The Real Reason Why Being Poor and Disabled is So Stressful

First off, it’s hard for me to admit I’m poor. It suggests:

  • I’ve underperformed my duties, didn’t live up to someone’s expectations, delivered shoddy workmanship, and
  • I’m living on an income that is not sufficient to cover my expenses, income that is considered substandard to the norm.

The first point is a value judgment that makes me feel crappy. The second point is kind of confusing— possibly because I overthink everything and make it as complicated as I can. But as I’ll be discussing, I’m not the only one complicating the lives of the poor.

Economic inequality

Let’s address value in this equation. For as long as there’s been economic inequality in a culture, there have been poor people. And although our tax dollars fund Head Start, Medicaid, EBT (food stamps), Medicare, SSA Extra Help for poor seniors’ medications, subsidized housing and cash assistance, it comes with a guilt trip courtesy of the deep-seated resentment of the not-poor. We could blame politics for that, but politicians whip up and exploit such already- existing resentment, that mean part of all of us that begrudges those we believe are getting handouts at our expense. It’s ugly. It’s divisive. And, for some reason, it’s a big secret that the poor are made to jump through hoops for such handouts. The assistance programs that help us also make us prove we’re poor with demands for financial documentation that can occur more than once a year. If you participate in several assistance programs, then each one will have its separate demands and processes for recertification. If you don’t comply, your assistance is discontinued. Because of these demands, accusations made that recipients defraud these programs are rendered ridiculous. Committing fraud is nigh onto impossible. But only the people who are living on assistance know this. So much shame doled out, so much shame felt.

Insufficient income

Now let’s address what is called an insufficient income. Poverty isn’t what it used to be. This ain’t the Great Depression of the 1930s. Before we all started carrying credit cards, when there wasn’t any kind of help besides a government program known as Relief, churches and charities, an insufficient income was a pretty simple concept. You couldn’t afford adequate shelter, food and clothing. If you could afford those things but not much else, if you didn’t have the cash to buy something then you’d go without it, or save your money and buy it later.

Living with debt

Today, poor people have jobs and health insurance. Middle class people need financial assistance. Credit has changed our value system. Our parents were from that quaint old world of buy what you can afford and save your money. Pay cash for everything. Nowadays that’s bad advice. I know people that have stuck with that and when they need a loan and have no credit history, the bank laughs them out of the office. So now I have credit card and personal loan debt. Out of necessity, I live beyond my means.

Biggest source of stress

However, none of these is the biggest source of stress. It’s that assistance programs designed to make our lives a little easier also provide the biggest stressor. Wherever there’s a federally or state-funded program, there’s a bureaucracy that’s broken, bogged down by politics, run by underpaid workers in understaffed offices. So often, getting qualified for help and then trying to maintain it feels like the program is waging a war of attrition. That is not a paranoid fantasy. It is in fact exactly what is happening and it is driven by politics. Social programs have punishment built right in. Make it hard for people to gain benefits and that’ll weed out the weakest and sickest; they’ll drop off the dole and free up more money for those who have the wherewithal to jump those same hurdles—and who are, in the ignorant minds of the legislators who cooked it up--the more deserving of help anyway. Unfortunately the folks that drop off the rolls are often the elderly and the disabled.

Living on a strict budget

Personally I have no problem living on a strict budget. I’ve done well with it and found a way to save money towards paying taxes to the IRS in March-April, then towards garden purchases in May. But I keep learning that I shouldn’t get comfortable. Things change. Rent and Medicare premiums increase, other expenses increase, car breaks down, tooth needs a root canal, and pretty soon I’m struggling, racking up more debt, and unable to save money. For example, I won’t be able to afford to plant my patio garden this year. It’s my only indulgence. I don’t travel, don’t gamble, don’t smoke, don’t have a Netflix account, don’t need the latest technology.

I do need to feel that my life is okay despite the stresses. But I haven’t felt that way for many months now. No end in sight. And that is not the way things should be. All I can hope for now is a change of heart, a little luck, perhaps a reprieve from these financial strains for a while.

I wish everyone good fortune. May you find little pockets of happiness and warm your hands in them before going back into battle.

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