Being broke is not being poor

Paul Krugman is reraising a common and key insight into poverty which is not well captured by federal poverty guidelines:

By security, I mean that you have enough resources and backup that the ordinary emergencies of life won’t plunge you into the abyss. This means having decent health insurance, reasonably stable employment, and enough financial assets that having to replace your car or your boiler isn’t a crisis.

There is a clear distinction between being broke and being poor from this insight.  Being broke means having no cash available, but having access to sufficient resources that the every day minor oh-shit moments are not a crisises as resources were available to manage the problem.  Being poor means the minor oh-shit moments can easily become a crisis because there are no resources available.

When I was in college, I was consistently broke.  I lived in a flophouse one summer with anywhere from seven to sixteen other people paying some share of the monthly rent.  The most I paid was $86.75 for August.   I sold myself to science as the pay and food was good, and I knew where there was free food offered by every department.  As a student I was broke and under federal poverty guidelines, I was poor.

However, I had resources.  I had good health insurance through my parents.  When I woke up and my knee was swollen to the size of a grapefruit while the patella had dislocated itself, I swore in pain but not in concern about how to get through the day without seeing a doctor.  I went to student health services after calculas, and then hopped a bus to see an orthopedic surgeon.  She  drained 38 CC of fluid.  I owed $20 in co-pays and had to buy a cane. I would have rather spent the $20 on beer, but oh well, I could walk well enough in three days.   When I was scrambling to come up with a security deposit for the first apartment that I would share with my girlfriend and now wife, I could go to my parents and ask that the security deposit and a good dinner with family be my graduation present. 

This is a crucial distinction between being poor where there are few good choices over the long run as people operate from scarcity thinking  and being broke.  I was able to access resources and behave almost a Friedmanesque lifetime income hypothesis individual.  (As a side note, this is why I discount the experiences of the 1% who claim they were poor in college — they might have been broke, but mommy and daddy could take care of anything)  This is a weakness of the poverty guidelines as they are income based and not resources based.  Some people may have rather low incomes but have the ability to call on resources in an oh-shit scenario, and others may have slightly above poverty level incomes but have no resources that turns an oh-shit scenario into a crisis. 

Health insurance is one of the most important resource that is an on-call and hopefully not needed resource, so two individuals with the same income but where one has decent health insurnace and the other does not have two very different abilities to absorb bad news from a doctor.

90 replies
  1. 1
    dmsilev says:

    As a side note, this is why I discount the experiences of the 1% who claim they were poor in college — they might have been broke, but mommy and daddy could take care of anything

    What, you weren’t moved to tears by the tragic tale of Lord and Lady Romney, forced to sell stock in order to survive their student days?

  2. 2
    honeybooboo says:

    Either way, not having money sucks.

  3. 3
    cermet says:

    Being broke and on the edge is a disaster – period. In that state opportunities are missed, futures curtailed or even destroyed. I’ve lived for a good part of a year in that manner yet I still had a steady job/home/excellent healthcare and it was draining and depressing. I would never want to live that way again. The very thought of living like that all the time and not having healthcare etc is something that is terrible to think about – Krugman is so right. This is something the rich do not and never can understand.

  4. 4
    Richard Mayhew says:

    @dmsilev: I was actually thinking of an old friend of mine who had a trust fund that was accessibile 2 years after graduation which would put the Romney family funds to shame. During college, broke was a fair description as this friend was my medical experiment buddy but when there was a minor medical issue, my friend was flying to Mayo Clinic the following day and then New York on Day 2 for a second opinion.

  5. 5
    Another Holocene Human says:

    Exactly. That’s why we middle class white people can look on our broke salad days with nostalgia. We had all the advantages of our social status (great education, excellent healthcare, familial support, and of course social status due to education and affiliations) but none of the stuff, and stuff only really wears you down (not to mention obligations and also no kids or diapers, cuz mama made sure we had rubbers or the Pill or money for a quiet abortion).

  6. 6
    Another Holocene Human says:

    When I left school for the working world the second time I experienced a major drop in social status but I still had my education which couldn’t be taken from me so that kinda cushioned the blow.

    It makes me really, really angry when people attack free, public education for all.

  7. 7
    Another Holocene Human says:

    @dmsilev: Oh noes, they had to eat tuna.

    Tuna, meet ramen.

    Thanks to food stamp cuts, soon to be the American national food.

  8. 8
    BGinCHI says:

    In the summer of 1999 I sold a 1965 Fender Jazzmaster and a Fender amp so that I could pay rent and eat while I worked on my dissertation.

    I think about that guitar all the time and wish I still had it.

    I know, First World Problems, but damn.

    The biggest problem about being poor is having dependents. Being single and having to struggle builds character. Having kids or others who depend on you plus being poor equals stress and poor quality of life.

  9. 9
    raven says:

    In “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America” by Barbara Ehrenreich she set out to try to live on minimum wage (or less) jobs but she prefaced the experience by saying “I always knew I had something to fall back on” if things got rough.

  10. 10
    shelly says:

    Exactly. That’s why we middle class white people can look on our broke salad days with nostalgia

    Yes, the ‘La Boheme’ romanticism. Which gets better as the years go by.

  11. 11
    raven says:

    @BGinCHI: In my early years at the U of I they had short term loans for vets. All you had to do was sign and you could get $200. I parlayed that two bills into a nice little stash more than once.

  12. 12
    Shakezula says:

    I don’t see why there’s a need to redefine broke to mean something other than what it is: Having no damn money and no way to get any and so face all the potential problems that come with having no damn money.

    See also Poor.

    People in college who could reach out to mum and dad for help weren’t broke.

