Ask the Poor Girl

Recently I’ve been noticing a lot of posts on the board asking about poverty, so I thought I’d open this up. I’m sure there are other poor dopers out there, so feel free to join in.

I grew up in a government substidized apartment in Sacramento, CA. My mom was mostly a single parent through my growing up years, but had a very supportive extended family which kept us from really hitting the skids. When I was in elementry school, my mom did a combination of waitressing and going to college. We were on welfare and food stamps for a while, but we never hit the point where we were going to food banks. I wasn’t the poorest person I knew, and I never thought of myself as all that poor at the time. Looking back I realize we were pretty bad off.

Things got better in high school, when my mom gave up school for a state job. Around that time (circa 1996) she was making around thirty thousand. I thought we were outright rich at that point.

Now I’m a college student. I get about a thousand dollars every three months after rent to live on from loans and financial aid. I have no prospects for a job when I graduate this spring. I’m still not the poorest person I know, but objectively, I know 4k a year isn’t really much to live on.

So any questions?

What are you planning to do with your degree?


I don’t know. It’s a film degree. It’s not the most useful thing in the world, but it’s what I love and it’s what I’m good at.

I am definately going to go back to grad school in a year. If I get a MA in film production (as opposed to studies), I can teach college. That seems like a pretty good way to continue being able to do my own projects while I make some sort of steady income and have things like health insurance.

In the meantime, I’m looking at making some movies and getting them into the festival circuit, making a couple small time music videos, and maybe getting started in wedding videography to finance buying equiptment to make mt own movies with. I might also travel (I some inhertence money- which I’ve been saving to either help on a house downpayment in the future, or else to finance a film project) or find someplace cheap to live in the bay area (I’ve been looking into this anarchists collective that owns a warehouse in Oakland) and slum it, looking for connections and opportunities.

I know it’s not so smart to have gone to school for something that is unlikely to ever score me a steady job. But I figure that I can never be more poor than I am now (I’m pretty good about staying out of debt) and it really isn’t all that terrible. I’d rather take a chance on a dream than live half a life for the sake of security. If I ever have kids, or if I ever change my mind, I can give up these dreams and get a state job or something of the sort without too much trouble. But I’m not gonna give up quite yet.

It sounds like you have plans in place, which is very smart.

What did you learn from your mother’s situation that will teach you to avoid poverty?

Um, I was raised in pretty similar circumstances myself- only we did eat government cheese when I was a kid.
Actually, I admire my mother for doing a job that helps people (she is a teacher, she worked for AIM when I was very little.) and for pulling herself out of poverty with very, very little help from any family members (my grandfather is an asshole).
I don’t necessarily think poverty is anything to “avoid”. I don’t ever want to be on welfare myself, so extreme poverty is not something I want, but I know how little I can survive on which is more than some friends of mine know.

Okay, grendel, I’ll rephrase. I’ve been poor, we’re a bit more comfortable now, and I like not being poor and not living paycheck to paycheck.

What did you learn from your mother’s situation?

What do you most wish you had the spare cash for? I mean, are their certain purchases you wish you could make, but never do?

Have you ever thought about making a documentary about poor people? There are many misconceptions about poverty, homelessness, and welfare. A good educational film could help change all that.

I’ve got a few questions, hope you don’t mind.

[li]What kind of subsidized apartments were you in? Were they nice? [/li][li]Did you get picked on at school for being poor? [/li][li]How did the extended family help?[/li][li]Have you run across people in college that have never lived in poverty? How do you try to explain poverty in such a situation? [/li][/ul]

I know these questions are very open-ended; if there’s any way I can help narrow them down, please let me know.

Do you shop at the Goodwill Bargain Barn in Santa Cruz?

If not, you should. It’s tres cool, and they have great bargains. I used to work there ('91-'93), and it was the coolest job I ever had. (I still dream about it all the time. What a weird place.)

And with that you went from poor to rich… POOF!

