I was a very poor college student - married with kids and never, quite, making those ends meet, no matter how hard I pulled at the strings. I don't really know where I fell in the economic spectrum, but income-wise I was probably well below the mark that divides people who are (supposedly) financially independent and those who aren't making enough money to subsist at any level. It was, literally, a matter of shuffling the bills and paying the one that was most urgent (like paying the past due rent so that we wouldn't get evicted and letting some other bill lag).
As a full-time college student with children and a job, I didn't have to time to sit at the social security office waiting for a case worker who would scowl at me, ask me a lot of very personal questions, and then, decide if I was worthy (or unworthy) enough for assistance, and frankly, I didn't want to. It was bad enough applying for food stamps, which I did, once, as a graduate student, when a promised summer job fell through and I was unemployed for a few months.
Being poor is demoralizing, because, as a culture, we tend to take a pretty negative view of those who can't seem to take care of themselves or their families. We always assume that they're poor through some lack of moral fortitude that enables the rest of us to hold down a full-time job.
Unfortunately, since the 2008 housing market crash, the face of the poor has been changing. Our middle-class perceptions of who and what poor people are were never entirely fair, but what's happening now, as discussed in this article, entitled The Growing Problem of Suburban Poverty is that previously middle class people, those who formerly had steady jobs and incomes, some savings, and a 401K plan, are the new poor.
Sadly, however, unlike those who were living just above the poverty line, the average middle-class suburbanite is woefully ill-equipped to handle poverty-level incomes. Perhaps the worse is their own perceptions of poverty that don't allow them to seek the help they need early enough for that help to be useful, but rather begin to draw on their personal resources (which prove to be horribly inadequate), including a positive credit rating that allows them to try to borrow their way out of poverty. Of course, when we're thinking logically the notion that incurring more debt will somehow, magically, help us get out of debt, is ridiculous, but when faced with mounting financial issues and no income ... we do what we feel we have to do.
My daughters and I enjoy a weekly visit to the library, and Precious really likes borrowing movies. Recently, she found the movie Ramona and Beezus about a third grader, her older, high-school aged sister, and their family. The movie is based on the Beverly Clearly series of books, drawing heavily from two of the later books in the series.
In the movie, Ramona's family is a typical suburban family living well, but slightly above their means (I am assuming that they live above their means given that there is a mention of how many bills they have and how overwhelming those bills are). The dad, a Vice President of something well-paying and important, loses his job when his company is bought-out by a competitor. Ramona's mother takes a part-time job at a doctor's office to help stem the tide of bills, but her income isn't nearly adequate to cover the standard of living they have come to expect. Couple that with the fact that they've just applied for and been approved a home improvement loan, believing that the dad's job was secure.
It's a kid's story, and so while the whole economic crisis part of the story is downplayed for the audience, the fact is that things aren't good in the Quimby household. We get glimpses of the seriousness of their troubles: a chat with Ramona's friend whose parents are divorced, reportedly because of similar financial problems; the dad sleeping on the pull-out couch; rumors that they might lose their house (and Ramona's ill-fated attempts to earn enough money to keep that from happening); the car breaking down; dad's continued failures to find a job.
The problem with the average suburbanite, and what gets them into so much trouble in situations like this is the idea that things will get better, and that this little problem is a very short-term and temporary problem. Like in the movie. Ramona and her family don't make any real changes to their lifestyle. The dad keeps going on job interviews and keeps not getting the job, and the whole time, their bills keep mounting, and they keep digging further into that hole.
So, what could they have done differently?
Well, for starters, the Mom should never have taken a job. She was the primary care provider for the kids, and while the dad did an adequate job taking over for mom (in his spare time, i.e. when he wasn't actively seeking employment), their family dynamic was to have one, full-time care provider at home. With the loss of his job and the subsequent employment of his wife, the dad became responsible for more of the household responsibilities, which caused a lot of problems. But here's the thing - if that family intended for the dad to be the primary wage earner (which they did), he needed to have the freedom and flexibility to find a job without having to worry about the safety and security of his children. Because his wife was working, he didn't have that freedom or flexibility, and it cost him a few interviews.
Second, they should have canceled the home improvement loan, or at least changed how they were using it. Instead of employing the contractors to do the work, maybe the dad could have enlisted the help of a few friends to do the renovation, and paid for just supplies, rather than supplies and labor. DIY is a lot cheaper than having someone do the work, and that applies across the board - not just in construction.