  13. 13
    Roger Moore says:

    @Another Holocene Human:

    That’s why we middle class white people can look on our broke salad days with nostalgia.

    I also suspect that a lot of upper middle class people are judging “broke” in comparison to their situation growing up with their parents and their situation today, rather than looking at living conditions for actually poor people. Someone who doesn’t know anyone who’s genuinely poor might confuse the reduced affluence they experienced in early adulthood with real poverty.

  14. 14
    BGinCHI says:

    @raven: That was a lot of money back in the olden times.

  15. 15
    eric says:

    @BGinCHI: :(……..

  16. 16
    cmorenc says:

    While we’re talking about being broke but not poor in college, I can’t help thinking of the classic tag-line from the old “Furry Freak Brothers” counter-culture comic: “pot will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no pot”.

    At least some of y’all are familiar with this, yes?
    :=)

  17. 17
    eric says:

    @BGinCHI: back before FDR sent the country into a depression

  18. 18
    IowaOldLady says:

    @Roger Moore: You mean like Ann “We Learned Hard Lessons” Romney?

  19. 19
    Herbal Infusion Bagger says:

    But Mitt Romney explained the way to succeed – borrow money from your parents!

    Too many poor people have shown shocking judgment in being born from uteruses that are not the property of former senators and corporate executives. If Americans chose their parents better, we wouldn’t have a poverty problem.

  20. 20
    BGinCHI says:

    @eric: That guitar had a nicer neck than my girlfriend at the time.

  21. 21
    Ash Can says:

    Moreover, being broke in college, or shortly out of college — albeit a valuable learning experience — is different from being broke/poor further down the road, because of the anticipation of better times after making the transition to the working world. A higher education gives one a great deal of hope regarding finding decent-paying work, and that hope is often born out — while not exactly leading to wealth, it often does lead to a degree of stability and security, especially in contrast with people (working or not) in real poverty. People who are broke/poor with no hope of advancement — of whom we have more and more in this nation — are in an entirely different situation.

  22. 22
    jl says:

    Thanks for an interesting column. I have no idea right now where to find it, but heard a news report on some recent psychological research that showed that constantly working under very tight monetary constraints costs and equivalent of 10 to 20 points on intelligence and aptitude tests in problem solving. Simply because the person’s mind is occupied with how to scrape by on a small amount of money, with no reserves and just a few mistakes can result in serious problems or disaster. The mind it seems, does have limits and can only work on so many difficult problems at once, though Econ 101 conveniently assumes them away.

    Econ 101 plus however does not always do that, and some of the effects of severe scarcity, such as excessive short term thinking, or seemingly irresponsible seemingly risk-preferring behavior come right out of neoclassical economics of behavior under uncertainty. Hirschliefer and Riley’s survey ‘The Analytics of Uncertainty and Information’ makes these points explicitly.

    The issue of inequality really lays bare some of the absolutely outrageous ideological prejudices of some of the conservative wing of the economics profession for all to see. For example, you often hear it said that economists have long held that inequality is good because it spurs more effort from those who are poor to climb upward to join the ranks of the rich.

    (Edit: this was a big selling point by proponents of ‘shock therapy’ for the old Soviet Union, and we see how well that worked out.)

    Anyone who has taken Econ 101 may ask themselves whether anything in neoclassical economics they learned concerns emulation or incentive effects of relative income or wealth? The answer is that such a theory is nowhere to be found. Well, perhaps they will learn that theory later on in more advanced classes. But they won’t because such a theory does not exist.

    Then, when a very innovative economist like Robert H. Frank comes along and works out a theory of the economics of relative status as an element of subjective wellbeing as well as absolute level of consumption goods, and finds that it results in some good incentive effects, but also significant social costs and market failure, he is considered some kind of sketchy heterodox economist.

    And then of course, if the relative incentive effects of inequality do not seem to be working the way ideologically fixated conservative free market economists supposed (off the top of their heads), then the poor are immediately dismissed as defective losers, or they switch back to the actual standard neoclassical view, and say that the poor, on an absolute level, are better off in someways than their grandparents, or a caveman, so they should feel grateful.

  23. 23
    Richard Mayhew says:

    @jl: Yep — here is a link on scarcity and intelligence testing:

    http://uk.news.yahoo.com/pover.....15314.html

    Researchers also gave tests to 464 sugar cane farmers in India, both before their once-yearly harvest when they were short on money and after the harvest when they had more.

    They found that the same farmers did better on the tests when they had cash on hand.

    “IQ goes up, cognitive control, or error, goes way down and response times go way down,” said Mullainathan.

  24. 24
    RaflW says:

    One of the insidious things about the latest GOP healthcare ‘replacement plan’ that was just released is their so-called compromise that people with continuous insurance coverage would not be denied a new plan based on pre-existing conditions.

    This totally misses the point of how many working Americans live. We’re not talking about abject poor people, but folks for whom going on COBRA for 3 or 6 or 9 months while searching for a new, decent paying job just isn’t a reality.

    They don’t have $3k or $6K or $9K laying around just for insurance premiums while laid off. They have to make car payments, mortgage, food and heat and …

    Unlike the authors of the bill who have anywhere from 18 to 36 years of continuous employment at the government teat of the House and then Senate, real Americans loose jobs, go bare for insurance for a few months, and then get back in and pay their bit.

    “Oh, well, too bad, no guaranteed issue for you. You got laid off by megacorp 3 years ago and had a 60 day lapse of coverage. Sucks to be you.”

  25. 25
    raven says:

    @cmorenc: That’s exactly what I was talking about even though the freaks said “dope”.

  26. 26
    Shakezula says:

    @BGinCHI: First of all, I’m sorry to hear you had to sell your gear. My husband still talks about the time he had to pawn his drum kit just to eat. He got it back, but it was a really stressful event for him (in part because playing was a source of income).

