Why Poor People Stay Poor

Book cover for Linda Tirado's book, 'Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America'

If I’m saving my spare five bucks a week, in the best-case scenario I will have saved $260 a year.

Excerpted from Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America by Linda Tirado. Out now from Putnam.

I once lost a whole truck over a few hundred bucks. It had been towed, and when I called the company they told me they’d need a few hundred dollars for the fee. I didn’t have a few hundred dollars. So I told them when I got paid next and that I’d call back then.

It was a huge pain in the ass for those days. It was the rainy season, and I wound up walking to work, adding another six miles or so a day to my imaginary pedometer. It was my own fault that I’d been towed, really, and I spent more than a couple hours ruing myself. I finally made it to payday, and when I went to get the truck, they told me that I now owed over a thousand dollars, nearly triple my paycheck. They charged a couple hundred dollars a day in storage fees. I explained that I didn’t have that kind of money, couldn’t even get it. They told me that I had some few months to get it together, including the storage for however long it took me to get it back, or that they’d simply sell it. They would, of course, give me any money above and beyond their fees if they recovered that much.

I was working two jobs at the time. Both were part time. Neither paid a hundred bucks a day, much less two.

I wound up losing my jobs. So did my husband. We couldn’t get from point A to point B quickly enough, and we showed up to work, late, either soaked to the skin or sweating like pigs one too many times. And with no work, we wound up losing our apartment.

It’s amazing what things that are absolute crises for me are simple annoyances for people with money. Anything can make you lose your apartment, because any unexpected problem that pops up, like they do, can set off that Rube Goldberg device.

One time I lost an apartment because my roommate got a horrible flu that we suspected was maybe something worse because it stayed forever—she missed work, and I couldn’t cover her rent. Once it was because my car broke down and I missed work. Once it was because I got a week’s unpaid leave when the company wanted to cut payroll for the rest of the month. Once my fridge broke and I couldn’t get the landlord to fix it, so I just left. Same goes for the time that the gas bill wasn’t paid in a utilities-included apartment for a week, resulting in frigid showers and no stove. That’s why we move so much. Stuff like that happens.

Because our lives seem so unstable, poor people are often seen as being basically incompetent at managing their lives. That is, it’s assumed that we’re not unstable because we’re poor, we’re poor because we’re unstable. So let’s just talk about how impossible it is to keep your life from spiraling out of control when you have no financial cushion whatsoever. And let’s also talk about the ways in which money advice is geared only toward people who actually have money in the first place. ...
Read full excerpt at Slate

Comments