Lies You Believe About Poverty: My Laziness is Why I am Poor

Last week, I helped a friend figure out their budget. My friend is no longer poor — sort of — but recently was. So a lot of people in her life don’t understand the reality she is living, including her.

My friend believes that she is still struggling with money, despite making a solid middle class income, because she is lazy or bad with money. She is neither. But when you spend even a few years in poverty, you are stuck in a brutal financial cycle that takes years to recover from.

Case in point: My friend has a job that pays good for her city, but not great. She also lives in a city that has one of the highest rent costs in the country. When she tells people, even people who love her, how much money she makes and that she is struggling to make ends meet, they assume she is being frivolous or careless with her cash.

But that’s not the case. Once you make it out of poverty the struggles continue.

My friend divorced a few years ago, leaving behind an abusive ex. During the time she was married, she was denied health care for some injuries and a developing chronic illness because the American medical system ignores women when they tell doctors something is wrong. The American medical system gaslights women.

So when she got out of the marriage, she lost access to his health insurance. She lost access to their shared resources, like a home at a relatively reasonable price. She changed jobs, moved states and found herself smack dab in the midst of being poor.

This isn’t new. Women have for generations stayed in abusive relationships for a variety of reasons including financial ones.

So my friend found herself struggling. Her credit score dropped as her income fell, leading to higher interest rates on the credit cards and car loan that she had to have to stay alive.

Eventually, though networking, hard work and a little bit of luck, she found a good job that pays well. She brings home about $5,000 a month.

And I saw from behind my keyboard the eyes that went wide and the gasps and judgment about why she is still struggling. But that’s where the reality of being formerly poor comes in.

She is paying an astronomical 37% of her income in rent and basic utilities. The city she lives in is expensive. She had found a cheaper apartment, but it was filled with roaches which exacerbated her health conditions, and would have made it impossible for her to keep said job because of missed work due to illness.

So she opted to spend more as a concession to her health.

Between a car loan with a high interest rate, gas prices near $5 a gallon, insurance and tolls, even though she drives very little, having a vehicle costs her another 20% of her income. Actually, a bit more than that when you add in maintenance costs.

Her boyfriend looked at those numbers and concluded that means she still has at least $2k a month to live on, so she should be fine.

That’s because he’s never lived in poverty and had to play catch up.

Another 15% of her income goes to paying off debts that were accumulated during the “poor years.” For many of us who spent time in poverty this can include paying off credit cards, loans from family friends, student loans, back taxes and more.

And another 15% goes to health care. Remember that gaslighting and lack of listening to her while she was married? Compound that with a few years in poverty and no access to health care and your body demands that you play catch up. When you throw in a chronic illness, the price skyrockets.

For those keeping track, that’s 87% of her monthly salary taken up on basic living expenses and catching up from being poor. That’s $4350 of that $5000 and that’s if there are no health/car/etc. emergencies.

Another side effect of recovering from poverty is that if you get a professional job that pays a professional wage, chances are you don’t have the wardrobe for it. Being a woman means needing a variety of professional clothes, not just one or two interchangeable suits.

So she’s trying to budget for that and food.

Working and commuting means that sometimes, by necessity you eat out. Even if you eat at home every day, feeding yourself costs several hundred dollars a month. Let’s call it $300 because my friend is frugal.

Now we’re down to $350 a month in “free” money, but that has to go to that wardrobe she needs to improve, basic household expenses like laundry soap, toilet paper, and the like, and trying to save some money for emergencies. Her major indulgences? $25 a month for coffee and $35 a month for streaming services.

Suddenly, that $5000 a month looks pretty small. She’s right back in the situation where everything has to go perfectly for her paychecks to cover her expenses.

And between a chronic illness and life, who ever has a month that goes perfectly.

So she has a side hustle in addition to her job, to cover the emergencies and to buy herself the one thing she really wanted: a pet.

The side hustle comes with costs of its own. Longer hours mean more wear and tear on the body and less energy to prepare food at home, so some of the money goes to things to make her life easier, but most of it goes to being a good pet parent so she has some companionship.

And so she struggles to make ends meet and tells herself she’s bad with money and lazy. She is neither, but because of the lies we are taught about being poor, she believes those things about herself.

Then she hears them echoed by family friends who say things like, “You make enough money this should be easy.” Then she reads/hears advice to the poor like “Get a side hustle. Work longer hours. Give up your Starbucks.”

But the reality is even when you step outside the boundaries of an income level that is poverty level, you have not escaped the consequences of poverty. Recovering from poverty is an on-going process and while my friend is doing better, she’s still victim to the lies and problems of poverty.

If you are formerly poor, like me, recovering from poverty like my friend, or still struggling with the realities of poverty, reject the lies. An increase in cash flow helps make things better, but it’s an on-going process for years.

Capitalism favors the wealthy. Poor people pay higher fees for damn-near everything — you pay late fees, overdraft fees, low balance fees, over the limit fees, higher interest rates and usually, high access fees for healthcare and other basic necessities.

Now that I am no longer poor, my checking account is free as long as I maintain a certain balance. Because I a no longer poor, that’s achievable. Even the cost of car ownership drops because I get better insurance rates because of a better credit rating.

Capitalism is a scam that hurts the poor and sadly, we’ve been taught to believe the lies that hard work is the way out. It’s too bad it’s not true.

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Lucinda Gunnin

Lucinda Gunnin

Lucinda Gunnin is a commercial property manager and author in the suburbs of Philadelphia. She’s a news junky, sushi addict, and geek extraordinaire.