    However, I disagree that it builds character. I’ve been poor as a child and as a single adult and the only thing that changes is your understanding of how very fucked you are.

    As an adult, having to play fun games like Eat or Pay Bills didn’t make me a better person, it made me depressed. I have huge anxieties about money that are probably a permanent part of my psyche. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. I wouldn’t wish it on Donald Fucking Trump.

  27. 27
    Ultraviolet Thunder says:

    Recently I worked supervising 18 people making $8.50 – $9.25/hour. They lost jobs over things like a flat tire or a kid with the flu. No cash = no personal safety net. It was an eye opener for me.

  28. 28
    jake the snake says:

    When my wife and I were first married, we were broke, but we did have resources. I remember that through a paperwork glitch,
    our health insurance premium was not taken out of my check. When the mistake was corrected, the backdated premiums took
    a large part of my paycheck, which left us short of the next month’s rent. However, we “borrowed” it from my parents and went
    along as if it had not happened. I have no idea how it would have come out, if we had not had that resource.

  29. 29
    jake the snake says:

    @Shakezula:

    I would on Trump, Romney or any of them. It might be good for them to learn how the other “47%” live.

  30. 30
    eric says:

    @BGinCHI: i can imagine. I have an early70s Les paul and she is nice, but my Suhr, she is a Lady ;)

  31. 31
    Mnemosyne says:

    Here’s the classic John Scalzi piece, Being Poor, which spells out a lot of the differences between being poor and being broke.

    There were a lot of times that I was broke both during and after college but, as others have said, I had resources (aka parents with money) to fall back on if things got really bad. That money would have come with strings I wouldn’t have liked (like having to move to Arizona to be closer to them, etc.), but I would not have starved to death or ended up thousands of dollars in debt for medical bills.

  32. 32
    jl says:

    I’m also glad that Krugman is coming around (though in a skeptical way) to the Stiglitz view that inequality is an economic problem that may have consequences for the performance of the overall economy.

    It seemed to me that Krugman’s argument that there could be no macroeconomic effects of inequality did not go well with the way he approach macro. In long run equilibrium, there could only be few people with all the income and wealth. The rest of us could all be gainfully employed (full employment!) polishing their shoes, making silly trinkets for them, and genuflecting at their doorways. That might be true in equilibrium, after such a ghastly distribution of income was in place for decades, but Krugman forgot about how slow the adjustment process might be, and did not think to observe that we are in the midst of long transition to that state of affairs.

    Krugman’s neglect of the effects of the transition from one long run equilibrium to another did not match his Keynesian approach to macroeconomics. But the inconsistency betweeen his approach to macroeconomics and his thinking on inequality was glaring, so I had hope for him. He seems to be thinking about it more clearly now (IMVHO obscure tehcno-geek economist opinion).

    It might not be possible to model transitions between two long run equilibrium that are very different from each other as a sequence of equilibrium outcomes that are a function of observable exogenous variables. So standard microeconomic analysis might be hopeless, at least as an empirical theory, thought it might be fun modelling puzzle. Which is why predictive performance is more important in some areas of economics than being able to whip up nice whizzbang equilibrium explanations of anything at all that might happen.

  33. 33
    Just Some Fuckhead says:

    The McDonnells were broke but they had Jonnie Williams to fall back on, thankfully.

  34. 34
    jl says:

    @Richard Mayhew: thanks very much.

  35. 35
    Mnemosyne says:

    @Shakezula:

    People in college who could reach out to mum and dad for help weren’t broke.

    Except that reaching out to mum and dad would often come with strings attached, like moving back home, so most people would do everything they could not to use that fallback position unless it was an absolute emergency. We had many similar experiences to those of being poor — phone shut off, electric bills coming on the pink paper — but IMO it is more accurate to say that we were broke because, in the backs of our minds, the consequences would be moving home and sleeping on mom and dad’s couch, not living on a street corner.

    I think it’s useful to draw a distinction between being broke and being poor because, as we saw in the last election, a lot of middle-class people don’t understand that poor people don’t have the option of moving home and sleeping on mom and dad’s couch. Their parents don’t have $20 to lend, much less Romney’s $50,000. They have no fallback position.

  36. 36
    jl says:

    If RM comes back and has something to say about it, I would be interested in his opinion on the new GOP health care proposal.

    New GOP Plan Makes Everything They Hate About Obamacare Even Worse
    DYLAN SCOTT , TPM
    http://talkingpointsmemo.com/d.....disruption

  37. 37
    BGinCHI says:

    @Shakezula: I don’t mean that in a cavalier way. I mean that learning to think about how you live, which you really have to do when you don’t have money, has some value.

    I’d say that having this experience can make you a more caring and sensitive person (though obviously not always) in comparison to having lots of money and never having to pay attention to how things work in the world.

  38. 38
    Bill Arnold says:

    This article finally got me googling for what formal work has been done in this area. The Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco has a very interesting-looking paper The Economic Security Index: A New Measure for Research and Policy Analysis
    It might be practical to recast class boundary definitions in terms of this metric or something similar.

  39. 39
    StringOnAStick says:

    @jl: I strongly suspect the new GOP plan to replace ACA is just politics and will never be made into a bill that the CBO could score; it’s just something to hide behind so they don’t get shot by the tea party primary voters.

    However, if the CBO did score it, that article notes that it would result in the single biggest tax increase on the middle class in decades, so for that reason alone I can see why the rethugs would love to pass it. Reducing the amount that businesses can pay tax-free for employee health insurance to 65% means the employees now owe taxes on the remaining 35%, so huge tax increase.

