“Being Poor,” Ten Years On

Ten years ago today, I put the essay “Being Poor” on Whatever. I wrote the piece, as I explained later, in a rage at the after-events of Hurricane Katrina, when so many people asked, some genuinely and some less so, why many of the poor people didn’t “just leave” when the hurricane smashed into the Gulf Coast and New Orleans flooded. I wrote it not to offer a direct explanation but to make people understand what it was like to be poor, as I had been at various times in my life, and could therefore speak on with some knowledge. The piece wasn’t about how people became poor, or why there were poor — simply what it was like to be poor, and to then try to get through one’s life on a day-to-day basis.

I posted it because I had to. I was in a rage at what was happening in New Orleans in 2005, but I was also sick, literally physically sick about it, and for days I couldn’t understand why. I had no direct connection to New Orleans and there was no one there I considered a friend, and other, equally terrible disasters had hit the US before and had nowhere near the same effect on me. Ultimately I began to realize the difference this time was that I was aware how differently the disaster affected people along economic lines, and how the lack of useful planning and response to the disaster essentially punished New Orleans’ poor.

I was not of New Orleans and I was not of New Orleans’ poor. But having been poor in my life, I remembered the difficulties being poor imposes, the lack of options it offers, and circumstances it presents, when no way through is a good one. I had been there in my life, and the lack of understanding I saw radiating out from people about the situation made me sick almost to the point of vomiting. I had to do something or I felt like I would explode.

We had donated money, of course. But it wasn’t enough. So I sat down to write something, anything. What I came up with was a list of things from my personal experience and from the experience of people I knew in my life about poverty and what it was like to be in it. Later some people said the piece was a poem, and I can see that, and they might be right. At the time that wasn’t part of my thinking. I just wanted to get what was in my brain out into the world. I cried as I wrote it, putting the rage and sickness I felt into words. Then I posted it up on Whatever.

And it ended up going everywhere.

It was reprinted in the Chicago Tribune and the Dayton Daily News and dozens of other newspapers. It was linked to and pasted onto hundreds of Web sites. It was read out loud on the radio. It was shared in emails and mailing lists. Eventually it made its way into textbooks and other teaching materials. Churches and religious groups by the score asked permission to use it. In an age before Facebook and Twitter (and even MySpace, really), the piece went massively viral. I encouraged this, of course. As famously “pay me” as I am, “Being Poor” is one piece I have never taken money for. I allow it to be freely distributed and when people ask about payment, I tell them to donate to a local hunger or poverty charity. It’s meant to be shared and read, and read as widely as possible.

It continues to be read, a decade on. There hasn’t been a year since it was posted that it hasn’t been one of the most visited entries on Whatever; this year, it’s currently the third most-read piece on the whole site. Year in and year out, people find it, or come back to it. This makes me very happy.

Which is not to say that people didn’t find ways to try to pick it apart. When the piece came out, I didn’t go out of my way to note that the piece was based on my own experience, so a number of people questioned the veracity of the piece, and my right to write it. When I did make it clear that the piece was largely based on my own experience, some folks then wanted to maintain that I hadn’t really been poor, or that “American” poor is not really poor compared to the poverty elsewhere in the world, or they would focus on one particular bit in the piece and declaim how it was in some way inauthentic, therefore throwing out the whole piece. Others simply wanted to blame the poor for being poor in the first place.

There is of course not much to be done in those cases. I lived my poverty; I don’t need other people to decide whether I was poor enough for them. The American version of poverty may be “better” than poverty elsewhere, but it’s bad enough, both objectively and in context. And while I understand some people prefer to believe poor people deserve the poverty they’re in, I know it’s not true, or at the very least, is such a small part of why people are poor. I didn’t deserve to be poor when I was a child; I just was. The people I know now in poverty aren’t there because it’s some sort of cosmic or karmic justice; they work hard and try to better their lives. But the fact of poverty is: It’s a rough climb out, and a steep fall back, and it’s not as if everyone starts out in the same place.

That said, I admit to being an imperfect vessel to speak to poverty in America. I have been poor in my life. I am not now, nor have I been anything close to poor for my entire adult life. In fact I am on the opposite end of the spectrum. You can even say that in many ways my life encapsulates the Horatio Alger “rags to riches” American Dream narrative that we have embedded into our national DNA: Scrappy ambitious kid takes his chances and makes a few breaks for himself and comes out on top. It can happen to you too!

Except the thing I know that gets elided here is that I’m one of the very few “rags to riches” tales I know of. Anecdote is not data, and the data says that it’s tougher to move up the socio-economic ladder here in the US than it is in most other industrialized nations. Not impossible, and I am here to speak to that. But tougher. And I am here to speak to that too — because I know the breaks that I caught, including the fact that I got a scholarship to attend one of the best college preparatory high schools in the country, which I attended while simultaneously living in a trailer park. I was launched into the ranks of the socio-economic elite and I haven’t come back down. But I also know that not every kid in a trailer park gets the break I did, a break contingent on one school deciding to let me in, not a state or national will to make things better for poor children in general.

I have been poor, and am not. That makes me not the best spokesman for poverty. But I continue to see poverty, where I live and in the lives of people I know, and I am in a position where when I talk, people often listen. So this is a thing I will continue to speak on.

And it is a reason why I’m glad “Being Poor” continues to be part of the conversation on poverty. For what it’s done and what it continues to do, I’m proud to have written it. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever written.

93 thoughts on ““Being Poor,” Ten Years On

  1. Preach it, John. I’ve been there too.

    Being poor is being unemployed in one of the most depressed parts of the country.

    Being poor is being grateful for WIC and food stamps, just so you can feed your family of five, and yet, still being ashamed you need them.

    Being poor is being grateful that you finally managed to land a minimum wage job at the sawmill, working your ass off in all kinds of weather with no heat and no air conditioning.

  2. I wish that people could experience outside themselves more often.

    I know I’ve read that before, but re-reading it was good. Especially now.

  3. I’d forgotten how powerful this one is. A fine piece of writing that touches both the heart and the mind, mostly, I think, because it’s honest.

  4. Yes, John.

    It IS one of the best things you’ve ever written. I’m glad you can embrace that. It continues to mean something.

    In a discussion today with two young writers, working together on a blogging partnership they hope will change hearts and minds, we ranged over a variety of topics, and someone brought up the characters of Peter and Valentine in “Ender’s Game,” and how they were changed by their experience of writing.

    Writing is a powerful engine of change, not just for the world around us, but for our selves, if we allow it. Writing can evolve us, or box us into our status quo.

    And when writing evolves us, AND pours change into the world around us, it sets up a feedback loop that resonates in a very big way.

    A way that matters to me, so thank you.

  5. I was going to write that it seems especially appropriate today in light of the huge humanitarian refugee crisis in Europe…

    And then I realized that it’s appropriate EVERY day, because people struggling and faced with no good choices are there EVERY day, it’s just that some events–Katrina, Syria, and so on–make the rest of the world more aware of them.

  6. I’m proud that my son, during Spring Break at his university, flew to New Orleans, partly underwater, and helped the poor, while George W. Bush flew overhead, and did the photo-op “You’re doing a heck of a job, Brownie.”

  7. As a child, I was lucky. My grandfather was a retired farmer with a couple acres of land. We ate what he grew. Lots of Mason jars in my childhood. School lunches, government cheese also helped.

