Letters + Opinion » Savage Money

Keeping Up the Front

Or, passing for not-poor in a world built on money



A certain earnestness goes a long way at the Social Services office. When sitting in those plastic chairs, filling out endless forms, surrounded by posters supposed to be motivating, but really rather menacing -- "Those who don't ride the wave are crushed by it" -- what one should try to convey is, "I'm a good person! A hard-working mom just needing a little help to feed my kids! Times are so tough, aren't they? Even someone like me can wind up in here."

Someone like me. Because there's a huge difference between someone who's just going through a hard time and someone who appears chronically hopeless: Whether by official means or personal favors, people only want to help the former. If you're without much in the way of funds, you have to take charge of how you're viewed. Upstanding, albeit cash-strapped, citizen? Or lazy fool leeching off society?

This isn't about the rights vs. wrongs of America's classism problem; avoiding discrimination is a survival technique. Being poor in our culture invites judgment. People have no qualms about rating what you eat, what clothes you wear, the reproductive choices you've made.

Stocking the kitchen with pricey organic foods instead of club card budget fare? You're opting for champagne taste on a beer budget. And, no, you don't get credit for opting to provide better, more local food for your children, even when you cut your own food intake to do so. Your neoconservative family will never understand how shopping at the natural foods store can be a responsible decision.

Dropping the kids off at school in your banged-up, decades-old car? You fail as a reliable adult. Reliable adults only drive non-banged up old cars, or shiny new ones. You, in contrast, look like Uncle Buck.

Multiple children running around your unkempt yard? Two words: white trash.

(God, I hate that phrase, and the "trailer trash." Otherwise thoughtful people throw it around as acceptable, but what does it really mean? Dirty poor Caucasian folk? What if you're dirty, but not poor? What if you're poor, but not dirty? What if you're dirty and poor, but not Caucasian? Do they throw out a racial epithet at that point? Probably not. What if you're just having a really bad week that's caused you to fall behind on the home front? Are you temporarily white trash?

Look, I don't like garbage. I abhor litter and belligerent drunks and fathers who creep into their daughter's bedrooms in the middle of the night and mothers who smack around their 8-year-olds. But I know plenty of people who have money and messy houses, filthy cars. Likewise, poor people have no monopoly on abusive parenting. It's just more acceptable to stereotype them as losers.)

I haven't been to the Koster Street building for a while, ever since the state determined I'm earning too much to qualify for Medi-Cal, but the need to outmaneuver classism -- to "pass," if you will -- continues. That old saying about women needing to work "twice as hard to make half as much" as a man applies here. If you look poor, if you act poor, you'll be treated poorly. This is true whether attempting to get some Temporary Aid to Needy Families, trying to fit in at your kid's basketball games or having post-meeting cocktails with co-workers.

Want to avoid economic profiling? Maintain a stylish cut, floss your teeth and wear clothes that flatter. You don't have to embody fashion model beauty, but looks and confidence matter. Yes, it's completely unfair that the moneyed guy with the gut, the one who chews with his mouth open, spewing insults and food chunks simultaneously, gets treated with respect just because he's a big spender. Such is life. When you have money, you can be a better person. Until then, you still have to look like you are.

Renting with no alternative plan? Don't let your yard disappear underneath accumulated junk -- unless you're a working artist. Landlords hate messy yards. Neighbors hate messy yards. The owners have a financial investment to protect; you need to reduce your vulnerability to being kicked out of your home. (One of my personal biggest fears.) So make sure your home looks like someone cares -- carpentry and gardening skills are a big plus. If you don't have them, make getting them a priority. Put your kids to work: Teach them that taking care of their home is required and worthwhile, not because they're at risk, but because keeping their corner of the world a nice place is a good thing.

Wash and vacuum that beater car in case someone you need to impress needs a ride somewhere. One time my boss called to see if I could pick him up from the mechanic's on my way to work. Thankfully I had just enough time to rid the car of stinky beach towels and random potato chip bags. Dude, I'm so together.

Don't complain to people who aren't already your best friends. Ask people about themselves and when the conversation's on you, put on your best "Aw, shucks," demeanor and mention things are going just fine. Not only do you avoid cultivating a reputation as a whiner, but appreciating life's blessings is a good habit for anyone. Besides, sometimes people with money have far worse problems than you: cancer, the death of a parent, someone close killed by an errant driver, a history of abuse, a job on the line, fantastic debt you don't know about, a marriage falling apart, etc.

If you're invited out to dinner you can't afford, say, "Oh, that sounds great! But I promised the kids we'd watch a movie tonight [or whatever]. I was thinking about throwing a potluck next week, though -- would you be able to come?" What you want to do is avoid situations that might result in yet more overdraft charges or unpaid bills -- without constantly having to explain you're broke. But you want to socialize, so always have a decent excuse and cheaper option available. Use the template above: "I'd love to, but [non-poverty excuse]. How about [less expensive alternative]?"

If someone offers to treat you (or donate money to help your kid go to camp or loan you cash for those new brakes you need), graciously accept -- or rather, graciously accept any gifts, which you can "pay back" by being a good friend, listener, cook, errand-runner when they need some help. Don't take a loan unless you're absolutely positive you can pay it back, then stick absolutely to the plan. You don't want to lose friends over money.

Some people may take offense to this whole notion. Certainly, if you're flying solo and don't give a damn, rock on. But if you have kids, you need the biggest safety net you can weave. That means establishing yourself in society as someone of merit, which can be a challenge without the cash to back it up. It's not about your real worth, but about being treated as though you're worthy. You are worthy, regardless of your bank balance -- but sometimes people won't see that if all they see is what you're lacking first.

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