    What they are proposing just plain shows that they have no fucking idea about how the ACA subsidies made insurance both affordable and obtainable to so many who were without. Changing from a subsidy to a tax credit means people have to pay full cost and wait for that credit at the end of the year; exactly how are people with limited means supposed to do that?

  40. 40
    David in NY says:

    Then there’s being broke, and having relatives who are really poor, with whom you are stuck. I’ve seen that often — families, often of minority groups, are themselves close to the edge, then some feckless or wayward family member gets in trouble, economic, social, criminal and needs to be helped out. One poor person can bring down a whole family network.

    I might add that being broke (not to mention poor) in New York City is just the worst. I was totally broke during law school there and, parents recently retired from a schoolteacher’s job, wasn’t getting much outside help, short of real emergencies. But in New York, so much to do or buy or eat and no money to do it with, is really hard.

  41. 41
    hitchhiker says:

    My parents didn’t have money. They didn’t have education, either. They did have eight kids, of which I was the fourth. It never for one second was the case that they were going to be able to scoop me up if I fell.

    I didn’t even understand what it might mean to have backup until — in my thirties — I married Mr. Hitchhiker, whose family had resources that seemed endless to me. (They were solidly upper middle class, not rich.) Honestly, I can remember the moment that it dawned on me that I’d been welcomed into a safe place, that I was now safe, too. It’s hard to describe what happens . . . sort of like you’ve been playing out your life against a certain backdrop, and then suddenly what’s behind you changes. Instead of harsh and shadowy, it’s warm and colorful. Your whole way of being in the world is different.

    What I’d like to see is a national thought experiment on the following question:

    If your place in the economic system were going to be determined by lottery, what sort of economic system would you design?

  42. 42
    Hawes says:

    Mildly relevant: I was reading about wealth inequality in Russia and what’s astounding is how many people there move in and out of poverty. Very few people stay rich and very few people stay poor. This – combined with the legacy of communism and statism in Russia – explains why the Russians really want an active state.

    If the Democrats can ever win control of all three branches, my guess is that by doing the very LEAST Mary Landrieu will let them will still improve so many lives of people who really ARE stuck in poverty. And what’s more the millions of Americans who thought they were middle class, but now realize they are just poor.

  43. 43
    Richard Mayhew says:

    @hitchhiker: Rawls — hell yeah — that would be an interesting discussion for the country to have

  44. 44
    David in NY says:

    @hitchhiker:If your place in the economic system were going to be determined by lottery, what sort of economic system would you design?

    I believe that John Rawls constructed a whole Theory of Justice (his book) based on that principle — that a social system designed with that constraint (lack of knowledge of one’s place in the system) would be just.

  45. 45
    Richard Mayhew says:

    @jl: Got 3 short things to say:

    1) The plan actually could be policy (ie, it attempts to deal with moving parts) — this is an improvement from Republicans.

    2) It sucks goat’s balls from anyone who makes under $125,000 a year (not unexpected)

    3) It has no chance of passing in anything resembling its current form with current Congress or the 2005 Congress/White House (that version would pass “repeal Obamacare except for the popular parts” portion)

    More later

  46. 46
    David in NY says:

    Interesting. Maybe that reconstruction of class is being done by people themselves. Kevin Drum noted the Pew poll indicating that (in Kevin’s analysis) a third of people who thought themselves middle class a few years ago now think of themselves lower or lower-middle class. http://www.motherjones.com/kev.....lower-or-l

    Or some actual “class consciousness” is arising in America.

  47. 47
    West of the Cascades says:

    @Another Holocene Human: I would love to see President Obama declare in tonight’s speech that he will veto any Farm Bill that cuts a cent out of food stamps but gives tax breaks and subsidies to corporate farms – call Archer Daniels Midland and Conagra out by name. I think it would be political gold (there’s essentially no down side to it that I can see), but I’m also pretty sure it will never happen.

  48. 48
    PurpleGirl says:

    @jl:

    …you often hear it said that economists have long held that inequality is good because it spurs more effort from those who are poor to climb upward to join the ranks of the rich.

    Andrew Carnegie was once asked why the elevators in Carnegie Hall didn’t go all the way up to the top of the house. His answer (paraphrase): so that people have an incentive to work harder and make the money to afford seats lower down where the elevator does stop. I’ve only climbed once to the Balcony from the Dress Circle (last stop of the elevator). I wanted to hit the friend who bought the tickets up there. Never again.

  49. 49
    Roger Moore says:

    @IowaOldLady:
    I was actually thinking of myself, or maybe mirror universe version of myself who has no empathy. Like a lot of the people here, I went through a thankfully brief period when I was a lot worse off than I had been either growing up or since. If I didn’t have a basic willingness to think about other people in similar or worse situations, I could easily convince myself that: A) I was living in genuine poverty, B) it was a learning experience, and C) today’s poor people should quit their whining because I made it through my “poverty” just fine.

  50. 50
    Roger Moore says:

    @StringOnAStick:

    Changing from a subsidy to a tax credit means people have to pay full cost and wait for that credit at the end of the year; exactly how are people with limited means supposed to do that?

    Sell some of their stock? Borrow money from their parents? Dip into their trust fund? That’s what the bill’s authors would do.

  51. 51
    Elizabelle says:

    Richard: this is one of the best blogposts I’ve ever seen at Balloon Juice. Bookmarked it.

  52. 52
    Mnemosyne says:

    @Roger Moore:

    It’s the empathy deficit between Wow, living that way really sucked, I can’t imagine how bad it is for people without a backup and Living that way really sucked, but I pulled myself up by my bootstraps (with a loan from mom and dad), so why can’t they?

