Saturday, October 18, 2008


A few days ago it was poverty awareness day in blogland, and I've been kicking it around, wealth and poverty. Well, the financial upheavals and my own risk-happy way of earning a living mean that I've been kicking this one around for a very long time.

One of the things I clicked on the other day was a poverty ranking tool, one that took your annual income and told you where you ranked in the overall poverty standing in the world. I'm not linking to it. It was cute, it was useful to have a jolt of perspective, but it was also beside the point. It embarrassed me, some, that I feel pinched when other people have so much less, but it didn't make me feel like I had more cash floating around.

Unless you are super-duper enlightened, whether you're feeling comfortable or deprived about money doesn't have anything to do with how much money everyone in the world has. It has to do with how much money the people have who are living next door to you have, or sitting down to dinner with you.

Last night, I was talking with a friend who told me how growing up where she did, she thought her family was poor because she didn't get a Porsche for her sixteenth birthday, making a point about how that setting warped her: we tend to judge our wealth relative to others', and we tend to think we should have the things that the folks around us have. Juliet Shor talks about this as the question of the reference group, the way we aren't necessarily looking at people with similar incomes when we judge whether our spending habits are reasonable.

This is something I struggle with, because I tend to judge my spending against my family's, but I am downwardly mobile. There is no way that in my line of work I will make even a little bit of the kind of money I was raised having access to, and even though A. is in a pretty darn secure, middle-class, professional kind of job, urban public school teachers ain't pulling it in hand over fist, you know?

So the way for me to feel wealthy instead of poor is to spend less, to want less. To feel that what I have is enough. To simplify. Shor calls this downshifting. It's really hard to pull off in a culture of abundance, which is, still, what we're living in here. Clothes are turning out to be the hardest thing for me to manage, I think because I've been losing weight and therefore my old clothes actually don't fit me. I do need to buy new clothing, and it's hard not to notice that the pants I think I can only afford on sale are often the least expensive ones in the catalog.


kathy a. said...

i really like this post, and have been mulling it over. it's not like i have any great insights, but looking at those catalogs and also comparing your personal situation with that of the world is enough to make anyone's head explode, at least a little.

and, the people around us, where we came from and where we are -- it does affect us more than we'd like to admit.

my dad's family had wealth; my family did not, although my sibs and i went to school with some seriously wealthy people. so, i knew the kids who got porches for their 16th [i borrowed my mom's 1963 ford van], but for me and my sibs -- our marks of making it were [a] going to college, and [b] having enough underwear.

anyway, sympathies on the struggles. i'm basically cheap, except when i'm not; my career choices have been more toward satisfaction than making wads of money, too. and don't get me started on clothes.

Co said...

I remember in high school, a close friend of mine complaining to me and another friend about how she really wanted new clothes and she was so furious that her mom wouldn't buy them for her. She was also upset when her mom didn't buy her a car for her 17th bday. She lived in the same suburb I did, technically, but she lived on the much nicer end, much further from the (extremely blighted NJ) city. I lived a couple blocks from the city proper, as did the other friend who was being complained to. The houses where I lived were much closer together, it looked more urban, the housing was old, a drug dealer lived on my block. We lived on Social Security (my grandmother's and what my brother and I got because my parents were dead). My friend lived in a brand spanking new development. Her mom bought her new clothes at the Gap and the Limited all the time. Both of her parents were professionals (dad was a pharmacist who owned his own business and mom was a vice principal). My friend didn't have a part-time job. And she was complaining to me and that particular other friend? Both of us worked afterschool (I waited tables, other friend was a supermarket cashier) in addition to our honors class schedules and extracurriculars. When either of us wanted new clothes, we had to either buy them ourselves or do without. I was kind of floored by her expectations and what she felt enraged about.

That was kind of when I realized it was about perspective. I mean, I didn't have much growing up, but I always had (a) a roof over my head and (b) enough to eat. I can't say I was poor.

I remember when I was a first-year teacher, my students used to remark about how I was "rich." I was making $20,000 per year. It seemed insane to call me "rich." But, compared to my students, who qualified for free lunch, whose families couldn't afford to own a car (not even a crappy one like the one I drove), a couple of whom didn't even have running water in their homes... well, compared to them, I was indeed "rich."

So, yeah, it's about perspective. I'm upwardly mobile, of course, so it's different and probably in many ways, easier.

Okay, I apparently had nothing useful to say here, except I can sort of relate.

S. said...

Co, I think this was really useful, because it helps me realize that part of what's happening in my wanting isn't just feeling deprived, it's a sense of loss.

In going from a home with two lawyers' salaries (non-profit and government lawyers' salaries, but still) to a home with one teacher's salary, I have lost a degree of security and freedom. But if I had gone from social security checks to one teacher's salary, I would have gained security and freedom.

kathy a.: underwear!

E. said...

I'm late posting here, but wanted to comment because money is an issue I've thought about a lot. I think it's all about what counts as a sanctioned purchase and what doesn't. Last weekend I bought shoes that were more expensive than some plane tickets I used to have to buy on a regular basis. It was very uncharacteristic of me, so much so that my credit card was turned down. BUT I would have bought those plane tickets without even thinking about it. Why? In my family, clothes (and shoes and cosmetics and accessories) didn't "count," were considered luxury items, but travel for family reasons was always acceptable because it was "necessary." So my parents are still wearing clothing first bought cheap 20 years ago, but they fly to the other side of the planet every year or two.

I think the key to feeling wealthy is to buy more of the unsanctioned stuff and to skimp on the less-meaningful-but-automatic purchases. So, this year, I bought those shoes. And I'm going to slowly replace my wardrobe, too--with fewer items perhaps but, I hope, ones that I think are really fabulous.