Then and Now

Fitting in becomes harder once you change economic zip codes.  You still live on the same street with neighbors who work at Boeing or Microsoft.  They still tell you about their cruises to Mazatlán or their ski trips to Whistler.  Or they ask if you’ve seen the latest movie or recommend a new restaurant.  But it’s hard to relate when the last movie you saw in a theater featured Harry Potter as a kid, and the only restaurant you’ve ventured inside of is McDonald’s during its two-for-one Quarter Pounder promotion.

Nowhere is this gap more evident than at Costco.  We still own a membership, because many basics for a family of four cost less there.  But Costco is the land of the well-off.  It’s where you can find sun-dried tomatoes in huge jars and chocolate truffles from France and giant crabs laid out on ice.

The clothes carry designer labels: Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger and Gloria Vanderbilt.  Leather covers the couches, and the TVs are so big they make you want to grab a bucket of popcorn.  Costco sells basics.  But it makes its money enticing buyers into upscale bargains.

Going to Costco when you’re below the poverty line is like entering a foreign country.  Costco doesn’t advertise that it accepts food stamps.  Maybe welfare doesn’t fit its image, or perhaps the company figures its customers don’t need assistance.  After all, if you can’t afford food, why would you pay the $55 membership fee?  Perhaps because food costs less there if you shop carefully and know your prices—even after taking the annual fee into account.

If you ask, you find out the company does accept EBT cards in some states.  In Washington, they’ll allow it at the cashier’s checkstands, but not the self-checkout.  So one day, I tried it.  As I waited anxiously with my food card ready in hand for the cashier to ring up the total, a sales manager approached and examined my membership card.  She tapped in a number on her handheld tablet.

“Did you know based on your past purchases you could save $700 a year by upgrading your membership?” she asked brightly.

“Uh, no,” I answered.

She proceeded to tell me about their Executive Membership as I swiped the EBT. The upgrade carries a higher fee of $100 per year, but offers 2% back on purchases.  I tried not to laugh or point out that doubling my fee would be insane now.  I got the PIN wrong and tried again as the manager droned on about benefits and savings.  In front of me, the cashier glanced at her readout and began to look like she was having an epileptic seizure as she signaled the manager to abort.

I debated whether to explain that the person who belonged to their stats no longer exists, but in the end I simply thanked the manager and took her pamphlet.  Then I asked if Costco has any job openings.

Growing Nonsense

I was reading the comments that followed an article on “The New Faces of Poverty,” a while back and came across the common suggestion that people on food stamps should grow their own food and get off assistance.  Actually, it was a lot less polite than that, but the level of animosity found in those comments is a topic for another day.  Even the government supports this fallacy.  Seeds and vegetable plants are allowable purchases under the basic food program.

But “grow your own food” as a solution makes me laugh.  Because I do grow all our family’s vegetables, raise chickens for eggs and can our own applesauce and jams.  And yet I’m on food stamps.  And more important, I know from experience this is not a solution that will work for most people.

Here’s the reality:  Raising vegetables has costs, even in its cheapest form.  I farm my neighbor’s yard—a garden that encompasses about a third of an acre.  She gets all the produce she wants and free labor to keep a large piece of land cleared and attractive.  I keep the rest of what I grow.

We split the costs.  My neighbor pays for the water and the property taxes, and I cover everything else: fertilizer, slug-bait, seeds, other pest-control products as needed, tools and items such as stakes and fencing.  Even using the cheapest methods possible and an already established garden, the garden still requires money.  Someone without a ready-made plot would need to make a sizeable investment to be successful.

I grow and save most of my own seed, but some items, like seed potatoes, must be purchased. I start all my own plants.  In the spring, seedlings cover every surface in the house until my children complain about Chia furniture.  I use manure collected from my two goats and chickens for compost and fertilizer and scrounge leaves and grass clippings from my neighbors.  I use row-cover to extend the seasons and save money on pesticides.  I re-use and recycle everything. My husband is a wizard at repairing tools and building supports. Even with that, I estimate I spend at least $80 a season.

