Poverty is a vicious thing, isn’t it? Perhaps you don’t know that if you have never been someone who has lived in poverty. I read a story recently by a financial guru telling you how to “get out of poverty” and live “debt free.” All great tips and hints, but very few practical tips if you are actually living in that cycle.
We recently interviewed our friend Kate about her experience living in a cycle of poverty. Her insight is both heartbreaking and eye-opening.
HOH: Kate, thanks for sharing your experience with us. You came to us with the idea of running this interview, was it difficult for you to step up and say, “here’s my story?”
Kate: Yes and no. It is very humbling to open yourself up like this and allow people to see into a part of your life that is so raw, but it is something that I believe should be shared and I am hoping by sharing my story, someone will have their heart changed to the idea of poverty.
HOH: Before we move into your actual story, what do you think is the most difficult thing about sharing this story with people?
Kate: I think the most difficult thing is the stereotype people already have about people living in poverty. People have this idea that everyone living in poverty or receiving assistance, is a worthless, lazy person; but that just isn’t always the case. There are a lot of people who take advantage of the system, and that is horrible, but there are also a lot of people – like my family – who are genuinely using the system for assistance until they break through their hard time.
HOH: Tell me about your story before things got bad for you.
K: We were living a pretty good life. My husband is self-employed in the construction industry, and his business was doing very well. I work in a small office, and made enough to give us some extra mad money – as well call it. We bought a new house, but other than that we didn’t have any real debt. We had credit cards, but didn’t use them unless it was an emergency and we paid them off monthly. We had cars that were paid off, and we had managed to save a little for emergencies.
HOH: Sounds like you were just where people aspire to be in life. What happened that turned it all upside down?
K: Well being self-employed, my husband didn’t have health insurance, or sick leave, or all the things that most people have when they are working for a company. Flu season hit and my husband got sick… and I mean sick. He ended up with pneumonia and was out of work initially for just a few weeks. However, it didn’t get better and he ended up in the hospital for 2 weeks. By the end of his sickness, he had been out of work for almost 2 months. Our savings and my job kept the bills paid, and we were doing okay, but we had pretty much depleted our savings with his hospital bills.
Two weeks after he went back to work from the pneumonia, he broke his ankle. Being in construction meant he couldn’t work. This put him out of work for another 8 weeks. At this point, he had been out of work for just over 4 months. He had a really reliable employee who he had been able to put in charge of things until he was able to come back to work, so the business could stay afloat when he was gone. But, anyone who takes 4 months off of a job is going to have some ground to make up when they come back.
We knew we could come back from this, but it was going to take some work because we didn’t have any savings for cushion if something came up. Winter hit his business hard and it seemed after a few weeks we were just in a downward spiral.
HOH: Did you have a plan?
K: That’s the thing. We had a plan, when he originally got sick. We had a plan, but it wasn’t a plan that could carry us through a 2 month sickness, 2 months of a broken ankle, and 3 months of bad winter – which meant no work.
HOH: So, what was the next step you took?
K: We decided to sell one of our cars – which was paid for. We figured if he wasn’t working regularly we could sell that, have a little extra, and not have that additional insurance payment. We figured out how we could manage my job, the kids schedules, and his work – when it happened – with one car for a while. The problem with that plan – which we didn’t think through – was that when work picked up for him and we needed 2 cars, we wouldn’t be in a place to purchase one, without having a payment.
Luckily, my mom was able to help us and she picked up some of the slack when our schedules conflicted. My parents were also able to loan us a little bit of money, but they had a limited income and could only help so much.
We finally were at a point where we had to ask for help. I sucked up all of my pride, and applied for food stamps.
HOH: What was that like?
K: Awful. I cried the entire morning before I went to do it, I cried all the way through the interview, and I cried all that night. I knew the stigma that went along with seeking that kind of assistance. I hated it. I would have done almost anything else at that point to not have to do that.
HOH: Do you have food banks in your town? If so, did you utilize those and what was that like?
