Living the high life—in “poverty”

Poverty is an abstract and confusing concept. When the U.S. Census Bureau reports that 37 million Americans were living in poverty in 2004, up from 35.9 million in 2003, what does this mean? Do impoverished folks take fewer trips in their SUVs? Do they settle for basic cable instead of a full menu of stations?

Misconceptions abound. The emergent stereotype: lazy slackers who want hand-outs from hard-working middle classers.

Let’s crunch some numbers.

Say I’m a mother of two—kids born before my husband ran off with the circus and died uninsured while operating a Tilt-a-Whirl. I work full-time at a department store, $7.60 an hour. My gross pay is right around the $1,255 per month that the Census Bureau defines as the average poverty threshold for a family of three ($15,067 per year).

My monthly take-home pay: $1,100.

After the bank forecloses on our home, I need an apartment—a two-bedroom so my son, a high-school freshman, won’t be sharing a room with my 6-year-old daughter and me. The cheapest two-bedroom apartment appears to be at Open Circles West, behind the K-Mart in Sparks. It’s $785 per month. There’s a $25 application fee. The deposit is $400.

How to get $1,200 to move in? Pawn my beater car—can’t afford insurance or gas anyway—and take out a high-interest payday loan.

Open Circles West offers free water and garbage pickup. After I pay my monthly rent, I’ll have $315 left. We rarely use heat, keeping our power bill to $60 a month. A phone costs $40 per month, but I need one so my supervisor can contact me.

I pay $150 monthly for HMO coverage through work.

My son can walk to Sparks High, and my daughter can hike to Mathews Elementary. A budget grocery store is nearby. We have $16.25 weekly for food, clothing, shoes, school supplies, toilet paper, laundry detergent and toothpaste. I decide to drop the HMO coverage, so we can eat.

I pray that my kids don’t need glasses. My daughter can’t go on a field trip that costs $10. She wears too-big shoes from a yard sale. My son can’t play football or join the marching band, but we’re surviving. We’re not living “in poverty,” according to the feds.

Then things fall apart. My daughter gets sick. My son skips school to watch her. I have no paid sick leave.

Her health worsens. I take a day off to get her to the free clinic on Wells Avenue. My check’s short $50. Can’t pay phone bill. Get disconnected. When my boss tries to call me in to work early one day, he can’t reach me. I lose my job.

I apply at a dozen businesses—within walking distance. When asked why I left my last job, I try to lie convincingly.

Rent is due. Desperate, I take a job that pays minimum wage. My rent is a week late. Penalty: $50.

My $200 weekly checks won’t cover rent. If I didn’t have kids, I could live on the banks of the Truckee. Instead, I move to a “loft,” $600 a month. If my kids don’t eat, I can keep the lights on.

Would a hand-out be a hand up for me? Probably. But there’ll be no free rides for me. I get a second job, another 40 hours a week at minimum wage. I’ll work 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Job One, then 4 p.m. to midnight at Job Two. I get six hours of sleep nightly and never see my kids. I bring home $400 per week. We aren’t living in poverty.

Sound absurd? Maybe. But I met a tired single mom much like the person described above. She rang up my purchases at K-Mart, one of her three jobs.