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May 19, 2009

The Comfort Zone

I've got nothing to lose
Nothing to gain
It's like a one way ticket to cruisin' that passing lane
I can't complain

I was talkin' with my girlfriend
I told her I was stressed
I said I'm goin' off the deep end
She said "For God's sake, give it a rest"
We're all waitin' in the dugout
Wishin' we could pitch
How are you gonna throw a shutout
If all you do is bitch?

- Todd Snider

Three decades later I can still remember what it felt to have no money.

Mind you, I didn't feel particularly poor, though we were easily below the poverty level for a family of four. I knew we didn't have much cash to spare, nor any medical insurance. I knew that even a simple trip to the grocery store entailed hours of planning. First find the tattered envelopes full of coupons, each with their identifying label: food, cleaning supplies, HBA. I rarely bought cleaning supplies. There are few things that can't be cleaned with bleach, vinegar, dish washing soap or baking soda - all of which are far less expensive than pre-packaged cleaning supplies.

Drag out the sale circular for the local Bi-Lo and look for sale items for which I had a coupon. Make out the first draft of the shopping list. Write out a menu plan for the next week. One fryer is good for two or three meals: baked chicken the first night. Legs and thighs make a casserole with leftover rice. The carcass and scraps will make vegetable soup using a combination of more leftovers and fresh vegetables. Fill out the rest of the shopping list.

To this day I can never drive past a Bi-Lo without hearing myself, perched behind the wheel of our tiny rugless Toyota Tercel, moo-ing like a demented Holstein from Hell:

"Buy loooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooowwwwwww...."

[wait for it]

"Sell hiiiiiiiigh!!!!"

[sound of delighted giggling from the two freckle faced cherubs in the back seat]

What can I say? We were an easily amused family. The eldest is Coupon Commando. It's a game: at four it is his job to hand me the right coupon as I place items in the cart. He can't read yet, but he's quite good at matching photos to various shopping list items. Shopping trips have been much more fun since he substituted helping Mom for random attempts to dive head-first out of the shopping cart for no apparent reason.

Add up the coupons. Go to the store, buy only items on the list, write a check for the amount saved in coupons plus 5 dollars. Give the kids a dime for the gumball machines. Return home. Place coupon money and the five bucks in the Maxwell House coffee can at the top of the hall closet.

If only I'd known that poverty is a life sentence without parole. Maybe I wouldn't have wasted all that effort crawling out of the slough of despond:

Poverty 101: We'll start with the basics.

Like food: You don't have a car to get to a supermarket, much less to Costco or Trader Joe's, where the middle class goes to save money. You don't have three hours to take the bus. So you buy groceries at the corner store, where a gallon of milk costs an extra dollar.

A loaf of bread there costs you $2.99 for white. For wheat, it's $3.79. The clerk behind the counter tells you the gallon of leaking milk in the bottom of the back cooler is $4.99. She holds up four fingers to clarify. The milk is beneath the shelf that holds beef bologna for $3.79. A pound of butter sells for $4.49. In the back of the store are fruits and vegetables. The green peppers are shriveled, the bananas are more brown than yellow, the oranges are picked over.

(At a Safeway on Bradley Boulevard in Bethesda, the wheat bread costs $1.19, and white bread is on sale for $1. A gallon of milk costs $3.49 -- $2.99 if you buy two gallons. A pound of butter is $2.49. Beef bologna is on sale, two packages for $5.)

Prices in urban corner stores are almost always higher, economists say. And sometimes, prices in supermarkets in poorer neighborhoods are higher. Many of these stores charge more because the cost of doing business in some neighborhoods is higher. "First, they are probably paying more on goods because they don't get the low wholesale price that bigger stores get," says Bradley R. Schiller, a professor emeritus at American University and the author of "The Economics of Poverty and Discrimination."

Funny. For the first ten years of our marriage, we had one car. That meant I often strapped the baby into the umbrella stroller and walked to the grocery store. I had a big backpack - a woven wood basket - that I strapped to my back to carry groceries home in. The backpack was great for walking to the laundromat, too. I could fit two small loads of laundry into it.

My son and his wife moved away from here a few years ago. They moved to Georgia.

They weren't poor, but since they wanted a baby and a house to keep him in (and since houses aren't affordable in this area) they must have been "working poor" despite their generous salaries. My son took a huge pay cut when they moved. His wife gave up her job teaching second grade. But the cost of living is so much lower in Georgia. Even on the lower salary, they were able to buy a brand new 3 bedroom house on a large lot in a much nicer neighborhood than where we started out.

They had to live apart for a year in order to save up for that house, just as my husband and I had to live apart for a year during his senior year in college. It made economic sense. We could have that marshmallow now, or be unhappy for a bit, but get two marshmallows later on.

We chose the two marshmallows.

