Giving Thanks

“Despite lingering unemployment and a still sluggish economy, many Americans are finding reasons to be thankful this time of year. In fact, for some, unexpected layoffs, financial setbacks, or simply a desire to spend more time with family have served as a reality check, a wake-up call for consumers to rethink their idea of wealth and prosperity.”

This sentiment drew over 3,000 comments on Yahoo’s finance page when the site featured a U.S. News & World Report column from Nov. 23 by Susan Johnston on “How Americans are Rethinking Prosperity.”  Most of the responses were scathing.  Apparently, many readers felt that fighting for jobs, struggling to buy food and pay bills, and watching their lifestyles erode does not denote any kind of “new prosperity.” And they don’t seem ready to reflect on any blessings these difficulties may have conveyed.

The article and the comments stayed with me through the Thanksgiving weekend. Can I find anything to be thankful for in our new situation?

The answer is yes. I appreciate that my viewpoint has changed. There are components to poverty that I didn’t understand when I was well off. For example, in the past I used to criticize the way poor people seem to lurch from crisis to crisis. I always wondered why they didn’t they plan ahead. Now I know. You can only put off normal maintenance and repairs and routine health care so long before disaster follows. For instance, I realize my 30-year-old stove needs replacing. The flames shooting out of it one night convinced me. But I patched it up and continue to gamble each night that it will sputter through another meal, because I can’t afford to do otherwise. So I, too, now lurch from crisis to crisis and a better understanding of poverty.

I also appreciate the lessons my children are learning. It’s hard to teach the value of money when it’s plentiful. We’ve always made our kids do chores and work for what they want, but I’m not sure they understood before why we never bought a new TV or an Xbox or upgraded cell phones, even when we could afford them. Now they do. Money is no longer an abstract concept. And they know first-hand the feelings of the kids at school who can’t afford the latest and greatest.

One of my proudest moment this year was when my 15-year-old daughter decided to earn her own money for a trip with her school orchestra later this year. While all her friends were vacationing at the beach and hanging out at the mall, she was working for the state picking up garbage alongside the highway–finding everything from rats to “trucker bottles” (you don’t want to know) to shopping carts full of booze. She now understands the true worth of college.

And I’ve been touched by all the people who are willing to help–from my neighbor who always seems to have cooked too much of something for herself, to the cashiers at the store who still have a friendly smile when they see EBT on the sales slip, to my sister who shares the occasional luxury and an optimistic outlook. People are kinder than I thought.

And of course I’m thankful we’re relatively well off. Our home is secure. We have health insurance and transportation. Work to do, even if it isn’t paying much. We’re all healthy. I know so many people coping with worse. I won’t lie and say I enjoy the new simplicity, because I don’t. But adversity makes you take stock of what you have and what you want. It forces you to learn new skills. For example, my husband is sitting next to me sewing up his ripped coat, and he’s become a gourmet cook. I can now build a killer fire and have attempted blogdom. So it’s not all bad. I understand what the article’s author was trying to say. But I’m with the 3,000 other commenters: I hope this “new prosperity” isn’t permanent.

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A Turkey of a Choice

What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; ’tis dearness only that gives everything its value.”–Thomas Paine

We bought our Thanksgiving turkey Monday. It presented an ethical dilemma not usually posed by turkeys, except maybe for vegetarians or the President deciding which turkey to pardon. That’s because its purchase highlighted some of the problems with the government Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Normally each year I search the ads to find the very best turkey price possible. Then I buy one for the holiday and one for the freezer. But this year, the country is suffering turkey sticker shock. According to the American Farm Bureau Federation, turkey prices have risen 25 cents a pound higher over 2010. The overall cost of a traditional Thanksgiving feast is up 13% for the year, largely due to the turkey.

One of the best turkey prices in my area this year was offered at Quality Food Centers (QFC) for $.39 cents per pound with a $25 purchase. QFC is not close or convenient to me. But normally, I would have made the trip. This year, with the food card in my pocket, I had no incentive to do so. In fact, the fresh turkeys at Costco with a price of $.89 per pound started to look pretty tasty.