K: We have one food bank in our town, and you have to meet certain criteria to qualify for help. Unfortunately, we didn’t qualify.
HOH: Even though your husband was out of work?
K: Yep. If you are self-employed, they use your previous year’s taxes. Our previous year’s taxes showed a pretty large income… so we were disqualified immediately. They wouldn’t even take into consideration his not working, because he was self-employed and we didn’t have “proof” that he was unemployed.
HOH: How long did you live in this cycle? And what was your lowest point?
K: Total, we were in the cycle of poverty for almost 2 years… we are just now at a point where we are starting to come out of it, but we are still not in a great place.
My lowest point… probably when I had to borrow money from my Aunt and Uncle to get Christmas presents for my kids. It was another humbling moment because I truly wouldn’t have been able to get them anything if we didn’t… but to have to admit to someone how truly bad off you are is one of the hardest things. It’s easy to keep it bottled up and inside our walls, but when you have to let your kids or people outside of your home see it… it’s bad.
HOH: How did other people respond to you when you had to tell them the position you were in?
K: Everyone was different. Of course we had people who were kind about it, but most people judged us. Or tried to tell us how to manage our finances. People would see that we had cell phones, or cable TV, or a nice car, and would then think that we couldn’t be that bad off if we had those luxuries.
What they weren’t seeing is that we were locked into a contract with our phones and TV, and it would have cost us hundreds of dollars we didn’t have to break that contract. We had taken both things down to the smallest packages possible so we weren’t spending any more than we absolutely had to.
We took our trash to my parents across town, because we couldn’t afford trash service. Our car was totally paid off.
I think there’s this idea that if you are living in poverty you can’t, or don’t deserve to, have anything nice. And I think that everyone thinks they have a right to have an opinion on your finances.
We borrowed money from a friend once and from that point on she felt like she could tell me what I was doing wrong in my spending or how I should improve it. She admonished me once because I went to the movies… what she didn’t know was that I had gotten a gift certificate from a coworker and I was using that. Another time, she scolded me for having gotten a pedicure. When I told her that my mother-in-law had gotten it for me as a gift, she told me how I should have asked her to buy me groceries or pay a bill.
I had another friend who told me that I should have been buying more canned goods and making more casseroles to save money. When I told her that my family wouldn’t eat those things, she said, “Well, they must not be hungry enough. They are going to have to learn to eat what you cook.” Why would I make something my family wouldn’t eat? How would making a casserole no one ate be saving money or resources?
People always thought they deserved to have an opinion about what we were or were not doing. What they weren’t seeing is that my husband and I were making sacrifices every moment of every day to make sure our kids were taken care of and could eat. I would get a smaller portion of dinner to make sure it stretched enough so everyone else ate first. Or, I would “get busy” during dinner while everyone else ate, and then if there were leftovers I would eat… if not, I would fry an egg or have Ramen.
HOH: What did you learn from this experience?
K: A lot. We learned to always have a plan B, plan C, and plan D… all the way to plan Z. Looking back, I wouldn’t have sold our car. It was a temporary fix that in the end just created an even bigger problem. I would like to think that I learned to be a little more compassionate to others in similar situations. I was someone who had thought people using food stamps shouldn’t have a cell phone, or anything else. I learned that things aren’t always what they appear to be.
HOH: What would you like to tell other people?
K: I want other people to be less quick to judge someone. I felt those stares and heard comments, and it hurt. People living in poverty are still people. They still have feelings, and they still deserve to be treated like a human.
Also, take a moment to realize that a friend or family member living in this situation doesn’t need your advice all the time. Sometimes, they just want/need a shoulder to cry on. Sometimes, they just need someone to say “it’s going to be okay.”
Since my husband and I are back on our feet, mostly, when I have an extra $5 I will buy someone a coffee or their favorite snack… especially if I know they are going through a hard time.
I think, as a whole, we need to be more compassionate toward people… especially those living in poverty. We need to start focusing on how we can make changes in our own backyard, and not always seek to go other places for our service.