Barack Obama has figured out why some Americans can't have everything they want. It's not their personal choices that cause income inequality, you know. The real problem is that the federal government "doesn't work". People need to be free of the troublesome relationship between their own decisions and the consequences that logically flow from them:

We hadn’t yet gone more than 30 days delinquent on the mortgage, thanks, in part, to $15,000 I had borrowed shamefacedly from my mother after Patty stopped working. But we were behind on everything else. Bill collectors were calling six days a week, starting promptly at 8 a.m. “Telemarketers,” I would mumble when my son Matthew asked why we got so many robocalls from 800 numbers. Our stately little house looked increasingly trashy: peeling paint and broken screens on the front windows, crumbling concrete on the front stoop, a lawn that was mostly crabgrass. The furniture that Patty salvaged from her first marriage was falling apart. The cotton slipcovers on the sofa and armchair were in shreds. The frosted-crystal shade on a beloved Italian floor lamp was cracked. The dog had gnawed the leg on her Biedermeier chair.

The panic attack hit me around 2 a.m. on Patty’s birthday. It was Oct. 17, 2007, and I was lying in bed obsessing over bills that couldn’t be postponed and the money we didn’t have to pay them. Like many of my predawn fear cascades, this one had its start with a specific unpaid bill: $240 in traffic tickets — $140 for speeding, $50 each for expired tags and inspection. The fines would double if we didn’t pay them in less than a week. The tickets had uncorked the bottle on all the other “must pays”: the $400 electric bill with the cutoff date printed in red; the $220 cable/telephone/Internet bill for the past two months; the MasterCard and American Express bills — at least one of which had to be brought current or I wouldn’t even be able to travel for work. And of course, there was the $3,271 mortgage payment.

My panic circuitry was in fine form, connecting small debts to big ones, short-term problems to the bottomless abyss, private calamity to public shame. Once Patty was asleep and I was alone in the dark, the bottled-up fear reached the surface. I tossed from side to side, trying to figure out at least a triage plan for our bills. I was too fidgety to lie still in bed, but I was in no mood to actually sit down with the bills themselves. I climbed out of bed for a moment, then jumped back in. I couldn’t decide if I would rather feel confined or all alone.

Patty woke up, irritated by all my movement and my occasional moans of despair. “What’s the matter?” she asked.

“I can’t sleep,” I answered. “I’m panicking about money, because I don’t know how we’re going to pay all the bills that need to be paid right now.” I wanted her to take me in her arms and reassure me that everything would be O.K. But that wasn’t happening.

“There’s nothing you can do about it right now,” she answered sleepily.

“If this keeps on, we’re going to lose the house,” I persisted, sounding less panicked than petulant. If Patty wouldn’t give me comfort, then I wanted her to suffer alongside me. “I don’t know how we’re going to make it. We can’t go on like this.”

Patty had begged me to grant her a birthday reprieve from my nagging and kvetching over money issues. What I saw as an uncontrollable moment of panic, she saw as another deliberate attempt to browbeat her.

“I can’t believe you are doing this to me on my birthday,” she hissed in fury. “All I asked for was one day of peace — one day when you weren’t beating me over the head. And here it is, not even daylight yet, and you’re waking me up to berate me about money.”

We all need to be accountable, but not if being accountable is in any way unpleasant. After all, people aren't suffering because they have failed to make smart decisions. They're failing because the system is broken.

The Piper doesn't have to be paid today or even tomorrow. We can fix the system to substitute the comforting illusion of accountability for the pain that often accompanies the real thing:

In light of the shifting baseline, it is impossible to hold the administration accountable for whether its policies are achieving their intended effects.

To be clear, this lack of accountability is not a feature on this specific administration but is, instead, a reflection of the inherent uncertainties associated with macroeconomics. The administration, however, has not been particularly forthright in admitting to this lack of accountability.

And so we continue to kick the can down the road. So long as present comfort is the yardstick by which we measure success, consequences can wait until tomorrow.

If only I'd known all of this thirty years ago. Think how much easier life would have been.

Posted by Cassandra at May 19, 2009 08:32 AM

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Oh Lord. I could go on forever in a high dudgeon about this.

I think I might make myself a t-shirt, "One of the Formerly Poor"

Posted by: airforcewife at May 19, 2009 12:05 PM

Also, I have to agree with you. At one point in 1995 our total net income was 700$ a month or so. Even so, I didn't feel poor.

I felt like I was working towards something more.

Posted by: airforcewife at May 19, 2009 12:06 PM

Heh. Can save him a coupla hundred pretty quick. Basic.telephone.and.broadcast.television.

Oh! The horror. Oopsie on that speeding ticket, boyo. Self-inflicted wound there, too.

Heh. I dunno how I survived without cable TV until I was in my 40's, but somehow, I did.

Doing volunteer work for a local charity with the charge of helpling people pay rent, utilities and get their prescriptions... the stories I could tell.

Most seniors *really*, genuinely need the assistance, and are embarrassed to be seeking assitance. And a not insignificant number of them turn into $5 a month donors when they crisis passes.