Having the food benefits distorts my normal shopping decisions. Why take the time to clip coupons and compare prices? Or to buy generic brands? Or to bake cookies for a school fundraiser instead of purchasing Safeway’s finest. Or why take that extra trip to save a few dollars on a turkey? There is no incentive to save money as long as the amount stays within the limits of the monthly benefit. If I clip a coupon, I don’t get an extra dollar in my pocket. It means I can buy an extra dollar’s worth of food, but to be truthful, the government dollars are generous enough that I don’t need it. The saved amount then rolls into the next month’s benefit.

Anything that is given for free loses value. The problem exists in health care, education and housing.

No easy solutions exist to change this. If the government tries, for example, to allow people to keep a portion of any money they save from their monthly allotment, we run the risk of having parents starve their children in order to get cash. If we ask people to work for their benefits, (and personally I think we should), say cleaning parks or removing graffiti, it still won’t provide a reason for recipients to spend their benefits responsibly. If we try to tailor the amount so exactly that recipients must scrape to make it to the end of each month, we again run the risk that some will go hungry. An amount that is generous in the Pacific Northwest might not work for someone in inner-city Detroit.

There are no easy answers. I still clip coupons and buy generic brand products. I still pass up expensive foods, even on sale. I don’t buy processed foods or non-essentials. Because I hate needing help, and that’s how I was raised. But I did buy my turkey at Safeway.

Help for the Masses–Next Door

Recent headlines proclaimed the “re-emergence of concentrated poverty,” noting that the population in extreme-poverty neighborhoods—defined as areas where at least 40 percent of individuals live below the poverty line—rose by one-third in the 10 years following 2000. So in other words, not only are there more poor people, but there are more poor neighborhoods.  And many of these neighborhoods are now found in the suburbs as well as the inner city.

Researchers with the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution; a Washington, D.C., think tank; came to these conclusions in The Re-Emergence of Concentrated Poverty: Metropolitan Trends in the 2000s” after studying data from the 2005–2009 American Community Survey and the 1990 and 2000 Censuses. While I’m skeptical of many of their findings, my own neighborhood has morphed from a mildly upscale, white-bread suburb into a more interesting mix over the past couple years.  

For example, one couple now has their middle-aged daughter living with them. She’s been unemployed for over three years and is waiting for the bank to finish foreclosing on her home while she looks for work. Farther up the street, another man is hosting a mentally ill sister who cannot hold a job.

Then there’s the guy around the corner who inherited his home from his father. He does occasional odd-jobs, but exists without electricity, heat or transportation. A couple houses past him lives a family of immigrants who never have fewer than 10 cars in their driveway at any time. No one is sure how many people actually stay there.  Another family, from Central America, moved in last year and ran afoul of the neighbors by refusing to take their ancient, skeletal dog to the vet.  Apparently, to them, dogs have not yet become treasured family members that get their own Halloween costumes.

We’ve also experienced more crime in the past year, mostly from a spate of break-ins fueled by a pair of drug-sellers who live nearby. So occasionally we get our own episode of “Cops,” as the police chase the suspects through the neighborhood while helicopters hover over the treetops.

Does this sound like the suburbs? In some ways, these changes have been positive. As a stay-at-home writer, I used to get odd looks for being here during the day. Now I have lots of company. And the break-ins have forced the neighbors to talk to each other. We now swap notices of suspicious vehicles through a thriving block-watch system.  People never lack for neighborhood gossip when they run into each other. What used to be a mumbled hello is now more likely to be a discussion of job-hunting tips or the latest sightings of the neighborhood drifter. And the shift has shown what I’ve always suspected. It may take fifteen years to stop being a newcomer here, and Bunco parties may never catch on, but if you need a hand, this a great place to be.

Is Your Penny-Pinching Permanent?

The Wall Street Journal carried an article Oct. 4 by Ann Zimmerman on the “Frontier of Frugality.” It discussed the growing realization among retailers that consumers may not revert to their free-spending ways. Certainly, the numbers suggest they haven’t yet, despite a slight rise in October’s numbers—a 3.4% year-to-year jump in retail sales. But nothing in the economic or political tea leaves indicates spending will return to past numbers anytime soon.

So I’m wondering. Have people really changed their spending habits? And if so, are the changes permanent, like the article suggests? I’m more inclined to believe that those who still have money are spending it—just that fewer of us have it. Certainly, the carts I see at Costco have TVs and garden statues and laptops in them. Someone is buying all those iPads and Kindles and Xboxes.