In return, I grow all the vegetables we need in fall and summer, and most of what we need in spring and winter.  I also manage to bring produce to the food bank and my friends and neighbors (they now flee when they see me approaching with bags.)  According to the USDA, using 2008 data, it costs $2 to $2.50 per day to meet individual dietary guidelines for vegetables (2.5 cups per day—an amount only my goats can manage!). That means an $8 to $10 expense for a family of four. By those numbers, I save us a lot of money: $80 a year versus around $3,000.

But those vegetables are still a tiny percentage of an overall budget.  And in my area, produce is plentiful and cheap if you buy in season.

The true cost of raising vegetables is time.  During the growing season, I spend hours each day tending the garden. It’s hard, physical work.  And unlike buying food at the grocery store, harvesting, cleaning and preparing fresh vegetables takes enormous amounts of time. Real vegetable come covered with real dirt.  Peas don’t come in big bags.  They come five or six to a pod.  Picking and shelling enough for a meal takes a long time (longer if you make your children do it!). And you don’t just get enough produce for a meal—when a crop is ready, it’s all ready, which means you have to pick, clean, process and preserve it right then.

Most people in financial trouble don’t have that kind of time. They are too busy working, job hunting, taking classes or dealing with the problems that caused them to stumble in the first place. Most don’t own homes where a garden is feasible.  Few have time to gain the necessary knowledge.

And yes, they could plant a few tomato plants on their patios or keep some lettuce on their windowsills. Maybe pot some herbs on their decks. Or take a bus over to a P-patch garden and grow a few plants.  It’s healthy.  It’s fun.  But it won’t bring in enough food to remove the need for assistance.  Whoever suggests poor people can grow their way out of poverty is sprouting nonsense.

Up in Smoke

After much research, we bought two cords of maple for our woodstove today.  A beat-up dump truck fought its way up the hill to my barn and dumped the wood in a sprawling heap.  The grizzled guy in the truck squinted for a moment at the check I handed him, then asked me to rewrite it so he could pass it to his employees under the table.  In return, he didn’t charge me the taxes he would have paid.  Unethical?  Maybe.  But in a world where the cost of every regulation and tax is no longer a number on a piece of paper, but instead a meal or a school cost or a prescription, my ethics and morals have been beaten into a new pragmatism.

Take the wood, for example.  The old me might have argued that wood smoke harms air quality.  Certainly more than using our gas furnace.  In the before time, I dialed the thermostat to 68 degrees and told the kids they could put on a sweater and do their part to slow global warming.

Last winter, with the thermostat set at 63 during the day and 50 at night, I quit worrying about global warming.  When your feet are freezing and your fingers are too numb to type and you can’t tell which kid is which because they’re swathed in layers of coats and blankets, it’s amazing how quickly your priorities shift.

Last year, we had enough wood for a short fire each evening—until about February.  Even with our cost-saving measures, our heating bills approached $200 per month during the coldest months.  With wood here at about $250 per cord, even my cat can do the math.  Burning wood will make us a lot more comfortable and save us money.

The same dynamic holds true at the grocery store.  In the before time, I bought organic fruit and cage-free eggs and local produce that hadn’t been shipped from Australia.  Now I look for the lowest prices, no questions asked.

Magnify my family by a world of poor people, and you realize that environmentalists are fighting on the wrong front.  Don’t waste time trying to convince rich people to buy recycled toilet paper.  Instead put the resources into making running water available first.  People living on the margins don’t care about the environment.  They can’t afford it.

Eating My Pride

I stare down at the shiny new card in my hand and try to memorize the number at the end.  It’s the PIN for our new food stamp card from the state.  Washington Quest is stamped across the top in big red letters, and George Washington’s face looks solemnly out.  He’d by horrified by the whole idea of food stamps.  But he was wealthy.  And he had slaves.  So I ignore him.  The other shoppers and the cashier are another matter.

I now have over six hundred dollars per month to spend on food after three years of losing money and no income.  Three years of watching our savings and plans dwindle despite our best efforts.  Three years of no heat in the winter, no eating out, no extras.  Of coupons and generic everything and hardly any meat.  Three years with no vacations.  Three years in which my husband had to lay off employee after employee from his business and knowing that any extra dollar we spent meant one less day or hour for one of them.

Our hope is that by applying for the Basic Food program, we can slow the slide enough to save the company and the jobs of the last two employees.  According to the government, some 46 million Americans have done the same thing and now receive some food assistance.  But that doesn’t make it any easier.

