At the beginning of October, I couldn’t leave my house.
I wasn’t sick or injured. I was stuck. The neighborhood I live in has no sidewalks, is close to a large highway and contains no routes of public transportation. If I am going to leave my house, I need a ride. Sweet Boy had gone to Denver for job interviews, I still don’t know a lot of people here, certainly not people I’m comfortable asking for rides from, and getting a rideshare anywhere was going to cost me ten dollars.
For about one week, the price of freedom was ten dollars and that was too rich for my blood. Don’t panic, this isn’t going to be a morose blog about how much I hate my life or how hard it is. Don’t get me wrong, it’s really fucking tough right now, but that isn’t what this is about. This isn’t about how bad it is, it’s how this kind of “bad” changes you.
Poverty, in both a miasmic, abstract sense and sometimes a very literal, concrete sense, is trauma. I think we see the concrete reasons and become dismissive. People who are born into poverty are more likely to see violence, instability in their home and go to poorly funded schools. On the surface, particularly for people who haven’t had to go through it, these are all perceivably temporary situations that you can tough out and be better for.
The thing is, trauma is a time machine. Bad experiences aren’t moments that disappear into nothingness and present time. They linger in our neurons, braided in with our emotions, dreams, memories. Trauma is one of the building blocks for everything else in life. Poverty makes trauma, and in essence, being frozen in time, a lifestyle.
One of the things I never really processed, given that it’s not my background, is the perception that lower income people are lazier than other people. Social scientists are quick to jump in and point out that the lower class isn’t lazy, it’s just that their efforts aren’t rewarded. While this is true, I think something could be said to a noticeable lack of ambition that, at least very generally, could be applied to people in the lowest tiers. There’s a frequent lack of aspiration, no dream job, or at least no steps to take one. At times you may hear someone talk about wanting to be a movie star or model, or how they’re going to be, and then do absolutely nothing about it. You could easily consider that lack of ambition or follow through laziness. I think the more brutal but accurate description is that if you’re poor long enough, you slowly lose your capacity to hope.
Assuming laziness for their situation means putting the burden on people that they should know of opportunities that they can get even if said opportunities have never been part of their life before. If you’ve never known someone who becomes a doctor, or graduates college or even just pulls themselves into a more comfortable existence, you have no imperative example as to how it’s done. You can know that those opportunities exist out there, but if they’re not in your immediate vicinity and you’ve never witnessed anyone have them, you’re just going to assume that they aren’t there for you. You’re not going to reach for the stars if there’s too much light pollution to see them.
Even if lack of income isn’t something you’re born into, it fucks with your head by being an ever present stress. I think of my anxiety like multiplicative goblins, and the one named “Bills” is hands down one of the strongest. No matter how much money I manage to make, there’s a voice in my mind that keeps rattling off everything I own, “Rent, Phone, Loan, Utilities … “ and so on. No trip to an open mic, grocery store or ride share to leave my isolated apartment is complete without the knowledge that by spending any money, I will be more entrenched in my current debts.
Likewise, I’m terrified of checking my e-mail, mail or voicemail because I don’t want to find out I somehow owe someone money. In my mind, some cable bill for a company I’ve never used will arrive, and they’ll demand money with accruing interest and I will not have the financial capacity to defend myself. At this point in my life, I feel like I will always be indebted to someone, somewhere.
No one who’s struggling financially wants your pity. It’s just the reason we pass on going out to drinks, why we never want to do anything. Why we just can’t seem to push ourselves a little bit harder, go that extra mile, apply for that new job. All of those things take time, and our time is the only resource we have left, after work, you don’t want to look for extra work. That tiny sliver of time is all that’s left for you to control.
Which leads me to another unfortunate side effect of empty piggy banks; your short term decision making becomes super important to you, and your capacity to believe in let alone prepare for your future is grossly diminished.
When you’re broke, it feels like half of your brain is dedicated to day-to-day survival. You don’t make a lot of plans because plans need some kind of stability to be planned from. Since you have all that background noise churning and no forseeable stability in the future, your decisions tend to be more impulse driven and beneficial to the here and now, because the here and now is all you know for sure that you have. You can’t invite someone to your house next Thursday if there’s a chance you’re going to get evicted on Tuesday. This is where the impulse buys come from. You may not be able to afford the $50 abstract dollars it will cost to keep the lights on, but you can afford one or two $15 dollar trips to the store to get food and the two don’t seem directly correlated.
My entire life is focused on November 1st right now. I can’t keep track of anything that happens farther out than that two weeks. Not to mention, there’s the yearning for normalcy. The urge to buy new clothes, go out to dinner with friends, or feel included in stable activities of any kind can temporarily drown out the debt goblin in your head, and you impulsively spend shit you don’t have in order to enjoy that temporary moment that makes you feel okay. Unfortunately, feeling okay doesn’t have access to the same time machine that trauma does. It will be fleeting, and you’ll go right back to panic. That’s all the future guarantees for you, so it’s hard to want to put more stock into it.
Both of these are changes to an individual based on poverty, this doesn’t even cover the scope of what a community of people who are born and raised with this potential mindset would look like. As for that portrait, I don’t think I know, I’m still very much a singular experience. My guess is that your social structure directly mirrors your financial support. Influence becomes crucial. Your interpersonal skills, if you’re lucky, become the thing that keeps you okay.
We’re moving into a service industry society. We rent out our spare rooms, our cars, walk other peoples’ dogs and buy their groceries for them. Our best way to get money is near tribal, where we offer those services to strangers that you would probably do for free with a friend. Needing money could force us to become more inclusive, and maybe that’s not such a bad thing.
What’s alarming is that return to service based society is also competing with a surge in technology that will render those jobs obsolete. What are we going to do when we come unnecessary to each other, where being human has no influence and we become more exclusive by default?
Maybe that’s the goblins in my brain talking. I have been struggling a lot lately. This move has been hard and the financial fall out was a lot more than I expected. I hope I’m over the worst of it, and writing about how it changes the way I think has been helpful. The more knowledge I have about something, the longer it takes to make decisions about it. In the case of being trapped in a here-and-now mindset, maybe that’s okay. Fuck if I know what to do about that technology thought bubble though. That’s depressing as shit.
I am determined to have a good day today, and I am going to leave my house even if it means walking along the highway and stepping over a dead possum. I don’t know how long my life is going to be like this, and I can’t deny that it’s changing me. I just have to remind myself that it’s within my power, and it’s my responsibility, to maintain an ability to hope.
These articles focus more on psychology or how individuals function in a society. They're about as well thought out as anything else on the internet, and there's probably typos.