  8. I used to work for our county social service agency and when I first read your essay here, I talked about it to everyone at work and gave them the link. Despite some folks’ desire to minimize what you had to say, you were the perfect “vessel” to discuss poverty. You’d been poor. “Poor” in the US has many faces. One of the most important things we can do is tear down the veils of denial and look realistically at poverty and its causes. People who work in programs like TANF and SNAP (Food stamps) often get jaded and start thinking of “the poor” as one type of people. Your essay was a reminder that this is not true.

    You talked openly about the fact that you had some resources and some good luck and you used those to be successful. Unlike a lot of popular “self-made” people, you haven’t turned away from your roots. You also have always acknowledged the people who were there to help you, from your mom to the school secretary (I think?) you wrote about so movingly a few months ago. You don’t buy into the myth that you did it all yourself, and you acknowledge that you stepped up to take advantage of opportunities. There is a good sense of balance there.

    The essay is still a model and a classic. Thank you, again, for writing it.

  9. This piece really helped me develop empathy. I didn’t see it until long after it was posted. But growing up in a wealthy home meant I wasn’t subjected to those experiences directly. I genuinely had no idea why they didn’t leave. It never occurred to me that underlying factors meant that escaping wasn’t their first priority, or that they may not have a place to go. Thank you for writing this. There will always be someone like me who wasn’t exposed to any other conversation than “it’s their own fault” and doesn’t know that’s a bad thing.

  10. I have been poor, and am not. That makes me not the best spokesman for poverty. with all due respect, the fact that you WERE but not ARE poor makes you a very good spokesman for poverty. It’s very hard for people to change the subject into what you should be doing to be not poor, and forces the conversation to stay on poverty.

  11. My how time flies. I remember went it was originally posted here. It was and is a very powerful piece of writing.

  12. I am sympathetic – I’ve been there but was very fortunate – and agree with you.
    One tiny point: I think you mean “Horatio Alger rags to riches story,” not O. Henry.

  13. I remember reading it and suddenly getting that I have never been poor. I have frequently been broke. Those things are not the same, but it took the Being Poor post (and the hundreds of comments) for me to realize that.

  14. “Being Poor” is excellent writing and I’m glad it continues to have so much influence. It should be required reading.

    We recently watched “Code Black” (the documentary, not the upcoming CBS fiction series based on it) and think it should be required viewing. It might provide that visceral effect that so many people seem to need before their empathy can be activated.

    The idea of people waiting up to 18 hours to be seen in an emergency room … and knowing that there are people out there who would say “why don’t they just go to urgent care.” *I* can go to a private urgent care because I can afford the $125 charge. The poor people who go to public emergency rooms can’t even afford the much lower charge at CVS or Target or Walmart clinics.

    There is also an extremely telling graphic, one that I think the filmmakers could have held on longer, in which a map of the US is first shown with indicators for all hospitals. And then all the private hospitals are stripped away, leaving a tiny number of public hospitals required to take all comers. There is ONE for the entire Midwest.

  15. For those who offer you up as proof that poor people need only pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, your post “A Self-Made Man Looks At How He Made It” is an excellent corrective. (Sorry, I don’t know how to insert the link.)

  16. Thank you for the excellent essay. I hope we can choose as a society to distribute our amazing wealth in more equitable ways.

  17. I think Shaming the poor is one of the biggest sadnesses of the American Culture.
    I live and work among the poor. I am climbing out of being homeless and poor.

    I continue to be surprised at the generosity of people who feel they have plenty to give just because they have an income. No matter how small that income is they will give to someone they know is in need. There are people who are poor that give more from their own pockets to their friends than Bill Gates gives to all the world when you look at it by personal impact.

    The poor are often generous. We know the fear when the income is gone, the lack of options. So we give.

  18. I have sent that link to multiple people over the years. It also helps me in discussions of privilege–we were working class (back when there was one . . .) and my mother can still squeeze a penny until it squeals, but we were not poor. My dad was poor–but it was the Depression (he was born in 1930), so everyone around him was poor, too. All of these nuances are important–and your piece is still an amazing, wonderful start to the conversation.

    I also second what someone above said about the fact that you are not NOW poor means that the conversation isn’t going to turn into hlepy suggestions about how you can not be poor any more.

    And, finally, you remind me in some ways of, of all people, Bruce Springsteen. His last album (or whatever we’re supposed to call them these days), “Wrecking Ball,” was one of the more searing indictments of the people who wrecked the economy and have yet to pay a price–and he was able to write it, in part, because he, too, had been poor.

  19. Being poor is waving flies off of your newborn while standing in line for govt cheese, because that’s the only way you’ll eat this week and (hopefully) keep your milk supply up so your baby boy won’t be hungry. All this while daddy’s in classes trying to get decent grades with nothing to eat.

    God we were hungry in college. It was freakin’ hard! Loans that we are still paying on 30 years later paid for classes, books, and on-campus housing. But food and dr appts and gas and clothes and diapers and … Everything else had to come out of two part-time jobs. We were so very hungry. We made it to “middle class” though and both have had good careers. It can be done, but dang it’s hard.

    Know a college student trying to do it on their own? Invite them over for dinner and send home leftovers. It might be the only meal they have this week.

  20. Thanks for this. I was very poor growing up and I’ve come a long way. But I still remember what it was like to stay in an abusive marriage just to keep a roof over my head. Too many people that if you’re poor, it must mean that you’re lazy. We need voices like yours to show that isn’t true.

  21. Powerful stuff, John. I was never really poor, but when growing up on Guam had cousins who were. I remember when my cousin Tammy was hurt that I’d told her ‘friends’ where she lived. I was only 11 and didn’t know. I had to ask her brother, Marco, why she was upset. But it was all there for me to see and when I think back on it, it was pretty grim.

  22. I have my students read it the first day in my class about economic inequality. It is familiar to a small handful of students and eye-opening to the majority who have never known anything outside of being strongly positioned in the middle class… and the fact that it is familiar to classmates is even more eye-opening. It helps frame the entire class as not being “us vs. them” or some sort of noblesse oblige on the part of charitable whites, but as what it could be like for anybody born in less fortunate circumstances. People aren’t stupid and they don’t do stupid things, they just operate under different constraints. And poor people are people, not some sort of other.

    It’s still really hard for me not to cry during that class, no matter how many times I read the essay.

  23. In reference to that Vox article:

    Being poor is having to sell blood and plasma to be able to eat that week, pay the rest of your rent that month or your utility bills. Paying for your sustenance with your sustenance.

    Being poor is making sure there are lots of blankets and electric heaters in the home, just in case the gas gets turned off.

  24. Still so grateful for this piece, even 10 years later. Being poor is never forgetting what it was like to be poor when you’re not poor anymore. I live in constant fear that this will be me again. Even though it probably won’t, but I know first hand how “steep the fall” can be. You did a good thing here, Mr. Scalzi. Lots of us have thanks we can’t properly express.

  25. I wonder if it was about this time that certain people decided you were somehow contemptible & “unworthy”?

    You have every reason to ignore your past & instead focus on being self-made & owing nothing to nobody. It would, of course, be a lie as it always is but many people live that lie as if it were true. Instead you reach out & try to create more understanding and, perhaps, even a better environment to deal with poverty. That makes you special, it makes you a mensch. I was poor long before you were born and struggled to make middle class but thanks for your helping others.

