Check Your Privilege: Financial Stress Edition

There may be be a day when I write a post that isn’t rage dressed up like sociopolitical commentary…


I think at this point rage and stubbornness may be the only things actually keeping my body going.

Disclaimer: I know a few people who know me outside this blog also read here, but this post is not about you.  It’s not about any one person–more about an amalgamation of people or an archetype, something like that.  So if you think this is about you, it’s not.

Okay, on to the rant.

I’m really sick of people with the privilege of economic security telling me I need to stop worrying about money.  There are different varieties of it: God Will Provide, You Attract What You Put Out Into the Universe, We’re All Stressed Out About Money, If You Would Just, and It Can’t Really Be As Bad As All That.  There are probably other variations, but these are the ones I keep running into.

God Will Provide
I’ve written a whole other rant about American religion and its relationship to poverty, complete with historical references from John Calvin to Calvin Coolidge.  (Okay, I don’t think I actually mentioned either of them by name in that post, but c’mon, it’s great symmetry.)  At best, this kind of response is a polite way of saying, “Don’t make me notice things that create cognitive dissonance with my belief system.”  At worst, it’s victim-blaming: if God doesn’t provide for your needs, it must be because you’re a bad person/because he’s judging you/because you don’t believe the right way.  I think most people fall into the first category–they don’t know how to respond to the reality of poverty, so they fall back on what’s most comfortable to them.  Still, it’s dismissive, and it’s disrespectful to those who may not share your particular religious beliefs.

You Attract What You Put Out Into the Universe
Again, victim-blaming, which is probably the most common reaction to poverty.  The reality is that positive thinking can’t fix everything.  Meditating on my checking account balance will never actually make the numbers go up.  If positive thinking makes you happier, makes your problems more manageable, awesome!  I’m happy for you, truly.  But there is no scientific evidence that positive thinking has lifted anyone out of poverty.  And again, this is a spiritual belief that the poor person you’re talking to may not share.

We’re All Stressed Out About Finances
This is probably true of 99% of people, so no argument from me on the basic facts here.  But the implication of this kind of statement is that all financial worries are created equal, and that simply is not true.  Let me tell you a thing about a guy named Maslow.  He came up with this hierarchy of needs that’s a well-known sociological model.  The basic gist of it is that until you get your basic physical needs met, you can’t worry about anything else.  Here’s a handy visual aid, mostly because oil pastels are a good conduit for my rage.  (It’s a crappy photo.  Sorry.)

2014-10-09 00.03.30

Basically, if you can’t reliably meet needs like food, shelter, and bodily safety, nothing else matters.  You can live without the top third of the pyramid.  It may not be happy or fun, but it’s safe and secure.  It doesn’t mean the higher needs aren’t real or valid or important, though.  What it means is that when I’m trying to build the foundation of my pyramid, it’s hard for me to empathize with your struggle to meet needs higher on the pyramid.  I get that you want to have another baby, but you and your partner want to buy a house instead of renting so your kids have a yard and you don’t have to keep paying rent.  I get that it’s stressful to figure out all of that.  But your need is not the same as my need to have reliable housing so I’m not homeless in the middle of a New England winter.  When you put them on the same level, you’re dismissing the fact that my need is a matter or life and death.  Your need is still real and valid and important, and your worry about not being able to meet it is still real and valid and important.  But it is not the same as my need and my worry.

If You Would Just…
This one may be the one that makes me craziest, probably because it’s the one I encounter the most.  Occasionally, it’s thinly veiled judgment: “Well, you wouldn’t be poor if you didn’t spend your money on that iPhone” or “Stop shopping at Whole Foods all the time and you’ll have more money.”  Those ones are pretty easy to spot–there’s that signature body language and tone of voice we all recognize.

But usually I think it comes from a place of wanting to help.  I think most people genuinely want other people to be happy.  It’s hard to see someone suffer and acknowledge that we can’t fix it, so to soothe our own feelings of helplessness, we jump in with lots of helpful suggestions.  “Apply for food stamps,” “Get on the waiting list for section 8,” “Have you looked at the food bank?” and so on.  It’s nice that you want to help.  Thank you for that.  But please, stop before you start.

