Living simply versus being poor…are they different?

Last night I was lounging with the Spousal Unit and found myself engaged in an interesting twitter conversation that provides the inspiration for today’s post. I was talking with a fellow blogger who made a few statements that really made me stop and think, but ultimately ponder the question is there a difference between choosing a lifestyle of simplicity where one’s income may be at or below the poverty level versus simply being poor. Now the blogger in question didn’t think there was a difference but based off 15 years of primarily working with low income folks combined with my own financial journey, I think there is a difference.

Since the Great Recession of 2008, it’s become almost chic to live a simple lifestyle. At first glance it appeared many folks were living beyond their means, yet at the same time it’s become common knowledge that for many the fact that while companies posted record profits in the years leading up to the Great Recession, for many folks their wages remained stagnant while at the same time health insurance costs rose. (Don’t forget I am old enough to remember a time when your employer sponsored coverage was a reasonable sum like oh $100 a month for the family compared to the last job I had that was charging $700 a month for a family plan) The result is that while there were some that were truly living a materialistic lifestyle and wildly spending, many were using credit cards and home equity loans to supplement the wages they didn’t earn.

But those days are gone; most of us realize that despite the lack of adequate wages and benefits, we have to reduce our standard of living if nothing else to have a nest egg for a possible rainy day. I know when I lost my job in 2007, we started cutting out things we truly didn’t need, changed the way we shopped and made different choices that allowed us to weather our family income dropping to the lowest point ever.

Yet even the toughest economic days that the Spousal Unit and I have faced in almost 14 years of marriage are nothing compared to what I faced as a poor young adult or growing up on the edge of poverty. I believe this is because when the economic shit started flying, we were already firmly entrenched in a middle class lifestyle that provided a level of social capital that is often unavailable when you are living at or below the poverty level.

I see it all the time in my work, unexpected things like a high electric bill, a need for a costly prescription or my personal favorite car repairs or worse complete car failure tend to push economically fragile folks over the edge. Year after year I have families that come the holidays they have to apply for assistance or right now we are working to ensure that kids in our community have access to school supplies come this fall. I know some would say well why don’t these folks plan better? After all the holidays and the start of the school year come every year, surely they can save and plan. Can they? The ability to salt away a few cents is highly dependant on having a few bucks leftover after bills are paid and for most folks living at or below the poverty level, there is never enough cash leftover. Instead these same financially vulnerable people often fall prey to predatory financial services like Rent a Center (this is often how the poor are able to obtain things like computers and televisions since at $15-20 a week with the item made available immediately versus saving for months, most see this as the way to go despite the fact financially it’s a horrible choice) or the payday loan places where for a post dated check you can access a few hundred dollars to get the car repaired or get Little Johnny’s medicine.

One of the hardest reasons it’s hard for the poor in my opinion to catch a break financially is because shit always happens. You live paycheck to paycheck, no bonus, no raise, and shit happens all the while the cost of living gets higher. Often poverty means not having access to a good credit rating which frankly dictates the rates you get on a credit card, whether you even get a credit card or on a larger scale where you live. Poor credit or lack of credit has a direct impact on the types of housing available to you; this in turn impacts the level of community services available to you. I know when I lived in some sketchy parts of Chicago 16-17 years ago, the libraries were poor, public transit was poor…you get the picture. Yet when I was able to move into better areas, the services were better and this was well before a global economic meltdown. Hell, now even my solidly middle class town in Maine is fighting to keep our library strong since if the town money counters had their way these services would be cut.

Compare all this to planned simplicity when you start off with middle class sensibilities. If you are already living in a solidly middle class or above area, you often can choose to unplug the cable because you know your library has free films and plethora of books that are recent and that there will be enriching activities for the family. You can choose to be car free or as we are car light with one car because your town is walkable with services you can access. In living simply when its planned simplicity you most likely can choose to and actually afford a spare freezer so that you can shop in bulk via a stock up store or farm so that your groceries cost less versus having to shop at the nearest store either because you lack transportation, can’t afford the gas to get to stores that offer better price deals. Many simply living gurus talks about the value of shopping the sales and buying in bulk, all nice things if you can afford it but for those truly struggling they often don’t have the same choices that someone whose income maybe similar but because they started off middle class and therefore have social capital they have more choices.