A weird euphoria rises as I eye the groceries on the shelves.  Some early, rosy pomegranates sit in a pyramid near the doors, each one a hefty four dollars.  I could buy one, I think.  I could buy five of them.  And the expensive trail mix studded with dark chocolate.

I put some apples on sale into the cart and move on past the fish counter.  I could buy shrimp.  Or salmon.  But it’s at the meat counter where I linger.  I haven’t even looked at beef in years.  But now I study the prices and the cuts of meat; New York steak is eight dollars a pound.  Sirloin is six.  And hamburger!  I could buy hamburger.  I know it’s supposed to be healthier not to eat beef.  Vegetarians would rightly argue we don’t need it.  But now I’m gleeful I could buy it.  I don’t.  Some habits are too hard to break.  I can’t spend that much money.

But I do select some chicken on sale and a big block of cheese and coffee and orange juice and finally a bag of Oreos for my kids.  To them, that’s the pinnacle of decadence.  I can’t quit thinking that I could purchase the giant tortes in the bakery section, or a block of goat cheese or the imported Brie.  And it would be essentially free.  There’s nothing to make me spend this money responsibly.

But then I approach the counter.  The cashier asks me how my day is going, and I tell her okay.  Never mind that my heart pounds, or that I feel like a criminal as I load my groceries onto the belt.  Finally, I palm the card so the gray-haired lady behind me won’t see it, and I swipe it through the reader.  A comment I read on another blog runs through my mind: “If you can’t afford food, don’t eat.”  I punch in the memorized number.  All my parents’ admonitions haunt me, and my face grows warm as I realize the transaction shows on the big screen behind the cashier.  I feel as if there might as well be a flashing L for loser up there.

It’s hard to decide which is stronger—relief that I can buy this cart of food or shame that I need help to do it.  I sigh and slip the card back into my wallet.  For now, at least, I’ll take it.

Under the Poverty Line

Today I learned I’m officially living in poverty.  Not only that, I’ve been in poverty for the past three years.  I’d like to argue.  After all, my husband and I have about half a million dollars in retirement accounts.  We have no debt.  I live in a nice home on two acres of property in what was once rural King County south of Seattle, Wash.  The area has devolved into an odd mix of upscale homes, cows grazing on cramped acres, tiny sixties vacation cabins, and huge swaths of cheek-to-jowl box houses.  My neighbors are Boeing engineers, lawyers and computer analysts.

And yet, according to the Census Bureau, I belong with the 42.6 million people living in poverty in the United States.  Since 2007, the poverty rate in the U.S.has increased by 2.6 percentage points according to Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2010 released Sept. 13 by the Bureau.  My family is one of those absorbed into that statistic during the past three years.

How did that happen?  The answer lies in another set of statistics.  Unemployment in the construction industry stands at 13.5% according to a Sept. 2 report from the U.S. Department of Labor.  That number has nudged 30 percent or higher in some areas of the country, and it doesn’t really reflect the over two million construction jobs lost during the recession, making it the hardest hit segment of the U.S.economy.  Nor does that figure reflect the numbers of construction workers who have taken other jobs as janitors or burger flippers or who have given up searching for work.

My husband owns a structural engineering firm.  At its peak, he employed nine full-time workers.  Now, two workers crunch numbers amidst a shell of empty offices.  I’m a writer.  Our income has slid from six figures to a parade of negative numbers and a steady drawn-down of our savings.

Does that make us poor?  According to the Census Bureau it does.  The government sets the 2010 poverty level for a family of four at an income of $22,314, far above any dollars we’ve seen for three years.  Yet we still own an Infiniti G-35 (parked indefinitely in the garage), and I drive a Prius—both paid for in cash before the collapse.  My children’s future college tuition is paid for through the GET program, again funded in the before time.  So it bemuses me to read that I’m in poverty.  And I wonder how many of the other 46.2 million people here with me are in similar circumstances.  Do they have college educations and steady work histories, too?  Were they assured they’d made responsible choices by funding their retirements and children’s educations, avoiding debt and buying health insurance?  Like me are they wondering if they’d been better off buying three TVs and taking out two mortgages and flying to Europe?  Because now we’re all down here together.  Officially in poverty.