A surprising number of young healthy folk are not embarassed and are even agressive about how they're *entitled* to the money (some FEMA grant, most donated funds) to pay their rent or utility bill... but how dare we even suggest that having that premium cable package, the two game consoles (with Evercrack subscription) high-speed internet, and rented big screen TV were, perhaps, places they could cut their monthly expenses and pay their own way.

They have rights, y'know.

Posted by: Help! I'm having my access controlled and monitored! at May 19, 2009 03:00 PM

Damn you and that random letter generator, womyn! I've scolded you about this before, Cassandra. Do not make me scold you another time (said in bad medieval french accent with english overtones)!

Posted by: Help! I'm having my access controlled and monitored! at May 19, 2009 03:02 PM

Pppphhhhhththththtthh!!!! :)

Posted by: Moral Twerpitude at May 19, 2009 03:12 PM

They have rights, y'know.

We pay our taxes, you know.

Posted by: Senior Moment at May 19, 2009 03:13 PM


That made me angry. You've got a self-absorbed, self-righteous, self-centered couple here, who have money problems OF THEIR OWN MAKING, bitching about how it made them FEEL bad. Well, let's examine their expenses that he admits, shall we?

"a small but stately brick home in a leafy, kid-filled neighborhood in Silver Spring, Md. We sent in an offer of $460,000"

For the record, I know for a FACT that house is more than my parents two previous houses (both of which comfortably fit FOUR kids) COMBINED. Why the hell are you buying a half-million dollar house? Especially when you consider:

"I was handing over $4,000 a month in alimony and child-support payments. That left me with take-home pay of $2,777"

Really hoss? You think it's a good idea to buy a half MILLION worth of house when your takehome pay (due to your OWN failings) is down to less than $3k a month? Funny, now that I mention it, I make less than that with a wife who cannot work, and I'm not "living in poverty", or "facing a personal credit crisis". However do I manage?

"If I wanted to buy a house, Bob figured, it was my job to decide whether I could afford it. His job was to make it happen."

So you're ADMITTING you made a craptastic decision, yet you're still trying to paint the mortgage company as the bad guy... nice.

"But with her take-home income averaging only about $2,400 a month, we didn’t make enough to cover our bills because my take-home pay was going straight to the mortgage. We were spending way more than we were earning."

Again, your wife was earning more than my wife and I do together, yet we aren't broke... hmm... I wonder why?

"Our debt spiraled up faster than I had ever dreamed possible. Chase Bank had cold-called me to offer a “platinum” card with no interest charges for the first six months. I took them up on it and shifted $3,000 in debt from my old card onto the new Chase card. But instead of paying down the balance before the interest charges began, I let it balloon to $6,000."

Why did you not say 'NO' when they offered. You keep telling us how this bank is cheating you by selling you rope, and that bank is cheating you by giving you the wood to build a scaffold, and this other financial institution is cheating you by building the scaffold for you... all the while, YOU'RE the one hanging yourself! At no point did any of these institutions LIE to you, or hold a gun to your head and say "take the money or else!"

"The paperwork was so confusing that I was never exactly sure who was paying what."

Did you sign it? Did you sign it? DID YOU SIGN IT? If the answer is yes, then you are a fool. If no, then maybe you have a case for being cheated. But you don't, do you?

And then he starts bitching about how his wife/fiance whatever turns on him:

"“You lied to me,” she told me as I got coffee. “You said that what I saw on the outside was pretty much what you were. But you’re completely different. If I had known what you were really like, I would never have come out here.”"

She's more concerned that he's calling her out for continuing spending over their means (which he's equally guilty of, if not more since he signs loans and buys more rope with which to hang himself), than the actual situation. These people are too busy thinking about themselves and the 'woe is me' bullcrap to just live up to their obligations. I was shocked to reach the end of this article and find that the author is STILL in the house and STILL not paying his mortgage.

Like I said, I make less take home pay than these folks. My wife doesn't work. And yet, I'm not drowning in debt. Why? Because WE DON'T LIVE BEYOND OUR MEANS. Why is this so hard for people to understand? Don't spend more than you make. How is this hard?

This makes me SO angry.

Posted by: MikeD at May 19, 2009 03:47 PM

Now, now. It's not their fault. The "system" failed them :p

If we gave them a million bucks and they burned through it like butta, the fact that they were in trouble would also mean the "system" failed.

Posted by: End Income Inequality NOW!!!! at May 19, 2009 03:52 PM

Now, now. It's not their fault. The "system" failed them :p

I understand this is sarcasm... but even so. The only system that failed them is their self-control. Anyone who CHOOSES (and it most certainly is a choice in the case of two educated and well employed adults) to live beyond their far from meager means, is an idiot. This is a self-inflicted wound. And they're bitching that the pawn shop sold them the gun they used to shoot their foot.