Third, the dad made the classic blunder of trying to find a comparable job. He should have listened to his eight year old daughter, who had a wisdom no one seemed to notice. She kept suggesting jobs she thought he could do. Perhaps with some training (which can often be paid for through reemployment programs), he would have been eligible for some of her more radical suggestions (like fire fighter, a job the dad, rightly, said he was unqualified to do - but the fact is that EMT training can be completed in a matter of weeks). Or better, he could have taken the opportunity this job loss afforded him to seek employment in a field in which he really wanted to work - like art. To them, this job loss was not an opportunity, but a hurdle. Reframing the problem in a different way would have made their situation a lot different.
Fourth, the family should have started, immediately, cutting back, and the movie didn't show whether or not they did this, but it is common, in similar situations, to try to keep up the ruse that nothing has changed. Too often when faced with a job loss or other economic SNAFUs, the people involved will just keep living as if it will all be better when they wake in the morning. The day the event takes place is the time to sit down and start making changes, cutting everything from the budget that is not, absolutely, essential. The fourth is the hardest, because so many of our day-to-day activities, we see as being very much a part of who we are, and it's hard to give those things up, but it would be imperative.
I think about this possibility all of the time, and it's not that I don't trust Deus Ex Machina's ability to financially support our family, but that I know anything can happen - and it usually does. Given that situation, the only bill we would continue to pay would be ones related to our housing - like a mortgage and property taxes. As I've said dozens of times, as long as we have our house, our basic needs for shelter, food, and water would be met.
If the family had tightened the belt, immediately, anticipating that there might not be a job for a while, then, they would have been, potentially, better off (although, as a kid's movie, things never really got very bad, and of course, there was the requisite happy ending).
Preppers have become the butt of a lot of jokes. Between the Doomsday Prepper television show and myriad of bloggers and authors speaking on the subject, there is, perhaps, some fuel for the comedy train. If nothing else, preppers are certainly passionate about what they're doing, and the need for it. The problem is that because some preppers (and survivalists) are seen as radical and fringe, and perhaps a bit ... fanatical, the average person, like Ramona's family in the story, aren't listening. They're not listening, because they don't want other people to look at them and laugh. No one wants to be the butt of a joke.
So, most people don't prep, at all, and when they are visited by hard times, they also don't share what's happening - for fear of ridicule.
For many preppers, though, it's not about preparing for Lucifer's Hammer or nuclear war or an EMP strike or the oil running out. It's about preparing for those things that happen every day to ordinary people, like the suburbanites in the article linked above.
There is nothing radical or fringe or fanatical about having food available and in one's home. I can't imagine having only enough food to get me through a day or two. With as busy as my life is most of the time, I can't imagine not being able to whip up something from my cabinets or storage for dinner without having to visit the grocery store first. Other prepper suggestions are similar. There is nothing radical or fringe or fanatical about having a Berkey container of filtered water (and it tastes better, too) on the counter, a few extra blankets (don't you ever have company?), and flashlights with batteries that work.
It's true that a three-day supply of food or a 2 1/2 gallon pitcher of filtered water on the counter won't help if one is unemployed for six months or more, but it's also true that beginning to think in terms of it could happen to me gets us thinking about how to make things less of an emergency when it does happen. It's a difference in mind-set more than a difference in what one has in one's garage.
Some news reports are claiming that The Recession has ended and the economy is on the upswing, but from what I see around me, from jobs reports, from prices at the grocery store and the gas pump, from listening to my friends and family, even if the Recession is over, we have a very long way to go before things return to normal, and rather than reliving what got us here, I think there's going to be a new normal.
Certainly, in much of Suburbia, there is a new normal. It's called poverty, and it's not a lack of moral fortitude, and it's not a shameful horror that we should hide - because the reality is that friends and neighbors usually know there's trouble a long time before that foreclosure sign ends up on the front lawn.
The antidote to poverty is not more money or better jobs, but rather independence. There's that saying, "Make hay while the sun shines," and the gist is that if we squander the happy days, when the bad days come, it's too late. In real terms, a farmer who does not hay his field while the sun is shining will lose the hay, which could be a devastating blow and result in a loss of livestock.
In the same way as the farmer, if we don't prepare the possibilities, we stand to lose it all. The sad fact is that we don't have to.