Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Poverty Simulator

 A week ago, Sean found an article about a site called playspent.org. The article claimed that the site was "designed to help people understand the challenges and trade-offs faced by low-income people with insecure employment.  The “game” begins when you’ve been unemployed, have only $1,000 left in your bank account, and need to get a low wage job."

"Interesting," I said, a bit distracted as I was playing tug-of-war with the dog. "Bookmark the article for me, I'll go over it later."

I completely forgot about it until yesterday morning. I decided I'd give it a go, see how I did. And on my first try, I survived the month with $572 dollars left over. "This is easy." I thought. I mean, seriously, how could anyone fail this?

Then on a lark I posted the link to my facebook page and challenged my friends and family to play and post their results. Within minutes, I got a response from an old high school friend. "I ran out of money on day 10."

Flabbergasted, I replied "Yikes! What did you do???"

She responded "No clue LOL did it on my phone...will have to try it on the computer."

As the day went on, more of my friends responded:

I made it through with $44 but rent is due tomorrow. Lost my job though. Ouch."

I already played this in real life..."

I made it to the 26th. Would have been fine but got caught up on the question of what to do with my pet. Working on the premise that this was real life, I don't have anyone who can take them, and I won't take them to a shelter. So I "paid" it and went broke."

Final result, $105 but rent is due and I need a root canal that I can't afford. I know it was fictional, but I felt a little sad when I had to choose between seeing my child star in the school play or make an extra $50 for groceries. It's eye opening and makes me realize how truly blessed I am to be able to buy fresh, healthy foods, health care, and all the little extras we take for granted."

I was surprised by the variation in the answers, so I went back in and played it a few more times - each time making different decisions and seeing how it affected my ability to survive. I did fairly well overall, but how much of that was because of growing up poor, learning to make do or do without? My husband had a slightly better financial upbringing than I did, so I had him try it.

He failed - spectacularly - not even making it to day 8.

I feel like this is a great program to have young teens go through (in fact, one of my FB friends stated she was going to have her kids try it) as well as for people who have always been decently well-off (which to me means earning over $1200/year per person in your household). It's a real eye-opener for those who have never really given poverty much of a thought.

I decided to call my dad and have him run through it over the phone. He almost immediately gave up. Not because it was too hard, though! Rather, he took issue with the realism of the program. "$800 a month for rent? That's unacceptable - just put down that I pitched a tent in a field or something." Well, the program didn't have a "pitch a tent" option, nor even a "live out of my car" option, so he refused to go any farther.

I could understand his frustration with the simulator - I had a few issues myself. For example, there was an option to either spend $30 to wash your clothes at a laundromat, or you could choose to wash your laundry at a friend's house. But what if you don't have any friends with washers or dryers? I've been in that situation, and I ended up washing my clothes - and my children's clothes - in the bathtub by hand, and then wringing them out as best I could and hanging them around the apartment to dry. And that was in a dinky little one-bedroom apartment that I shared with my three sons and a roommate.

That's just one example of the limitedness of this program. For those who have been poor and survived it, the struggles cited are realistic, but the options to solve them were restrictive, limited. Poor people have to be creative in order to survive (I say this with a wry grin, looking off to the side of my computer at the old sweater I am cutting up to make mittens for my younger boys). I've had to sew my own clothing, patch kids jeans and readjust hems for growing children. I've had to ride the bus to the grocery store with three children (and then try to carry all our groceries home in one trip). I've eaten plain baked potatoes for dinner every night for a month, because I was able to get a great deal - 30 lbs of potatoes for under $5 - and thus was able to let my children have my share of the meat for the month. Being poor is a lot of work!

And yet, remarkably, many Americans romanticize the fight of people during famous poor eras our country has experienced. The Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the Great Depression, Rosie the Riveter during the World Wars, so on and so forth. If you are poor during a time of national crisis, you are admired for suffering for your country.

