A Thank You to the American Taxpayer

I want to offer my thanks to the readers of the Nouveau Poor and the American taxpayer. For the past several months you’ve been helping to buy my groceries. But I’m relieved to tell you that business has now recovered enough that we are back on our feet and ready to totter forward.

The past few years have been extremely difficult. Because of you, our family has had one bright spot in our daily life—the knowledge that we could afford food. When you can’t afford anything else, your next meal becomes incredibly important.

I’m happy to say the safety net worked like it should. Your help not only got us through some impossible months, it saved the jobs of our remaining employees, so their families could keep eating also. Still, when over 46 million Americans are on food stamps—one of every seven people in the U.S.—you know something is wrong. When the number of people receiving food assistance rises more than 70% in four years, and the cost of the program reaches $72 billion, you realize the system is broken.

But it’s fair to ask which system. While I’m very grateful for the assistance, I would have been even more grateful for a solution that made food stamps unnecessary. Since October, we’ve received nearly $5,000 in assistance or $687 per month for a family of four. Of this, we spent about $3,700. How much better would it have been to lower our taxes that amount so we didn’t need food stamps? Or how about removing the government’s foot from the neck of business so that buyers and sellers could make rational decisions? How about stripping out the endless regulations and requirements that make it almost impossible to make a profit if you’re a small business owner? How about not using businesses as the faceless cash cow for every harebrained scheme to come out of Washington? “Tax the rich” sounds great until you end up with no jobs.

I’ve tried to convey in these posts over the past months what it’s like to walk into a grocery store and buy food with an EBT card—all the while knowing that the cashier and the people in line behind you are eyeing your purchases and evaluating the worth of your clothes and your car. Those critics constantly whisper in my head. I can hear them now saying that if I didn’t like using food stamps we should have quit being leeches and gotten jobs—as if it’s that easy. Never mind that approximately 41% of the people on food stamps, including us, already live in working households.

Many people complain that the system is corrupt and riddled with fraud. And I’ve tried to be honest. Food stamps do warp buying decisions. The money comes at no cost except to dignity, and you don’t get to keep what you save—any money that isn’t spent rolls over, but at the end of the day the savings go back to the government. That makes it hard to be conscientious. Only the benefit amounts and a person’s own ethics act as a brake.

That said, many of the current proposals to “fix” the food stamp program are expensive and/or damaging. Some states have proposed limiting the types of food that can be purchased. But determining what to allow and policing such a system is costly. Others states, like Pennsylvania, have instituted asset testing, which makes sense as long as the asset limits are reasonable. If you force a family to sell a car they need to get to a job or look for work, how does that help taxpayers?

Other proposals include requiring photo identification on EBT cards, instituting a work or volunteer requirement (which would penalize job seekers and parents) and drug testing recipients, which besides being demeaning would be too expensive to be worthwhile. A more targeted approach might be to test only those who request replacement cards.

None of these solutions address the real problem: Taxpayers don’t want to see the person next to them getting for free what they have worked for. If you ask 10 people if they are willing to help the poor, nine of them will say yes. But if you take those same nine people to Wal-Mart and show them a woman (or man) using an EBT card, the majority will be outraged by something the person is buying, by her clothes or haircut or the number of children surrounding her or by her car. They will be sure the person is abusing the system.

Again, they’re focusing on the wrong issue. Food stamps are a blessing when you can’t afford food. Are they the right solution? I still don’t think so. Fix the country’s economic woes, and the majority of people receiving food stamps will be able to solve their own money problems. Lower taxes. Reduce regulation. Encourage education.

It’s hard to make the decision to go off food stamps. It’s hard to give up that safety in the face of uncertainty. The construction industry is showing faint signs of life, following the rest of the limping economy, but it’s far from certain that business will continue to move in the right direction. Much of Europe is back in recession, and the U.S. economy shows many troubling signs as well.

So we make this decision with trepidation. On the one hand, walking into a grocery store and paying for our own food will be a huge relief. On the other, the thought of going back to the days of walking out with as little as possible is daunting. But it’s the right thing to do.

