The Politics of Being Poor

I’m going to use this space today to write about something that I don’t often talk about, and that’s the fact that we are poor.

Our children qualify for Medicaid, which pays for their check-ups, vaccinations and dental care. They qualify for free breakfast at school and a reduced fee lunch. My youngest would qualify for WIC checks, which is a resource we’ve used in the past. We receive a federal subsidy under the Affordable Care Act, which helps my husband and I afford health insurance for ourselves.beggars

We don’t think about often, because we don’t feel poor. We can pay our bills (most of the time). We have two cars that run (most of the time). We bought a house last year, with a little help from our families. I can even work part-time for a non-profit, because a relative helps out with childcare.

We are the Luckiest Kind of Poor People, the kind with wealthier family members who pass down furniture and appliances to us. We go to the beach every year because someone else pays for our lodging. We can afford to eat out now and then and maintain a couple of streaming subscriptions for entertainment. Life is pretty good.

We also don’t spend a lot of time talking about being poor, because, well, it’s embarrassing. There’s a stigma associated with being poor, the constant implication that you’re just not trying hard enough.

Americans have a long history of associated prosperity with virtue, which is why most us pretend to be more affluent then we actually are.

And there is certainly no end of people who will tell you that you just need to do X or give up Y, but the reality is that financial situations are complex and the path upward isn’t always straight.

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This is the irony of the world we live in now: I have a device that can access the internet, make calls, stream TV, and instantly translate hundreds of languages, and this device fits in my pocket and I can buy one for less than the cost of a doctor’s appointment. Think about that for a moment.

So when social welfare issues hit the national spotlight, there’s this funny thing that happens where I look around and realize that this is just an “issue” for a lot of people. It’s an abstract concept that has no actual effect on their lives.

And a lot of them have been told, over and over again, that world is full of greedy, entitled poor people who are scamming the system, and the best way to stop that is not to fix social welfare programs, but to reduce funding for them.

School Food - Chicken NuggetsIf the government cuts back the free and reduced lunch program so that fewer families are covered, that has a direct effect on our grocery budget every month. And as I said, we are the Luckiest Kind of Poor People. Our kids won’t go hungry. They might not eat as well and they won’t get milk every day, but they won’t go hungry.

That’s not the case for every family.

Children have no control over their household income or stability. They have no control over the family budget. I can’t imagine what people think would be resolved or improved by letting children go hungry.

The larger, looming issue for us these days is health care. I’ve had a stomachache since November wondering what was going to happen to our health insurance, and the recent roll out of the health care plan proposed by the Republican party isn’t making me feel any better.

My husband and I have an “Obamacare” plan and have for a number of years. Neither one of us can get insurance from our employers, so the exchange was a perfect solution for us.

Over the past few years we’ve listened and sympathized with people who have been forced to change plans and faced rising premiums. I’ve listened to people complain about the subsidies they don’t qualify for and being forced to pay for services, like maternity or mental health, that they don’t use.

The American healthcare system in general is a lumbering, creaking Frankenstein monster. Obamacare was certainly not a complete solution, but that’s a topic for another day.

Obamacare works for us. Our current plan costs us $209 per month. That’s up $80 a month from last year, which I realize might sound like a very small increase to some of you. We had to cut things from our budget to be able to afford it.

It covers our routine medical costs with a minimal copay. It covers any testing that we need. It provides partial coverage for the medication I take for hypothyroidism.

Without the subsidies provided by the ACA, our plan would cost $674 per month. That’s more than our monthly grocery budget.

Even if we cut our coverage to bare-bones catastrophic, accepted a $5,000 deductible like we used to have and paid for all of our routine medical expenses out of pocket (and by that I mean never go to the doctor, borrow money or put it on a credit card, because there is no room in our budget for insurance AND routine medical costs) we would still struggle to afford $250 or $300 per month. It’s not a matter of cutting X or doing Y, the money just isn’t there.

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This is where I’ll probably be getting my thyroid medication from. They seem nice.

And I just want to emphasize, that insurance is only covering the two of us. If our children ever get dropped from Medicaid, we’re up an entirely different kind of creek.

Like millions of Americans, we hope this time in our lives is temporary. We are trying hard. Where we are is not the bottom, it’s a place we scrambled up to.

My husband works full-time and goes to school at night so that someday he’ll be able to get a job with insurance benefits. We know that our kids won’t be little forever and there will be potential for me to work more hours without the expense of daycare.

We have hope for the future.

We hope that someday we won’t need help to pay for insurance. We hope that we’ll be able to pay for our children’s medical care. We hope to reach a place where we can actually put money in our savings account and not take it out two weeks later. We might even someday get to grumble about our taxes!

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#GOALS

But for right now, this is where we are. And when you turn on the news and see people in nice suits talking about how people could afford health insurance if they just tried a little harder and cut back and little more, it makes me want to laugh. Not in a happy way.

Every social welfare program in this country has people who being served by it. Real people with real lives, not some mythical lazy stereotype. People who are disabled, people who live with chronic illness, people who were raised in poverty and never made it out.

To ignore us, or to insist that we’re victims of our own irresponsibility is not a solution. It’s a convenient excuse. 

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2-Minute Life

Have you heard of the two minute rule? It goes something like this:

If a task takes you less than two minutes to complete, do it now.

Here’s a succinct explanation:

It’s surprising how many things we put off that we could get done in two minutes or less. For example, washing your dishes immediately after your meal, tossing the laundry in the washing machine, taking out the garbage, cleaning up clutter, sending that email, and so on.

It’s one of those things I heard once and it made me laugh. Because this is my life right now:

It’s August. It’s evening and my husband is mowing. I come in from watering the garden, a wet and stinky toddler on my hip. I need to go back out to turn off the water and roll up the hose, and that will be easier to do if my toddler is indoors and not within running distance of the road. It shouldn’t take longer than two minutes.

I quickly wash the toddler’s hands and take off her dirty shoes. I peel off her wet shirt (no pants because it’s August) and change her diaper. She’s fussy and clinging to me. I need to distract her so I can go back outside, so I hunt for the TV remote.

Several minutes later I manage to get a YouTube video on and gather up the dirty diaper and wet clothing. Laundry basket. Diaper pail.

My five year-old comes down the stairs in his flannel pajamas. It’s August, I tell him.

While I’m at the diaper pail I notice the cat’s litter box needs to be cleaned, so I grab a bag and do it.

The YouTube video has ended. On my way back to the living room I step on a goldfish cracker. It shatters into a million orange crumbs. Broom and dustpan.

I look at the clock and realize it’s time for the toddler to have her evening milk. But then the seven year-old wants me to Ask Google what the most venomous snake in the world is.

Ask Google yourself, I tell him, before I rethink the wisdom of letting an internet search engine correctly interpret his question.

The toddler is now watching whatever YouTube decided to play next. I dash outside and turn off the water. I leave the hose laying in the yard and tell myself I’ll get it later.

And that’s my life. One simple, two-minute task takes approximately twenty minutes to complete.

There are hundreds more of those two-minute tasks that won’t get done. I have to prioritize. I have to do two minutes of laundry before I can spare two minutes for the kitchen floor. Oh, wait, it’s lunchtime. Time for two minutes of cutting up grapes and dividing out crackers and baloney.

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My life.

I have to text my husband about plans for the weekend, and pay the electric bill. Dentist appointments are overdue. My phone reminds me that I haven’t taken my Words with Friends turn and my grandmother is waiting.

Someone starts crying in the living room and everything gets reshuffled. Time passes so quickly in two-minute increments.