Meta-Note: I’m sorry it’s been so long between articles; for better or worse writing here is something that I do for fun, and sometimes work and family get in the way. In this case, I was spending a lot of time trying to learn SQL; you will be pleased to note I am now able to pad my resume with “Intermediate Database Language Skills” with the best of them.
Welcome to everyone coming from Hacker News - I'm glad to have you!
Thank you so much for taking the time to write this down. I could go on and on but you definitely hit the high points. I am an American living in Canada (so two cultures, and wildly divergent ideas about health) and I am someone who grew up "poor-ish" and now lives at a very comfortable income (so, wildly divergent ideas about money between me and my friends depending on how long we've known each other). I have had SO many interactions like the baby shower one you mention, and while I always silently sigh to myself what I really want to do is scream. I grew up with nothing, like literally we had the utilities shut off and would have to deal with power but no water or water but no power depending on what month it was. I went without food, often. I was also discarded by my parents as a teenager, and know what it's like to pick through trash for clean, fresh food (thank wealthy college kids!). Now that my wife and I bring in a very comfortable six figure income decades later, I find myself often unable to relate to ANYTHING most people say about money. I also strongly identify with being able to fix cars and appliances and all kinds of housing-related stuff (when you're poor-ish, it's not like your landlord will ever fix anything without months of argument). This is a good primer that more people need to read...and also, that doctor couple and everyone like them really needs to get their heads out of their asses and start living sensibly. A gilded youth is no excuse.
Hi again, everyone!
I want to get to all your comments and respond - and I will - but I'm having a bit of a crazy day. I'm really happy about all the engagement here. I know there's some debate happening and it mostly looks pretty reasonable, but I'd ask that to the extent you can you try to be fair to each other - I can't / don't want to moderate very much in here if I can help it.
Again, this has been a great day for me and every interaction I've had with all of you has been very positive. I appreciate it a lot - thank you.
Thanks a lot for this piece. Coming from the more lucky part of earth's population I disagree with one thing you're writing repeatedly:
>> And if you do better than I do - say, if you are a person who completed college on time and went on to your deserved place in the upper-middle class - I hereby command you not to feel bad about it.
I just can't identify with that. As an upper middle-class in one of the richest countries on earth (some say the richest), I do call on all rich people to feel bad! How can you allow one guy to have access to 200'000'000'000 dollars, while others have their water turned off? An American friend of mine said: "because otherwise it would be socialism". So what?
What's wrong with caring about poor people? The author is trying hard, but it's difficult, he doesn't manage. Why not force the guy with the zeroes to pay for the water bill? Pay for the health care? It wouldn't even need to be a full zero (pun intended).
So to all the rich guys out there: if this piece doesn't make you feel bad, because you're afraid of being socialist, communist, or whatever, then you have a wrong idea of what it means to care about poor people.
And one more thing: even though my country is (one of) the richest countries in the world, I cannot imagine somebody having his water turned off because he cannot pay the bills! Or his power turned off. So it's a socialist country that is (one of) the richest countries of the world. Think about that.
Thank you for sharing your story. You captured a lot of nuance in what it’s like to be broke. I’ve been poor, really poor, with a family. So I empathize, and am very familiar with that territory.
I was poor and managed to have the right opportunities come along, one after the other, and I managed to take said opportunities. Some of that, of course is what some might call “dumb luck.”
I have one tiny piece of unsolicited advice: You are obviously an intelligent, logical, articulate, and technically-minded person given your aptitude for mechanical things. Software engineering might be a good fit, I think, if you are interested.
If you haven’t already done so and you’re at all interested in coding, Google “Free Code Camp”. It’s a great resource that can actually lead a person into a career in web development. Everything you need is there. Of course, that’s only if you are interested and can spare some time to focus on that.
Best of luck to you, and I hope that didn’t come off preachy. Web development is just how I got myself and my family out of poverty. That and a lot of good opportunities I was fortunate enough to have.
In case you get the influx of traffic I suspect that you will (and deserve) and are wondering why: this article appeared on Hacker News and is doing quite well there.
Since you’re able to do “anything less complex than a full engine or transmission rebuild,” I’m sure becoming a mechanic (an in-demand job that requires rare skills) has crossed your mind. Is there some high barrier to entry, the blue collar equivalent of “just the skill without an associated degree”?
You sound like an awesome person and I wish you the best.
hey, great article! I'd add two things. First and foremost is mental health. Most don't choose to be poor and (like obesity) there are typically comorbidities. This means that people with additional, stigmatized needs are unable or less able to get professional help. Thus higher rates of a addiction and self medication and compounding injuries (bad back > job loss or no exercise > poor diet). Most things are made for average height, white, right handed, english speaking, mobile people. These are a couple of dimensions most people don't think about most of the time, but the more atypical you are the harder it can be to be traditionally successful. This is generally fine, but 10% of people (statistically) don't have the "fluid intelligence" (IQ) to serve in the military. These people, especially, have a hard time adapting and their poverty (including social poverty) can be astounding.
The other thing I'd add is that your lower class comparison was for $17.50/hour. This was a great comparison, and I really appreciated it. Finding housing when you're making $10-$12/hour or when working part time is a large part of the american experience; 31.3% of americans make less than $12/hour (source: https://policy-practice.oxfamamerica.org/work/poverty-in-the-us/low-wage-map/). Again, thanks for the article.
i can't tell you how much time i spend trying to convey the experience of being Actually Poor in america. the responses usually come down to a few major categories, most of which have come around in the comments even:
>can't you just [obvious surface-level change that you've already thought of and won't help]?
>that doesn't seem so bad when i do the math in my head!
>this just proves everything about my socio-economic opinion bundle!