I think what I learned from my mother is not to have kids until I am sure that I want to settle down, and I am able to support them decently. I know she gave up some of her dreams for me, and I wish it could have been different. It makes me sad to see her- a smart and capable woman- working a boring faceless job that she took pretty much to support me. She’s gotten so used to doing it that I think she will stay there until she retires- but at one time she was being courted by prestigious overseas academic programs and stuff I know she would have loved. I’d like to maybe have a kid one day, but not until I am ready to live a 9-5 life if that is what it takes to support them.

I am usually able to budget for the bigger items that I really need, and I don’t have that much trouble dropping a dollar here and there on small stuff. It’s mostly stuff in the ten dollar range that really get me. I’ll covet a CD or book for weeks before I decide not to get it or break down and buy it. Books are pretty hard. I realized yesterday that I was looking in the discount rack at the used book store because I didn’t want to spend the amount of money that regular used books cost. It’s things that most people pick up without thinking too much about- a box of hair dye, a scarf, a new umbrella- that give me the most trouble.

Documentry isn’t my strongest point, but I shot a few short films based on my experiences growing up. I’ve got a lot of stories about how resourceful we were, and the lenths we’d go to have fun without spending money. Like one time in high school we wanted a pinata, so we got a cardboard box from behind the supermarket, filled it with old stuff from our rooms, taped it shut with masking tape and wrote “pinata” on the side with a marker. We hung it from a shoestring beind an abandon building and beat it with our umbrellas- with all the street people looking on in utter confusion. The stories are all pretty funny, but also a little sad. I’d like to do more work along those lines.

I lived in a townhouse-type project. It was kind of like a normal rundown suburban apartment complex, but I think it was all low-income people and you had to have kids to get in. The apartments themselves were terrible- we had leaky roofs every rainy season, problems with the house wouldn’t get fixed, and insect infestations were only taken care of on a unit-by-unit basis, so the bugs would just move over to the next apartment.

But culturally it was a great place. There were some drug dealers and prostitutes and stuff, but the apartments were mostly immigrants. I grew up playing soccer with the Vietnamese kids and eating pickle soup at my Polish friend’s house and learning Tagalog from my neighbor. It was an extremely diverse and culturally rich place to live. The place was swarming with kids and we’d have epic water balloon fights (and when we couldn’t afford water baloons we’d just pour buckets of water on each other from the upper story windows) and it was pretty idylic, even if we did have to stop playing when the police helicopters flew over.

I didn’t get picked on for being poor in school, because everyone was poor. Because I didn’t have brothers and sisters, I counted as one of the richer ones. I was picked on for being geeky. In high school, very few people got picked on because we were all so used to such diversity and we were all in the same dirt-poor boat that it just didn’t make sense to pick on people for being different.

My extended family helped out a lot. My great-grandma always made sure I had enough clothes, my grandmother would let us eat dinner at her house when we ran out of food at the end of the month, my uncle would help me have computers, and they’d all work together to make sure I got books and science classes and stuff.

In college most the people I know never knew poverty. It was wierd. I never knew that there were all kinds of people who had never ridden a bus before. It was really wierd at first because there are so many little things about college that are geared towards people with money that you’d never notice. Like the shuttle that took us to the supermarket only gave us half an hour there- plenty long if you are just throwing stuff in your cart, but not long enough to compare prices and look for deals. Or there were a lot of services that would be tacked on to your college bill as a favor- under the assumption that your parents would pay the bill without really looking at it.

It was a little hard to fit in. I couldn’t take the exotic spring break trips or go drinking at expensive bars with people. I had a lot of habits ingrained in me that must have seemed pretty odd- it was second nature for me to say the price of something if someone commented on it. That makes sense when you live around poeple for whom price is the most important thing about an object, but it just seems strange to others. There are times that being poor hurts me in school- I don’t have the tens of thousands of dollars that people pour into their film projects. But for the most part, it’s just a bunch of little things that end up making me feel different.

