The Bottom Rung

Most of my life I have heard groaning about the economy.  I’ve seen it go up, and down, and my life has changed very little.  I’ve had no trouble finding jobs during downturns if I needed one.  In spite of my recent panic attack about having my back up against a financial wall and feeling like it was going to fall over on me, things have remained fairly steady.  We started out on the bottom rung of the social mobility ladder over 20 years ago as a family and haven’t moved up much.  We see the people reaching and grasping for that first hand hold on the bottom step, and we throw cracker crumbs down, but can’t really pull them up to the ladder for fear of falling down with them.  Even lifeguards have flotation devices so they don’t drown with those they try to help.  I want to do SO much more than we feel we are able.

In spite of how much Americans complain about the economy, we are so affluent that those who aren’t on board find it a very big challenge to get back into the mainstream of basic needs.  The homeless, aging, under-employed 20 somethings, single parents, and those with health issues (among many others) are at risk of getting caught in a cycle of dependency on others.  What people in these positions do in order to survive is often not even legal, like living in your car. We have laws against poverty.  Society doesn’t want to see or hear people who don’t look right or try to live where they cause an eyesore.   Here is what it takes to catch the bottom rung, in the event that you fall off the ladder, or are trying to gain access for the first time as a young adult.  Think of this as the pre-Dave Ramsey guide.

1.  An operational vehicle that is legal to drive, passing safety and emissions inspections, registered, and fully insured.  Don’t think about driving a junker that’s paid for.  Something about old cars – the engine lights just stay on, and the shop won’t even test it.  Add all that up.  Even without a car payment, it’s a huge expense.  If you are in shape and don’t live in an area that gets snow measured in feet, you might be able to get by without the car and buy a bicycle instead.

2.  A driver’s license.  All of the above, plus don’t let any tickets add up for any of the things on that list.  The fines are huge and the more tickets you get in my state, hundreds of dollars in surcharges will be added to your debt before you can legally drive and get to that job you need in order to pay the thing… oh wait.  Just hope you can find a bus that goes somewhere you can find a job.

3.  Fuel for the car.  We are so lucky right now the price has sunk to $3.19 a gallon here as of today.  My daughter who has no job yet, has to spend $30.00 round trip in her truck to go see a relative one hour away.  Another friend finally got a job so far away from her home that she went through an entire tank of gas in her minivan in three days.  At average gas prices (not like today’s) that is $400 a month just to get to work.  That’s 21% of her pay before payroll taxes.  But she has been unemployed so long, she will do it.

3.  A place to live.   On minimum wage you are making about $1100/month before taxes, if you get really lucky to find full time hours.  Unless you have a car, working two jobs will be even more tricky.  I know, those jobs were not intended to be a primary income.  But people have to start somewhere.  For those reaching for that first rung, it’s often the only option.

You can live in your car if you have to,  if you have made it this far.  One guy I know was so fortunate that a church let him park and sleep in their parking lot.  Once they even gave him a little food.   Someone else I know who is a bit messy and allows everything to collect in her vehicle, was questioned by a policeman after a routine traffic stop because he was suspicious she was living in her car, and told her that was against the law.

A friend of mine is paying $450/month to just rent a room in a house where only the Dalai Lama could remain at peace.  But it’s less than most apartments with utilities.  Our electric bill runs $300 in the peak season.  This area has lower housing costs than many places in the United States.  A basic 1 bedroom in a part of town where you don’t need a bodyguard runs about $500-600 plus electricity (which wouldn’t be as much as our house).

You can live in a tent for free like some people I know, but this comes with many complications which would require another post to explain.  You can also live in a shelter, but only if your working hours coordinate with theirs.   Like a car, housing is conducive to being employed, but hard to get unless you are.

4.  Health Care.  Don’t get sick.  Your job won’t have benefits and your state may have just rejected expanded Medicaid coverage for adults at your income level.  Of course you will be offered the opportunity to avoid further fines by purchasing subsidized insurance soon.  Add that to what you HAVE to pay for, just like your car insurance.  Yes, you should have thought about going into the insurance business.  You will have a hefty deductible, so still don’t get sick on your income, or have an accident.  We are extremely lucky to live in a county with top-notch, low-income health services that have been life-saving for us.

5. Cell Phone.  $30/month minimum.  You won’t get that job if people can’t call you back.

6.  Clothing, Toilet Paper, Food.  You can learn how to get clothes for free, and almost free.  Good clothes are easy to find in this trickle down system where people buy more than they can possibly use.  Especially if you are female.  No need to worry about clothing.  Yard sales and thrift stores will clothe you and furnish your kitchen.  Craig’s list and freecycle are also great ways to find free items.  I follow a blogger who Dumpster Dives.  Many treasures there for those not faint of heart with strong limbs.

Toilet paper is nice, but I have wondered about the $20/month we spend on it.  There are free and environmentally sound options.

As far as food goes, you like beans and potatoes right?  If you don’t know how to cook, it’s hard to beat the Dollar Menu at McDonald’s for a food budget, but you might not want to choose that option in light of #4.   I shop at two stores that consistently save me 40-50% without coupons.  Many people working low-paying jobs still qualify for food stamps.  Even a young, single 20-something I know without children managed to qualify when he lost his job (and is now moving back to mom’s house… again.)

These every-day expenses that people spend way too much on can be whittled way down and if you are off the bottom rung, you already have because you’ve had no choice.

Every Day Miracles

Looking back, there have been so many times when we could have fallen off the ladder.  The only reason we didn’t has been the generous help of family and friends in times of crisis.  Many people further up the ladder feel secure but they can fall too without warning.  There is no sure thing.  No way to predict life.  Mathematically speaking, we should not have made it so well this long.  Sometimes miracles have come in the form of an opportunity to earn, sometimes in a helping hand.   We have stigmas here about being poor, and in need of help.  Do you know anyone struggling to get to the first step?  Most people need a hand up or they have no hope.  People without hope do things that lessen their chances of ever getting out of the pit of poverty.

Yes, people have “issues” that keep them down, or got them there.  But even for someone who doesn’t appear to have any, it can still seem impossible.  I have a friend right now who is trying to be that hand to help up.  It might work, it might not, but just being willing makes you a Hope Dealer.

It’s good to live in an affluent society, even on the lower rungs.  But it also comes with a mindset that is often blind to the needs of others.  As long as this system is in place where money rules the world – we can focus on survival or compassion.  I choose the latter.  After my panic attacks have passed.