But if you have the misfortune of being poor during a "normal" time period, your struggles aren't romanticized or admired. Rather, you are treated like a lazy good-for-nothing pimple on the armpit of society. I know. Because I've lived it. 

I've been yelled at by a total stranger in the checkout line for buying an $8 bakery cake for my son's birthday - how dare I spend HER tax dollars on such frivolities? I should get off my lazy butt and bake a cake from a mix. I wanted to yell at her that I'd happily do that if I had a working oven, but I knew better than to stand up for myself - the last time I had done so I got banned from the store for being rude to customers. When you are poor, you just have to grit your teeth and bear it.

The simulator on playspent.org doesn't bring up the shame of being poor, or the frustrations and the exhaustion and the worry...but it does introduce some of the stress to those who need to understand it. I would ask those who read this post to try the simulator and then post your results in the comments.

We could all use a little more understanding in this world.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Making do on a tight budget (food pantries)

Today is a kitchen day. What is a kitchen day, you ask? Well, a kitchen day is a day where I spend at least five hours working in my kitchen. Today, however, is a slightly different day because instead of my normal cooking, baking, and processing, I won't know what I'm going to be working with until we get the food home from the food pantries.

Food pantries are a wonderful resource for those on a limited budget with hungry mouths to feed. They take in food that stores, restaurants, and farms that would normally be thrown away, and distribute it to those in need. The problem, though, is that most of the food is about to expire or already did. So every time we have a food pantry day, I have to do a ton of work sorting out what can and cannot be used.

First and foremost, the meat. All meat needs to be inspected for signs of damage, rot, or other things that would make it unusable. Oddly, almost all the meat I get from food pantries show signs of freezer burn, which means I need to thaw it and cook it immediately if it's going to be of any use.

So right now I have three pounds of corned beef in the crock pot, ten pounds of chicken legs and thighs in the oven roasting, three steaks thawing in the fridge (yeah, steaks - not your usual food pantry offering but I'm NOT complaining), and five pounds of sausage patties. My plan is to cook and shred the chicken, which can then be frozen in such a way to avoid freezer burn and used for multiple meals over the next several days. Ditto with the corned beef - what doesn't get eaten tonight will be leftovers for another day. The sausage patties look good so those went into the freezer. The skin and bones left over from roasting the chicken will be used to make stock.

I always ask for fresh produce. Food pantries get a lot of produce donations and most people don't want it, so when I make it clear that I do, indeed, use fresh produce regularly, I tend to get bombarded with the stuff! Sadly, about half of it is unusable. Example? I got about five bell peppers that are dried up and wrinkled, with a faint smell of rot emanating from the stems. Yeah, I'm not going to use those. Ditto with the rusted lettuce and the brown ends of the green onions - though the bulbs and lower stems are still edible.

There are always a ton of processed things like mock maple syrup, pancake mix, boxed mixes (like Jiffy mix) that I can't eat because it flares up my fibro. All those things get put in a box to be taken to my neighbor D. Her family loves those things - and in return she gives me stuff she gets from the pantry that her family won't touch, like gouda and other high-end items (again, no complaints here). It seems to me like an odd unbalanced system because I end up getting all the good stuff, but D feels the same way about her trade, so it works out.

One of the biggest contributors to food pantries are bakeries, and thus we always get more bread than we could possibly use. Wheat bread, white bread, fancy baguettes, doughnuts, brownies, cookies galore - usually all a day or two past their use-by date. Still edible, and when the bread gets older I can make bread pudding. Either way, it's always nice to be able to take a break from breadmaking for a couple days.

Lastly, candy. You would be shocked at how much candy they give out at food pantries! Just from the one pantry we went to this morning, we got enough candy to fill our largest mixing bowl to overflowing - everything from Oreos and candy bars to Easter peeps and bubble gum. Those items get handed out in small amounts over the month, so they last.

