The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Disrespecting the Poor

The Washington Post hits on how much it costs to be poor – the way that the poor are forced to pay more, not less, for virtually everything; if not in money, then in time.

A friend of mine put it most simply.  Poor people spend time to save money.  Well off people spend money to save time.  That’s how you know where you are, assuming you aren’t living beyond your means.

The WP article isn’t bad, but it doesn’t really get the full flavor of poverty.  When you look poor, and if you’re poor long enough you will, you just get treated worse by virtually everyone.  They know you don’t have money, know you don’t have power, and thus know they can push you around, disrespect you or just ignore you.

My favorite story along this line is when I was barely making ends meet by doing odd jobs helping people move, doing yard work and painting houses.  One day after painting a garage, I walk into a bank with the check from the day’s work (this is in the eighties).  I’m disheveled, covered in dried paint, and look awful.  The teller wants to hold the check for two weeks.  I can’t wait that long, I need the money for rent.  I walk out of the bank.

I go back to the rooming house I’m living in. I shower, shave and comb my hair.  Then I go find my last set of good clothes – gray flannels, dress shirt, blazer, tie.  I put them all on, and I head back down to the bank.

Unlike a lot of people who are poor, I haven’t always been poor.  I went to one of the most elite private schools in Canada (ranked second at the time, after Upper Canada College).

I wait in line, and irony of ironies, I get the same teller.

She cashes the check.


But I don’t say anything, because I know she could capriciously change her mind.  I just walk out.

A couple years later, during the same extended period of poverty, I get to the point where I can’t even pretend to be middle or upper class.  And on occasion I get rousted because, while I’m clean, I look pasty, my clothes are threadbare and my glasses are literally taped up.  One time a security guard throws me off the property of a hotel I went into to use a pay phone.  In another case, I get tossed off the University of Ottawa campus: I’m beyond the point where I can fake being a student, even though I’m the right age, and was one just a few years before.

In the last ten years, since I ascended back into the middle class, I’ve never had any such situation come up.

Odd that.

The worst thing about being poor is the way you are treated.  There is no rule more iron, in my experience, that the less you get paid, for example, the worse you will be treated at work.  Clerks in stores treat you worse.  Government bureaucrats can often barely conceal their contempt.  And so on.

The upside, I suppose, is that people show you who they are.  The rare person who treats you exactly the same as they do everyone else is revealed as the shining gem they are.  In particular the friends who stick by you even when you’re down and out show themselves to be real friends, as opposed to those who follow the rule given in so many self-help books to cut off less successful friends, and thus reveal their complete moral bankruptcy to the world.

You learn who you can actually trust, who actually cares about you, and who is actually a decent human being who doesn’t enjoy being able to kick down on someone they figure can’t kick back.

It changes how you see people.  Oddly, before I was poor I thought practically everyone was scum (I was a cynical teenager).  Being poor convinced me that there were some truly good people in the world–people who would help you, be kind to you, or just treat you respectfully, even when there was nothing in it for them.

In ugliness and deprivation, beauty and kindness are much much more obvious.  All the more so, because so few meet this test and pass.


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  1. Eureka Springs

    I am one of us.

  2. senecal

    You’re right, Ian, and it’s painful to admit. All kinds of fears (and stereotypes) are summoned up by the unwashed, dishevelled person sitting on the sidewalk, or shambling toward you with the wandering eye of a wounded animal. You’re afraid they’ll reach out and grab your arm, and drag you into some kind of disgusting embrace, and then you’ll be just like them.

    I don’t know where this response comes from — it seems to involve a fear of dying, or contamination, by contact with poverty — but it also illustrates how shaky and/or superficial our sense of self-worth is.

  3. Barry

    “A person who is nice to you, but rude to the waiter, is not a nice person”

    Dave Barry

  4. Just looking disheveled is an invitation to all sorts of discrimination. It gets worse if you actually are poor. If you are, at least in America, you’re charged more for health care and insurance. You’re charged more for bank accounts, because you don’t have enough money in the bank to make it worth the bank’s while otherwise. And politicians don’t give a shit, because, generally speaking, the poor don’t vote, and they certainly can’t be counted on for campaign contributions.

  5. jawbone

    A friend did social work in northwestern NJ in the 1970’s. Says he’s never gotten over how much time is required to get by in any way when poor. Everything takes so much effort.

    Getting anywhere takes a lot time without a car in rural to suboonian (combination or suburbs and boondocks) areas. Washing clothes is a project: scruonging up the money, schlepping stuff to the laundromat, schlepping it back home.