>i'm not american, so it'd be different if you joined me in a more advanced civilization
you're being incredibly polite about all of it, but i see where you're putting the effort in. i used this article to explain a couple of specific situations to someone i know, and, well, it's still very hard to get across the difference in lifestyle, you did better than a lot of people who get paid to write about social issues. i did notice a couple of things i can comment on:
1) in the auto-expenses section, you didn't mention one thing i think people might not immediately realize: it's actually illegal in most places to drive uninsured. this means that you're forced to pay for the frankly-unfair pricing on liability insurance, which like you mentioned, doesn't even help you in most practical cases. a lot of people don't, and so they drive uninsured, and they hope they don't get pulled over for a tail light or turn signal, because if they do, they could face license revocations, car impounds, and other harassments of the justice system. this isn't rare-- i myself have driven uninsured for this reason, and i've known a lot of people who have faced real consequences for it, like a car that gets impounded and the driver just cannot afford to pay the fees to get it back, so it ends up being auctioned off. another similar situation arises with child support: at least where i'm from, if you fall behind on your child support payments, you can have your driver's license revoked. usually, you can't just stop driving because you need to work, so people drive without a license and risk being arrested if they get pulled over at random. again, i've seen this happen more than once, in addition to it happening in my family growing up. i shouldn't need to mention that this policy does nothing to help the family on the other side of the divorce; if the other parent can't go to work, it just makes it even less likely that they'll see their full support payment next month.
2) square-footage is a fairly unreliable comparison for people to make with regards to housing, because Arizona is a pretty open place and it might seem to them that your apartment is fairly sizeable, as far as apartments go. i could walk into a hundred apartments and sort them into middle-class or lower-class, but at no point would size factor into the equation. age of appliances and fixtures, general level of maintenance, and the attitude of the holding company are going to make a much bigger difference-- but even then, it's not as big as the location. most cheap housing in the US is held very far away from city centers, and i rarely ever meet poor people who are housed in an area that doesn't have a horrible commute. i've had coworkers in LA with ninety-plus-minute bus commutes, and the transit situation here, while a meme, is not worse than that in Phoenix. and people seem to be commenting to the expectation that your $1200 apartment was fairly reasonable, which i'd argue is much the point-- but according to conventional budget advice, it's far too expensive for somebody on a lower-class wage. you can make too much money to qualify for Medicaid and still not really be able to afford that apartment. and everything below that is not just cramped, it's dangerous.
This was a good read. I'm going to forward this to my kids, hoping they will actually read something that is longer than a tweet or InstaGarbage post. I am in the 'do not feel guilty' category, but got there mostly via luck (yes, and some hard work). I have not gone through any hardship to get there, and had a comfortable youth. Being where I am with just highschool and some courses I consider myself extremely lucky, and posts like yours just reaffirm that. They also scare me to death.
I admire your resilience, and wish you continued happiness!
A word on dental-school clinics: in my experience the trade-off is not quality, but time, which can change the calculus a bit (if you're poor and working multiple jobs, you might be able to stand a substandard teeth-cleaning but not one which takes three times as long as ordinary). Dental students are, in my experience more meticulous if anything than their credentialed peers, because they have so much more to lose from an imperfect performance. But because they are being assessed on their performance — because during and after the process teaching dentists come in (on their own time, and they're usually riding herd on several students at once) to assess the work, there's a lot of waiting around for a third party to look into your mouth and assess the job. That can really make it a longer process, by a good chunk.
This article could have been 10 times longer and I would have read it. I have gone from being "broke" to being "ok" to being legit poor in about 15 years as an adult. Broke my back for almost all of those years too. I think something not covered in this article which is incredibly annoying is how much people who have financial success are never willing to admit how much luck is a factor. What neighborhood you were born in, who your parents are, what time in human history. Hell when my dad was a kid you worked at the mill for 35 years and retired comfortably. I don't know a single person who has had less than 5 jobs by now.
This was a God damned outstanding piece. Well done.
Extra spicy layer to the Craigslist equation: being femme. Facebook Marketplace is amazing for deals, and I've been using it more often than CL for the pay few months. Yesterday I tried buying a torch (for metalworking) and there guy decided to mention "don't take this the wrong way but I looked at your profile and you're a cutie".
There was no way I was going to pursue any further interaction with the seller after that. I told him I'd pass on the torch. Creepy shit.
Thanks for this article - it was a great read. Here's one thing I've been struggling to understand a little bit. You said that pre-COVID you were earning $50k - I think that's just you, and your wife, if she works, is additional to that. I live in the UK, and at the current exchange rate $50k is £36k. Median earnings for full-time employees in the UK is just over £30k. So in the UK, you would be modestly above average, perhaps the 60th percentile or something.
But what you describe sounds way, way worse than what 60% of people in the UK experience. The UK is not as rich as the US but it is clearly a rich country. So what's going on here? I have a few ideas:
1. It's not individual income that matters, but household, and maybe your wife doesn't work and that's relevant.
2. It's not before tax income that matters but after tax (net). But I assume taxes in the UK are higher than the US. And - related to (1) - median *household net* income in the UK is like £25k or something.
3. You get more services provided by the government in the UK. But I think that's only true for healthcare and dental, and you get your health insurance for free anyway? (NB. You have to pay a bit for dental and prescriptions here, but it's pretty much nominal). I guess public transport might be a bit better in the UK - certainly in London it's very good and no-one (even rich people) drives to work. Though if you don't live in a big city, there's very little generally. And I'm fairly sure that the bottom 60% of the population outside big cities largely have cars.
4. Some of it is expectations. You described a 900 sqft apartment as "very small" - in the UK a modest sized house is about that.
5. Something to do with the cost of living differing? I don't know.
Do you have any ideas?