All this is from one pantry. We have another one to visit tonight...and the whole process starts over again. I feel blessed that this is an option for struggling families in our area!

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Help brings back memories

I avoided reading "The Help" for a long while. I didn't really give myself a reason why. I knew I would read it at some point and had to wait until I was ready for it. And then yesterday afternoon I picked it up and started. I would read whenever I could between gaming, cooking dinner, cleaning, etc. I finished it this evening. And now I understand why I was avoiding reading it. It made me remember a lesson I was forced to learn as a Yankee child growing up in Texas.

I was a tomboyish child. I ran faster than the boys and climbed trees higher than the boys, and when the boys pulled out their BB guns they wouldn't let me take a turn because they knew I'd show them up. I really didn't like playing with girls my age because they all seemed focused on boys and sex and Barbie dolls, stereotypical girl activities that just seemed boring to me. I'd much rather go outside and get dirty and feel the blood pumping through my body as I ran.

At that point in my life, I had only ever had one girl friend, Kathy, and I had lost touch with her after we moved to Texas. And in Texas, we moved around a LOT. But in my tenth year, we moved to Jonestown, Texas, and I met another girl who was a tomboy like myself.

Michelle was brilliant. She ran as fast as me, so sometimes I won a race and sometimes she won, which seemed just and fair. She loved to climb trees and she loved animals, too, and we both loved listening to Michael Jackson. We were the same size - both of us short for our age - and we swapped clothes all the time. My mother worked but Michelle's mom stayed home, so I found myself hanging out there after school whenever I could. I was loyal to my mother's cooking but felt that Michelle's mama came in a close second place.

Summer was nearing its hottest point when I asked Michelle's mama to do my hair up like Michelle's. I remember she gave me an odd look and asked why. I told her I liked the idea of having my hair up, out of my face and off my neck in this horrid heat. She said she'd do it, but only if my mother said it was okay. So I called my mom and had her talk with Michelle's mama, and I remember she still had that odd look on her face, and talked in a hushed voice so I couldn't hear what she was saying. But when she hung up, she smiled brightly at me and said "Your momma said it was okay. Go on, Michelle, and fetch the box of ribbons."

Oooh, I loved the box of ribbons. It was a fairly big box with all sorts of lovely hair accessories. I was just girly enough to want to be pretty, and in my mind the prettiest hair of them all was Michelle's, with all those barrettes and ponytails and ribbons. Michelle's mama sat me down in front of her and just ran the brush through my hair a while. "I never felt hair this soft before," she said quietly, and Michelle and her brothers and sisters had to all touch my hair.

That was the first time I learned that it wasn't just our skin color that was different. Our hair had a different texture too. And I quickly learned that my scalp was far more sensitive, as getting it pulled into tight cornrows hurt like hell. But I endured, determined to have the same hairstyle as my best friend.

We also realized there was another issue...as the cornrows grew more numerous, the paleness of my skin began to shine through. The rest of my skin was tanned a dark brown from the hot Texas sun, but my scalp, under the thickness of my hair, had remained lily-white. "We need to do something about that," Michelle's mama murmured. "Otherwise you are gonna get sunburn on top of your head."

"I know!" Michelle was jumping up and down. "Use the henna you put on your white hairs, mama!" Thus I ended up getting henna smeared on the freshly exposed regions of my scalp, until the skin matched the color of my tan. I jumped up and looked in the mirror, and grinned. My hair was in pretty little cornrows, all neat and even, and I loved the feeling of the little braids with their barrettes brushing against my back. Best of all, when I went outside with Michelle, I could actually feel a breeze on the back of my neck for the first time in months.

Michelle and I decided to ride our bikes down to Lake Travis and practice skimming rocks. We flew down the road towards the lake, passing some beautiful large houses and then into a neighborhood with ramshackle homes, with garbage in the yards and rusted cars in the driveways. I'd been this way once before, but never with Michelle. My mother had disdainfully referred to this neighborhood as "Redneck Central" and we usually rode our bikes the long way around. But it was so hot and muggy that we didn't want to ride another six blocks to avoid it. Giggling, we slowed at a corner to look both ways.