    Just taking a bus in suboonia is a massive time stealer. In this area, the busses run infrequently and don’t always arrive on schedule. People who have to use the bus must get there often an hour to hour and a half early if they can’t afford to be late for wherever they’re going.

    It’s understandable why some people will do anything to keep a vehicle for transportation. Like giving up an apartment and living in the car….

    Not easy.

    As is said above: the poor pay in time, the rich pay in money.


  6. Formerly T-Bear

    Desmond Morris’ “Naked Ape” ( ) associates dominance as motive to the behavior towards (perceived) inferiors which is a partial answer. Being in a pecking order does little to instill the sense of personal security (unless you are top of the pecking order).
    It is the maturing process and experience that gives some that sense of security within themselves that they are not threatened by either superior or inferior ranked others. Such maturing is rare, such security is rare.
    Most do not mature past the point developed in school; the country reeks of the results, it is what passes as culture these days. You seem to have identified the main characteristics of maturity, generosity towards all others. ¿No?

  7. Being poor must be in the zeitgeist. For some reason. McClatchy has an excellent story on this, which includes the following:

    When Jody Richards saw a homeless man begging outside a downtown McDonald’s recently, he bought the man a cheeseburger. There’s nothing unusual about that, except that Richards is homeless, too, and the 99-cent cheeseburger was an outsized chunk of the $9.50 he’d earned that day from panhandling.

    The generosity of poor people isn’t so much rare as rarely noticed, however. In fact, America’s poor donate more, in percentage terms, than higher-income groups do, surveys of charitable giving show. What’s more, their generosity declines less in hard times than the generosity of richer givers does.

    “The lowest-income fifth (of the population) always give at more than their capacity,” said Virginia Hodgkinson, former vice president for research at Independent Sector, a Washington-based association of major nonprofit agencies. “The next two-fifths give at capacity, and those above that are capable of giving two or three times more than they give.”

    One more reason to understand that those who rule us are, indeed, fit to do so — for some temporary and local optimization, that is.

    “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Believe me, honey, rich is better,” said Sophie Tucker. However — might we label this Tucker’s Corollary? — “better” is not at all the same thing as “more good.” As Tucker herself would, I think, be the first to tell us.

  8. senecal

    The myth of scarcity is what underlays the whole thing — the belief that if you don’t grab what you can, you’ll lose everything. This myth is critical to capitalist ideology. It rationalizes individualism and competition and makes cooperation and common humanity seem like weakling ideas.

  9. Lori

    It’s expensive to be poor. People laugh when I say it, but it’s true. When you can’t buy large quantities – either because you don’t have enough money up front or you have no way to transport stuff, you buy small amounts and you pay more. You probably don’t have good credit so you’re stuck in the apartments that will take you with bad credit, and you pay more there. You don’t have health insurance, so you’re stuck paying retail for medicine and doctor visits. If you have a car, you probably live in a rough part of town and your insurance rates are through the roof. Finding childcare in low income neighborhoods is frequently difficult so you’re likely to be traveling way out of area if you’re an employed parent.

    Why we can’t build small, attractive, low income housing in urban and suburban areas and make sure that there are grocery stores, schools and doctors within walking distrance and good mass transit for everything else is beyond me. it would make everyone’s life easier and go a long way towards keeping people employed, off welfare rolls and in good health.

  10. I often joke that the beauty of having dropped out once is in the ease of doing so again. Applicable here in that having once (or twice) hit bottom and crawled back out of it… you know what to do.

    Paramount: not living beyond your means.

    Bear in mind that the vast majority of these uppity white-eyes are indeed living beyond their means, be it credit card, equity ATMs or “creative” mortgaging, and their slide to the bottom, much farther than ours, has only begun. Karma can be kool.

  11. Jim

    I understand that this is just a moral truism; but, nevertheless, I believe that any economic system–any society–that can’t provide the basic necessities for its citizens should not exist.

  12. Paul

    “Why we can’t build small, attractive, low income housing in urban and suburban areas and make sure that there are grocery stores, schools and doctors within walking distrance and good mass transit for everything else is beyond me. it would make everyone’s life easier and go a long way towards keeping people employed, off welfare rolls and in good health.”

    Because amongst those poor are the criminal and the desperate. The criminal and the desperate will fuck it up. (Yes, I know there are those criminal and desperate amongst the more well-off, too. But they tend to be less desperate.)

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