  26. It really is the best and probably the most important, if you count how many people have read/heard and thought about it.

    Being upper middle class 10 years ago and now slowly dropping below lower middle class with no bottom in sight means you’re glad you read Scalzi’s essay back then.

  27. I read your blog because of that excellent essay (I’m not a science-fiction fan).

    I think modern poverty is harder to escape than poverty in previous eras. My father, for instance, grew up in severe rural poverty–“if you don’t shoot enough squirrels or catch enough fish, there’s no dinner tonight” poverty. But he was able to work his way out of it, job by job by job. The early jobs were crappy.

    Now, compare him to a modern poor kid. No squirrels, no fish, only food stamps and their Byzantine rules. No crappy early jobs–those have all been shipped overseas. No non-crappy job without college ( and even those jobs are being crapified). No help from the government that collects a huge chunk of your meager pay when you are employed, and taxes your unemployment when you aren’t.

    You mentioned Katrina. When we were watching it, my father shook his head sympathetically at the naivete of those expecting help from their government. He was a kid during the Depression and remembered how long it went on before the New Deal started. He thinks the New Deal was a historical aberration, unlikely to happen again.

  28. One of the best and strangest feelings that I get when I read or reread “Being Poor” was that it was happiness. Your words were truth. I knew this, because I had been there. But the joy was in remembering all those hard times and not caring. Because in the end, we couldn’t be who we are today without having been there. We didn’t know we were poor. It just was what it was. And those were fond memories.

  29. I remember recently someone telling me that I was “clever” to have figured out how to avoid student loan debt.
    I responded by explaining that I’d been lucky and moved on. When I got home I put together a list of the different ways my family’s income growing up made a difference in the education I received.
    It was long. Too long to post here.
    If nothing else, my lack of debt is the direct result of a scholarship I was offered because of a high score on a test my parents paid $80 for me to take, that was offered in part because of the high graduation and college-entrance rate in my area.
    Sure I took the test by myself with what I had learned. But everything in the world conspired to put me in that chair ready to take it. It was nothing I “figured out.” Imagining 17-year-old me taking that test it’s actually absurd to think that I had ever wondered how I would pay for college.

    Looking at that test alone: Poor means being in that chair isn’t an option because your family doesn’t have $80 to spare, or because you had to work, or your parents had to work and couldn’t drive you. Poor means being too hungry when you get there to focus. Poor means that you never took some of the math because your school couldn’t afford a class set of the textbooks. Poor means that it never occurred to you to be in that chair, because you had considered paying for college and realized it was never going to be an option. Poor means the college board didn’t bother offering that particular test because most of the senior class was going to drop out anyway.

    Yeah. I was lucky. End of story. I hope I never forget that.

  30. “Being Poor” is something I re-read occasionally. It’s a good thing to keep in mind. Thank you for writing it.

  31. Growing up poor but proud (as the daughter of a rural Unitarian Universalist minister, I didn’t understand we were poor until I left Vermont) gave me the economic freedom to live modestly while pursuing a career in social justice related technology, while my peers grew fat and rich founding dot coms that made them rich. But I went out and did things that I believe changed the world for the better (digitaldivide.org, torproject.org, among others).

    Now that I am older and disabled by the sequelae of a stroke in 2007, I am poor again. The government makes you draw down your life savings before it gives you fuck-all of any assistance from its own coffers, so now I am living in poverty.

    For a while, hoping I would heal up from a devastating stroke that left me with a ruined hypothalamus, a totally slagged math center (the ruin of an engineer), epilepsy, no thyroid, autoimmune vasculitis that effects my mobility, horrible migraine like headaches daily, and more fun of all kinds — I took care of my mom for years keeping her out of dementia/Parkinson’s nursing care that would have cost the government something north of $10K/mo. I didn’t heal.

    To thank me for this, they have now decided that I am medically qualified for SSDI — but I took care of my mom for 14 months too long after stopping working full time, to qualify to get payouts under their bureaucratic rules, despite having paid in for decades.

    So now, I am impoverished again, and my hope is that I can get SSI, which is our “welfare for broken people.” Under this catfood-pay program (I will likely get something like $300-500/mo) any income I get will get deducted from my benefits, and that means if I sell a $35 crochet hat on Etsy, $35 gets taken off, not the profits, or the fair value of labor of materials deducted. This is to save you virtuous taxpayers from fraudsters such as myself.

    I am humiliated. I dedicated my life to service in the public interest, and now this is what I am dished out. I am appealing, but what I read of the regulations, I’ll need a lawyer, and I’m getting turned down by contingency shops.

    God bless America. We need it.

  32. For me, being poor meant that the doctor was only for emergencies.

    I was extremely lucky that my parents worked hard to position themselves within good school districts, that I was self-driven and so supported, that I could go to a good college.

    Then I had health insurance. They encouraged me to see the doctor. “Why?” I asked. The student worker at the desk stared at me blankly. “For a checkup?” She was probably being nice, but to me it sounded very much like, ‘Are you seriously that stupid?’

    In college (college! first in the family!), being poor meant being a stranger in a strange land. There were so many things that people “knew” that I had to discover the hard way.

    It’s okay to have someone else cut your hair.
    The dentist isn’t scary – it was never about his tools, just the potential for finding a ruinous problem with your teeth.
    It’s okay to save the money you have left at the end of the month. The terror is always there: have I forgotten to pay for something?
    It’s okay to eat something that isn’t on the Dollar Menu.
    It’s okay to not feel guilty about buying something.

    I still buy cheap shoes and wear them ragged before replacing them with more cheap shoes. I still buy all of my clothes on clearance, and browse the thrift stores for much of my wardrobe. My biggest expense is ironic defiance: I eat out for lunch because I can, instead of because I have to.

    But the worst thing I’ve retained is the mentality that I have to spend my money while I have it, because I never know when I won’t. I never learned how to budget because my parents never had a budget. They knew every dollar went to the house, food, utilities, and they never had enough to cover those so, really, what was the point?

    I have money going to a 401(k) because I forced myself to. I refuse to look at my pay stubs because it gives me a heart-attack to know how much money I’m sending away for “nothing.” Thinking of money so far in the future is so alien.

    So, yeah. Thank you for writing this. There are so many essays about being poor that were written shortly after Hurricane Katrina, but yours is still the only one that packs the emotional punch, is relatable, and can be read quickly enough that no one has an excuse to skip it.

  33. It was possibly the first piece I read by you, John. I say “possibly,” because I know that it was a very long time before I made the connection between “that guy who wrote the really brilliant article about what poverty is like in a way that some folks who haven’t experienced it can actually grasp” and “that guy who writes sci-fi and has a whole lot of really brilliant insights about various stuff that my friends keep linking to, and I probably ought to read more of his work.” I think it was sometime around your post about boycotts and their usefulness (or lack thereof) and the film of Ender’s Game hitting theaters that I suddenly said “Wait a sec! That name’s familiar…”

    I didn’t grow up in poverty. I landed there after “coming out” to my Mormon family as a queer woman, and knowing that trying to keep living under their roof wasn’t going to work. In the half-dozen years since, I’ve found myself with a crash course on “Being Poor,” and reading your piece (and holy crap, the flood of comments and stories from others) was much more of an “I know these feels” experience than I wish it were.