I have nothing but antipathy and some other anti-humanitarian feelings for this author and his SO. They put themselves here, and they want my sympathy? They can piss up a rope.

Posted by: MikeD at May 19, 2009 04:36 PM

Dunno - I took my dream job last year. I knew it was grant-funded, although my employer assured me that it would continue and general fund monies were allocated for continuation of the project once the grant ended. Then, the state economy tanked. Instead of general fund dollars continuing, we took a $2 million dollar hit and I got my layoff notice. However, knowing that I was on a soft money position kept me on a two-marshmallows-in-the-future mentality. I didn't take on debt. I banked as much of my income as I could. I kept my part time job. I paid cash for a used car instead of financing a new one So, while I will miss this job - which I loved - I'm not losing sleep and I'm not worrying about creditors since my bills are entirely manageable. Reading the saga of Edmund and Patricia makes me glad that I've never had a problem with delayed gratification. It's hard to feel sympathy for them - hopefully, their children will learn that consequences result from action.

Posted by: Deb at May 19, 2009 05:29 PM

Many years ago I watched a 60 Minutes segment about a government program. I have no idea if the program still exists; I hope it does, suspect it doesn't. What the government program did was take families from the inner city, bad part of town, slums, whatever term you find acceptable, and help them move. It helped the parents find decent jobs; if I remember correctly it helped with job training. It helped them find a decent apartment in a nice neighborhood and helped them figure out transportation from home to job to wherever they needed to go. Because the family was now living in a decent neighborhood, the kids were going to decent schools. In other words, the program hand-held and encouraged and coached the family to move from being poor to being middle class.

The family the program presented was a single mother with two children. Mom now had a good job - as a secretary if I remember correctly - and the kids went to good schools. They lived in a nice apartment - nothing luxurious but decent and in a good neighborhood. They were all very happy with what the program had done for them.

I thought that sounded like a great idea. What better way to break the cycle of poor people having no job and no hope and their kids going to crummy schools than to take them by the hand and help them negotiate the roadblocks on the way to a better life? It was designed to address exactly the kinds of problems the WaPo article talks about. (Let's leave aside for the moment the extent to which those problems are self-created. Some are structural problems that just some targeted aid can help motivated people overcome.)

Oddly enough, though, I would probably have thought, "Huh. Good idea." and immediately forgotten about the program except that 60 Minutes also interviewed a professor from some Chicago University who was opposed to the program because it was destroying the Black community and therefore Black culture. Why do I remember him? Because the interviewer - bless his heart - said to the guy, "But you don't live in one of those inner city neighborhoods." No, the professor "explained", he didn't - because his wife wanted to live in a house on the lake. The (fill in incredibly bad word here) not only wanted to keep poor people trapped in the slums, he's didn't even have the guts to take responsibility for not living there himself.

So here's my question. What in the name of all that is holy does the author of the WaPo article want society to do to help out? Assuming she's a good liberal, she's not willing to do anything that will actually make the schools in DC better. She's certainly not willing to suggest that maybe having four children - without any mention of a spouse to help out - isn't a good way to escape poverty. I would desperately, fervently, sincerely like to do whatever it takes to keep children from being trapped forever in the hellhole of DC's terrible neighborhoods. But at this point I'm damned if I know what we can try that will actually work.

And ironically enough, the NYT guy with his credit crisis and his half million dollar house? Megan McArdle did a post after reading his book (the article is just a tease) and it's pretty clear his rapid descent into poverty began when he divorced his wife, his sweetie divorced her husband, and they began a new life together. As I said in my post about this, I always though the advice to get married, stay married, and raise kids in a stable marriage applied to those who were poor and didn't want to stay that way. Turns out not following that advice is an excellent way for someone who isn't poor to get that way.

Posted by: Elise at May 19, 2009 05:44 PM


Memphis was one of the cities that program ran in. It has backfired drastically. I'll have to find the article (it's a couple years old). The program worked when the people being moved were highly scrutinized. But due to it's initial success was expanded drastically. Entire project housing communities were torn down and families relocated to the suburbs. The crime, the theft, murder, drugs, prostitution that had ravaged those communities had just came with them. And just as one bad apple spoils the bunch, so to with this program. Not only did the prospects of those relocated not improve, but the prospects of those already living there went down.

Certainly well-intentioned, but the road to Hell is paved with those.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at May 19, 2009 06:04 PM

If one is born into poverty, they cannot be held responsible for their situation. I can understand, and I accept that. However remaining poor and in poverty for all of ones life is a choice. A choice that comes with repercussions, a situation for which there is no sympathy, a choice that should be ridiculed and criticised regularly.
If I am paying your mortgage, get your lazy ass out of my house.
If I am paying your credit card balance, the stuff you bought had better be delivered to my doorstep.
If I am making your car payment, I expect the vehicle to be parked forthwith, in my driveway in usable condition.
If I am paying to feed ,clothe, and educate your children, then I get to use tham as a tax deduction and I get to decide how they will be raised and educated.
If you don't like that, tough, don't expect that you get to pilfer my earnings because you are a financial jackass and a lazy shit to boot. Don't expect that you can broodmare a gaggle of children without consequence. Don't expect that you can shoot yourself in the ass and get me to rescue you repeatedly.
I don't work and earn so that some soft headed loon can rape and pillage my earnings to give them to those whom do not, and never have, done a damn thing for themselves. I do not accept that it is done "for the children", if there were true concern for "the children" there would not be so many fatherless children running about.

