There are many reasons I don’t fit neatly into the world of real poverty. But recently I learned why I have sometimes felt like I’m walking around in the “Twilight Zone”: Despite living with too little money, I still assume I should and always will be planning for my future.
“Scarcity changes how people allocate attention,” write the authors of a November article in Science. I can absolutely see how a lack of resources has changed the way I think. Scarcity has caused me to not recognize myself in some of the decisions I make. Sometimes long-term planning seems to slip away.
The government employees who have worked with me as I applied and qualified for food stamps and MaineCare haven’t ever emphasized what happens next. I’ve gotten information about benefits. However, if the information I need to properly prepare for my future has been given to me, I missed it.
I have many questions about how the Department of Health and Human Services assistance programs works. But when I ask questions, I’ve been met with the most puzzled facial expressions from government workers. My case is in order; for what reason could I possibly have questions?
Several months ago I wanted to know more about the process of review for my food stamps. How often will my case be reviewed? What information will they need? I explained to the staff person that I didn’t want to one day get a letter saying they needed certain documents and not be prepared. I wanted to be sure I was doing everything right, so some administrative error wouldn’t mess up this incredible help I’ve been getting. I also needed to know when the benefits would end to make sure I wasn’t caught with an empty gas tank, or no food, at a bad time.
It’s possible all of the information has been given to me, and my life at the time was too chaotic to absorb or retain it. It’s more likely, however, that people living in poverty — and, I suspect, the people who work to help them — need to use their energy on more immediate or urgent time-sensitive issues.
While I’m used to living my life with the underlying assumption that I should be planning for the future, the experience of living with so little money has found me dabbling in some of the more instant-gratification kinds of thinking.
Being newly poor has changed me.
People I know in Maine who live with less than I have now — I live with no debt, thanks to bankruptcy — would do things like borrowing money to install an above-ground pool, a new deck, and obviously new furniture to round out the party scene, and I’d be baffled and judgmental. At the time, I didn’t think of myself as someone who was living with very little money. I still assumed if I had extra money, I would save it or make a purchase that would serve as an investment in our family’s future.
Now, I get it. I understand that rush of relief when my bank account seems so full of money.
It’s not that I spend carelessly. But having little — so it’s regularly a question whether I’ll make rent — has made me overly appreciate the few times I have a small amount of extra money. If I find myself with a few hundred dollars more than rent at the first of the month, I might be more likely to get some extra clothes at Goodwill for my daughters, load up my Starbucks card or tell a friend I can swing down to Saco to join her for some appetizers at The Run of the Mill instead of recalling that those extra dollars will be gone as soon as I fill the gas tank and pay electric and phone bills.
The Science report suggests that when faced with limited resources, people tend to focus on the needs at hand, rather than the longer term. This has certainly been my experience. Short-term gain became, at least over the last year, something to use immediately. It felt like it was only going to get devastatingly bad again soon, and there wasn’t anything I could do to prevent that, so I might as well do what I could now with what I had now.
On the surface I may not seem like a typical poor person. I’ve written before about how I am situationally, rather than generationally, poor. I expect to be finished with food stamps in the near future. The public image of poverty is different than the closeted reality. I recognize I am not a stereotypical poor person. However, my experience is more typical than atypical. It’s simply that I’ve got a milder case of the usually crippling poverty disease.
Heather Denkmire is a writer and artist who lives in Portland with her two young daughters. After a few challenging years, she is growing her small business, where her team helps nonprofit organizations win grants. She can be reached at email@example.com. Her columns appear monthly.