    Thank you for writing it. Thank you for continuing to speak out; as others have said, you make an excellent vessel for that. You wrote (somewhere on Whatever) about realizing that you’d filled up your tank of gas and realized that you didn’t know how much it cost, and then realized that was a problem, and resolved to keep in mind “how much everything costs” because forgetting that means forgetting being poor, and remembering where you were means remembering where so many of us still are. (I’m likely taking liberties, this is from memory, so…) I try to do the same; there are periods where things are slightly less shitty, and I make a point to carry with me the reminders of where I have been so that I don’t become calloused to “those people” who are poor — so that I retain as much empathy as possible.

    I know I’ve said it already, but again, thank you. Your words make a difference.

  34. Thank you so much for writing it. I think you captured not only your own rage, but those of us — whether we have ever been poor or not — at the callousness and cluelessness that seemed to float around in the days after Katrina. My kids were too young to understand it then, but when they got older I made them read it.

  35. I remember going out to lunch with a group of co-workers a couple of weeks after Katrina hit, and experiencing a sudden shock of white-hot blinding rage when one – the wife of a banker – sat there in her designer clothes and flashing diamonds saying “well, I don’t feel sorry for all those people who died, they just should have left when the evacuation orders came.” I’m Midwestern, and I didn’t actually stand up in the restaurant and smack her, but boy howdy, I sure wanted to.

    I hadn’t found your blog at that point, Mr. Scalzi, or I’d have pointed her to your excellent piece. As it was, by the time I finished explaining in detail exactly WHY all those people didn’t just leave, I had pretty much killed everyone’s appetite, and had lost a couple of friends to boot.

    Thank you, sir, for writing that.

  36. I read it some years back. The specific part that stands out is the euphony that you filled the gas tank and was *not* worried about the cost. Spot on.

    I am a contract engineer. There is little full-time or contract work in my home town. As a result, I have had gigs all over the US. When I have a contract, I see my wife and (grown son) about every three months. I make a decent hourly wage when on contract. I can usually save 1..2 months burn while looking for the next gig. I do not live large while on a gig – I usually can keep my burn under $1K or so (I need to setup a separate household). And most times, it is hard to find a gig between November and Feb/March. So I toggle between OK and poor. When I need to get an advance from the broker just so I can drive to the next gig and pay the bills before the paychecks start – can be exciting. Moving to another city would be difficult.

    One time, I wanted to take a class at my local Jr college to add to my skill set. I could not afford the $100 for tuition (which is very cheap) or the $200 for the book (which is over the line on reasonable). Fortunately, I ended up with a gig – in a city thousands of miles away.

    I’m not complaining. This is just reality, and I do make a good hourly rate. So when I am flush, I will contribute to food banks. I have also sat in the food stamp office. You must get there at least an hour before they open just to get a slot for that day.

    I do wish politicians and people who bitch and moan about the poor would just goto a food stamp or unemployment office and just sit and talk to the people. Pretend to be out of work and you need the stamps, too. Ask the people about what put them in the office, ticket clutched in hand.

    I really feel for the people who are poor. Look at Ferguson and how the poor are fined for every little thing, and because they cannot pay the initial fine, the rates just keep increasing. I realize I am able to make a decent living because of what my folks did (God Bless the GI Bill!) and the excellent education I got at a small college (nmt.edu). The student debt load is criminal. The current policies are *so* unwise. I am happy to give $5 or $10 to the folks with cardboard signs on freeway off-ramps. I am only a few weeks or months away from being there. So far, God has provided, but it has been tight and exciting many times.

  37. I do know several friends and family members who have gone from being poor to being wealthy (myself included). While you can point to hard work and innate talents they each had, they each also had generous serving of good luck and a they each got at least one helping hand to lift them up at a critical point. Nobody pulls themselves up by their own bootstraps, either metaphorically or in actuality. (Really, try doing this physically sometime and you’ll find you flop around on the ground like a dead fish.)

  38. I am a homeschooling parent of five. This year I am teaching American History to three high school students — one of mine, and two friends’ kids. I designed the course around an anthology of primary sources, but it is thin after 2001 or so. “Being Poor” is one of a handful of essays and other primary sources that I chose to put a voice to the American experience at the turn of the 21st century. It will be a privilege to share it with my kids.

  39. Thanks. As a person who grew up in a trailer that piece really reflects my own experiences growing up. It also really helps me feel hope when hope when I am feeling down and out.

  40. After Christmas the Texas Essential Skills and Knowledge we teach our public school students turns from imaginative fiction to the broad genre of non-fiction. I have been following Whatever for years, but just now read Being Poor for the first time. My eighth-grade ELAR students will be reading this essay right after Christmas. I anticipate the ensuing class discussion will be dynamite.

    I love the simplicity of the acrostic approach where every line begins with the same three words. Whoever called Being Poor a poem hit the mark. My expertise is poetry and Being Poor clearly meets the definition of a poem in its economy of words, clarity of expression, and structure. Some of the best poems are written out of deep emotion (rage in this case as John tells us) with no thought given to “writing poetry.” Rather all thought is given to moving thoughts to the page.

    Far too much emphasis can be given to “author’s purpose” as is the case with Being Poor, where John’s purpose was to vent at the idiots crying out “why didn’t the Katrina poor just leave when told to evacuate.” Placement by John of that assertion as the last line drives home the point of the entire literary gem of Being Poor. Its worldwide viral dissemination this past decade stands as proof of its being one of the best poems of the new millennium. Its impact on hearts, lives, and subsequent human action validates the proof of its dissemination.

  41. Wow. Was poor, now am not. Never forgotten, even decades on… my geography sense of San Francisco was firmly set by living in most of the housing projects as a young kid. I’m not optimistic about our path in this capitalism drenched consumer society. I greatly appreciate this community. Thanks. Much.
    L

  42. I first read “Being Poor” years after you had written it, so I didn’t have the context of Katrina as I was reading.

    So when I read “Being poor is people wondering why you didn’t leave.” the thought that came into my head was of battered wives.

    It’s a powerful, moving work, and the world is a better place with those words in it. Thank you for bringing it into the world.

  43. Shava Nerad: being disabled sucks, and applying for SSDI is an intentional nightmare. i was turned down 3 times – the second time for *owning a car*, which is listed right there as a a thing that is ALLOWED [they MADE UP REASONS to turn me down. likely did the same to you] they tried to deny me because i was 34, that last time i reapplied, and that’s when i got a lawyer.
    here’s the thing; annoying and just plain *WRONG* as it is, that lawyer? is *NECESSARY*. after the third time, i begged for the up-front fee for a lawyer, and got SSDI less than a year later. yes, he took a LARGE chunk of the original payout [it’s a percentage of the ‘backpay’, which is a lump sum amount that is the total of what you would have been paid, had you gotten SSDI when you first applied. in my case, it was approx $12,000, and… yeah. the lawyer got a huge chunk. but now i have SSDI. which… i get $650 a month, after medicare deductions. why? because i’d been in college for 4 years when i became disabled, so had *VERY* low income, i actually receive the minimum amount. i technically *ALSO* qualify for SSI… except i get too much from SSDI, somehow? i’m supposed to *LIVE* on $650 a month?]