Posted by: Edward Lunny at May 19, 2009 06:39 PM


As someone who has pulled herself out of a rather ugly financial situation and now feels positively rich because she's managed to save up 1.5 months' worth of a paycheck (ultimate goal is six, of course), this kind of thing makes me crazy.

Good God! When I was in college (turn of the century) I lived on $400/month ($240 was rent with a roommate, and a had a car and insurance, too--car got me to my $400/month job, which I made on 10 hours of work that gave me time as a music major to practice my instrument). I considered something as simple as popsicles in the heat of Indiana a luxury and so didn't waste the money on them. Cable TV wasn't even a dream--not a chance! I bought all my casual clothes for $1 each at the Salvation Army and my idea of a splurge was $3 for the delicious fresh bagel sandwiches across from the music school. I decided to go without furniture other than my bed (eventually friends gave me their old furniture).

After leaving college, I had to fund movement to a new state and setting up a household, which I didn't always do perfectly, but tried to do thriftily...

But now I'm more financially healthy than I've been in years (no credit card debt and I have what I need to be comfortable), though I make what an low-to-average secretary would make in this locale.

I miscalculated my taxes last year and will get a $600 rebate. For months I've been considering using it to fund an "adventure" I've wanted for a very long time... but I just can't bring myself to spend that kind of money on a fleeting experience rather than something physical that I need or that will "last"; it's now an ingrained habit to guard my money. I just cannot wrap my brain around the kind of attitude seen in that article.

Posted by: FbL at May 19, 2009 06:56 PM

What we have done without: Eating out. Eating expensive processed foods. iPods for the children (oh, the humanity!), car for eldest CLU (he pays for his own cell phone), gaming systems and cable/satellite television.

We cook from scratch; often together. We are putting in a garden. Edible landscaping, you might say. We use the library a LOT. Hey, we are paying for it, so why not?

Movie rentals or reciprocal borrowing of books and movies from friends if the library doesn't work.

We barter. I have made roman shades in trade. We have gleaned other people's gardens and orchards, canning and preserving it. There are hundreds of ways you can make do without having to buy everything.

It is no accident that I have a well-equipped kitchen or that I have semi-formidable skills as a seamstress and knitter.

In our 21st century version of hunting and gathering, we reconnected as a family and taught some much-needed values to our children.

Helk...we even heated the house with wood last winter. The Engineer got rid of a couple of trees, so we let them season and they made the house toasty warm.

In the process of saving money, and teaching thrift we found something that money couldn't buy; responsible, respectful, obedient children that will be able to take care of themselves..except for our sweetie.

Posted by: Cricket at May 19, 2009 07:05 PM

We barter. I have made roman shades in trade

I think that the single thing I've enjoyed most about military life is the way it forces you to be resourceful and adaptable. It isn't comfort and complacency which challenge us, but adversity and scarcity.

Posted by: End Income Inequality NOW!!!! at May 19, 2009 07:11 PM

Good on you, Fuzzy :) I'm proud of you.

Posted by: End Income Inequality NOW!!!! at May 19, 2009 07:11 PM

Same here. Way to go Fuzzy!

Elise, I found the article I was talking about. Just another case of the unintended consequences backfiring on you.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at May 19, 2009 07:21 PM

No shit. There once was a time in 1974 where had exactly $1.02, a backpack, and sleeping bag, and only 3,300 miles to home. I bought a beer and a pack of Tops roling tobacco. and had fours cents left over, and not a friend in the world. I'll admit that tt looked pretty bleak. But then I stick out my thumb and a county cop gave me a ride to the county line...and twenty bucks not to come back. My next ride took me all the way to Reno, where my twenty bucks was parlayed into a $40 at the slots and a ride on a bus to Pheonix. Where I got a job as a laborer building a Bennihana's in Scottsdale,and eventually a law degree.

Things work out in life for those willing enough to participate in life. And I ain't dead yet.

Posted by: Annoyingmous Donor at May 19, 2009 07:32 PM

What I love about that NYT article is how the guy actually admits he was not 'deluded' but then he lets someone talk him into an equity loan? I am not an economist, but in early 2007, we were tried sorely with an equity loan on our other house. I said no. Since the house is in my name, my call.

I am so glad I said no.