I worry about the lessons my kids are learning. Will they decide there’s no point to saving money and working hard? Will they conclude that a college degree is a waste of time? I’ve wondered all those things the past few years. How has reading or overhearing the negative comments about welfare affected my children? What have they made of our choices with food stamps? For example, when they ask why we can’t buy ice cream or cookies, do they understand our decisions? How do they account for the fact that we’ve told only a handful of family and friends about being on food stamps?

I hope they take away some positive lessons: Help is available if you need it. People can be wonderfully kind and generous. You don’t need the latest gadgets and new clothes and entertainment to be happy. We have gotten good at re-creating foods we used to buy out and at baking our own treats. When you can’t afford any entertainment or extra expenses, being able to make a batch of cookies may be the bright spot of the week. And a packet of oatmeal eaten in a tent is more fun than any fancy breakfast at a restaurant.

This will be the final post for the Nouveau Poor as we re-join the self-sufficient. I want to thank my readers for your comments and encouragement and your own amazing stories. I’ve learned much and been given much to think about. I hope I’ve done the same for you, and I wish you all the greatest success.—The Nouveau Poor

Lost in Translation


The blogging world is a giant playground for writers. So many different lives and voices and stories clamoring for attention.

There are young people and old, athletes and chefs, people who are ill and those seeking health, writers and engineers, cheerleaders for every cause and those who want to chronicle the lives of their children, their goats and their pets.

So many people want to tap us on the shoulder and say, “Hey, you’ll never believe what I just figured out!” I’m guilty of this as well. But I suspect many of the recipients of this wisdom roll their eyes like my teenager during one of my lectures.

She magically translates all my words through a filter of age, experience and hormones. So if I say, for example, “You need to clean your room,” the teenager hears, “I think your room should be spotless, because otherwise a neighborhood committee might inspect it someday or because some new, mutant disease is breeding under the bed.” An observation that six-inch heels look painful becomes “Tennis shoes are the height of fashion and should be worn at all times.” A suggestion to find and focus on a few passions translates to “It’s great if you spend all your time shopping for clothes or hanging out with your boyfriend.”

The same magic happens when I talk to my husband. If I say, “I had a really bad day today,” he hears, “I have a problem, and I need you to fix it.”

This translating occurs across all generations and races and classes. I heard an interview with the late Mike Wallace the other day in which his son Chris asked his father how he felt about getting old. As someone teetering on the edge of seniordom, I waited for Mike Wallace to say he’d found new serenity or wisdom or deeper relationships. Instead he pointed to his hearing aids, his failing eyesight and his pacemaker. “I hate it,” he said flatly. I can only imagine his reaction when he read advice from middle-aged baby boomers about growing old gracefully.

Many experiences must be lived to be understood. You can read a thousand parenting blogs, but until you are responsible for a tiny person’s life, you don’t really know the fear that can keep you up nights. Until someone you love dies, you don’t really know how it sets you apart from other people. So many times I’ve given someone advice or thought I understood something, then reached that point myself and realized I was wrong.

I sometimes think it’s possible to tell the age of any blogger by reading their posts. Twenty-somethings are idealistic and often sure they’re right. Thirty-somethings are preoccupied with their careers and families. Forty-somethings are busy creating and trying to leave their mark on the world. Those in their fifties seem more tolerant. They’re reinventing their dreams. Those in their sixties often look back. Bloggers over seventy are explorers who still like to learn and make new connections.

But the wonderful thing about blogging is that it draws all these people into conversation. Where else will you find a 50-year-old housewife discussing life and politics and books with a 20-year-old programmer half a world away or a 90-year-old ex-rancher the next state over? In our day-to-day lives we tend to interact with people like ourselves, but the online world is much wider.

We may not get what everyone is saying, but at least we’re talking.

Is Your College Degree Past Its Expiration Date?

The Great Recession has taught many lessons, and as someone who has not escaped unscathed, here are two conclusions I’ve reached about college:

Not all college degrees are created equal. Yes, I know, this is obvious. I see Microsoft and Amazon workers at the mall blithely buying iPads (well, maybe not these unless it’s on the sly) and $200 Nikes, and I wonder whatever possessed me to get a journalism degree. I console myself that maybe I’m better off than those who tried humanities or women’s studies, but let’s face it, I should have stuck with math.

