Money Changes Everything

15 03 2015

War on Poverty

I had an epiphany this morning. Or at least an eye-widening insight. There’s a very good reason why so many spiritual leaders of past and present advise their followers to cast aside their worldly goods. Having an excess, or even a comfortable abundance, of wealth fundamentally affects your world view. And it separates us, one from another, in subtle, insidious ways.

I have a good friend who is far more affluent than I am. Very kind, very compassionate. Most of her other friends, at least those I’ve met, are similar. Intelligent, good-hearted, but live lives far beyond what I could ever hope to afford. I must emphasize that this does not affect our friendship. Or my opinion of them as good people. But it has given me a glimpse into a different world. A world made different solely by income.

The house is a mess, can’t keep up with the housework. Me: live with it, feeling ashamed when company comes over. Them: hire someone to clean for them.

The kitchen/bathroom/etc. is looking shabby from wear, or just seems due for a change. Me: move around the furniture, see if paint is on sale, or look for bargains at a yard sale or Dollar Store. Them: Buy whatever they need to redo the room; hire someone to do it if they are unable/unwilling to do the redecorating themselves.

Son graduates from high school. Them: Off to University, with perhaps a semester in Europe. Me: Get a job to help support the household, putting aside what he can to take the occasional class at the community college.

Vacation time. Them: Let’s see, Puerto Rico? Hawaii? Skiing in the Alps? Safari in Africa? Me: My younger son can housesit for them and their pets.

You get the point. And it isn’t that they are showing off their lifestyle. It seems normal for them. It’s what people do. And they think, Wouldn’t it be nice if we could afford a fancier car, a bigger (second, nicer) house, our own jet, throw more extravagant parties, buy our kids better things, quit work and travel around the world, and so forth. Imagine how utterly out of touch the 1% must be? How completely alien the lives of those making minimum wage are to those who have never had to worry about affording anything except perhaps the next multinational corporation or presidential candidate they want to acquire?

I did live on minimum wage for awhile, did at one time have much less than I have now. I did not believe I would ever be able to afford a house, or a new car. Compared to where I once was, I am living in luxury. It’s as different as my life now is from the lives of my friends. And now, even though I am so much better off than I once was, I look at them wistfully and think, “I wish I could send my son to college. I wish I could go to Europe. I wish I could afford to buy some nice item of clothing just because I like it, not because it’s what was available at Goodwill.” Forgetting there are folks out there who wish they could have a house to live in, a good car to drive, and no worries about paying for their groceries.

Money changes everything. A bit more of it and you notch a level up, and that becomes your norm. Your eyes tend to drift upwards to the next level, not back down to where you were, or if they do, only with a shudder. It’s easy to forget what it is like being down there. Think how much harder it would be to relate if you’ve never had to stand in line for a meal at a soup kitchen, never been on food stamps, never had to just suck it up and live with something because you couldn’t afford to do any better?

The apocryphal “Let them eat cake,” could well have been said by a truly clueless member of a privileged class who honestly had no idea what it was like not to have that option. I wonder how many of those who say “Why don’t the poor just (fill in the blank)?” honestly don’t realize that the options that seem obvious to them simply aren’t available to those who have little or no money.

Why is it that people tend to hang out with those at their own level? Perhaps because it feels normal. These are people you can relate to, who have similar concerns (investments, retirement plans, tax shelters, what school to send their children to or where to take their next vacation; or, balancing childcare and job, keeping credit card debt manageable while still keeping up the payments on the car and making the rent, how to use leftovers to stretch grocery money). With a wide disparity of income, you aren’t going to the same restaurants, shopping at the same stores, buying the same gadgets and devices. A person whose income is very different can’t entertain you at their house the way you did them at yours. The person the next notch down can’t afford to buy the gifts you can afford. They can’t join you in your favorite recreations because they can’t manage the expense.

No matter how one strives for equanimity, the differences are real, pervasive, and have an unavoidable effect.

And we think we’re so clever and classless and free.




5 responses

15 03 2015
Mary Jolles

I absolutely agree with everything you said! I think it takes tact and delicacy to interact positively and meaningfully with people whose problems and issues may be different from your own. I experienced this firsthand as a teacher and then a school administrator. It was very important to make connections and develop relations with all sorts of people, from fairly well-off folks to people who didn’t have two nickels to rub together.

15 03 2015
Mary Jolles

Addendum: I think I was successful at this because first of all, I had lived on food stamps and WIC when my children were small and understood how demoralizing it was not to be able to afford some essentials. I had also resented other people’s suggestions, e.g. “Why don’t you just….?” So I avoided making suggestions, but instead listened to what the other person had tried, or thought might work, and we would talk through the practicality of those suggestions.