    John, you mentioned this in passing earlier this evening [in Columbus — i’m the woman in the wheelchair who had ‘Minions’ and we talked about my mom?]
    i’ve gone back and forth on poor — sometimes, as a kid, REALLY poor, but i didn’t think so because my cousins on the rez had it so much worse. now?
    well, as i said above, being disabled *SUCKS*. people just assume ‘disabled’ means i’m ‘lazy’. but i was a the signing tonight, right? i sat for maybe 2.5 hours, total.
    i will be completely bed-ridden for the next 2-3 DAYS. maybe longer, if the weather keeps up
    [IT WAS TOTALLY WORTH THE PAIN!!!!!!!! really, truly and seriously!!! and buying a copy of the book *at the bookstore* instead of half the price on Amazon is *worth* eating too much ramen! but yeah. i have to budget and sacrifice to buy books.]

    and for me, all of that… being poor? is still living with my ex, in a basement apartment i am incapable of leaving without help [i mean, i literally cannot get out of the apartment without someone helping me] because i am somehow supposed to *LIVE* on $650 a month, plus $70 in foodstamps. i would STARVE without those foodstamps, too.
    i saw my mother twice in the last decade — once, right after i got that SSDI payout, and when she was out here in Feb-Mar, for my surgery, when she died. because she still lived in CA, but i’d moved out here because at the time, it was cheaper out here AND i could get a higher paying job.
    i was in my last quarter of school when i was forced to quit, because the OSU doesn’t offer the classes i needed online. and NONE of the jobs i could have gotten with that degree were doable, anymore, because sitting for 2 hours puts me *DOWN*. and while i CAN and sometimes *DO* edit, still [the job i was going for] on a freelance basis, no publisher is going to hire a an editor to work from her bed. they want you in an office – whether it’s a fiction publishing house, a text book company [where i had a job lined up…] or a newspaper.

    i paid into Social Security for 19 years [started working at 15, and i worked until i couldn’t] and now people accuse me ‘living on the taxpayer’s dime’, like i’m not actually living off the money i paid in! i’m told to ‘get over [my]self’, to ‘stop being lazy’, to ‘stop being a drug addict’ [fentanyl *DOESN’T GET YOU HIGH*, and even WITH the patch, my average daily pain is an *8* on a 10 point scale]

    and the worst/best things?
    unlike my stepfather, my ex that i’m still living with is a good guy [did you notice the only black guy in the audience? he enjoys the Audio version of your books, but those are all downloads, so he couldn’t get anything signed, and i only had 9 books, so]. he’s not abusive, he’s not a drunk, and he pays his share.
    unlike large swaths of my childhood, i’m living *WELL*, i *DO* eat, even if it’s the cheapest thing, and i rarely need to go to a food bank. no powdered milk, thank every god ever!
    being medically disabled, my power CAN’T be turned off, and my internet is *really* cheap.
    i’m not afraid part of my house is going to fall on me, and wildlife can’t enter my apartment through large holes in the walls.
    it’s medicare, but it’s HEALTH INSURANCE [which, jesus, i’ve overworked, what with almost dying/emergency surgery/9 days in a coma last November, two months in the hospital, then ANOTHER surgery the last days of February] and it pays the doctor, and keeps the chronic health conditions that are trying to kill me at the OLDOLDOLD age of 38 ‘managed’.

    $650 a month, and my child-self HATES my current-self, because i really do have it well. i’m not living in terror, knowing said terror is the price of being able to KEEP living; i’m able to eat *every day*, keep the power on, and buy the occasional book.

    it’s sad that i am so far below the poverty line, but ENRAGING that i sometimes think i have it good.

  44. Thanks for the reminder. Just as pertinent now with people giving up and throwing all to the wind to try and find stability and safety in their lives, running from oppression and outright genocide.

  45. I recently rewatched HBO’s Execllent Requeim series about Katrina, which was filmed while things were still very very raw.

    You were then and are now quite right that many people did not leave because having $50 or $25 or $10 to get out of town was too much to ask. When the mandatory evacuation order came, there were many people who just couldn’t leave.

    But it’s also worth pointing out that was not the most common scenario. The most common scenario were people who could have left, even if unconformable to do so, but elected not to. Those are the worse cases, people who through experience, and hard luck, and routine disappointment heard the government’s warning, had either the opportunity or ability to leave, and elected not to leave because they didn’t trust the government.

    I remember in the series one woman in particular, they focused a lot on her, much of her family evacuated but she did not. She was literally trapped in her house, hanging onto her house in flood waters, for days. Before the water came up that high she was trying to call 911, but it wasn’t picking up. She called the operator and the operator said 911 wasn’t taking more calls.

    The sheer terror of that idea was heart wrentching. The poor are first poor because they have no money, and secondly poor because they are deprived of a functioning, compassionate, efficent and muscular government centered around empathy for those in need.

  46. Being poor, as you tell it, is a fine story. Add a fishing pole and a raft, and you’re Huckleberry Finn.

    “Being Poor” never references Medicaid, welfare, or Section 8 housing. You didn’t mention filling out endless forms, nor meeting with bureaucrats when you should have been at work. Perhaps you did that, but you didn’t mention it.

    “Poor” can be a state of mind. “Helpless” is a condition.

  47. Spent months eating off $200 worth of food stamps per month, and listening to a barrage of stories about people eating Filet Mignons every day of said government disbursements Bullshit. Not 3 years ago, and certainly not today.

    One of the most humiliating days in my 45 years of life (at that time) was going to beg for enough money to eat hotdogs and peanut butter sandwiches several times a week, while trying to keep my blood sugar low enough I wouldn’t wind up in the E.R.

    If a hurricane had hit here–and I had a too near miss with Hugo–I would have had to ride it out and hope for the best. Kinda hard to travel when you have NO CASH on hand. $200 in food stamps won’t hardly buy shit to eat… it certainly will not buy gas, or a bus or plane ticket to anywhere. As is, there is no way to survive now, or even then for people who were making minimum wage unless they were working more than one job… and even in that case… Nope, probably NOT going to be able to afford to move. Better to take the chance you won’t drown or get a tree dropped on top of you.

  48. Thanks for writing that, it was important to me to read it. It made me own up to my poor rural upbringing. We never had it quite as bad, we all grew food and every family had hunters, but there was barely enough and nobody got anything or grew up expecting we ever would have it good or deserve it. It took me decades to work through that, the feeling of worthiness and being able to put myself forward for good things. To accept things from others, to get rid of the reverse superiority. But I wouldn’t talk about it to other folks. Reading that essay made realize that I had to own who I was and where I came from and what I experienced, and that change was important and helped my inner parts a whole lot. So, again, Thank You! Good stuff!

  49. “Being Poor” enlightened me to the countless small-scale deprivations and difficulties that being poor even in a first-world country involve, and the way they accumulate into a wave of misery and impoverishment that swamps many, many people. I’ve never been poor myself, so this was an especially eye-opening read, and I thank you for writing it.

  50. I use the piece professionally, to remind my colleagues of the crushing burden poverty imposes on all sorts of people. In my line of work, we spend much of our days making decisions that significantly impact the lives of poor people. I find it helpful to remember “Being Poor” when I make those decisions.

  51. Excellent read as always. You reinforce something I’ve been saying since I was in high school back in the 80s, and is an inevitable consequence of our system: “The American Dream can work for anyone. It can not work for everyone”.

