In a culture where the Horatio Alger myth is alive and well (you know, penniless but plucky kid makes good by dint of hard work and optimism) poor people get blamed for their poverty all the time. But it’s hard to make good long-term decisions when you’re poor particularly because financial poverty also means poverty of choice. You can’t buy in bulk when you’re getting to the grocery store on a bus. You can’t grow your own organic veggies when you’re living in a one-bedroom basement apartment. And you may end up owing $100 after being ticketed for a broken headlight because you didn’t have an extra $16 to fix it.
Now research shows that the stress of poverty itself can actually cause cognitive deficits, which also contribute to budgeting mistakes and bad decision-making. According to the researchers, trying to get by when there isn’t enough money is a little like trying to walk through life while simultaneously trying to pat your head and rub your stomach.
I gathered three creative moms who have lived or are living poor and had something to say about the experience.
In alphabetical order, the roundtable participants:
Ariel Gore is the founder of Hip Mama Magazine and the author of seven books including The Hip Mama Survival Guide, Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness and How to Become a Famous Writer Before You’re Dead. She’s also a mom to two. You can find her at arielgore.com.
Liz Henry is a former teen mom who writes about politics, pop culture and feminism. She has been featured in The New York Times, Jezebel and iVillage and also appears in the forthcoming book, The Good Mother Myth. Her family recently relocated to Atlanta from Philadelphia. Her site is lizhenry.net.
Elisabeth Warner is a single mom to a teenage daughter living in Central Ohio. She keeps very busy staging and organizing homes, working as a virtual assistant for local businesses and serving as the outreach coordinator for the Clintonville Community Co-op. Her website is pluckathome.com.
Ariel: There’s a widespread belief that dysfunction causes poverty and it’s really the other way around. If we’re SO stressed about survival issues it becomes hard to have the mental space for much else.
Elisabeth: I am acutely aware of what happens when even one of the dozens of juggled balls get dropped.
Liz: Every second of every day I have thought about the cost of everything. I see privilege everywhere and my anger seethes. More than anything, I rarely see myself in someone else’s story. The inability to see your own trajectory kills your spirit.
Ariel: I remember when I was a young writer mom on welfare I read a Gertrude Stein quote, “It takes a heap of loafing to write a book.” I do believe that creative genius requires some down time, which requires some freedom from financial stress. That said, I think it’s also true that people who have never wanted for anything or never had to get creative to pay the bills aren’t usually the sharpest tacks.
Liz: I think of poverty like Dante’s Inferno, which is to say there are circles and levels. Desperation, at least to me, is the second to last circle of hell. It’s the level right before Desperation where I can still be creative and work through the soul-crushing, mind-warping anxiety that comes with thinking about every single dollar I have ever spent or where I will get another one or what could I have done differently. In the Third Circle of Poverty Hell, you can quiet the inertia of poverty anxiety until the work is done.
Elisabeth: I have always felt that everything is a series of trade-offs. For me, it was choosing the stress of poverty over the stress of professional engagement, or choosing to stay home with my child over a fulfilling romantic relationship. With my set of values, the choices at hand felt pretty similar, which has sometimes felt empowering and sometimes incredibly depressing.
Ariel: It actually got harder when I had a partner because she had her own financial problems and I stayed in “mama mode” and the habit of bottom-lining everything. As a single mother I found it a little easier to kind of take a bath and alleviate the stress of poverty even if I hadn’t yet alleviated the poverty. It’s easy to convince a little kid that everyone lives without electricity sometimes. When you have other adults the magical thinking doesn’t go as far.
Elisabeth: I hear you about the comfort of autonomy. The irony for me was that I stayed in terrible relationships because I was so afraid of deepening my poverty, when in fact I’ve done better financially alone than when I was partnered. Part of that was having a young child with whom I very much wanted to stay home, which exacerbated the feeling of stuckness, but I also just couldn’t figure out how I would be ok without someone else’s income. It took me way too long to figure out I was capable enough on my own. I’m generally a lot more confident that things will be ok than I was 10 or even 5 years ago.
Ariel: The thing I find heartening is that the brain drain doesn’t last. When we are able to move out of poverty and have a little bit of loafing time to chill we can return to a life of the mind.
Liz: Rather than be sad 99% of the time—which believe me I can be—I get angry. When I’m on the phone with a random caseworker quizzing me about needless information, I get combative. I walk around thinking that others shouldn’t be inconvenienced by my shitty mood and I’m a general pleasure, but when it comes to bank employees, my unsupportive family, unhelpful caseworkers, I lose it. I’m not supposed to get angry and storm into a bank and say, “How much is enough for you people?! $500 in overdraft fees?”
Elisabeth: Oh, the impotent fury of overdraft fees and restoration charges. I call it the poor tax.
Ariel: I really thought of myself as an artist and valued that my kids were going to be raised in a bohemian kind of a way. And I’m not talking about that post-hippie-selfish-wander-off-artiste-mama archetype, but keeping our overhead lower than most American households meant our poverty-stress threshold was lower, too, and therefore easier to handle. In American culture it’s really difficult not to get sucked into having a very high overhead. But if you are going to be an artist or a writer, you have to be able to allow for a feast-or-famine personal economy.
Elisabeth: How we personally define poverty differs considerably depending on our own experience. By most American standards, I would be considered pretty poor—I make less than $12,000 a year, live paycheck to paycheck, my daughter and I receive food stamps, and I am hyper-aware that even a small financial set-back could mean serious crisis. But I also feel like I live pretty well. We live in a safe and even charming neighborhood, own our house and car, eat well (in no small part because I work at a food co-op that provides me with a generous discount), have Wi-Fi (most of the time!), etc. It could be a lot worse.
Liz: We have an “enough” problem. It’s not enough that you have a home; you have to have the three-car garage. It’s ridiculous and disgusting and I get angry about it and that anger fuels the best of what I write. Almost always.
Have you struggled financially? What are your thoughts? We’d love to continue the conversation in the comments below.
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