22 03 2015
Laura Fry

Mel, it’s taken me the week to respond, being said friend. My initial reaction was one of being on the defensive: I went to nursing school which was cheap and have been supporting myself since age 18; it took me 7 years to do pre-med because I worked my way through those college years. I went to a state med school and lived in hovels in NYC and worried for most of those years every month how I would make ends meet. And I work with folks who need our help the most, I give generously to charities, blah blah blah……
And I full acknowledge that I agree with you on many levels. It’s just there. I didn’t grow up with affluence, but there was never a fear of spiralling into poverty because there was always some family member who would bail you out. And I know this is dumb luck of birth. I will take issue with classifying all folks of affluence as always wanting more. This may represent some, but they are not usually representative of my friends.
The other side though that I’d like to explore, and one that I know you are keenly aware of are the things that make us the same, not those that make us different. In that room that night there were: a single mother of two disabled boys, no college education, who has worked very hard to finally afford a house, and make it habitable; a man who lost his young wife to early Alzheimers; a man whose sons are addicted and whose sister was just incarcerated with DWI; a woman who was recently widowed; a man who was raised by an alcoholic mother he never was close to, had very little means but enough smarts to get himself through college and graduate school; a couple whose son is in college and who is there,and went to prep school 100% on scholarship – no way could they have afforded this.

When I worked as a cancer nurse, I witnessed every day what life was distilled into: Wealth didn’t matter,and we know in the end it doesn’t. To folks facing the end of their days, what mattered was love. That’s my center.

22 03 2015

I am so glad you responded! As I tried to emphasize in my post, I consider you a dear friend and a good person. Heck, more than just good — exceptional. You are one of the most giving persons I know. And I never felt anything but open friendship from those in your circle — because like attracts like. I felt I could write this because I knew we could communicate and talk it through. Unlike those in my family who, when there was a disagreement, would slam the door and refuse to ever open it again, you are a person who reaches out and wants to understand.

Like Mary, and like me, you’ve known what it’s like to struggle. You’ve worked hard and earned the comfort you enjoy now. But unlike many, you haven’t forgotten, and unlike many, you don’t look down your nose at those who weren’t able to make it. You don’t say, “Well, I did it. They should, too, and if they can’t, it’s their own fault.” You don’t, but many others do.

What I am trying to understand is how people who are affluent, or wealthy, or even out-and-out rich, can be so lacking in compassion. How they can so totally lack comprehension of what it is to be poor. It’s clear from your description of the people at your party, people I don’t know very well, that they know struggle. I am not judging them. Even if I knew them better, I’d have no right to judge. And that’s not what I’m doing here.

You acknowledge that there is a difference, that my point stands. People of different economic classes live in different worlds. I am trying to see how there might be no malice or cold-heartedness in the attitude of those who feel contempt or indifference to the plight of the poor — it might be simple ignorance of the realities of a world very different from theirs. When the economic mobility of a society begins to erode, as our has, and it becomes more and more difficult to “work one’s way up the ladder”, society becomes stratified. Within a generation or two you have people in each strata who have known nothing else, and who know little of what others are like. Feed them with pernicious misinformation, like the writings of Ayn Rand that so many modern Republicans seem to admire, and there you are. People who aren’t as evil as they seem, or as others insist they are, but are products of their environment.

I apologize if it seemed that what I said was critical of you or your friends. It was risky writing what I did. But I have faith (yes, that’s the best word to use) that if I am honest and open, listen and respond with my heart as well as my intellect, that greater understanding must be the result. This is where we are the same. We believe in compassion. We believe in honesty. We believe in the basic goodness of people. That is why we are friends.

In an ideal world, money wouldn’t matter. And you are right, in the end, it is love that matters most. But although money does not buy happiness or joy or love or inner peace, the lack of money can sabotage all those things. Poverty cripples the spirit and crushes hope. But I don’t need to tell you that. You understand.

23 03 2015
Laura Fry

Long dayof work and I’m too pooped to reply reasonably. The other thing I forgot to mention, which I know you will appreciate, is what goes beyond the acquisitions and obvious material benefits of interesting incomes: Health disparities. Poor= worse health indicators for the overwhelming part. When education is mixed in this helps a bit but with poverty plus inferior education, this is a recipe for a whole host of lousy health outcomes: badfood, no ability to buy good food, lack of access to basic health care either through lack of funds (THANK YOU Maggie Hassan for making Medicaid more available!) or lack of access because of knowledge of where to go for help or geographic issues, and the list goes on. SO More diabetes,rampant obesity, rampant mental health problems. That’s my daily diet, these truly wonderfully courageous, loving folks who just get lost.

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