I would like to reach back to our earlier conversation about the food stamp challenge, where I suggested that for many people it is a type of live action role-playing for the privileged classes. The conversation at the Daily Kos about my essay (which was featured in the "Community Spotlight") has been very informative--they have a discussion group called "Hunger in America"--and one of the commenters there offered up the following bit of sharing:
I lived that life for two years during the Reagan recession. I was intermittently employed in a small town, mostly on a casual basis, and experienced some discrimination because of my origins. I had no car, no bicycle, only as much cheap/used cookware as fit in a copy paper box under my bed, and very little space to store anything. Either I had a shared kitchen space from which others could and would steal my ingredients (which I could not keep in my room) or I had a hot plate, toaster oven and dorm-sized fridge. I had lots of time and very little money, and had to hang around near my phone (only landlines then, and no voice mail) so I bought a giant bag of flour and learned to bake. I also went in with friends and bought cheap ingredients that were only edible if cooked for hours and hours. Wartime or Depression food. Peasant food.I had a scary moment when I was unemployed for a year. I never had to deal with eating "peasant food." I guess I wasn't really "poor."
I managed because even so I still had certain advantages, which I fully realized at the time: two years of a first-rate college education, some connections to people and places in the better-off world I could use, and free access to the greatest library of cookbooks in the US. I also had experience cooking professionally at a basic level, but so do many other members of the working poor, those being the kind of jobs we got, when we could get them.
I never, ever made the mistake of thinking that because I could do it, that it was easy and that anyone who did less well was a worthless failure/stupid/lazy, etc. That is a common failure of imagination arising from the meritocratic delusion, itself a product of the Calvinist worldview, compounded by "The Secret"-type BS that bad luck is contagious. I was raised in a non-Western culture with different issues. Also I had plenty of opportunities to observe the lives of others over those two years.
That life was not my choice nor what I was born to, and I was glad to be done with it. I don't blame the experimenters, I just feel they need to take it further, with teachers to help put it in context and maybe moderated discussions with people whom know the life form personal experience.
My period of unemployment impacted me in ways that I am still processing. What stuck with me was the anxiety and fear of being homeless, having an emergency I could not deal with regarding my family, or just having to depend on others if my situation had not improved itself. I was relatively privileged in that regard too: I actually have friends and family to lean on if need be. If one year caused some life-long psychic pain, I can only imagine what either years or a lifetime spent in poverty does to a person emotionally.
Cracked (yes, of all places) had a piece on "The 5 Stupidest Habits You Develop Growing Up Poor" that was so powerful and revealing. I prefer to think of the essay as "the stuff that resource limited folks do to survive and adapt...and how it impacts them when they are no longer poor."
Check it out. I am going to start using it in my classes when we talk about poverty and income inequality. To my eyes, the most illuminating observation, of many in the piece, is the following one:
When You're Poor ...
Remember that time you were cleaning out your wallet and found an extra $5 bill stuffed inside one of the pockets? Poor people are laughing their asses off right now because I might as well be asking if they remember the time they found an extra minotaur in the kitchen. When you're living check to check, there is no amount of money that isn't accounted for, right down to the last penny. You don't have "about 70 bucks" in the bank. You have $68.17.
You think in exact numbers because, at any given point, you have to know if swiping the debit card for gas will put you into overdraft territory. You have to be able to figure on the spot how much you can spend versus how much you need to survive until the next payday, and even the numbers after the decimal point are important. The simplest miscalculation could mean the difference between an actual dinner or a bowl of McDonald's ketchup packets at the end of the week.
Paying the bills becomes a work of algebraic artistry as you find out how much they'll take in order to not shut off your gas. Then calculate on the fly the smallest amount of money you need to survive for the next four days, then subtract that from your current bank account, then make adjustments where necessary and eventually arrive at X ... where X equals how much today's bill is going to fuck you for the next three weeks.