Offering unsolicited advice assumes incompetence.  I’m a smart, resourceful person.  Most poor people are incredibly resourceful–it’s how we survive.  We probably already know about the resources available to us, and you’re probably the fifth person to suggest the same things to us this week.  I try to be gracious about it, but it gets increasingly frustrating and I eventually want to stand on a chair and yell, “I am not stupid!  If there were an obvious answer, I would’ve found it by now!”  Generally, when I’m talking to someone in a peer capacity (i.e., I have not come into your office with questions about specific resources), I don’t want you to try to fix it for me.  I just want you to listen and hear me and be present with me in what I’m struggling with.  It can be hard at first to circumvent the hardwired imperative to fix people, but I’ve found that once I learned how to just sit with someone, it actually became easier for me emotionally, and it allowed me to connect with the other person much more deeply.

It Can’t Really Be That Bad
I don’t actually have that much to say about that beyond a resounding FUCK YOU.  Of all the things I could say for attention, of all the things I could make up or exaggerate, why would I tell you something laced with so much personal and societal shame?  If I want attention, I’ll tell you about the time I taught a college class the parts of the ear when I was three years old or the two times I’ve gotten to shake President Obama’s hand.  If I want pity or I’m trying to make excuses, well, I don’t have to try very hard to find that.  I have a disease that makes me shit myself because my entire large intestine turns into one giant, bleeding, excruciatingly painful ulcer.  Most days I have to use a cane if I’m going to be vertical for more than 30 seconds at a time.  It wouldn’t be hard to find sympathy if that’s what I were looking for.

But if I’m telling you about my experience of poverty, it’s not because I want pity or attention.  It’s because I want you to understand.  I want you to realize that even though I walk, talk, and look like a middle-class white girl, I’m not.  I want you to realize that poverty has a lot of different faces, not just the guy at the corner asking for change.  For some of us, poverty is less visible, better camouflaged.  In many ways that’s an advantage–we get wider social acceptance, it’s easier for us to find jobs, we face less obvious prejudice and hatred and fear.  But it also means that the few anti-poverty programs we have don’t always address our particular needs.  It means politicians don’t talk about people like us when they try to address poverty.  Nobody wants to be invisible, so when I tell you about my situation, it’s because I’m giving you the chance to see more of you than most people will.  Please don’t make me regret that.



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15 responses to “Check Your Privilege: Financial Stress Edition

  1. Yeah, i’ve been there. Freezing in my apt…no heat, food, car, people saying im a leech on society for being mentally ill…i do understand. It’s f–‘ing hard. I wish i cd say it was easier. Crap, things don’t change!


  2. But they do change as life changes, dont get me wrong. Nothing stays the same…things did change for me…i am just sorry that the system remains so crappy for people like you, or me when i needed it and may need it again. It’s bullshit…

    • I knew what you meant, no worries.

      The system is broken, and it’s structured in such a way that we’re silenced, and our puritanical culture of poor-shaming just enforces that silence. But I’ve never exactly been good at doing the “sit down and shut up” thing…I think you can probably relate to that. 🙂

      If we can convince enough people that they really don’t have anything else to lose by speaking up and show them that their silence is only protecting the broken system, eventually things will have to change. The problem is that the system is structured so that we almost always think we have something left to lose, when in reality it wasn’t ours to begin with. To realize that the system gives and takes away at its own whims is terrifying at first and makes you feel like you’re not even a person, but there’s also a certain power you gain once you can see that, I think.

  3. I think that if people like you keep writing about these things, they will eventually change 🙂 You say it so well, explain it so intelligently and beautifully. I just wish change happened faster.

  4. I fucking loved this. I apologize if my offering to help made you feel that way. I only did because I was once too weak to get out of bed, starving myself, and had no money. I needed someone to help me. As I have said, I know only too well I am one day away from being where you are. And feel guilty for selling out in a lot of ways, when people tell me I shouldn’t.

    Everything you said was so spot on. I know you are smart. Poverty makes me sick. This country makes me sick. You are such a survivor. i hear you.

    Our offer still stands. We are here for all of you Hope. Anytime. We are present with you. keep writing. You are brilliant. As for your post, it is brilliant.
    Much love and good vibes
    -CCChanel et al

    • Like I said, this wasn’t about any one person–it’s more a collective straw man.