College degrees have an expiration date. When you’re handed your shiny, new degree, you don’t really think about this. I sort of figured the process worked like high school, where you use your diploma to get into college and then you stick it in a box somewhere. I thought a college degree would start you on the job path and then fade into the past. But what if your job doesn’t offer constant updates to your skills and credentials? Or your career changes course? Then your 20-year-old degree may end up not worth the expensive paper it’s printed on. How do you know if this has happened? Below are my top ten ways to tell if your degree has reached its expiration date:

Top Ten Ways to Tell if Your College Degree has Expired

  1. Your deferred student loan payments are now larger than your house payment. This isn’t as hard to achieve as you’d think, since the average student loan burden has ballooned to around $25,000. Overall, U.S. student-loan debt has surpassed credit-card and auto-loan debt, and now stands close to a whopping $1 trillion dollars. (Federal Reserve Bank of New York) If you want to scare yourself, you can track the overall numbers here: Student Loan Debt Clock
  2. You’re embarrassed to tell anyone your major.
  3. You now realize that a bachelor’s degree is only a stepping stone to grad school. In 2009, someone with a bachelor’s degree could count on mean earnings of $56,655, while someone with a high school certificate brought home $30,627. Those who went on to a master’s or a doctorate degree did much better with $73,738 and $103,054 respectively. More important, they’re now the ones with the jobs.
  4. The alumni association no longer hunts you down to ask for money.
  5. Putting your degree on a resume brings more questions than answers.
  6. You can remember the name of the campus pizza hangout, but you can’t remember any calculus.
  7. You tell your kids you walked 10 miles across campus in the snow to get to class.
  8. You visit the campus, and your major is either housed in a shiny, new building or the basement of the most distant building on campus.
  9. Job descriptions look like they’ve been written in another language that you need a teenager to translate.
  10. You tell your children what you majored in, and they laugh.

So here is my updated career advice. Stay current and don’t stop building credentials once you’re out of college. If you switch careers or are forced to sideline your job for a while, keep taking classes and the occasional contract job to keep your resume relevant. And when you think a career in the arts sounds like your calling, take a computer class instead and enjoy your hobby while you collect a paycheck.

How has your degree fared? Has it been worth the high cost and loans?

Seed Starting Time

If you want to grow your own vegetables, now is the time to grab some seeds and start planting. (Actually, it’s a little late on some crops, but not too late.) How do you know when it’s time? I go by the plants outside. When I see the hellebores begin to bloom, it’s time to start asparagus, leeks, onions and celery indoors. They need 10 to 12 weeks to grow before the last frost date. A couple weeks after that, it’s time for the peppers and tomatoes, and the first sowing of cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and lettuce.

Old eaves under an overhang make a good place to start peas out of the rain.

When the following plants start to bloom (I’m a little behind this year), it’s time to plant spinach and peas outside. I like to use an old eave by the side of the house to start the first batch of peas. It keeps the seeds out of our incessant rain so they don’t rot and helps protect the seedlings from slugs and birds.

Finally, about mid April, I’ll start the squashes and cucumbers. They grow fast and don’t want to be kept waiting. Outside, it’s time to plant potatoes and more of the cool-weather crops. In mid-May, the beans go into the ground, and the corn follows sometime in the next couple weeks as the weather warms.

Why go to all this trouble? Starting your own seeds gives you more choices of plant varieties and allows you to manage quantities and timing better. It also can save you money on vegetables, although as I said in an earlier post, it’s not a solution to poverty. Avoid most of the expensive gardening products out there and keep things simple. For example, seed starting systems are great, but you can do as well with egg cartons on top of your refrigerator and a couple 40-watt fluorescent shop lights.

For more specific instructions on how to start seeds, here are a couple great sites that also list some other top vegetable gardening blogs:

Veggie Gardener: “The Top 15 Best Vegetable Gardening Blogs”

Vegetable Garden Basics: “My Top 10 Vegetable Gardening Blogs”

And, as I’ve said before, Territorial Seed Company has a wealth of information in its seed catalogue and on its website.