  53. 53
    Biff Longbotham says:

    @Elizabelle: Ditto Ditto Ditto Ditto

  54. 54
    Schlemizel says:

    Perhaps the best explanation for broke vs. poor I have read. Thank you very much.

  55. 55
    hitchhiker says:

    @David in NY:

    Thanks! I didn’t know where the question came from originally — my point of reference is a fictional dinner party conversation in a long-ago Joyce Carol Oates novel.

  56. 56
    MomSense says:

    Richard, this is an excellent post. Thank you. All it takes is a few bad things to happen and you can find your life completely different. A divorce, death, health crisis, lost job or some other crisis and all of a sudden you are scrambling like mad. The problem is that in this economy the amount of time you are scrambling is much longer meaning that if you get through the crisis you find yourself without any reserves so from then on you are just working to survive and there is NO MARGIN FOR ERROR! And if you have children–it is incredibly perilous and stressful. I’m a little too close to this subject to write much about it but it is constantly exhausting and trying.

    I cannot stress enough how important it was to get health insurance this month. It removes a layer of worry and gives me peace of mind.

  57. 57
    cmorenc says:

    @raven:

    @cmorenc: That’s exactly what I was talking about even though the freaks said “dope”.

    I knew the completely accurate quote was “dope”, but those of us of that counter-culture generation know that the term was understood to presumptively refer to marijuana unless the context clearly indicated differently – whereas I wasn’t so sure readers of a later generation would presumptively assume that meaning rather than to some hard drug like cocaine. Without the correct understanding of the quote, it could be misconstrued to have a reckless, sinister meaning, instead of the playfully humorous meaning we take from it.

  58. 58
    maurinsky says:

    When I was 19 (in 1989), I had a baby and got married, and my little family of three had an income of just about $11,000. We paid $450/mo for rent, leaving $5600 for everything else. We had a car, because we lived in a place with no transit, so that means gas money; food money, of course. Diapers. I nursed so we wouldn’t have to buy formula. Electric, oil for heat, we didn’t have a phone. We had no insurance when I had the baby, so I also was over $7000 in debt. There were always unexpected costs – when the baby got her hand caught in a door and we had to go to the ER; when our POS car needed something fixed.

    I used to watch the ground when I walked to pick up pennies! We would buy a chicken once a month, otherwise it was all ramen noodles all the time. It was fucking hard. And we didn’t have the possibility of a better future, either, since we weren’t going to college at the time. We did get WIC, but I was really clueless about assistance (I’m sure we would have qualified, I just didn’t know what was available and how to go about getting it).

  59. 59
    cmorenc says:

    @raven:

    @cmorenc: That’s exactly what I was talking about even though the freaks said “dope”.

    I knew the completely accurate quote was “dope”, but those of us of that counter-culture generation know the quote refers to marijuana – whereas I wasn’t so sure readers of a later generation wouldn’t misunderstand it as referring to harder drugs like cocaine, giving the quote a dark, recklessly sinister meaning rather than the playfully humorous sometimes too-close-to-home meaning we take from it. Thus the slight alteration to substitute “pot” for “dope” from the original.

  60. 60
    WaterGirl says:

    @maurinsky: Wow, that’s a tough life. How did things turn around for you? Because it seems like they did, at least I hope they did.

  61. 61
    cermet says:

    @WaterGirl: Ditto

  62. 62

    @maurinsky: That’s tough! {{{hugs}}}

  63. 63
    maurinsky says:

    @WaterGirl:

    It’s kind of funny, actually, because I LOATHE the concept of everyone bootstrapping their way out of poverty, but I kind of did. After a year of splitting shifts of working at part-time jobs, I got a full-time job that I believe paid in the neighborhood of $8/hour, which was a king’s ransom to me at the time. In order to get that job, I took a book out of the library with typing exercises and taught myself how to type on a semi-broken typewriter that I found in front of someone’s house. And I kept working on finding better jobs.

    Now I’m in college, I should graduate next spring with a Bachelor’s in Public Administration. My baby is 24 and went to college on a full-scholarship, she is teaching now but she’s looking for something else since the reformers are busy killing public education.

    But I think about all the things that had to go right. I’m mentally and physically healthy. I didn’t have a family that could offer financial support, but they did offer emotional support, which really meant a lot and helped a lot. I’m an intelligent, well-spoken person, I’m extroverted and optimistic. I had a lot of built in advantages based on genetics, basically.

  64. 64
    ruemara says:

    No shit. No fucking shit. I tell people all the time, do not underestimate the value, the impact, that having loving friends & family have on your life. I was born poor. Not that my relatives lack money, but when they decided my lack of a living father made me an “orphan”, which meant I was in God’s hands. You really can see the difference between a support network and none.

  65. 65
    raven says:

    @cmorenc: gotcha

  66. 66
    Roger Moore says:

    @Mnemosyne:
    There’s also the reality deficit that I didn’t live the way truly poor people do. I lived a lot worse than I do now, but I can think of many ways that my life then was better than the working poor. But I can imagine somebody who wants to think they have overcome a lot in life exaggerating it into living in poverty, especially if that can be used to justify their selfishness today.

  67. 67
    Schlemizel says:

    @maurinsky:

    Congratulations, that is one hell of a long haul you made & you should be justifiably proud.

    I got married but we were lucky to avoid the baby situation for a few years. That made a huge difference as I had no useful degree & had to take a menial job. My wife was doing OK but not well enough to support us (we ate beans and rice more than a few nights). I managed to go to school & work full-time nights. It wasn’t easy but it was hardly an epic struggle. Neither set of parents had money to give. But I look back & know how many things could have gone wrong, how easily it would have been to fall in a ditch or just give up. We went a few weeks without any car because we couldn’t afford the repair but that is not as bad as many more people have to deal with. The experience made me a lot more aware of what people who are really poor have to deal with on an every day basis.