What I am seeing here is an unwillingness even for him to accept the fact that he can't or won't behave. His wife will not compromise on quality or do without to save money? This is the real world. A homemaker, as I was taught by one of the best (a Scots lass...my mom), could make do.
I am so very blessed by the fact that I had parents who were children when the Depression hit and passed those survival skills on to me.

One of my best friends is half-Argentine. She is so frugal she prolly still has nine pennies from the first dime she ever made. She makes cheese.
She bakes bread, and sometimes she will gift me with some artisanal cheese, or homemade, to-die-for sauerkraut. In return, I taught her to make soap and preserve meats. Remember the Psychotic Penguins? She thought that was too funny, as per her South American heritage.

So, if they are complaininig about their lifestyle, they need to understand that selfishness has a LOT to do with where they are now and they can either grow up or repeat the cycle.

Posted by: Cricket at May 19, 2009 07:43 PM

Fuzzy, I am proud of you too!

Posted by: Cricket at May 19, 2009 07:44 PM

Thanks for the kind words, Cricket and Yu-ain(and whoever else that was--Cassandra?). But I didn't say that for pats. I really don't think it was exceptional--the reality was that I didn't have the money therefore I didn't spend it. It was basic logic and moderate self-control.

And I didn't do it all on my own--there were small and large kindnesses along the way, especially the white knight who helped me for the three months I was unemployed. But in the middle of that (which was the middle of the financial mess), I carefully pinched each penny and stretched things as far as I could. And I didn't complain when I had to beg the car dealer to take one month's car payment and tack it on the end of the contract (all paid off now!), or had to go to the clinic for the poor when I got sick (I was grateful for both). No one to blame when I had to swallow the consequences of simply being unable to pay my credit card bill or when I rolled my student loan payment back into the principal. i wouldn't have dreamed of having pretended it was anyone's fault but my own, unlike the pathetic people in the profile.

Frankly, I suspect those people would be a lot happier in the same situation with a simple attitude adjustment--the belief that they were ultimately in control of their lives and their future even if it was really tough at the moment.

Posted by: FbL at May 19, 2009 09:49 PM

A divorced man with a $4,000/month alimony payment and a $3,700 mortgage payment and a new wife who not only won't help him face reality but actively berates him when he starts to think about it -- well, he sure has problems, but they're not financial problems. He's just a walking mask; there's no one home in there yet. He hasn't become a person. A shame, because since he's on his second marriage he's probably almost middle-aged by now, and he's already produced a bunch of children he evidently has no idea how to raise or provide for.

People just can't bear to change in the face of facts, can they? So inner-city Detroit continues to be partially inhabited in the face of facts that would drive any sane person to move somewhere else, anywhere else. And then the inmates get the idea that they've got a "right" to stay there and preserve whatever kind of "culture" it would be that valued that all-pervasive violence and decay.

Lots of us posting here have lived poor at some time or another. The fact that we knew how explains why we generally didn't have to do it for the rest of our lives.

Posted by: Texan99 at May 20, 2009 09:13 AM

The mainstream media wouldn’t do it. So we are trying to get your important messages to the American people. 27 This post is a suggested read at, http://aresay.blogspot.com/

Posted by: Aresay at May 20, 2009 10:52 AM

I can't complain - Todd Snider

...but sometimes I still do

Posted by: Joe Walsh at May 20, 2009 11:14 AM

I had the oddest dream last night.

I was bending over a turntable (when's the last time you saw one of those things?) and placing the needle on one of the first albums I ever owned - The James Gang.

I must have played that song a million times as a kid -- I saved my babysitting money for-evah to buy the album.

Posted by: Cassandra at May 20, 2009 11:30 AM

If one is born into poverty, they cannot be held responsible for their situation. I can understand, and I accept that. However remaining poor and in poverty for all of ones life is a choice.

Yes, but. In order for someone to put himself out of poverty he needs to know it's possible and to have a way to get the tools to do so. I believe that a lot of people who stay poor their whole lives - of whatever color - are the end result of generations of poverty, of whole families that are poor. There is no one around to tell them convincingly that they don't need to stay poor much less anyone around to teach them what they need to know to stop being poor. Part of what they need to know comes from school, of course - a decent education - but part of it goes back to an earlier post of Cassandra's about how even the simplest lessons help children learn the big things they need to know to succeed.

This line of thinking is a big part of the reason I support school choice especially for the poor. Whatever the outcome in terms of more book-learning for poor kids in good schools, it seems to me that simply being in an environment where it's assumed success is possible and where the habits necessary to achieve are the standard has to be helpful for kids whose environments tell them failure is inevitable and don't know how to teach them what they need to keep it from being so.

Posted by: Elise at May 20, 2009 12:04 PM

Very insightful post, Elise. It was that kind of thinking that made me want to teach in inner-city schools, to hopefully be the kind of teacher that could show the kids success and improvement was possible.

Posted by: FbL at May 20, 2009 12:18 PM

he sure has problems, but they're not financial problems.