I’ve heard so much about the bargain barn, but I’ve never been able to figure out exactly where it is. Where is it? I do get to most the other thrift stores quite often. A fantasy of mine is to buy thrift store furniture, fix it up and paint it funny, and then sell it for some ungodly price. But for now I mostly buy clothes.

Well, I haven’t lived there in almost ten years…but lucky for you, I collect maps, and I have a dandy one of SC.

Get on River St. and head north away from downtown. After you cross over Route 1, take your third left (Encinal St.). Then the first right (Post St.). Post is only 1 block long, and ends at Pioneer St. Take a left, go about 1 block, and you’re there.

There’s a bus that goes up Encinal St., but I don’t remember the number. Also, it’s only about a mile away from the UCSC campus, if you walk through the woods.

You’ll love it. The clothes and stuff aren’t the pick of the donated loot, but they’re okay…and they’re only $1 a pound! (Or they were 10 years ago anyway…)

They have weird hours, which I don’t remember exactly, so you might want to call first. (Call the main office. There’s only a pay phone at the store itself.)

do you think the pursuit of money is overrated in modern american culture?

What’s the minimum annual income do you think you’d need to live comfortably?

Do you value certain luxuries over all others or are there certain luxuries you feel you must have? what i mean is, $30 cable tv & a $10 internet connection mean more to me than $40 in clothes. Do you have a list of luxuries that you think are really worth the extra money? for me it’d be cable tv, internet & better food. That means more to me than most other luxuries.

Does being poor affect your diet? On your income, can you afford healthy balanced meals?

(I realise that home cooking is often healthier than eating out, but some basic foodstuff people typically take from granted – decent meat, fish, some cereals – can be quite expensive.)

More generally, how does your low income affect your health? I notice you live in the US; how does the seeming (to this foreigner, at least) lack of socialised medical care affect your life?


**I like your attitude. (First “Ask the” thread I’ve posted in, BTW) :cool:

Wow, thanks Ferrous!

The Calculus of Logic,
I think the pursuit of money is way overrated. I take a look around me, and spending most of their lives at jobs they hate- and why? For stuff. We are surrounded by stuff. We work making all this stuff so we can go out and buy more stuff. It seems to me like we might as well do without some of that stuff and have more of our lives.

Why do I need a giant backyard when I have the ocean and the forest? Why do I need to spend my money at movies and expensive sporting activities when I can have just as good a time with good friends, cheap wine, and deep conversation. It seems like the only way we are ever going to be happy with what we have is to learn to appriciate the simple things.

There are a few things that I spend too much money on. I have DSL, which I split with my room mate. I tried to do without it, but since the Internet serves as my newspaper, radio, phone, research library, television substitute and main form of entertainment, I ended up getting it. I don’t buy cheap shoes, because I walk too much to put up with painful feet. But more than anything, I buy food. Not a lot of food, but good food. I’m a foody, and not only do I buy good food at the store, I eat out a lot. It’s what my social circle does when we go out. We justify it by saying we are spending ten bucks on both entertainment and dinner, as opposed to spending it at the movie theater or something and still being hungry. But despite all my justifications, it really is extravegant.

I consider my mom a step above “comfortable”, and she makes about 40k a year. I bring in about 10k a year, and I’m housed and well-fed in one of the more expensive cities in America. I’d have to afford health insurance, and maybe afford to drive, if I was going to call myself comfortable. So somewhere between 10 and 40k would be plenty comfy for me.


As I brought up in the last post, food is my great extravegence. I spend between thirty and forty dollars a week on groceries, and I eat really well. I’m a decent cook, and I eat a lot of beans, rice and fresh veggies, so that keeps things cheap. I usually allow myself ten dollars worth of special treats, which includes things like non-concentrate orange juice, fancy cheese, chocolate, prepared dinners, and that sort of thing. I’ve never had trouble getting enough nutrition except when I can’t get to the store (I don’t drive, so I have to get rides).