  68. 68
    WereBear says:

    Help African women out of poverty. And save yourself some coin!

    An amazing slow cooking device.

    the story of the Wonderbag

  69. 69
    WaterGirl says:

    @maurinsky: Congratulations, that’s quite a success story.

  70. 70
    WereBear says:

    @maurinsky: It’s an inspiring story!

    But yes; what if things had gone wrong? In 1999 I lost everything, and my mother was in a position to help me back on my feet. In the financial crisis, she lost everything… and my brother took her in and she’s getting her own apartment soon.

    If you don’t have anyone… you go without.

  71. 71
    diana says:

    @ruemara: I agree. Unfortunately one of the many bad things the Rethugicans have done to this country is dismantle communities that used to exist. I was broke when I moved to NYC’s east village in 1987 but I found a welcoming urban neighborhood that probably doesn’t exist anywhere today. The squatters’ anarchist political philosophy was pretty stupid but the community was real. I got a cheap apartment share through helping tenants on a rent strike, I had friends who taught me which streets were safe to walk down, where to buy thrift store clothes, where to get a bike and where to get it fixed. We shared everything: food, music, leads on where to get a job, books, etc.

    I’m older now, of course, but I get the sense that this country has been so sodomized by thirty years of the Reaganomics that we’re only supposed to share with family. What happens now to people who don’t have families that are both generous and rich?

  72. 72
    Anna in PDX says:

    Chiming in to say that you are a real treasure, Richard, and this was a great blog post. This blog is still a great place to hear about cat antics and silly right wing politics and pundits but it is my go-to place to get health insurance information, an invaluable resource and I’ve found that aspect of it really unique.

  73. 73
    maurinsky says:

    I think about my ex as an example of someone who was living the same life as me but had things go wrong. My ex-husband got his degree, but he has serious depression and schizo-affective disorder as well as a terrible type of eczema. He’s so smart, but his paranoia keeps him from seeking medical treatment (he is suspicious of all doctors) and he is unable to work. He almost died in 2008 from a staph infection, and hasn’t worked since 2005. And we all know how great mental health care is in the United States, so I doubt he will ever work again.

    I still have financial anxiety, even though I can pay all my bills now. I’m going to school full-time (thank you, online education!) and working a full-time job and a part-time job.

  74. 74
    currants says:

    Had a similar college experience (knew where to find free food/coffee), only was a single parent with a 4 yr old. Okay, so not similar.

    But this link–which I may have seen here the first time–still does an excellent job explaining being poor. http://www.cracked.com/blog/th.....g-up-poor/

  75. 75
    negative 1 says:

    @Another Holocene Human: Because it, too, is made in China.

  76. 76
    cwolf says:

    @BGinCHI:
    I feel your pain, in the late seventies I had to sell a Black & Gold Les Paul Custom that I had bought used in the early seventies.

  77. 77
    Elizabelle says:

    @WereBear:

    Bookmarked and wish listed the Wonderbag. Great idea. How energy efficient.

    Little pricey, but not once you realize a family in Africa is getting one too.

    Thanks much.

  78. 78
    Chris says:

    @Roger Moore:

    I was actually thinking of myself, or maybe mirror universe version of myself who has no empathy. Like a lot of the people here, I went through a thankfully brief period when I was a lot worse off than I had been either growing up or since. If I didn’t have a basic willingness to think about other people in similar or worse situations, I could easily convince myself that: A) I was living in genuine poverty, B) it was a learning experience, and C) today’s poor people should quit their whining because I made it through my “poverty” just fine.

    This sort of resembles a column I read years ago by the first right wing blogger I ever read, PJM’s Bill Whittle, describing his own experiences living in poverty. There, you got a story of a young adult phase that consisted of… living as a moocher on various secure, middle-class friends’ couches (in other words, a LIBERAL! tee hee!) until one of them finally kicked him in the ass enough to get him to get a job. And it was all gold from there. The kicker? While he’s had problems at various points in his life, his pithy quote about how he got through it was clap harder, kids! It’s all in your head “I have never thought of myself as a poor person. I have always thought of myself as a rich person experiencing momentary cash-flow problems.”

    A person with a shred of self-reflection would’ve looked at that sentence and immediately realized – that’s because you’ve never been poor. You have, at most, been – wait for it – a rich person, experiencing momentary cash-flow problems. Poor people don’t have networks of well-adjusted friends and family to mooch off of until one of them gives you the get-a-job talk. By and large, they don’t even have the opportunity to be moochers. And that’s why life for them is a good deal less simple than your “just will your middle class stability into existence” solution.

    Pretty much every conservative “thinker”‘s spouting off about his own experiences with poverty looks like this, which explains why they are and probably always will be blind to their privilege (hey, I had an inconveniencing experience once, I got out of it, why can’t everyone?) Also explains their belief that moral fiber is all it takes, and possibly their loathing for what they just know are lazy moochers – it’s what at least some of them were in their “when I was poor” days, and it doesn’t occur to them that there could be other stories out there.

  79. 79
    MattR says:

    @hitchhiker: @Richard Mayhew: Failrly regularly, I reference this study from 2011 that used the Rawls constraint and discovered that people prefer Sweden to the United States. There are also some other interesting data regarding Americans’ misconceptions about wealth inequality.