Good point, Texan. My thinking when I said they'd be happier if they realized they were in control, was that he was blaming his money and his girlfriend and ex-wife and everything else for his problems when he actually had the power to change his situation if he just acted more maturely and responsibly (in all ways).

Posted by: FbL at May 20, 2009 12:20 PM

IMHO, poor is mostly an artifact of our conditioning towards the achievement of instant gratification. Which segues into yet another James Gang tune, says the Funkmaster Hun-daddy.

"I was bending over a turntable (when's the last time you saw one of those things?)"
About an hour ago. I still have some pretty nice audio equipment. Setup and used on occasion. It dates back to the days, 35+ years ago, when I was but a poor squid saving my money to purchase fairly high end stereo equipment from the overseas PX's.

Carefully consider your wants versus your needs. Address the needs and then save for what you want. Buy quality, take care of and be happy with it, whatever it is. A lesson my depression era parents taught me that seems to work pretty well.

I still have one of the first CD players I ever purchased, after much careful consideration and research via various audiophile magazines. I picked one for which there were published modifications available to make the CD's, of that generation, "sound warm, like analog LP wax", if I recall the claim correctly. So, I saved and bought it, performed the mods on the player and still use it in the primary stereo config. The mods worked as advertised and still do.

Cheap curmudgeon thy clan is HUN!

Posted by: bthun at May 20, 2009 12:38 PM

I have a turntable in storage right now. A belt-driven one. I used to have a direct drive turntable with a USB feed, but it got stolen a few years ago.
Of course, when you were listening to that, I was playing this on my record player.

Posted by: DL Sly at May 20, 2009 12:59 PM

Odd, I would have figured you more as an Emerson, Lake and Palmer kind of girl...

Posted by: Pogue at May 20, 2009 01:22 PM

Above post directed at Cassie. Stupid caching...

Posted by: Pogue at May 20, 2009 01:24 PM

I had ELP, too :p

I like just about everything. When I was that age I was pretty into CSNY, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, and oddly enough, Led Zeppelin.

I had TDN album too, Sly.

Posted by: Cassandra at May 20, 2009 01:30 PM

Peepuls, what is scary about the whiner is that he is an economist. Doesn't that SCARE YOU? He is one of the ones telling us WHAT TO THINK about the financial decisions other people make with money!

Elise, I think you are on to something there. If the expectation is high, but realistic, and the kids see a way out, it is a good thing.

The Engineer and I were talking about it...he has a degree in bidnez, while mine is inching slowly toward a related field. (I still haven't stabbed my first year accounting book in the heart with a wooden stake yet) He actually said "Why didn't they move to a smaller house or get an apartment? He is making 120 grand a year to cover the economy and what it means for people but he can't see his own situation? He can't THINK?" I told him he was a Brontosaurus...the second brain kicked in when he got his first divorce...and his wife is as selfish and ignorant as he is.

Posted by: Cricket at May 20, 2009 03:29 PM

(I still haven't stabbed my first year accounting book in the heart with a wooden stake yet)

Well there's your problem. For accountants you use Holy Water.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at May 20, 2009 03:33 PM

Ah. I can write it all up, but then we have the determination of which liabilities are really assets.

The other reason I haven't driven a stake through its 1200 page heart is that I am oddly fascinated with the challenge of making all six columns balance in every single problem that is presented.

I have been making Excel spreadsheets like mad, and then writing out a hard copy on the pad, and transferring the data over to the spreadsheet.
So far I have done okay and have been able to get everything to balance, but not having done accounting before, I just need to get in the groove.

Posted by: Cricket at May 20, 2009 06:54 PM

Back when we were living in Germany, and I knew it would be our last time before Daddy retired, I took a chunk of the money I earned working at the PX part-time over the summers and bought things I would need once I was out on my own: a very good set of cutlery for the kitchen (Wusthof-Trident - NOT cheap, even overseas), a service for 8 of a nice set of Corelle dinnerware, and a few coordinating pieces of Corningware. When it was time to replace the TV my parents gave me for my twenty-first birthday (a 13-inch Zenith), I got a decent Panasonic 32" flat screen, along with a Panasonic DVD/VCR (a purchase I could make on my Best Buy card and get paid off before I was charged any interest). When I was a homeowner, I made home improvements: replacing the vinyl flooring with tile and later replacing the cheap carpet the builder used with something of a higher quality; again, I made sure I could get that Home Depot card paid off before interest charges kicked in.

I haven't always been the wisest with money, but any financial tight spots I've gotten myself into have been because of choices I made. Right now, I'm not in a good place. I made the choice to go back to school to earn my M.Ed, thinking I would quickly and easily land a teaching position. Things didn't quite turn out that way. I'm giving myself one last go-round (it's that time of year again that schools are hiring for the upcoming school year) to find that first teaching job. If I don't, I don't know what I'll do - I can't keep on with the intermittent subbing (especially when you take into account that if school is not in session (summertime, holidays), I don't make money, or with just a contract/temp job (which I'm thankful I have, as it will help me get through the summer, but it - like subbing - offers no benefits). I'll have a choice to make come September if I don't have a teaching contract. One wouldn't think deciding to earn your M.Ed. to become a teacher would be a bad decision, but it could very well turn out to have been that. I just thank God that my Honda will be paid off after three more payments...