      I don’t think you’ve sold out. As long as you’ve hung onto who you are and what you believe in, then it’s not really selling out. We all have to do things we’d rather not do to survive. God knows I’ve done some pretty terrible things. Then again, I’m sure my telling you not to feel guilty doesn’t actually make you feel less guilty–it never works that way when other people tell me I shouldn’t feel guilty.

      When I started blogging, I never intended to write about poverty. At first, I tried to keep away from politics at all. I didn’t intend to write about physical illness and disability issues, either. I just intended to write about being crazy. But I’m realizing more and more how important intersectionality is. Being poor has huge effects on my underlying mental and physical health as well as my ability to access treatment for those issues. I can’t separate them out into their own boxes.

      It continues to surprise me that people appreciate what I write. That’s mostly about me, not my readers. I grew up in an extended family where poor people were looked down on as lazy, unmotivated, stupid, and basically altogether inferior. I internalized those messages, and they stuck around even after my life experience showed me that those are not general characteristics of poor people. I apply those judgments to myself but not others; I replay the messages about how I need to just get over it and pull myself up by my own bootstraps and I’ll be fine, even though I know those messages don’t reflect reality. And then I hear my culture, particularly politicians, repeating those messages about poor people. Most of them have no lived experience of poverty. Occasionally they try to dress it up as compassion for poor people, but I don’t know who they think they’re fooling besides other rich people.

      So when I talk about these things, I expect to get those kinds of reactions. I expect people to yell at me, to shame me. I expect no one to listen. So it continually surprises me when people are kind and supportive and agree with me. I haven’t quite figured out what to do with it yet, but I appreciate it deeply.

  5. Thank you for this – such a well written, honest and relatable post! Xx

  6. By the end of your post it is impossible to think that it is a “rant” because it is too balanced, eloquent, and accurate to fall into that category.

    • Well, thank you. It’s unintentional–I don’t pay a lot of attention to structure when I’m blogging. I just sort of sit down and spew words until I don’t want to murder 95% of the world anymore. It surprises me that it tends to come out so coherently.

  7. Hopemi just have to tell you something…when i was really down and out, and on my last legs. No money, no heat, no food, literally survivng on deliveries of pepsi cola and occasional milk and OJ from the nearby convenience storee and cigarettes, which were cheap back then to quell the hunger, i did something i had never done before…and i did it expecting nothing from it, simply out of frustration with the system and with people’s attitudes. I wrote on my simple typewriter a letter to the editor of the Hartford Courant which related that i was writing under the blankets because i had no heat etc but the point i made was mostly that i was tired of the mentally ill being scorned as leeches on society and so forth.

    Well, you know, i had really no expectations of their publishing this letter, heartfelt and well-written as it may have been, but they did, in the Sunday paper. And that Sunday morning, to my incredible surprise, my phone kept ringing and ringing with people calling me, strangers as well we people who knew of me or knew me slightly, who had read the letter. But the most amazing thing was one complete stranger offered, through the paper, to pay my heating and electric bills for as long as i needed her to, until i was “back on my feet.” Oh, yes, i felt some shame in accepting her offer, but i also understood that it was indeed a good faith offer and that i myself would have done it for someone else in the same good faith…so i accepted it and she did pay my bills for an entire year until my dear younger sister offered to take up the slack.

    There is no moral to this story except that life has its surprises, and things can change and miracles of small and big sorts can happen to rescue us even when all hope seems lost. So when i say, Hang in there, Hope, i don’t mean it selfishly. i don’t mean do it for me because it would hurt me if you died…i mean hang in there because this is the sort of thing that can and does happen even at the very last minute and it changes everything.

    I send my Love, and a hug,


    • I’m in the process of writing a letter to my city councilor about the bus issue. I have too much shame to be public about the money problems–I can only talk about it here because it’s anonymous and I use a fake name. My financial coping strategy at this point is to pretend it’s not happening, even though I know it’s going to blow up in my face pretty soon. I just can’t deal with anything more than I’m already dealing with right now, as unhealthy as that is.

  8. Great post, Mama. I hear you, and love this.

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