Things look muddy and brown now, but it won’t be long before empty beds and pots will be filled with lettuce and chard and spinach and beans. What’s going into your garden?

Who Could Share Your Doomsday Bunker?

1950s fallout shelter from http://www.archives...

After the last three years trying to survive in our ailing economy, I totally get people who build doomsday bunkers, which I understand are now big business. Not because I believe the end of the world looms, but because you never know when the unthinkable might happen: the Republicans and Democrats might work together, software developers might let a year go by without an upgrade or old rockers might retire instead of scaring people on reunion tours.

Two TV shows are devoted to the bunker builders: National Geographic Channel’s “Doomsday Preppers” and the Discovery Channel’s “Doomsday Bunkers.” And several articles point to the new popularity of preparing for the apocalypse:



Books and magazines tell us how to survive. Even the Colbert Report has added its take on doomsday with a piece on bargain bunkers.

All this reminds me of an exercise we were forced to do in junior high (maybe all students end up with this ethics exercise at some point or another). We had to decide who we would allow into our bunkers during a nuclear war. Our choices included little kids, old people, teachers, artists and housewives among others. The supplies would cover only 10 individuals, who might then be called on to restart the human race.

So I have decided to update my choices for today’s world. I have upped the numbers, because today’s bunkers are not the same as the one-room concrete shelters of my youth.

  1. My family—Hey, it’s my bunker. What’s the point if you can’t save your husband and kids? Actually, I might have to think a minute about the teenager. Why didn’t someone ever warn me that parenting a teenage daughter could be so challenging? Sadly, I guess I’d have to leave the dog out, because it would be hard to play fetch in a bunker.
  2. Dr. Phil—I’ve never actually watched Dr. Phil, but how many of us start fantasizing about remote cabins after only a weekend of family togetherness? I imagine living in a few rooms underground for several months might generate some conflicts. Anyone remember Biosphere 2?
  3. The MythBusters—This is a no-brainer. Why would you not take two guys who can build an outrigger canoe out of duct tape?
  4. James Cameron—Not only could he document the whole bunker experience on film, but he had the toughness to get to the deepest place on earth and enough science to understand it.
  5. Stephen King—The man is our generation’s Charles Dickens. He understands human nature better than any other writer out there, can tell a terrific story, and he’d know what to do when the zombies arrive.
  6. My neighbor Bob from up the street—The guy is eighty, but tough as nails and an ex-mechanic who can fix anything. He can trap, shoot and grow good beans.
  7. Hillary Clinton—I didn’t vote for her, but I have a reluctant admiration for the woman. I figure she could do a kick-ass job negotiating with the other bunkers.
  8. Yo-Yo Ma and Florence of Florence + the Machine—What’s a bunker without entertainment? Yo-Yo Ma is one of the most diverse artists around. I include Florence because I love her music. Unfortunately, I don’t think the Machine will fit, but she’s an adaptable composer.
  9. Bill Gates—We’ll need to wire the bunker. Of course, we might want something more reliable than Windows, but the man has transformed the world.
  10. Tom and Julie Johns—They are the people behind my favorite vegetable seed company, Territorial Seed Company in Cottage Grove, Ore. Their seed catalogue is an entire course on vegetable gardening, and the company constantly experiments and improves its offerings. With their know-how, we’d never go hungry.
  11. My kids’ pediatrician—The woman has never been stumped by a disease or rash in 16 years, and she takes a laid-back approach to treatment and parenting. The fact that she’s beautiful, impeccably dressed, unfailingly nice and able to juggle a career and family without obvious stress is a little intimidating, but no one’s perfect.
  12. David Giuntoli—Don’t tell my husband about this one. Giuntoli is the star of the NBC TV show “Grimm.” What can I say? He’s easy on the eyes, and he might be able to spot any hidden monsters.

So we have a few spots left. Who would you nominate for the bunker?

4/1/12 update–I saw this ad in the Seattle Times on Saturday, March 31. You know a topic has gone mainstream when you see it in Walmart. Now you will never have to run out of butter powder: