Friday, December 20, 2013

If Poverty is a Disease, Preparedness is the Antidote

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.


  1. Article in today's paper about Food Banks and how many more people are coming for help, many more families and many more elderly.
    Being over 65 I am concerned about what will happen if my husband dies first and he probably will. My income will be cut in half, if I die first his income will be cut by 1/3. So, we are taking the necessary steps, the prepping, to reduce our expenses just like we did when he was unemployed many years ago.
    Cut the cable off this month (at the end of the contract), found a cheaper cell phone, shop at thrift stores as much as is humanly possible (besides we don't need much at our age), don't use the dryer or the dishwasher and are frugal in so many other ways.
    Our neighbors, who are in their early 70s, have done the math and neither could continue to live in their home if the other dies. But they do not cut their spending at all - lunch out 5 days a week, dinner at least 4, just got a dog with all of its extra expenses, continue to shop sales (so they are saving money) for unnecessary and unneeded items, never use the library, and see movies frequently both in the theater and Netflix. Always use the dryer, hot water for washing clothes, and continue to have pool service weekly even tho they haven't used the pool for the last 4 years. Typical behavior of many, many of the elderly retired on fixed income residents in our area. We've already had one couple lose their home because they refused to change their lifestyle when their stock market based income plummeted.
    The things we do are what we think most people should be doing but we know they aren't. No matter what the media says, housing sales are not increasing, new housing starts are not increasing but gas & food are increasing and the electric rate will increase Jan. 1st.
    I hope that more families will 'see the light' and reduce expenditures but I don't see it happening. After all, they don't see their parents and grandparents reducing expenditures so they have no role models.

  2. Mandi from DelawareDecember 23, 2013 at 8:32 AM

    Being a prepped helped my family when I lost my job. I still don't have one and applied for food stamps even though I disagree with the benefits programs politically. It seemed hypocritically but I decided I had Ben working since I was fifteen and paid plenty in
    My mother-in-law pointed out that if they hadn't taken so much out of her pay check for.taxes she would be able to help us. I was surprised at how long the process took. We always kept six months to a year's worth of food. I can't imagine what the typical family who only keeps a few days worth of food on hand would have done.

  3. If you are already struggling then prepping is a dilemma. Do you think it is better to invest in becoming better prepared and stocking up, even though it may mean using credit cards to do so?

  4. Judy, what you describe is a really tough situation. It's hard to "stock up" when there is no extra cash to stock-up with, and I really do get that.

    I would NOT recommend using credit cards, however, because, eventually, the debt will catch up, and it won't do you any good to have those extra bills when you're already stretched to the limit.

    I don't know your personal situation. I only know what I went through when I didn't have much extra, but occasionally, I did. My suggestion would be to use those occasional extras to stock up, but be very careful about what kinds of things you stock-up on.

    First, I recommend long-storage items: beans, which can be palatable with just water to cook and salt to season; flour, which can be made into crackers or tortillas with only salt and water (and some butter or oil for frying); oatmeal; popcorn; salt, of course; and seasonings, because they make things taste better, and when your diet is limited to a handful of ingredients, being able to make it taste different is a huge plus.

    Thing is, those things don't really cost a lot, and if you buy one, you could, potentially, buy two - one for today and one for later. Right? I guess, ultimately, my recommendation would be to avoid all things that are in a can or a box, because they are more expensive in the long-run. Dried beans are cheap. Flour is, at least here, $0.68/lb. Popcorn, which can also be ground into corn meal (for making grits, polenta, and corn bread), is less than $1/lb depending on the brand. I get organic corn in the bulk bins for $1.99/lb, but it's organic. A pound of popcorn can go a long way.

    The other thing is that things like beans and popcorn are the seeds of those plants, and if you have some dried beans, and a place for a plant pot, you can grow more - which is another way to stock-up. Seeds from watermelon, squash, pumpkin, cantaloupe, tomatoes, and peppers can also be saved and grown into plants.

    And then, there's this article about regrowing vegetables from discarded pieces. It's another way to keep using even the scraps, which is just prepping, differently.