So are you saving money, and if so how? Have your spending habits really changed? Will you stick to your new plan if times improve? Following are some of the changes we’ve made. 

  • No eating out and no more stops at Starbucks.
  • We put off non-essential home repairs. These delays have lead to some interesting discoveries. For example, our 30-year-old fire extinguisher really does work.
  • We wait on some dental care and don’t fill every prescription. When we do need medicine, we look for generic drugs.
  • No more packaged foods or non-essentials at the grocery store—goodbye Doritos and ice cream. We buy generic and make most of our own treats like cookies or bread. No fancy beauty or cleaning products—vinegar, baking soda and homemade soap work for most chores.
  • No more cable TV. No texting on our cell phones and minimal minutes. Basic, dinosaur phones that are only good for a short conversation and embarrassing the teenager. 
  • No vacations except backpacking, which costs only the price of a Forest Pass and a small donation of blood to the mosquitoes.
  • No events or activities, except the free sort. We’re blessed to live in an area with an abundance of these.
  • No new clothes that don’t come from Goodwill, except for the kids.
  • No nonessential purchases, except for the kids’ birthday and Christmas presents, and we shop resale for those. No more exchanging gifts outside the family, except for those we grow or make.
  • We drive an ’88 Toyota pickup (go Toyota!) with minimal insurance instead of a more expensive vehicle.
  • We turn the heat way down and pile on the blankets.
  • We carry high deductibles on all our insurance.
  • Repair what we can, live without if we can’t.
  • We’ve dropped all magazine subscriptions, museum memberships, etc., and read magazines at the library instead. Our county has the best library system in the world.

Some of these measures we’ll stick to when things improve. Some we won’t. I’ll definitely turn up the heat and replace some dangerous appliances. But I love the library, and I don’t miss cable.  What changes will you keep?

Stick-Your-Head-in-the-Sand Day

Monday morning. I’m now through my second cup of coffee and have scanned the headlines to learn the following:

  • Iran is close to having nuclear capability, causing the U.S. to ratchet up its threat of possibly talking about sanctions.
  • Ocean acidification is destroying the marine food chain and endangering the future of shellfish farming, the seafood industry and the spread of Red Lobster.
  • The federal deficit-reduction panel can’t agree on anything (no news here)–including whether to cut some $200 million to promote the sales of American crops overseas, because one credit-rating reduction wasn’t enough.
  • More deadly virus has been detected in Northwest salmon, which means it’s only a matter of time before we need to be vaccinated for the salmon flu.
  • The earthquake in Oklahoma is part of a puzzling jump in seismic activity in that state and Arkansas, leading to fears about the safety of fracking and concerns that our West Coast faults have become passé.
  • A 1,300-foot asteroid will pass between the orbit of the moon and the Earth tomorrow at a range of about 201,700 miles. It should miss, but the Apophis Asteroid may slam into the Earth in 2036.
  • My morning coffee could lead to hip fractures, depression and fatigue, causing scientists to wonder about the bean’s value as a stimulant.

That leaves out recent information that the world will end next year (since it didn’t on Oct. 21), that new viruses capable of decimating human populations lurk in the rain forest; that Obama, Romney, Herman Cain or . . . is poised to win the White House; and that global warming will soon destroy coffee and chocolate production.  No wonder I’m sitting here with my hands trembling and my teeth clenched–oh no, wait, that was the coffee. But I have decided one of the biggest ills of our society is information overload. And I propose to do something about it: National Stick-Your-Head-in-the-Sand Day.

On this day, we’re all forbidden to read a headline, connect to the Internet or turn on the TV. This may mean staying at home, since we’ll also want to avoid traffic congestion, protestors, warning signs and places like the mall, where we run the risk of finding out our social lives are doomed unless we buy $50 kits to remove, re-shape, re-draw and re-texture our eyebrows. It also might be best to hold the holiday on a weekend, so we can sidestep our children’s schools and worries that they’re not keeping up with the Chinese; and work, where we might hear rumors of layoffs or pay cuts.

Instead, I plan to sit at home with my family and a cup of tea, play a game or two, pet my annoying cat and be grateful for another day.