  80. 80
    philadelphialawyer says:

    Meh, to me, being “broke” means you have nothing. Not only no ready cash, but no resources to sell and no guaranteed resources from parents or anyone else to call on either. To be “poor,” to me, is actually not quite as bad as being “broke.” Being poor, as I see it, means having very little cash, resources, or people to turn to. But not none. A poor person might have a net worth of a couple of thousand dollars, but a broke person is, well, broke, which I take to be another word for “has no money” (as in zero money). A poor person might actually have a pay or unemployment check’s worth of money on her at a certain time (even if every penny of it is earmarked for necessary expenses, and even if that still leaves a shortfall), but a broke person has nothing at all. Poor people live in public housing, are on Medicaid, maybe TANF or WIC, or maybe have minimum wage jobs, qualify for EITC, etc. Broke people live on the street or in a shelter and panhandle or do squeegee work or collect cans for the deposit or are involved in low level, petty crime.

    As for the college experience mentioned, I would see that as neither poor nor broke. Clearly, the author had money on him, as he could pay for bus fare, a twenty dollar co pay and a cane. In other words, he had cash money on his person, which, by definition, means you’re not broke. Moreover, the money was earmarked for beer, not necessities. And, to me, that, and the existence of health care insurance, plus parents who would co sign a lease, calls into question any notion of “poorness,” of poverty, at all. In my view, a college kid who is not given much spending money, but who does have money enough for necessities and beer, and who can just go live at home for the summer if he wanted to (with food and board for free) and whose health care is being paid for by his parents, is neither poor nor broke nor even particularly badly off. Sure, a college kid might rather have money for rent in a less crowded apartment, plus food and beer, and have ready money for bus fare, a cane and a co pay too, and not live at home, but wanting more than you have doesn’t make you poor or broke.

    “(As a side note, this is why I discount the experiences of the 1% who claim they were poor in college — they might have been broke, but mommy and daddy could take care of anything) .”

    Again, I would say that they were neither poor nor broke.

    “This is a weakness of the poverty guidelines as they are income based and not resources based. Some people may have rather low incomes but have the ability to call on resources in an oh-shit scenario, and others may have slightly above poverty level incomes but have no resources that turns an oh-shit scenario into a crisis.”

    Actually, most poverty programs have resource AND income limitations. The ACA is unusual in that the subsidized health care eligibility is determined on income only, not resources. In other words, it is possible to own a house and/or have a fair amount of money in the bank or even in stocks and bonds and still qualify for the insurance subsidy.

    Of course, beyond what you yourself officially own, it is not always easy to determine what resources a person can draw on. A poor person with moderately well off parents can maybe call on them for help, but maybe not. Certainly, the parents are not legally obligated to help their adult children out. How should the government look at that situation (poor person/well off parents)? Usually, the law does not consider outside resources, unless they are being made available on a regular, recurring basis.

    “Health insurance is one of the most important resource that is an on-call and hopefully not needed resource, so two individuals with the same income but where one has decent health insurance and the other does not have two very different abilities to absorb bad news from a doctor.”

    Of course. But that doesn’t really answer the conundrum about whether resources should be included at all in determining eligibility for subsidies, or how deeply the government should dig into resources that are not yours but which you may be able to draw on.

  81. 81
    jl says:

    @philadelphialawyer: Giving reasonable allowance for RM’s striking and counter-intuitive usage to make a point, I took ‘broke’ to refer to no liquid (money) income or wealth, and ‘poor’ to refer to lack access to all resources, whether liquid or tangible, or not.

    ” Of course. But that [The ACA] really answer the conundrum about whether resources should be included at all in determining eligibility for subsidies, or how deeply the government should dig into resources that are not yours but which you may be able to draw on.”

    Given the well known market failures that occur in under-regulated insurance markets, the market doesn’t really answer the conundrum either. Do you have any suggestions for a solution, or should we simply contemplate the exquisite conundrum while people suffer pain and premature death? That is a serious question. I don’t see anything ‘meh’ at all about the issue, or the topic of the post.

  82. 82
    HRA says:

    I remember the day I had to decide whether to buy milk or bread with the only money I had in my pocket. I chose the milk needed for the children and decide to learn how to make bread. I did not feel utterly defeated although I had no resource from which to borrow. At times I felt fearful should any crisis befall us medically, the utility bills not get paid prompting a shutoff and the end of any food to feed my family. Although it is not what anyone should have to experience, that time of need taught me a lesson for the future.
    Now I work when others my age have retired for health insurance and the possibility of one of my children needing a resource in their tough time. It’s not all that bad. It keeps me actively involved in life, education and society.

  83. 83
    Nimrod says:

    @Ultraviolet Thunder: A few years back I f***ed up at work, quit my professional job, got depressed yada yada. Wasn’t out of work that long (and amazingly it’s behind me now), but I have no doubt that if I’d started that trip poor, I’d have ended it homeless. I’ll try never to forget that.

  84. 84
    Bill Arnold says:

    @jl:

    I took ‘broke’ to refer to no liquid (money) income or wealth, and ‘poor’ to refer to lack access to all resources, whether liquid or tangible, or not.

    Likewise. Broke has this as a common meaning.
    There is another word, “destitute”, that has a common and mostly undiluted meaning of without food or shelter (or adequate clothing).

    I’m thinking that a plausible (needs some work :) measure of class based on income security might be something like -1*log(probability of achieving destitution at least once in the next 5 years). Natural log and a 5 year window seem about right about right.
    So already destitute would be level 0, extremely poor would be level 1 (37%), middle poor would be level 2 (14%), lower middle class level 3 (5%), middle middle class level 4, upper middle class level 5, lower upper class level 6, middle upper class level 7, lower filthy rich level 8, middle filthy rich level 9, lower upper filthy rich level 10, middle upper filthy rich level 11, upper upper filthy rich level 12, dictator of a continent level 13, planetary ruler level 14. Even planetary rulers have to worry about asteroid impacts, alien invasions, etc.