Posted by: Miss Ladybug at May 20, 2009 10:31 PM

YAG, thanks for the article on what happened in Memphis (and other cities) when the government program moved poor people out into mainstream areas. The 1991 study and 60 Minutes program it refers to must be the what I originally saw. Three thoughts.

First, the program seems to have worked better when it was voluntary; included only people who really, really wanted to be involved; and provided lots and lots of hand-holding. (I actually don't know why the discovery that people forced out of a neighborhood would bring their old lifestyles with them is considered a major sociological revelation.)

Second, the "loss of community" problem is a tough one. This seems to me to be another reason for having such a program open only for people who very much want to be in it. Giving people a choice is a good thing.

Third, as I get older I begin to fear more and more that there are some problems that are simply intractable. A very sad and scary thought.

Okay, four thoughts. The article talks about Uptown Square, which was supposed to be a neighborhood of mixed races and mixed economic levels that didn't quite work out as planned. In its description of a Sunday afternoon picnic there, the article talks about how white (which it implies are better off) and black (which it implies are poor) don't mix. What really struck me in the description though was:

The white people, mostly young couples [snip] The black people, mostly women with children

Once again, getting married, staying married, raising children in a stable marriage sounds like an increasingly good idea if you don't want to stay poor.

Posted by: Elise at May 21, 2009 09:42 AM

Cass, I love yah, but driving a cab in Boston taught me a couple of things:

That meant I often strapped the baby into the umbrella stroller and walked to the grocery store. I had a big backpack - a woven wood basket - that I strapped to my back to carry groceries home in.

I once drove a woman home from the grocery store in Central Square in Cambridge to the projects. It cost her $5 (and yes, she tipped me). $5 would have put some worthwhile groceries in one of those bags. I screwed up my courage and asked her why she took my cab instead of taking the bus or walking.

"To make sure I get home with these groceries."

I daresay that when you walked home with those groceries you didn't worry too much about getting to your front door with them, your child, your checkbook and whatever cash you may have had.

Posted by: RonF at May 22, 2009 11:21 AM

They have rights, y'know.

Yes, they do. Unfortunately they have been taught that those rights are in fact entitlements. Indeed, I've been told more than once "What good are rights if you can't afford to exercise them?" The concept being that racism, etc. is so dominant in America that various groups of people have no hope of ever furthering their station in life so that they CAN exercise their rights, and therefore they are entitled to obtain by force from those who have it the money they need.

Posted by: RonF at May 22, 2009 11:25 AM

Oh, and if you want to slap someone in the face with the difference between rights and entitlements, I find the 2nd Amendment useful.

"So you think the government should give you the money for (whatever the issue of the day is)? Cool. According to the Constitution and as recently certfied by the Supreme Court, we as individuals have the right to own a gun. When is the government going to buy me one? When is it going to start arming homeless people?"

Posted by: RonF at May 22, 2009 11:28 AM

Ron: I understand that not everyone's circumstances are the same. I'm also not unfamiliar with rough neighhoods. On my second job after getting married, we had stabbings and muggings all the time, and I worked graveyard so I generally walked out the door around 1 a.m. The lady you reference (if there's as big a price differential as that article cites) probably saved more than 5 bucks, don't you think? If milk & bread run several dollars more at the local convenience store, she wouldn't even have to fill a cart to come out ahead. That said, I,m not saying it's easy. But then hiking to the store or laundromat on roads with no sidewalk wasn't easy either. My beef with the articles cited was with the tone of hopeless resignation. Your woman seemed to think she was better off taking a cab. She doesn't seem to fit the meme.

Posted by: Cassandra at May 22, 2009 12:27 PM

"To make sure I get home with these groceries."

Ron , it sounds like your fare was a woman making a rational decision that a $5 investment in a cab ride would provide her the security she desired for the valuable assets contained in the grocery bags. Fortunately for her, you, as Maximum Leader, did not decide that your pals needed her groceries more than she did. See, e.g., United States, Inc., v. Chrysler Corp. Secured Creditors, et.al.

Posted by: spd rdr at May 22, 2009 01:41 PM

... Maximum Leader, did not decide that your pals needed her groceries more than she did. See, e.g., United States, Inc., v. Chrysler Corp. Secured Creditors, et.al."
I think I'm starting to see a pattern emerge...
Only now instead of "Leave the gun. Take the cannoli." Luca Brasi-Geithner is instructed to "Leave the UAW. Take the bond holders."

Posted by: The-Manchurian-bubba_hun at May 22, 2009 04:05 PM