As a kid, I ate a lot less richly. My mom didn’t have a lot of time to cook, and we had too poorly stocked of a kitchen and too erratic of a schedule to cook economically. I remember lots of hamburger and chicken legs. We did have to comprimise a lot- canned fruit was considered a treat because canned veggies were cheaper. I remember lots of ramen (or getting invited to relative’s houses for dinner) around the end of the month. We’d drink Kool-ade because orange juice is expensive. I got free lunch at school, but I couldn’t stomach the disgusting food they served, and spent a lot of elementry school hungry. I probably didn’t get enough nutrition.

As a full time student, I’m covered under my mom’s health insurance. That will run out soon, and after that I have to find a job that offers benefits, or hope not to get sick. Even with health insurance I sometimes can’t afford the co-payment. I’m looking at two thousand dollars worth of dental work after insurance. I don’t know how I can swing it, but I better find a way so that it gets done before my insurance runs out.

As a kid, we went to those little pay-up-front medical centers that you find in strip malls when I needed a doctor. I think we got some kind of help because I was a kid, but I don’t remember much about it.

I’m pretty scared about being potentially uninsured when I graduate. A lot of my friends are uninsured, and they just straight can’t go to the doctors if they are not 100% sure it is an emergency. I have a friend right now that has a cold for two weeks, and it might be some kind of infection. But he’d have to come up with eighty someodd bucks to find out. He decided it’s not worth it. It’s a scary world out there.

This is very stupid advice, but you can buy antibiotics at an aquarium. In case he has a gram + infection like bronchitis.

even sven, now that I’m a quite cynical person, I feel the need to say that you can be more poor than you are now and that jobs aren’t always easy to find. Please, keep this in mind. It may turn out quite well for you, but if it takes you years to find a job, be prepared.

I do thank you for answering those questions. I found it especially interesting about the subsidized housing – in the towns we lived in, the subsidized housing projects were the nicest apartments in town and in a fairly good neighborhood. We also had the fortune to live in the newer and nicer subsidized housing apartments in town. I’ve never since lived in a nicer place or a nicer neighborhood.

Narrad, if I may butt in about the health care situation, I didn’t have health insurance for a few years. If I got a cold and it lasted for weeks, it was too bad (and it happened every year). The only time I did find the money to shell out for a physician was when I had pains so bad they were impeding my ability to work, which was a very bad thing. We also never had dental insurance. I’ve been to a dentist much less than the recommended minimums, and my teeth are in bad shape and need much work.

That’s pretty awesome, Sven.

I’ve kind of had the same thing going for me for awhile… And I know quite a bit about the grandfather thing, believe me…

Somehow I got into this really nice college, and I’m eating better than I ever was. Fruit and veggies have gone up in price, so my family at home pretty much lives off of fast food or instant stuff (yes, I am too familiar with Ramen). I’m pretty full figured for a person who was considered poor because, I’ve found, with my lack of dietary education mixed with the fact that a $0.99 burger is the cheapest thing available sometimes, my health suffered a lot.

There was this one year ( I was 6) my mom couldn’t find work, but refused to resort to food stamps or welfare, and my brother and I ended up eating oatmeal every single day. It was just last year that I could put the stuff in my mouth again without cringing a bit.

Now I’m totally living off of financial aid at an expensive college where students have special wants and needs (God, my mom would have smacked me if I had mentioned the word “vegan”). It’s so weird having all these fruits and veggies at my disposal (we have a buffet style meal plan, and I’ve ** lost ** weight).

There’s a bunch of other little things they do here to “spoil” us. I try not to let on that I like it so much because many of the kids here are so out of my world. Just last semester a girl on my floor said this: “Daddy invested early in microsoft, so my brother goes to (40K school) and I go here without any financial aid or scholarships.”

Don’t get me wrong, I hardly find any snobs, but its kind of daunting at times… Especially since my mom got fired last Christmas (by dear old grandpa) and has still not recovered…

Did you ever feel a difference between you and the other students when you first hit college, Sven?