Tag Archives: working poor

When You’re Among the Working Poor

Thanksgiving is just days away. Other than the pressures of the regular end-of-the-year kind of things, this is actually my all time favorite time of year; the time period with the week leading up to Thanksgiving, through to the days after Christmas. I love the anticipation of the Christmas season, even if it overshadows Thanksgiving. I know people get upset about those of us who like decorating early and planning holiday parties in October, and listening to Christmas music while the Harvestfest pumpkins haven’t even rotten on the porch. My all time favorite pastime — watching cheesy Christmas movies starting in November! It doesn’t matter that I can predict the plot of every single romantic holiday movie — because they’re mostly the same four or five plot lines, switching off lead gender roles and cities. I sit plop down in front of the TV when I need a break from the real world, and turn my brain off for two hours of entertainment!

There is one Christmas movie that I watched for the first time in the middle of July. It was during Hallmark’s Christmas in July features, about six or seven years ago. The movie originally aired in December 2006, but I don’t remember it back then. Maybe my life was too full to have time to watch many movies at the time. Or maybe it just didn’t catch my attention, back when I was gainfully employed, without a financial worry in the world. Whatever the reason, the movie, “Home by Christmas” not only caught my attention back in 2011, but it really resonated with me. It was that summer when I was 2 1/2 years into a new employment status I hadn’t really planned on — self-employment. It had been a real struggle, working 12-14 hour days trying to generate enough money to cover my bills, with little to nothing left over to re-invest into the company or even myself. Things were made more of a hardship trying to deal with some clients who didn’t pay their bills; others who took advantage of my generosity to help — and therefore, still didn’t pay me for my work; and a host of other things I, at the time, had not planned on.

This was the same summer when Catching Raindrops in Water Buckets was birthed. Maybe it was even by watching “Home for Christmas that I felt a sense of confirmation that some of the choices I had made over the previous two years were the right ones for me to adjust my life to my new normal. The premise of the movie was this:

A wealthy, stay at home mother discovers that her husband is having an affair. Though she’s willing to forgive him, he wants a divorce instead so he can be with the younger woman. Her attorney wants her to stay in the house and get both child support and alimony. She allows pride to get in the way (Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.) and gives up the house just to get away. Because she’s not been employed for years, she has a hard time finding a job, and therefore, can’t afford another home in the same area. Her daughter chooses to remain with her dad so she can stay in the same school district. Unable to find employment, eventually she can’t even afford the apartment, and finds herself homeless. At this point, her daughter is studying abroad, and has no idea her mom has fallen on such hard times.

Don’t worry, it’s a Christmas story, and starts to get better halfway through the movie. But the main part of the story that spoke to me is this. During the woman’s transition, she had to learn to do things differently. She had to learn to adjust to her new normal, and not allow pride to keep her from doing things differently. Along the way, she met a woman who became a friend (as you can guess, her old friends deserted her as soon as she was no longer able to afford to remain a part of their circle). The woman was a well-dressed, articulate, financial analyst. What caught her attention with the woman was after seeing her at the same coffeeshop multiple times, one day noticing that the outfit the woman was wearing looked just like a suit she had donated to a thrift store months earlier.

So as the story unfolds, we learn that this well-dressed, college-educated woman who had been hanging out at the coffeeshop working on her laptop, was herself homeless. But she didn’t talk like it or look like it. She looked like the businesswoman she introduced herself to be. As the story continues we learn that the woman had lost her job, but had learned how to survive while she looked for another one — how and where to eat, find a place to sleep, and continue to look her best while searching for another job.  This woman teaches our mom how to shop at discount places, where to go to get free personal services, type of places to find free food, and even finding safe places to sleep besides her car. A lot of other things happen during her to get back on her feet. But it was the things she learned to do along the way, to survive and stay safe, that did as much to change her as the luck that came her way, to help her pull herself out of the spiral she was experiencing. 

So what’s my point?

In part, it is the fact that looks can be deceiving. Too often we look at someone and determine their status in life by what they’re wearing, how well “put together” they appear, and whether or not they “look” like they’re employed at a “good” job. But there are many people sitting in coffee shops across America today who are working on job applications, or maybe just using the free wifi as they try to stay warm, if only for the day. Maybe they’ll strike up a conversation with someone who might have a lead on a job. They look well-dressed because they showed up at Goodwill’s 50% off Saturday sale to purchase that nice suit and shoes; and they went to the local cosmetology school to have students do their hair and nails for significantly less than going to a salon. And you may have no idea that the last time they had something to eat was one of the day old bagels that the coffeehouse donated to the homeless shelter the night before.

So when I read a recent tweet by someone in the media mocking new Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s outfit, suggesting that she can’t really be struggling too much if she’s able to dress a certain way, it really set me off.

“I’ll tell you something: that jacket and coat don’t look like a girl who struggles.”

There is a lot wrong with his full tweet, including why a journalist would even make such a statement. But his comments, and the ascertain by some of his followers who chimed in, line up with the unfortunate misguided judgements a lot of people make; the assumption being that if you’re dressed in what appears to be “high fashion” clothing, then you must be wealthy. And likewise, if you look like your clothes came off a store rack at a shopping mall department store, then the person is less well off, unable to afford a more professional look for their workplace. Some of his followers tweeted a response that she couldn’t possibly be as bad off as she’s suggested in the past, if she’s able to “wear clothes like that.”

I’m in no way suggesting that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez lives at the poverty level or shops at thrift stores. But what if she did? Would that make her any less of the person she is; any less qualified to want to have a voice in how her community, her state, and this country is run? Politics aside. And whether I agree or disagree with any of her positions, why are we judging someone by what what they do or don’t wear; what they drive, or how they get around; where they can and can’t afford to live? Maybe that’s one of the problems with American politics. American people keep electing their government officials who don’t live anything like them; who have never struggled to keep things together between pay checks; who have to make hard decisions each month, for the sake of their budgets; who worry that they’re one hospital stay, or two paychecks away from losing it all. And then they expect these same people to actually work and pass legislation on behalf of them and other working class Americans!

But I don’t want to get political. What I do want to get is real. If you’re one of the many working poor, who go into work everyday, rotating the same five outfits throughout each month. If you’re one of those who’s working a full-time job with a check that seems like part-time pay; with more going to bills and just the cost of life, than anything that can be saved to build or help out later. If how you make ends meet is by shopping at thrift shops and discount stores; giving up cable and the fancy mobile devices; and limiting hair cuts and manicures to special events a few times a year. Take heart. You’re not alone. We’re sadly a growing majority, some who even went into debt attending college so that we wouldn’t become a part of this story. Living in a time where the housing market has priced you out of that homeownership dream, while apartment rent remains as high as a mortgage. The working poor. Making just enough to be priced out of most programs designed to help those living in poverty, but not enough to live upon those means. 

Everyone has a story. Don’t assume you know what it is. If you’re fortunate not be  among the working poor, be thankful instead of arrogant. And maybe instead of retweeting an ugly comment, or making up one of your own, think about someone at your own workplace, in your neighborhood, or at your school, who might be just barely hanging on. And then find a way to reach out to them and help.

 

 

Advertisements