Even the world of work looks different when you are poor; in my early adult years I worked at jobs where I had no autonomy. Job started at the time specified by employer, ended when they specified and very few exceptions were made. Compare this to the types of work available to the middle class (even those whose incomes may be low) they work at jobs that offer the autonomy to work from home (saves of the childcare of needed) bring kids to work, etc. If you have to take off on short notice, you often are not worried that you will be fired.

Ultimately all these issues will impact how one is able to parent, if you are struggling to keep your head above water financially and dodging the latest financial crisis you love your babies as much as anyone else but poverty and struggle impact you. The fact remains you are less available or likely to be the parent volunteering in class, I have stated on this blog before my own challenges since the 5 yo started school. I have volunteered this school year but not nearly as much as I would like because even with a flexible schedule that I more or less have control over, most of what is required by the schools only works for parents who have no daytime employment. While I can control whether I write a grant report at midnight versus 9 am, I can’t control if I need to meet with a funder or colleagues at 10am. Yet I know I have it better than many, like a dear acquaintance whose girl is friends with our girl, she is a single Mom who works as a waitress at one of the most popular breakfast spots in town, yet her schedule gives her little time to ever do more than drop off or pick up her girl. As she recently shared with me, after she gets paid she basically has less than $20 a month yet her earnings are far more than government assistance would be which rarely pays enough for anyone to actually live. Unless they have one of the mythical Section 8 vouchers which with waiting lists across the country at record levels, good luck with that one.
So in closing having lived the struggle of poverty, seeing it daily with the population I work with both here in Maine and back in my hometown of Chicago, I think that when one chooses to live simply its not the same as being poor. In part because one plans to live simply they are able to make choices and decisions so they are better prepared to handle the unexpected. In many cases they have access to social capital to better weather the storms that crop up.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this…sorry for a lengthy post, but it’s a topic I am passionate about.

12 thoughts on “Living simply versus being poor…are they different?”

  1. How one frames the situation is important, but it’s not everything. Practical things like having a safety net (see below) are huge.

    Most people don’t really start off with NOTHING when they decide to live more simply. Voluntary Simplicity has been going strong where I live for many years. I first heard about it as an unschooling adolescent 20 years ago and reading Walden Pond. About ten years ago it came up again when I participated in a 12-week workshop put on by the Northwest Earth Institute ( Later I was very active in a group which had voluntary simplicity as one of its grounding philosophies. The voluntary simplicity movement is NOT about living in poverty; it’s about people with middle incomes choosing to decrease their consumption. They also often decide to stop pursuing higher incomes. It’s about deciding when you have ENOUGH and scaling back from there.

    Of course, it’s easier to decide to stop pursuing a higher income when you a) have an income that meets your basic needs b) have a college degree or some kind of credential that shows the world you’re not a drop-out c) have experience working in a field where you made decent money d) own property to sell or live in at low-cost e) good health, f) people with resources who will help you if you get in bind, g) good credit history so that you COULD borrow money, h) a partner with health insurance for you or your offspring.

    I think the voluntary simplicity movement is a great solution for many people who are wondering why their quality of life seems so much lower than their job titles or education “promised” them it would be. I don’t think the model of voluntary simplicity makes a whole lot of sense for people who are just flat out broke with few options because that’s not who makes up the voluntary simplicity movement. Instead, people in poverty need to look for other models, which do exist.

    I remember once, I calculated how much money I, my parents, my brothers, and my grandmother all spent on rent or mortgage payments (we lived within 20 miles of each other). It was staggering. With that same money we could have bought a huge plot of land and built homes for ourselves. Or we could have lived in a single house and taken turns completing college. That wasn’t the choice we made. I used to talk to customers who were half a dozen adults sharing 2 bedroom apartments while working shifts at McDonalds where they earned minimum wage. They knew it was a temporary situation and one by one, they would move on to better things. But it was very hard and it took patience and living like a scrub for years. But they didn’t really have any other options. There are people who never escape that type of situation, no matter how hard they work or how frugal they are.

