Thursday, May 22, 2014


The year I moved to New York, the first year I lived here, I made only about $16,000 the entire year.  That's pre-tax, since despite how little I made I did pay a bit of it back in taxes.  That figure includes some unemployment income, since for a stretch there I was unemployed.  It does not include any other kind of assistance. Yes somehow with that money I packed up all my belongings, rented a car, and drove from Florida to New York in an eventful few days. With it I paid first month and security at a new apartment. Obviously I had roommates, though they were strangers.  With it I settled into a new city. My brother, the lifesaver, drove up with me, though he was even broker than me so food and lodgings were still my responsibility.  With me were my two pissed off, caged up cats.

Within a couple weeks of moving here I'd gotten a job behind the bakery counter of a grocery store for $10 an hour. I didn't even make enough to pay my bills, but at least it came close, and I had a little bit - a very little bit - saved in the bank. About a month after that I was lucky (so, so, so lucky) enough to get an interview for a "real" job within my field and then was lucky enough to get the job. I also worked in the evenings, for free, at an internship in my industry just to try to make more connections and improve my skills. I signed up to work weekends at a catering company for those few extra dollars.  I commuted into the city every day from out of state (well, New Jersey), because living across the state line was cheaper than living anywhere in NYC, Manhattan aside.

And somehow, on only $16,000 I managed to pay my student loan bills, my rent, my phone bills and all my food and transportation. I also managed to start the slow process of paying off credit card debt I had carried since leaving college, sometimes by just $20 at a time.  I'm very proud of the fact that on a VERY tight budget I made ends meet and didn't ever have to turn to my parents for help. But, as anyone can imagine, it wasn't easy. It meant pasta just about every day and an incredibly strict food budget.  Ramen is not just for college students.  If I had had kids it would have been impossible. If I had gotten sick it would have been disastrous.

I'm proud of myself for managing on that small an amount for a year. Though money is still not abundant, I certainly make more now than I did then. But I only had to scrimp and scrounge to that degree for a short while. There are people, there are entire families, who have to survive on an income like that for their entire lives. And while I was lucky enough not to get sick while I was that broke (because despite my income I never considered myself actually poor, just broke), everyone gets sick eventually. And for families or even individuals making $16,000 a year, getting sick is just not something they can afford to do.

And yet we've got politicians calling the working poor lazy and entitled. Entitled why? Because they feel like, for their hard work, they're entitled to crazy luxuries like food and shelter and basic health care. I mean, really? I'm not talking about people who choose not to work or who deal drugs or steal for a living. I'm talking about people who get up and work (at least!) five days a week and still barely have enough to scrape by.  I'm talking about retirees. People who are working hard and doing the best they can. These people aren't lazy. They're not looking for handouts. And as for entitled, if they work full time they SHOULD feel entitled to food, shelter, and health care. People aren't "entitled" to fancy clothing or nice cars or luxury vacations. But god damn it, if you work hard all your life you should at least feel like you're entitled to the basics of survival. Otherwise what's the point?

I guess my point is that I'm grateful for my brief period of having to really pinch pennies. It gave me empathy. It gave me some understanding of just how precarious it can be living paycheck to paycheck, and how impossible it would have been if I hadn't been young, healthy and unencumbered. Some of our elected leaders and wannabe elected leaders could stand to maybe live a year or so on $16,000. Maybe they would learn something too.

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