poor. They're never so quick to call themselves rich.

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