I blinked in shock as something hit the back of my head and started dripping down onto my shirt. A moment later, a head of rotted lettuce struck Michelle's shoulder.

"F*cking n*ggers! Get away from our property!"

I turned to look. We had stopped at a corner by one of the miserable looking shacks, and a kid a few years older than us had thrown the lettuce and whatever it was that had hit my head. He was wearing a black tank top and torn jeans, and the start of a scraggly beard was hanging limply from his chin. "Get your black *sses out of my sight!" he screamed, then reached into the garbage can by his side and pulled out a couple of used tea bags, and threw those in our general direction. I felt frozen to my bike, unable to move.

The screen door behind the boy slammed, and his father came out. I felt a moment of vindication - surely his daddy would paddle his butt for such behavior, swearing and throwing things like that! But I was wrong - way wrong. The man stooped down and picked up a large heavy stick from the yard and started walking towards us with slow, steady steps, a wicked smile stretching across his face.

My shock was broken when Michelle grabbed my bike handles. "Let's get out of here!" She looked panicked, and it was that expression on her face more than anything else that snapped me out of my paralysis. We both flew into action and pedaled faster than we ever had before, out of that neighborhood and away from the corner of confusion and hate.

We arrived at the lakeside, breathless and sweating. I took off my sandals and sat on a rock, dangling my feet in the water. Michelle sat next to me and I turned to her. "Can you believe that? What the heck was their problem? Do you think they were drunk or high or something?"

Again, the look on her face stopped me. It was almost identical to the funny look her mama had given me when I had asked her to do my hair. "What? What am I not getting?" I knew from her expression there was something I was missing.

She let out a big sigh, and then grabbed my forearm and held it against her own. "Look at our arms," she instructed. "What do you see?"

I looked for a difference. "Um...I have more hair on my arms than you do?"

She sighed in exasperation. "Look at our color. What do you see?"

For the first time, I really looked at the difference. "Well, what do you know?" I laughed. "I'm tanned nearly as dark as you are!"

"Exactly! And with your hair up like that, those white men thought you were black too."

"Wait. You mean...they were racist?"

She rolled her eyes. "Well, they certainly weren't open-minded, now were they?"

"But....but racism doesn't exist anymore! Martin Luther King got rid of it long before we were born! It's illegal! ...isn't it?" The realization was hitting me now, and my eyes were filling with tears.

My friend just sighed, and turned my head to look at the back of it. "You have egg yolk in your hair." She pulled something from my scalp and handed it to me. It was a piece of eggshell. "Sit in the water and I'll wash it out."

I sat there as my best friend in the whole world washed rotten egg out of my hair. And I cried. It was my first experience with racism. I lost some of my innocence that day, and some of my faith in the belief that the world was a good place for all people. I realized that I was afraid - afraid to ride my bike back in that neighborhood, afraid to see those people again. Afraid to feel their hate beating away at my soul. And when Michelle quietly began to undo the cornrows that I had been so proud of?

I let her. Because I was afraid.

And I realized, when I finished reading The Help, that this memory was the reason I had avoided reading the book. That long-ago memory of blind hate, the sudden nasty realization that I didn't live in a fair world, the fear - the mind-boggling fear that those people would show up at my house with sticks to beat me - and the realization that my best friend in the whole world had to live with that fear EVERY DAY...it was just a lot for a ten year old to handle. Some days it feels like it's too much for me to handle now, and I'm in my mid-30's and a lot more jaded about the world.

I strongly recommend reading this book. Sometimes we need that jolt, that sudden impact of knowing that the rest of the world doesn't follow the same morals we do. That in some places, there is still racism and prejudice of all kinds.

It will never change as long as people turn a blind eye.