    The AD presupposes that people will reach out and take advantage of opportunities, work hard, and prosper. You are a good example of this (kudos). But it ignores the fact that evennif everyone took best advantage of every opportunity they got, there would always be those in poverty. The economics of a capitalist society practically guarantee it.

    Unfortunately the alternatives aren’t really better.

  52. Being poor is having to wait a week after coming down with food poisoning to go to the ER because the one you have to go to is the only one that takes your insurance and it’s far enough away by bus that you knew you would shit yourself on the way if you were still in the acute stage – and then have your progressive friends ask you why you didn’t go to urgent care instead.

    God bless America.

  53. I’ve never been poor. I grew up solidly middle class, and spent 30 years solidly working class. I have a state government pension which always makes me want to defend myself by saying I cleaned shit (literally!) in a job that had such high turnover that anyone (YOU) could have had that job and this pension if they’d wanted it.
    My partner keeps the house too hot in winter. I argued and argued about this until I came to understand that he grew up sharing a bedroom where ice routinely froze in the bedroom all winter. No rational argument is ever going to get him to turn down the heat.
    I read OGH’s Being Poor not that long ago, because I discovered Whatever and read the Archives. I almost didn’t click and reread it. But I did, and now I’m crying again. I may not personally know poverty, but I sure recognize great writing!

  54. I use this in my Research Writing course for source credibility – it’s one of a series of web sources that they have to evaluate in terms of credibility for an academic paper. I get the most interesting responses. As a personal weblog post with no cited evidence, etc., it doesn’t meet the criteria. However, so many of the students WANT to be able to justify its use because it affects them so much. I teach at a Community College, so many of my students either have or still are struggling through their own cycle of poverty.

    When I evaluate their assignments, I try to point out that there IS credibility there in terms of life experience, as well as John’s reputation as a blogger and writer. I point out that several of the lines in the poem (and it is a poem, really) can be used quite effectively as examples to support the more academic (and often abstract) data from the more academic sources. It’s a good learning tool for them to see how to expand their view of credibility beyond simple rubrics handed to them by textbooks.

    I have tried to convince so many young speech team members to use this as oral interp, and I haven’t gotten one to bite yet…whoever does is going to dominate in competitions, I tellz ya!

  55. Unfortunately the alternatives aren’t really better.

    Yes, they are- or at least some of them are.

    Look at the Scandi countries, for instance. OK, you might pay more in tax, but no-one can starve. On paper, every Norwegian is a millionaire (the Norwegian pension system is the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund). And in most developed countries, you don’t die because you failed a wallet biopsy.

  56. It really was a great piece. Also, if you can write that well while (righteously) angry, that’s impressive. Many people descend into sputtering incoherence when furious.

  57. The first time I read “Being Poor”, I remembered some wisdom my father taught me: You’re rich when you don’t have to calculate whether you can afford to buy something before you buy it.” Thanks for reminding me.

  58. I’m late to the essay, as I am only just reading it right now. It spoke to me deeply. Thank you for your post today looking back on it, or I may have never seen it! I’m still horrified by what happened with Katrina and how long it has taken for that area to come back. It breaks my heart.

  59. When I went to boot camp 27 years ago, we were issued our boots (“boondockers” or “chuckaboots,” for those of you who don’t speak Squid) and uniforms on the first morning. Then we went to the post office to mail our civilian clothes home. After that, we went to stencil our new uniforms.

    The company commander noticed that one of the recruits–a scrawny, skinny kid with bad teeth–didn’t have boots on, so he shouted his confusion at the kid. In his Appalachian accent, the kid said, “I mailed ’em home. My daddy ain’t never had boots so nice.” Those boots weren’t luxury items. Raw leather on a bare rubber sole. That was my first real understanding of what “poor” can be. I had forgotten about it until I read “Being Poor” several years ago.

    Thanks for a powerful piece that continues to be significant to me.

  60. Been there. Got the hat, and the T-shirt, both second-hand and ragged at the edges..
    Joking apart, when I first left home (at 14) I lived in squatted houses in London, ate from the end-of-the-street-market chuck-outs, and busked for change.. I felt as rich as anyone I knew, because I never went hungry after (one hungry day), working out how much food was left on the ground at the end of the day. And, yes, I’m in the UK, so I never had to die from a kidney infection (I was 16) or in difficult childbirth at 19. (Having said that, getting a doctor without an address can be hard)
    I eventually got a council- flat and some of my rent paid, and little luxuries like that.

    What made me the saddest of all these was not the scraping change out of the sofa (done that) the begging for change (done that) or the staying with the bad husband (also), but the sadness of the children.. I always tried to make mine happy in non-monetary ways, and we did a lot of miles to go places and look at things walking and on bicycles. I cannot imaging having the energy or the time to do that after a 16 hour shift at Macd’s
    I hope I never told any person that they were unworthy for being queer, female (me), unemployed, sick, uneducated (that can change), unwilling to live with family who bully them (me and my brother), unhappy, depressed (who wouldn’t be depressed in these places?) I plan not to tell anyone any of these things anytime soon..
    I failed the first test, (not born with the right equipment) and the second (if I had stayed home long enough to go to university, I would probably still be on license for the killing). I made it, thanks to a mean survival streak, stubborn-as-all-get-out-and-doesn’t-give-in.. I’m not rich now, but I can afford the bills if I’m careful, and I don’t have debts, which helps a lot.
    My little bother died last winter, in a French hospital. He had alcoholic liver failure and wasn’t quite 57 years old. In many ways he was the richest and the poorest person I have ever met, living always hand-to-mouth and frequently on the church steps. He was a mechanical genius and taught me so much, not least to value my current levels of security and warmth. Once I sent him a little Bible which he had requested. I found a tiny one, thinking it would at least be in a pocket safely.. Sadly, he could not read the tiny text, as he no longer had his glasses.. Once, I sent him a parcel of dried peas, becasue apparently yo cannot buy them there. he lived with me several times, for a total of more than 5 years, but could not manage being dependent

    And, in the supermarket, the Food Bank ladies were collecting.. I went round, bought “extras” not on their list (ketchup, salt and pepper, lots of little jars of coffee and jam; luxuries on a boring diet) At the collection place I asked “Have you considered teaching people how to cook?” The answer? “People are asking for food they can eat cold, as they cannot afford to turn on the cooker”
    That really made me cry.. I’ve been poor, but my food was hot, even if it was only a slightly-elderly potato. I was never that poor..

  61. I have never been poor and I cannot relate to – and I hope to never have to – what you once went through.But reading your original piece opened my eyes, and I thank you for it.

  62. It was a great essay, and it remains sadly as relevant as ever. Even in my world — genomics research — we now have scientific evidence that a stressful childhood has permanent physiological effects on a person that are not completely reversible. I have visited correctional facilities as a Prison Ministry volunteer, and am convinced at least half the inmates I have met would have ended up having very different lives had they been offered the kind of help middle class kids receive when they got into trouble. Middle class families just have more resources. Victim-blaming solves nothing. Yes people who don’t have money make mistakes sometimes, but so did lots of my fellow middle class kids; we just had resources the poor kids lacked when we did get into trouble.

    Money, of course, but also parents who knew how the system could be made to work for them and their kids. In my case, parents who taught History and English at the local State University.

  63. A PS to my previous comment: some people respond to articles about poverty by saying “well I worked hard to get where I am.” I understand that viewpoint, because I certainly worked hard to get where I am. But my world GAVE ME OPPORTUNITIES to do the work that got me where I am. Some kid without my advantages could have worked just as hard as I have, and worked his or way up to Assistant Manager at some retail store or some such.

