I was thinking today how bad I would be at being poor. I’m great at being broke. I handle broke like a champion. But broke isn’t poor. Broke is temporary with better things as a possibility. Poor is generally permanent; at the very least it feels that way. Poor has no clear way out. You can’t just hang in there until things get better because probably they won’t.
Being poor wouldn’t make me smarter or a better person than I am now. It would give me a different skill set, yes, but less formal education. So if I were poor, I’d most likely make all the same dumb mistakes I make now but there would be much higher stakes. Every bad choice would drive me deeper into a hole instead of merely keeping my retirement account from growing properly.
I’d buy my kids toys when they opened their eyes all big and asked nicely, even when they don’t need them. Even if I knew the toys were junk and going to break soon. I’d pay extra for the backpack that will help make my son fit in at school instead of the practical one. I’d probably even get myself the occasional treat I didn’t need.
And I would hate being poor. I wouldn’t be poor but happy. I’d be poor and miserable. I’d know there were better things out that, that other people didn’t live day-to-day and got to drink Coca-Cola when they wanted it instead of always having tea. I’d look at my one-room-house and my hand pump in the yard and instead of being grateful that I had a well right in my yard I’d be bitter (as bitter as those tea dregs) that I didn’t have a life with a shower like I saw in the Mexican soap opera.
If I had one kid, I’d long for more and hate that I could only afford one. I’d think about it all the time, wanting another little baby to hold. Or I’d go ahead and have that second kid and hope I could make it work.
I’d hate wearing the same four dresses all the time. I’d think about buying more on credit just so I didn’t feel so poor and drab. I probably wouldn’t do it, but I’d think about it. I’d long for a new dress all the time.
And if my husband hit me, I’d leave him and take the kids and we’d get even poorer.
I would hate my terrible job, whatever it was. Selling cigarettes one by one, or recycling plastic bottles, or frying dumplings to sell at a profit.
I’d be afraid pretty much all the time. Of not being able to provide for my kids – the kids I probably shouldn’t have had but wanted so badly I did it anyway. Of losing my job or my ability to work. Of having one of my kids get sick and not being able to afford good medical care.
I would get tired and frustrated and lazy and impulsive, just like I am now. I’d spend money on dumb stuff to make myself feel better about the life that I hated.
This is all a really long way of saying that maybe the most important thing I have learned in my career is this: poor people are still people. It’s not surprising when they make bad choices, because we all make bad choices. Being poor teaches your some very specific skills for facing a hard life, but it doesn’t make you immune to mistakes and poor choices. It just makes the consequences of those bad choices worse.
Many thanks to Adrienne Joy for proofreading