  85. 85
    Ruckus says:

    @Mnemosyne:
    I’ve been in the position of having things go wrong and not having the money or any idea of how to get any more money. And this in my sixties after both parents have died and they used all their money anyway just to live as they both required assistance to exist. But even then I could start SS and eventually I did find a job so broke, looking like possible poor but not poor. I can imagine what poor looks like, living in my van or worse, under the stars and having no money for food or any healthcare. And yes the level of desperation is palpable and it stinks to be there.

  86. 86
    Ruckus says:

    @StringOnAStick:
    The gop believes in tax credits for 2 reasons.
    1. Only people who earn enough and pay taxes can take advantage of it.
    2. The gop (and not always just the gop) see tax credits as real money because they get so many of them. Normal people see tax credits as another form of payment to the rich, because that is what most of them are. Even the home mortgage deduction, renters don’t get that. Giant corps get billions in tax credits per year, I get squat.

  87. 87
    philadelphialawyer says:

    @jl:

    I agree, that is what Mr Mayhew used the terms “poor” and “broke” to mean. I was not saying he was wrong, only that my understanding of the terms is different. Again, to me, “broke” means not only no liquid wealth, but no wealth whatsoever, and no access to resources either, whereas “poor” means very little wealth and very little access to resources, but some. Basically, I see the terms as 180 degrees differently than what Mr Mayhew sees them as meaning, with broke much worse than poor.

    “Given the well known market failures that occur in under-regulated insurance markets, the market doesn’t really answer the conundrum either. Do you have any suggestions for a solution, or should we simply contemplate the exquisite conundrum while people suffer pain and premature death? That is a serious question. I don’t see anything ‘meh’ at all about the issue, or the topic of the post.”

    First of all, that “meh” was only directed to the distinction between poor and broke as terms. And, again, I see them differently than the blog post author does, but don’t think that semantic difference has any real importance or is a clear cut, no brainer in my favor. Hence the “meh.”

    Health insurance market failure is indeed a serious issue, and I would never wish to say or imply otherwise, much less advocate that we sit in contemplation while folks suffer pain and death.

    Also, the antecedent for the word “that” in the material you quoted from me was not the ACA, as you have indicated in brackets, but rather Mr Mayhew’s statement as follows: “Health insurance is one of the most important resource that is an on-call and hopefully not needed resource, so two individuals with the same income but where one has decent health insurance and the other does not have two very different abilities to absorb bad news from a doctor.”

    That statement doesn’t help us decide the conundrum of what resources, if any, to count as “belonging” to the person who we are trying to decide whether government financial assistance in procuring health care insurance is desirable. If we are considering resources at all.

    My view is of course everyone should have good health insurance. In an ideal world, there would be single payer or a national health service, and everyone would be entitled to health care just as everyone is entitled to a K through 12 education. With a steeply graduated and progressive combined income and wealth tax to pay for it.

    But we do not live in an ideal world and so have to decide which folks we can help with the costs. I merely mentioned that the ACA does not have any resource requirement at all (not only relating to what other folks, relatives, friends, whoever, might give you, but not in regards to your own resources either) for its subsidy program. Which is unlike most assistance programs (WIC, SNAP, etc) in that they have both resource and income eligibility requirements. I did not even venture to express an opinion on whether that anomaly is a good or bad thing.

    So, I’m not sure we are actually in disagreement about anything.

  88. 88
    daveNYC says:

    Rent a flat above a shop
    Cut your hair and get a job
    Smoke some fags and play some pool
    Pretend you never went to school
    But still you’ll never get it right
    ’cause when you’re laid in bed at night
    watching roaches climb the wall
    if you called your dad he could stop it all

  89. 89
    Eldon McMullen says:

    @Roger Moore: I grew up in a family that lived on a very low income. But we lived in a nice place on a river, far from anyone else. I married, had kids, at a low income job. Spent the money I made as fast as it came in. But I always felt that me and my Family were living well. No one was hungry. every one was well. So I’ve always felt that you could be broke with out being poor. A lot of our positions in life are based on mental gymnastics, formed by the balance between Optimism and a Pessimism. Mac

  90. 90
    G. Luck Duck says:

    Housing should be a right. Basic housing. And a job. A guaranteed job for anyone who wants to earn some more money.
    And free education, including trade schools, higher education and free healthcare. Remove the profit motive from healthcare once and for all. Remove the profit motive from the absolute necessities of life so people can all have some sort of minimum help from our own government, and that should include removing insurance companies from healthcare. It’s only a fraction of what they scam out of people, so I can’t see any reason not to prohibit them from even being involved. Mandatory insurance premiums are nothing less than a tax foisted upon us by the insurance companies using our own government as the enforcer for their private business. That sort of corporate robbery is taxation without representation and should be struck down immediately.
    The welfare of all Americans is the responsibility of our government. Our military is being used for private purposes, not public ones.
    Those in government must realize that they are not there to receive any special privileges, but to deny them to any and all who seek them.
    Their duty is to the rule of law, and our law is to be applied equally to all. We can see the opposite happening instead and they openly refuse to represent the American people, choosing to sell our safety and health into the hands of poisoners and swindlers.
    And what of those enemy actions? They hate our government. Some are playing a very long game. The war on the American people is real. It is a real war by real enemies. We can see their actions for what they are – they seek the death of all Americans while getting as much money as they can at the same time.
    Requiring people to get a job while making sure there are no jobs for them is a type of psychological warfare. There are many players striking at America and winning. Americans are dying, suffering and those who did it get away scot-free every time.
    Some of us can’t help but see the war. We have so much time on our hands to wonder why things are the way they are.
    Good Luck.

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