  2. Hsofia, your examples are great. I think that with all the current talk about simplicity that people forget that in order for it to be voluntary one needs to start with the ability to make choices.

    I also agree that it is not a model for people dealing with financial scarcity. Almost everyone I have ever known who lives that lifestyle is coming at it from a place of financial privilege.

  3. In my experience, my varying levels of ‘being okay’ and being ‘very hungry’ stemmed mostly from ‘bad luck’ like you say in the beginning of your post. My lack of financial education early in my adult life led to weird credit card issues that I’m still paying off. Then when a catastrophe (car troubles!) happened I would go from treading water to drowning quickly. I’ve been on a steady path upwards from there for about a year now, but again, it was luck that got me the job that I have today.

    Now that’s not to discredit any of the work I’ve done to help pay down my debts. I started my own business and have worked to reduce overhead so that I can save more (and pay down more!) Learning to enjoy cooking at home is good, but really more than anything, for me, it’s the education piece.

    If you grow up in a home that’s charging every family vacation to the credit card but the kiddos don’t know about what happens *after* that card is swiped… chances are they’ll get hooked up doing the same when they’re out on their own! Vs. someone who grows up in an environment where people discuss money and save actively for desire items (tvs, etc.) – so that kid will grow up going ‘ok, if i want a bike by summer I’m going to have to save x amount per week for the next 12 weeks… how can i make this happen?’

    Would love to take some personal finance classes, even now in my late 20s, to see if there are any other major things that were left out of my education. 🙂

  4. There is a profound psychological difference between living simply as a choice and living poor by necessity.

    I was a latchkey kid growing up with a single mom who worked in construction and although she was extremely thrifty and resourceful and did everything she could to shield me from our financial reality, I was acutely aware of how hard she worked trying to make me feel “normal” among my middle class friends (and family, for that matter).

    When I started out on my own, I lived pay check to pay check and I remember very clearly how bleak it sometimes felt to “live simply.” Sure, I could sometimes convince myself that it was a character-building challenge to make meals for a week with nothing but Bisquick, onions and potatoes, but mostly it was exhausting, because as much as I tried to make a game of it, it wasn’t like I could just forfeit and take myself out to eat.

    It colors the way I live now, although I now have a comfortable income and a little bit of breathing room, financially. Sometimes I feel a little neurotic because I still scrimp as though it’s make or break and panic when those unexpected expenses come up, although my self-imposed day-to-day frugality means I’ve set a little bit aside for just that sort of thing. Despite those residual thought patterns, I’m acutely aware of and grateful for the freedom I have to change the way I live if I want to.

    I worry a bit that there’s a veneer of chic to “voluntary poverty” that allows otherwise well-meaning, progressive-minded people to underestimate the often overwhelming burden of the real deal. It amplifies the simplistic, “they should plan better” attitude you mention. Because the other issue is that living close to the edge is a relative thing. Someone might decide to live without a car in order to sock away that change in their pocket for something else and it probably feels like they’ve got a handle on how the person next to them on the bus is living, but when their fixed-income neighbor can’t make bills even with the change in their pocket, that assumption is a barrier to real empathy.

  5. They are two very different things. Living simple is by choice, being poor usually isn’t.

    I think I might be poorish. While I have a car and other things is has been a struggle to keep them. Now I will say that it is easier being poor or low income in Maine than I think it will be living somewhere else because so many others are in the same boat. And here I find there isn’t much of keeping up with the Jones’ mentality so that makes things a lot easier as well.

  6. Oh! Have you read Radical Homemakers? I read it to see what all the hype was about and a few reviews on amazon provide the same argument that you give in your post. Namely that it takes coming from a place of privilege to have the choice to live a “simple” lifestyle.

  7. “I worry a bit that there’s a veneer of chic to “voluntary poverty” that allows otherwise well-meaning, progressive-minded people to underestimate the often overwhelming burden of the real deal.”