  64. Very powerful piece John.

    I’ve never been poor and I don’t want to be. My wife and I save money compulsively – in my case anyway because I’m terrified of falling over that cliff and not being able to climb back up. We are privileged to have incomes that allow us to save money for emergencies and retirement.

    I wished I’d remembered your piece when I came across a conversation on Facebook a year or so ago on being poor and government assistance. The general sentiment of the majority of the posters was that government assistance was a waste of money (the lazy-poor fallacy). None of the people in that conversation had ever been truly disadvantaged. One of the people in the conversation had gone to college, had had a decent job but then lost it and had to make due with a minimum wage job after that. She was quite proud that even on her meager income she was able to pay back her parents a loan they gave her to fix her car and didn’t understand why other people would need assistance.

    I was enraged. I frothed. I didn’t have the words… I didn’t know what I could say that would help enlighten the ignorant. So I said nothing.

    Even the woman who needed a loan from her parents didn’t realize that she was privileged that she had parents who could just give her the money she needed to fix her car. She was probably getting other kinds of assistance from them that she wasn’t even realizing (free dinner every now and then, clothes for holidays and birthdays, interest free loans for car repair, etc).

    One of the problems of human psychology is that people want to see themselves in the best light. Many of the people who go from rags to riches believe it was their own hard work that got them there and not luck. Kind of like that Republican politician who claimed his family had never taken a government handout, “even when we were on food stamps.”(*)

    Hard work can improve your odds of being lucky (you can’t win if you don’t play) but you cannot take one persons experience and ask, “Why didn’t you create a website and become a Billionaire?” For every person who wrote an app and became a DotCom millionaire there were probably thousands of people who tried something similar and didn’t. We don’t see all the failures, just the successes.

    Paris Hilton got lucky because she got born into the Hilton family. You got lucky because you were allowed into a college. I got lucky because I grew up in a solidly middle class family which afforded me a good education and my career has done adequately so far because of the education I received and lucky job choices.

    I’m going to put your essay into a special place in my mind. The next time I don’t have the words to express what being poor is to someone who is ignorant, I will share your words rather than make a feeble attempt at coming up with my own.

    -Felix Gutt

    (*) Boy I wish I could back this up with an attribution and link; however, just try Googling “Republican Politician Food Stamps” to understand my problem. I think it might have been Senator Rubio; however, I am not sure. If anyone remembers who said this please let me know!

  65. Jesus where’s that damn like button?

    I read Being Poor the day you posted it and I probably reread it at least once a year, still. I too grew up in a similar kind of American poverty yet had a few (specific to me) breaks which helped improve the trajectory of my life so this piece resonates with me every time. I also share it every chance I get. People that question it or attempt to wave it away are all sadly lacking in that one thing far too many people lack today.

  66. “Being Poor” was the first piece of your writing I read, in it’s ‘gone viral’ days. I stumbled back to whatever years later when tor.com launched and gave away a copy of Old Man’s War. I haven’t stopped reading it since. I very much enjoy your books, but it’s the blog that challenges me to think, to relate and to be a better human. Thank you.

  67. I remember reading an article back in the 70s from some high mucky muck in the Food Stamp program ‘explaining’ how easy it was to feed a family of four on the pittance allowed. It was one of those “all you have to do is” lists that reek of privilege: buy rice in 25-lb sacks, buy a side of beef and put it in a chest freezer, etc. — blithely ignoring the start-up costs of buying a chest freezer, or having a dwelling with enough room for one (not to mention, a way to store 25-lb sacks of rice and keeping them free of vermin), or how you’re supposed to get these things home when you only have public transit. Oh, and what are you supposed to eat while you’re saving up the money to buy the chest freezer and the mass quantities of food?

    It was a typical case of someone not understanding how many resources a middle-class family has that a poor family might not, or how someone who was poor in an urban setting might not be able to use the same techniques to survive as someone in a rural setting (like growing some of your own food).

  68. Thanks, John. I knew you as a science fiction author, but hadn’t actually read your blog until last year. I actually found it because your Straight White Male post was referenced in an academic paper I used while writing a paper in one of my last college classes. (My path to a degree ended up being a thirty year one.) I think I searched for other posts on the topic and for whatever reason Being Poor popped up high on the list. The post brought me to tears.

    My childhood was an … interesting one, but for much of it we were poor. I was also a teen parent and husband (twice over, actually) and survived often desperate poverty. Being a teen parent was especially enjoyable because so many people (both religious and not, curiously) not only tend to despise teen parents, but for some reason feel free to share their opinions. Uninvited, In public. I also remember feeling deep grief and anger at the scenes from Katrina.

    Thanks to opportunities afforded me by my various privileges, the help of others, systemic structures, and a number of ‘lucky’ breaks, I’m not poor and it’s been a long time since I was poor. For me, the moment it hit me that I not only wasn’t poor, but had moved into an entirely different category of life came in the grocery store. I was checking out and realized as the checker starting ringing up my items that I had no idea what the total would be. I had a moment of irrational panic before I realized it made no sense. There was no chance I wouldn’t have enough money to cover the total.

    Thanks for your excellent essay/poem. It remains extremely powerful.

  69. Thanks, John, for an outstanding explanation of being poor. Since dropping out of Mizzou, where I worked in a burger joint to feed myself, and joining the Marine Corps for 8 years I have not been poor. I have paid to get my nursing degree & did 12 more years in the Army Reserve so I am retired from all of it now & saw a lot of people in ER’s and homes in 35 years.

    I’ve seen poor who try to get a better life & poor who won’t try. I’ve worked in a prison & seen truly evil men. I believe government can help & seen when it can’t help those who won’t try to help themselves or their family. I am saddened too often but have seen true moments of triumph.

    I & my wife still try to help with time, talent & treasure. I do believe if the parents want to make better, the child usually has a better life. If they don’t there is still a chance but it’s much, much harder.

    Please keep up the great writing. I discovered Heinlein in 4th grade and now I have found your stories to give me new laughs, interest, pleasure & a reason to keep buying books! Tanstaafl!
    Zack

  70. Nah. Your essay was reprinted by a bunch of rich white yuppie sites getting off on first world angst. Being poor is when your best friend bleeds out in child birth. Being poor is watching your mom dying in front of you, not merely because your family can’t afford medical care, but because there are no frakking doctors within a week’s travel. Being poor is coming to America and thinking you’ve died and gone to heaven because even though you’re working three jobs cleaning other folk’s houses you can walk into any public library, poor as dirt and walk out with an armload of books.

    Meh.

  71. Ohmygod. This post. This was the post that led me to Whatever, though I don’t think I became a regular reader until later.

    We had no money to give when Katrina rolled over New Orleans, but I was one of the volunteers who sat over my home computer and searched lists of survivors for names of the missing, trying to reunite people with their loved ones. It wasn’t much of a much, but I gave what I could.

    Unlike you, I grew up in quite comfortable circumstances. Then I moved to an area without much in the way of financial opportunities, married, and had kids. My refrain has always been, “We’re not poor; we’re broke.” But we’ve been “broke” for a couple of decades now… My kids have grown up in a trailer park.