    Remember, the goal with prepping is not to have thousands of pounds of food you may or may not eat, but to cultivate self-sufficiency.

    I don't know if you're doing any or all of these things - maybe you are, but again, I would not recommend using the credit card.

    The other thing is, that once you start, just adding one or two things *extra* each week, it really starts to add up. You'd be amazed.

  5. Thanks Wendy. I guess I knew that would be your response, and....sigh.... I agree with you. Increasing debt leads to more dependence, and increases the risk of losing your home. More independence is definitely the better option. It’s just sometimes worry about not being prepared trumps worry about being in debt. And its not real anyway - just a big ponzi scheme!

    I work for myself, and my income is pretty variable throughout the year, but my overall income has been a lot less the last few years. It means that instead of having enough to save and stock up with during the good times, you spend it paying back what you owe from the lean times. We are always trying to catch up, but never manage to catch up!

    My gardening skills are improving (or it may just be the exceptionally fine weather we had this summer in UK) and I am fairly good at foraging. This year we have had hazelnuts, cherries, chestnuts, apples, mushrooms, blackberries, elderberries, elderflowers and more, all for free. I even have my first batch of apple vinegar ready thanks to your book. (Er...should it have a layer of scum formed on top?) So we will not starve yet. But we don’t have an alternative source of heating, like a wood stove, no emergency cash, and water leaks through our front door every time there is a storm (we have just had a whole succession of them!) Equipment, tools and skills need investment really. The local library doesn’t stock any preparedness books – it really isn’t very British to start panicking about things, and the whole subject is a bit taboo – so even learning from books has a price.

    Things aren’t that bad though, and I am very grateful for what we do have and the skills we can put to good use. We were really poor whilst I was at Uni too. The difference is that we have accumulated so much more furniture, skills, tools and friends now that really helps, rather than starting from scratch with very little and virtually no income.

    Thanks for the suggestions and the link. We have successfully grown a pineapple plant from standing the top in a saucer of water. It grew very well, but was so large and spiky that we had to put it outside eventually, where it was too cold and died. Maybe the spring onions would be a better idea 

  6. Judy - I hear you about the leaking. The roof in my bedroom leaks every time it rains, and if we leave any snow on the roof at all, and we have a warm day, it leaks. We're discussing our options. Unfortunately, it's not a roofing problem (as in shingles need to be replaced), but a problem with how it was built, and we need to just tear off the roof and build a new one - which is pricey, and we're not sure where those funds are going to magically appear ;).

    Even if you can't get books, there is a ton of information on the Internet. I have dozens of preparedness articles I've both printed and stored/saved to my computer. Also, sometimes the book might not seem like a preparedness book, but any books that focus on skill-building could be valuable. I found a book at the library the other day about cutting glass bottles to make into all sorts of items from the obvious drinking glasses to the less obvious planters. I wouldn't consider that a "preparedness" book, but it's a good skill and what an awesome way to recycle! In fact, we have a glass cutting tool, because we wanted to make drinking glasses from glass bottles for my son's wedding.

    I wonder if we could find some way to work out a lending library - maybe if you could get some friends together who were interested in a particular title, one that I or one of my readers could find here in the states, if you and your group would help with postage, we could send you the book. Let me know. It's about building community, right? Even if that community is all online and all over the world. We can still work to help each other out.

    Re: heat. Don't forget some of the best ideas with regard to heating have more to do with heating smaller spaces (which requires less energy) than having alt energy options. Work with what you have, and I'll bet you find some really creative solutions.

    Scum on the top of your vinegar is not bad. Here's an article that talks more about the process. You'll know if you've got vinegar by the smell.

  7. Thanks for the advice and vinegar article. I think the postage would be the killer with the books, but it is very kind of you to offer. I am quite a scavenger with books and get cookbooks and gardening books given or borrowed. It is just the emergency preparedness / colapsonomics books that you never see in the UK.

    I am making use of blogs and one has just led me to this simple but ingenious idea for an emergency room heater.
    I may have to dig out some suitable pots and try it.