    I 100% agree with this assessment, and I feel this is one of the larger reasons why more progressive political, economic and structural dynamics in this country can’t reach the starting grid in a real way.
    I grew up what many would call “working class”. My dad and dad did not have what you’d term a “middle class gig” . Mom was a special education teacher. Dad was a barber. In today’s parlance, their concerns get a shorter shrift than the concerns of the today’s “upper middle”, which is who those seeking to make policy are really talking to. This dimension of social capital really breeds the unintentional arrogance of otherwise well-meaning people who try to preach “live simply” without taking a good hard look at the structural realities in which many people have to deal.

  8. Oh, I’m so glad I found your blog! (via Rae.) I loved this post. This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.

    When I got married three years ago, my husband and I were both graduate students and were living off his $30,000 stipend, which could take you pretty far in some parts of the country, but we live in the Bay Area, where a 400-square-foot glorified studio was costing us close to $1500 a month. By Bay Area standards, we were ‘poor;’ we didn’t eat out and didn’t go to the movies and we qualified for various kinds of financial aid (which we ended up using at one point when I had a medical emergency and, even with health insurance, couldn’t pay my $10,000 bill). Around the same time my brother was doing an assignment for a sociology class in which he had to ask people to identify their own ‘class’ (lower class, middle class, etc.). It was a really interesting question for me, and kind of eye-opening, because on the one hand, in terms of income alone, we were technically lower-class for the Bay Area. We were WELL below the poverty line for this area (something like $48,000 for two adults). On the other hand, I had a really solidly middle-class upbringing (my husband grew up very poor, on food stamps, with a single mother for most of his life, but even that wasn’t so straightforward–his father is very wealthy, and his mother, who’d been orphaned as a teen, had extremely wealthy relatives who let her live very cheaply in a home they owned in La Jolla). We were both in graduate school. We had things like laptops, which would let us go on Craiglist and look for short-term part-time jobs if necessary. We had a TON of social capital, which I think the VAST majority of grad students do. We had a savings account. And we had a safety net–if it actually came down to it and some financial catastrophe happened, we had families who would make sure we wouldn’t actually go hungry. I’ve never in my life had to worry about access to food or basic shelter.

    You’re really right; living simply is not the same as being poor. And even being ‘technically’ poor in terms of income doesn’t always actually mean being poor.

    I have a TON to learn, and I’m not trying to bash anyone or anything, but recently two people I know from church (they’re married and one’s from Iowa, one’s from El Paso) were approached by a Romanian immigrant family who were in desperate need. The husband had been working in a flower shop, but was injured when a vase fell and sliced open his arm, and he lost the job. He spoke some English but not a ton, and the whole family was undocumented, and so he was having a really difficult time finding work. He had a pregnant wife and two small kids to support, and they were struggling.

    It was really interesting seeing how my friend from Iowa–who is incredibly sweet, and truly meant well–went about trying to help the family. First, she thought, ‘well, they don’t have papers … they can probably just go online or to the DMV or something and get them.’ When she realized that’s not actually how it works, she thought, ‘Well, he can go on Craigslist and find a part-time job.’ Which obviously would have been great, but not only did he not have a computer, he’d never learned to use one. He also didn’t have an address to put on any kind of job-application form, and he didn’t have a cell phone, either, or an email, or a driver’s license or any form of ID.

    I’ve never been to Iowa and maybe this is a huge generalization, but it seemed the part of town she was from was INCREDIBLY sheltered and she was just never exposed to actual poverty or ever considered that it’s not really a level playing field where if you work hard, you can succeed. I don’t think she ever conceived of the fact that not everyone has these things we take for granted–an address, identification, technology. Thank you so much for writing this post–I’m going to bookmark it and have it handy for the next time she and I have a conversation about poverty and why people can’t just ‘work harder.’

    Anyway, I think this is longer than your post! But I love your blog and am looking forward to reading more.

  9. That was a thoughtful and well written piece. I have tried to explain this to people over the years, to little avail. Thanks for writing it. I hope it opens some people’s minds.

  10. Late to the conversation, but I just found your blog (via Mothers of Intention article on Bitch) and THANK YOU for this. I was going to bring up Radical Homemakers as well… unhooking from a culture of consumption and creating a new life sustaining economy sounds great, but it is much easier with acres of land and an inheritance. i think that is great that folks are bowing out of high powered jobs to grow food, build their own houses and so on but it is damaging to pretend that these are options for everyone.

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