Live Below the Line, Day 4



Percent and number below the poverty threshold...

Percent and number below the poverty threshold for the United States (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


I found that merely going up and down the stairs today was more difficult than I’m used to. The hunger itself…has changed from the usual pangs and growlings to absolutely horrible cravings. I’ve had people advising me to go to the store and get lentils for additional protein and nutrients on the cheap, and I found, to my horror, that I’m so hungry, so full of cravings for all types of food (not just sweets or salty snacks or rich sauces or fast food), that if I actually did do that, my willpower would likely fade enough that I’d buy a whole lot of things I shouldn’t (like sweets and salty snacks and rich sauces), and blow the whole thing. So…no lentils for me this week. Protein will continue to come from eggs and tuna.


One thing: I ordinarily take a few supplements every day. This week, I have not been taking them, because supplements are expensive and to really feel all the early effects of chronic hunger, I need to stay off of them. So the supplements are also out of my diet. As are things like tea and milk. No room in the budget for them. I live for my morning tea. Or I did. There could be room, except I’ve had to whittle down what I normally eat and drink in a day to what my body absolutely, positively must have. It needs the vitamins and nutrients it can get from fruit and greens, and it needs the protein and nutrients it can get from eggs, tuna, and the few slices of cheap American cheese I have.


I do get to drink all the tap water I want, and today I found that I was drinking even more than I have been because it quiets the hunger, though it’s on a very temporary basis. Everything reminds me of food. Everything I read, everything I write, everything I say, even most of what I do, reminds me of food.


Another thing: My concentration is shot, and my ability to spot errors in my work and the work of others is shot. That was something I didn’t expect, though I should have, because they always told us in school before a big test, “Make sure you eat a good breakfast, so you can think better on tomorrow’s exam!” How do impoverished parents give their children a good, hearty breakfast the morning of an exam? Does hunger create one of the differences in educational performance etween children in poverty and children who are not? I don’t know if that’s been studied or not.

I find myself also getting increasingly angry at this attitude: “The poor are lazy.” A little over a year ago, a full 27% of Americans believed that our poor were merely lazy, according to an article published by CBS. A shocking 43% apparently believed that our poor could always find a job if they really wanted to, and an appalling 49% believed that all a person needed to lift themselves out of poverty was a good work ethic. While it’s true that the survey cited in the CBS article also showed that over 80% of people who participated believe that the poor should be getting some type of help, there’s a significant problem with the way we perceive poverty in this country.

The poverty threshold for a family of four, with one to four related minor children in the house, was between $23,000 and $24,000 per year in 2012, according to the Census Bureau. So let’s look at the claim that a good work ethic is all that’s needed to lift oneself out of poverty. Federal minimum wage is $7.25/hr. So in a single-parent household, a person working full time brings home gross annual wages of $18,850. That’s assuming no time off for sickness, and no other time off either, and that is also before taxes. According to the National Poverty Center, 31.6% of single-parent households headed by women were in poverty in 2010. The poverty rate is also disproportionate between whites and Asians, and blacks and Hispanics. Blacks and Hispanics have a much higher rate of poverty.


If you’re a child in poverty, the opportunities that are available to middles-class and rich children are not really available to you. You might graduate high school, but you might drop out to help your family make ends meet by taking a full-time job. If you do graduate high school, unless you’re one of the few elite whose grades, test scores and activities were impressive enough to earn you a full ride scholarship, you still have to work your way through college, if you can even afford to go at all. The National Center for Education Statistics released a study last year showed that poverty has a profound effect on a child’s ability to perform in school, as well as the quality of the education they receive in schools serving primarily low-income districts, which then affects their ability to go to college, either on scholarship or otherwise. So while there are instances of people pulling themselves out of poverty through education, there are significant obstacles that children of middle-class and upper-class families don’t have to overcome.

The last time I was job hunting, I looked at a ton of jobs considered “professional” or “white collar,” and everybody I looked at with those jobs wanted at least a Bachelor’s degree. Many wanted Master’s degrees. If you can’t go to college, unless you gain experience that far exceeds anything anybody could get with a degree, then you’ll oftentimes find yourself stuck. In this country, opportunity comes with a price that’s too steep for the poor.

In business school, one of the first things I had beaten into my head was, “The purpose of any business is to maximize the wealth of its owner.” Businesses don’t have a given responsibility to ensure the welfare of their workers outside of the workplace. They have a duty to their bottom line, particularly if they’re publicly traded. Some companies have learned (re-learned?) that paying employees decent wages and offering decent benefits, along with generally keeping them happy, pays off very well on the bottom line. But business has a long, long tradition of seeing workers as liabilities, or worse, necessary evils. Real take-home pay has fallen. Overall wages have fallen when you account for inflation. All of this also works against poor people.


And one more thing about this: working your tail off for a raise or a promotion doesn’t always pay off. Higher positions tend to be limited, and significant wage increases are all but nonexistent without that promotion. When a company has no higher slots, and worse, when they’re trying to cut costs, you won’t get a promotion or raise no matter how good an employee you are.


So no, merely having a good work ethic, both at school and at work,  is generally not sufficient to raise oneself out of poverty.


Nobody in their right mind would choose to live this way, regardless of the “poor people are lazy” mentality that seems so pervasive around here lately. Nobody in their right mind would choose a lifestyle that makes it so they have to choose between feeding themselves and feeding their children. Nobody in their right mind would voluntarily feel the hunger that I feel now, and everything that goes with it, bar taking a challenge like this one.

And absolutely none of this has anything to do with living in the poorest countries, where extreme poverty is high, so starvation and disease are high. Too many say, “It’s not our responsibility.” In a way, that’s true, we can’t be tasked with lifting every single impoverished nation out of that state. However, sitting by and doing nothing at all because “it’s not our responsibility” is a detriment to the world.




One Response to “Live Below the Line, Day 4”

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