    We’re still above the official poverty line, but you can see it from here. And it keeps on rising. And, at that, we’re better off than many.

    “Being Poor” resonated for me, as it apparently has for a lot of people. It spoke, and continues to speak, to my experience, as it apparently has for a lot of people. Thank you for writing it, for sharing it, and for continuing to share it.

  72. overgrownhobbit:

    “Your essay was reprinted by a bunch of rich white yuppie sites getting off on first world angst.”

    I’m delighted you have created an index of every site that has ever posted the essay and done a comprehensive demographic and motivational study of each, Overgrownhobbit. Please do send me your spreadsheet when you have a moment. I suspect its data and methodology will be fascinating to read.

    Likewise I congratulate you for being the one to inaugurate the Poverty Olympics in this particular comment thread, i.e., particularly the “that’s not real poverty, this is real poverty” competition. I’m sure the millions of people who live in poverty here in the United States will be thrilled to know that you’ve disallowed their suffering because they are not sufficiently poor for you. I’m even more sure that your condescension regarding their lot in life will immediately materially improve things for them. Thanks!

  73. Perhaps more egregious, ovegrownhobbit’s comment is a particularly amateurish entry into the Oppression Olympics. It doesn’t even go through the usual “poor people got teevees and cellphones” litany, but manages to hold out an entire two sentences (neither of which has much to do with being poor specifically; women in developed nations die in childbirth, including poor women in the U.S.) before trotting out the Imaginary Grateful Immigrant who doesn’t at all mind that she has to work three full-time jobs and is still poor, because libraries. And of course, because privileged Tolkien fans think everyone must have the same inclination and time to spend on leisure reading as they do, we must assume this fictional immigrant has not only time (around three jobs and all the other time and energy sucks of poverty) to read “armloads of books” but is so very, very grateful for that library, that she doesn’t even notice anything else about being poor. Although let’s be sure to emphasize ‘free’ and ‘armloads’, so we have that undercurrent of resentment about poor people leeching off our tax dollars instead of actually paying for their darn books like the rest of us.

    Nick Mamatas posted a much better comment (linked to in the original Being Poor essay) about relative and absolute poverty, but as he clearly states in his comments afterward, he was doing so precisely to attack the magical-thinking mental defense mechanisms that drive so many of the complaints about Scalzi’s original essay.

    Tl;dr: 3 points from the Russian judge, as we used to say in the era where “yuppie” was the hip new parlance.

  74. Powerful piece. I was pretty poor for about 10 years following college. It wasn’t the same because i knew there was a light at the end of the tunnel and I’d probably be doing ok at some point in the not to distant future. But still, I spent a long time working low wage jobs and living in san francisco, one of the most expensive cities in the world. What struck me most was how no one at the top or in the political arena cared, and everyone assumed you were poor because you were lazy or stupid. Our society has no time for people that cannot contribute in the consumer economy, and if you are unable to afford transportation/housing/etc., well, shit, maybe you should have finished school, or your mom shouldn’t have had so many kids, or whatever. I ended up making more money, but that lesson stuck with me.

  75. I… was, in truth, never that truly poor. But for a long time, I didn’t know that because A: the family was wealthy when I was a kid (pre-10), and then B: my emotionally abusive sire used “we will lose everything, the IRS will take the house, we will be out on the street” to manipulate (goad, terrify) me and my mom regarding the family business.

    My paternal grandfather wouldn’t have let that happen; he was already paying the mortgage and property taxes on the house, not to mention buying groceries for us. (My sire was also a health-food granola nut, and an anti-vaxxer before it was trendy. Not to mention took out a loan using a CD account in my name as collateral, and most of the CD got eaten up because he didn’t pay it back. He ruined my mom’s credit rating, too, using her credit cards…) But I didn’t know that there was a safety net. I was always told there wasn’t, even as we lived in a pretty good house, even as we were eating good food.

    It screwed up my relationship with money. I alternate with miser-mode and occasional binging, and then horrible guilt on both sides of it. *headdesk* So… I dunno what I count as. Messed up on the topic, at the least, and direly sympathetic. (My mom’s parents would’ve supported us if she’d divorced and left sooner, but for Reasons — like threats he’d kidnap me — she waited till I was 19 and married (that was 20-mumble years ago; still married!) before she left. Reader, I danced.)

    I’m glad that I do get some money of my own from my books — it means when a friend back there calls up and says, sadly, “I need $300 for–” I can say, “Okay.” (And she says, “You didn’t even ask what it was for.” And I say, “I know. Let me haul out my checkbook.”) I don’t have to ask my spouse about it, to make sure we’ve got enough moved into the checking account. That’s… important to me.

    So… Even though I now know that I had supports, I didn’t know at the time. And as a teen, I and my mom have paid for meals with scavenged coins (we saved the paper money for the waitress’s tip), and I wear my clothes till they’re dead (and hang onto them with the idea I might fix ’em even though I despise doing sewing), and I say that it’s due to Lamarkian genetics, since my grandfather lived through the Depression.

    …it’s midnight and I’m rambling. Anyway. Thank you for the writing of the original, and many thanks to pretty much everyone else for the comments.

  76. Shortly before his assassination Senator Robert Kennedy, in one of his public domain speech/documents, regarding an area in poverty that he wanted to help, anticipated comments by idiots by saying something like, “The fact that others are worse off does not console me, and should not console anyone.”

  77. Hi there!

    I read this post, and then linked back to the original post, last week, and then just read some of yesterday’s twitter rants, and it reminded me of a problem I’ve had with the Hugos for a long time.

    I’m a long-time scifi/fantasy fan, and would love to vote for the hugos, but am on disability with very little money and can’t even afford a voting membership for worldcon. The only conventions I can afford to attend are the ones that have programs that comp hotel space for a certain type or amount of time of volunteer work (I can’t afford the hotel room, even splitting it with several others, or the membership, on my current budget).

    As such, this makes me feel marginalized and like the hugos as they exist are at least slightly elitist; I’ve never bothered to look at the lists of nominees or attempt to read any of them because of the nominations, as my vote is so clearly unwanted.

    For the record, I have very little idea what these people who are fighting the hugos are all about, though from your descriptions of them I’d be entirely uninterested in anything they choose to start. However, seeing their objections (however imaginary) to how the hugos work helped me to notice my objections to how the hugos work. It’s actually a regressive tax — anyone, no matter how poor, must pay some amount (I vaguely remember hearing $20 in the past, though it may have gone up due to inflation) just to be able to be counted as a member of the voting public and acknowledged as a “serious” fan who wants to vote. This bothers me.

    I am a fan and a geek; I share my favorite authors, especially to people outside fandom, to try to spread the love and the joy, I have long, involved conversations about the ethics or philosophy or whatever that one of my favorite authors has recently incorporated into his/her book or series.

    I love the inclusive message you voice. However, more of fandom needs to recognize that sometimes people can’t afford to pay a fee to vote, and this makes them feel more marginalized and/or ostracized from “hardcore” fandom. And yes, I’m less likely to bring more income to the authors who are being voted on, as I’ll request it from my local library rather than buying what they’ve written (that pesky money thing again), but otoh, if I do that, and the library system doesn’t have it, I’ll suggest that they purchase it.

    Anyways, just wanted to bring up this issue of marginalization of the very poor within the fannish community, as when possible (i.e., it doesn’t actively cost money), it needs to be mitigated.

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