Things get shabby. Paint peels off the house. The car gets older and older and you keep fixing it because newer cars are too expensive. Your towels and sheets wear thin. Anyone can look at your clothes and know you have no money.
You eat more fats and sugars because meats, fresh fruits and vegetables cost too much, and chips and cookies are cheap and filling. You gain weight. Joining a gym is not an option. You get depressed. Maybe you drink. Beer is cheap and filling.
You buy things in small quantities, even though large quantities are a better value. You can’t afford to save money on the “economy size.” If you were saving for retirement or a rainy day, you realize it’s a rainy day and you spend your savings.
You learn to say no to your kids. A lot. No to ice cream on hot days. No to birthday parties so you won’t have to buy presents. No to karate lessons, soccer lessons, music lessons. No to the sneakers all the other kids wear.
You gradually lose touch with your richer friends and the more upscale members of your family. Poverty is catching. People are afraid yours will rub off on them. You feel ashamed and needy; you feel anxious and guilty; you wonder where you went wrong. You wonder if people who interview you can tell how desperate you are for the job.
All these things have happened to me in the past, and they are happening to millions of Americans right now. Mostly, we blame ourselves for our financial problems. We are taught that America is a land of opportunity, so if we’re poor it must be our own fault. We must not be trying hard enough, or we’re stupid.
But poor people, in my experience, are exactly like rich people, except they have no money. Their poverty is most often not due to any defect in themselves; the cause is a system that allows workers to be underpaid, given no job security, and offered few benefits. The rich people who control both parties have deliberately undermined unions, which used to be our best means of leveling the playing field. Now everybody is on their own, playing on a field that keeps tilting so all the money slides to the rich.
In this system, it’s quite clear by now, the rich keep getting richer, and the divide between the rich and everybody else keeps getting wider. Safety nets have been quietly shredded for the last 40 years, so if you get in trouble you tend to stay in trouble. An accident, an illness, a job loss, or a divorce can make the bottom fall out of your life.
This country used to try to take care of all its citizens. Then the doctrine of greed took hold, around the time Reagan took office. Gradually we have gotten crueler and crueler to poor people. The media ignores them. Government pretends that charities will make sure nobody starves or sleeps on the street. And most of us try to forget that poverty is only one misfortune away from claiming our lives too.