punkwalrus (punkwalrus) wrote,

Why people stay poor

The last post reminded me that one of the charities we donate to is Koinonia. They helped us when we were poor, and so we donate when we can to help those in need. So we get their newsletter, and the most recent one spoke about how the low income people are being crowded out of the area by the high rent and taxes. Koinonia's mission is to put people back on their feet; a hand up instead of a hand out, so to speak. They are finding they give a hand up, and the people vanish because they simply can't afford to live in the area. Not just rent, but the same crap I pay more for, too, like gas, utilities, and so on.

I am lucky to make as much as I do. I used to be poor and unemployed. I have been evicted because I couldn't pay rent. I have starved myself so my family could eat. I lived with the knowledge if I killed myself and made it look like an accident, I was worth much more in money dead than alive (insurance, social security). Being poor sucks. And the worst part is the "transitional phase" of poor to... well, not so poor. When I was unemployed, we lived in "the projects," the more common name of "subsidized housing," which was based on a "sliding scale" of your income. At the time (91-93), with Christine's sole income, we paid $350/month in rent. When I finally got a job with Cargo, our rent shot up to $1200/mo (whereas a normal place that size was like $800/mo rent at the time), PLUS I had to pay babysitting ($75/wk... and that was cheap), PLUS public transportation... so we ended up making less each month because I was employed. This is a very common problem among the poor in America: it doesn't pay to get a job. If you get a job, you get less and have to spend more at that level.

Right now, minimum wage is $5.15/hr, or $206/wk, so for a standard 40 hour week, that's $10,712/year. But poor people think week by week most of the time, so after taxes, that's $165/wk (this assumes no health insurance). Let's make this a "more fortunate" poor family, and have a dual-income with 1 small kid. Babysitting is at LEAST $200/wk these days, and you have to scrape around to find it that low. You'll probably end up with an unlicensed provider like we did. God help you if she's bad, because you got no choice, and since she's not legal, all reporting her will do is get her shut down for a while, and maybe tax evasion, but that's doubtful. So after childcare, your dual income house has $330/wk, or roughly $1320/mo for rent, utilities, food, gas, and medical bills. I looked around in apartment listings in our area, and I found the lowest one bedroom apartment (that wasn't "house to share") was about $830/mo. Make the kid sleep on the couch. After all, when my mother lived in the Swedish slums of Chicago in the 1940s, that's what she did. So now you have about $500/mo after rent. If you are really shrewd, and eat a lot of tuna, pasta, and day-old bread, you could probably feed your family for about $100/wk, or $400/mo. Leaving you $100/mo to pay for everything else. Fuck. No way. Especially because eating that badly will make you fat and sick, and since you don't have health insurance, you usually let things wait until death is a very near possibility, and so you go to the emergency room. Now, suppose the mother goes on welfare. Not only does she save $800/mo in childcare, but she gets food stamps, WIC, and freebies from churches and the government. What would you do to save your family? Now suppose you are a single mother of 3 kids. Yeah. This is a BIG problem.

What I have always felt we needed was a kibbutz where a whole bunch of families live in a community, where those who can't work help raise the kids, and the rest contribute to the well-being of everyone else. But like any communistic model, the flaws start to show when someone gets lazy.

Another "hidden" problem of the poor is depression. You feel useless, have nowhere to go, and everything around you is falling apart or crime-ridden. You watch these "perfect families" on TV, and feel even worse about yourself.

By the beginning of 1996, we were in a terrible place. We both had jobs, but we had bill collectors, lived a home that was technically condemnable, and were barely scraping to get by. On top of that, they made you sign a contract for 4 years at a time, and we were less than halfway through the second contract.

Here's what the MAJOR problems of the house were:
- Plumbing had burst 3 times in 4 years, flooding our house each time
- The roof leaked badly in the winter (the roof was flat with no runoff area)
- The air conditioner/heater for the upper floor leaked when the AC was on
- Due to the AC leak, CR's floor decayed to the point it was sprouting mushrooms, and was not safe to walk on
- Due to all this water damage, the ceiling buckled, the drywall was covered with mold and mildew, and some electrical sockets could be turned on and off by banging the wall near them
- The lower floor parquet flooring was held in place with roofing tar, so blobs of tar oozed between the cracks
- We had fist-sized holes leading to the outside where mice and wasps came in
- The front of the house was coming off. Literally, the huge wood exterior was peeling away starting at the upper floor, letting in more water when it rained

This is how we got out. First, when I left Cargo to go to AOL, I simply claimed I lost my job at Cargo, and never mentioned AOL. Our rent dropped to about $400/mo. On top of that, I cashed out my meager stock options with Cargo and my 401k. Yes, it was heavily taxed, but I still got a couple of grand of "bumper money" this way to afford movers and get our utility bills paid up. We started a case history of the house, including making copies of all the work orders for stuff that was never done, photographs of the unacceptable living conditions, and proof that we had filed complaints only to be ignored or told, "We don't have the funds to fix that." With my new free Internet connection, I got some HUD rules about acceptable living conditions and made a packet. We also included doctor's orders to move out because the mold and mildew conditions were so bad (like I said: we literally had mushrooms growing in certain corners of the house). Meanwhile, we found a place in Reston that had decent rent, and planned our move over a weekend, when the housing office would be closed.

We moved on a Saturday. Someone snitched on us, and the housing office sent two people do give us hell and legal threats for moving out early. We presented them with a copy of the packet we had prepared, while Christine took the manager through the house to explain why this house, according to the HUD, should be condemned. We also explained a copy of this packet had been sent to their corporate headquarters, and if they gave us any hassle, a copy would be sent to the HUD office in Fairfax County as well as the Federal office downtown. They knew that if we did, they'd have the whole block shut down. So they never bothered us again.

I heard it's still as bad.
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