A Pandemic Is What Poor People Train For
Queue “Eye of the Tiger,” baby, because you are READY! FOR! THIS!
In video-therapy today (which I almost forgot but then didn’t because while time has no meaning now it is also very much the same!) my therapist asked how I was handling [gestures at everything, from the well-trod grass below to the alarmingly blue skies above]. And I told her that honestly, I’ve been doing ok. Not to brag, but I’m not having a complete mental breakdown right now.
In fact, I have found myself taking the societal changes and the firehose of awful news almost too well. Because, well, life has thrown harder things at me and a lot of people I know. Life has forced me into much harder and scarier choices. I know what those scary and awful choices feel like.
As I told my therapist: Turns out, being poor was the training montage for a global pandemic.
It would be truly grotesque to not make it very clear: My stability right now comes from literal stability. I live with every privilege I enjoy on a daily basis (educated, able-bodied though nonneurotypical, cis, and I read as straight) and then some. My work is still ongoing and I know where my money is coming from. My home is a safe place. I don’t work in the fields that I’ve worked in before — janitorial, food service, grocery — which are aggressively uncertain.
I am, like a lot of us, really fucking lucky. Right now, at this exact moment, the things that are hard and scary for me are not things that are impossible. Yeah, I miss going to bars. And yeah, Grove is STILL sold out of the toilet paper that I like. But these things are not dire. The more broad anxiety and sadness of living through this time of collective grief is not the same as personal harm or fear. So yes, I feel lucky right now.
But I also feel weirdly ready.
It’s like running. You could get up and just Forrest Gump it into the sunset and you’d probably die or at least feel very terrible the next day. But if you’ve been jogging most days of the week for a while, you can comfortably do, say, a neighborhood fun run (at some other time. You cannot do a neighborhood fun run right now). Or you could be like me and run for 15 years and never comfortably run more than two miles but that’s a different thing.
Anyway, people who have been poor — who are used to empty shelves and eating weird combinations of dried beans and ketchup—have been training for this. They have been confronted with bodegas that have only one shitty roll of Scott for $6. They have had to ration their medicine. They know what it’s like to fight with unemployment. They already had the proverbial running shoes and knew the landmarks of the course.
Folks who have always had an ample supply of groceries and have never kited a check in their life are now at the starting line, wearing a banana costume or something, having no idea how long this race is even going to be.
The thing is, the experience of living in poverty is pretty similar to the experience of living in Pandemic America. It’s a place of scarcity and bureaucracy, and feeling like other people are just better positioned to live. It’s an exercise in feeling both helpless and defiant. It’s the worst game of Fuck/Marry/Kill where the subjects are “your health, your family, and money.”
In normal times, there’s been a great deal of sociological research into the way that poor people often make “bad” decisions based on the cards they’re dealt. If you’ve been watching “Little Fires Everywhere,” (and you should), you can imagine Mia telling the spoiled white lady that she didn’t make good choices, she had good choices. Typically, these choices are the ones that are the most accessible at first but end up being more expensive down the road (see: the 1986 Volkswagen Jetta that I drove for a very long time even though it was fully falling apart because it was cheaper to limp it along than to get a new car because lol who just buys a new car).
That’s kind of what everyone has to do now. You only get one trip to the store. You have to go alone. And you can’t bring your canvas bags that carry a ton of stuff. Ok, what do you buy? What do you leave? Who do you disappoint?Is this going to be your last trip for a while?
Multiple studies have shown that poverty-thinking is more short term — you always want to make sure things are taken care of right now. And during this global stress dream, isn’t that what we’re all doing? Just trying to get from one shitty meal or bill or panic attack to the next?
To folks who have not ever been poor, these decisions seem absurd. We see wealthy lawmakers and Internet “Humans” making commentary about it all the time. Why don’t poor people just spend less money? Why don’t they just only eat plain pasta? Why wouldn’t they jUsT bUy In BuLk? Hmmmm?
It turns out, the worst of a series of bad choices is still a bad fucking choice and there is no magical Door Number 3. And I feel like a lot of folks who are experiencing scarcity (of many varieties) right now for the first time are facing a bunch of bad choices and are trying to decide which is the least bad.
Sidebar: This is also why people who are currently living in poverty are getting extra-double-screwed right now. This pandemic — and its panic-buying, mostly by people who have more choices—is literally cheaper for people with enough money to buy up all the toilet paper at once.
The Privilege of Buying 36 Rolls of Toilet Paper at Once
They found that high-income households (those making $100,000 or more a year) bought their toilet paper on sale 39…
But that same kind of quick, reactionary thinking is also, I think, why the former-poors I know (myself included) seem generally less prone to catastrophizing this catastrophe than the people who have, you know, never lived the daily catastrophe of doing math on an envelope to decide if there’s enough money in your checking account for both a Crisp Bean Burrito from Taco Time and tampons. (A: There probably is not, which is why poor people are really good at arts and crafts).
It’s not all snap choices, though. Contrary to much of the science, there’s also a kind of long-term thinking that poor people also tend to develop, most often once they become former-poor (which just about every system in the United States makes a Herculean feat and/or one that requires a heaping helping of privilege and luck). That’s the thinking which I refer to as “Never A-Fucking-Gain Thinking,” a term I’ve just coined.
In the time since I have become No Longer Poor, I’ve taken extra precautions to make sure that even if I were to become poor again tomorrow (which I could), it wouldn’t be as dire. It wouldn’t be as catastrophic.
It’s why I always have at least two weeks worth of meal-makings in my cupboard, even if those meals consist of Tapatio and saltines. It’s why I almost never wait for anything to run out before I buy a new one (IN BULK, OFTEN, but that’s because I Love Earth, another positive of relative privilege). Because I don’t want to ever be out of something like hand soap because what if tomorrow is the day I can’t buy more. You know, like it was last week.
Like how a lot of people suddenly could not buy the thing they needed to buy.
My boyfriend once asked me why I was making car payments instead of just leasing a new car (yes, I date someone who drives a new car, I have arrived). And I told him really honestly: Because when you own it, no one can take it from you. And also, when you own it, you always have a place to live.
None of this is to say that people who have been poor are somehow more adept than those who haven’t. And it’s not to say that poor people need to have some kind of Mystical Stoicism that insulates them from the fear experienced by other people.
But I do think that folks who have been met with large-scale trauma in their lives before are probably really good voices to seek out right now. Not for free emotional labor, but just to like, talk through it. Because it really is true that being poor in America in the last, oh, fifty years is basically like living through what feels like a private pandemic. And if you have built up the muscle for it, I think it’s fair to acknowledge your strength.
I also think that if you’re having the panic reaction — if the empty shelves are triggering for you and if the fear of not knowing when you’ll be able to earn a living again—it’s not because you’re some kind of smooth-handed wiener. It’s because this is scary fucking shit and it’s terrifying to have all of the safety nets you might have relied on, robust or sparse as they ever may have been, slashed to bits.
It’s also something that, poor people can attest, you learn from. Just like your Depression-era kin invented seven trillion uses for flour sacks and coffee cans, our generation is going to get extremely good at making sourdough and finding different ways to count out 20 seconds.
This pandemic is, in a lot of ways, mirroring the kind of daily struggles and panic that poor people in America have been dealing with for years. So if you are one of those people who feels somehow extra-ready, extra-able right now, I want to acknowledge that and see you. You thought you were just trying to run to the next day. You didn’t know you were training for the race of a lifetime.