Unless you’ve lived through it, you can’t understand poverty. Not really. Mentally put yourself in their shoes all you want, but it’s nearly impossible to imagine anything beyond the very surface point of “I don’t have any money — I sure wish I did.” But the problems that poor people face are so much deeper than that. Especially if you’re a teenager who’s already trying to survive the five-year onslaught of demon juice that makes you question your own existence in the first place. Adding poverty to their already-towering pile of horseshit just makes it so much worse.
I have an immense amount of sympathy and respect for those kids, because in most cases, they’re in a situation they can’t control. They just have to grit their teeth and ride it out until they’re old enough to take the reigns themselves. In the meantime, they’ve learned a few things about poverty that the average American will never understand. For example …
#5. That Stinky Kid At School Probably Can’t Help It
Remember that scene in Willy Wonka [or Charlie] And The Chocolate Factory in which Charlie finds some money on the street, and then spends it on candy because he’s a selfish little bastard? In an actual impoverished family, there would have been a whole lot less “You shouldn’t sell that ticket you found,” and a whole lot more “You fucking bought what?! We’ve been out of milk for a week! We’ve been wiping our asses on old newspapers and selling blood to keep the lights on! We’re out of sugar and butter and eggs and bread …”
The remaining hour or so of that movie would have just been that list, and nowhere in that exacerbated rant would you hear the word “deodorant.” Because when you’re hurting for the essentials, deodorant is a luxury. So is laundry soap. The average person doesn’t put much thought into which soap does what job — you just buy it because you know you need it. But when you’re poor, the whole soap industry is a cruel, ridiculous joke. There’s one kind of soap for your body. Another for your hair. A soap made specifically for dishes. Another for laundry. In the eyes of a poor person, if you have hand soap on the bathroom sink, you might as well be Bill Gates.
Don’t patronize me, asshole.
So in a lot of poor households, there are two kinds of soap: a bar that you use for your ass and hair, and a big-ass container of the cheapest dish soap you can find for dishes and laundry. Because 40 ounces of cheap laundry soap costs about five times more than an equal amount of cheap dish soap. What you don’t realize until you’ve lived through ghetto laundry is that laundry soap is designed with a sort of perfume smell — or at least with chemicals that are made specifically to eliminate crotch funk. Dish soap isn’t. So using that makes even “clean” clothes still smell weird.
There’s also a pretty good chance that you don’t own a washer and dryer. When I was a kid, there would be A Gathering at the beginning of each month. An almost supernatural migration of the poor, who had just cashed their welfare checks and now had between two weeks and a month’s worth of washing to catch up on at the laundromat. Laundromats are hygiene prostitution: expensive and eerily sticky, so you don’t go very often. Many times, you find yourself digging out the least dirty outfit from the hamper, because it’ll be another week before you can afford to go back and clean your clothes again.
“While I’m at it, I think there’s room for me to get a quick bath.”
So now you’ve done your laundry, but you’ve used all of your dish soap in the process. Your clothes still smell kind of weird, but it’s better than what it was. Now your dishes are piling up because you have no money to buy more soap until you get paid again. The longer they sit, the worse they smell. You haven’t changed the trash in a couple of days because it’s not full yet, and when you’re poor, you learn to waste nothing — not even a simple garbage bag. The cat’s shit box needs changed, but litter is waaaay down on your list of budget priorities. There’s a pretty good chance that at least one member of your household smokes. And it doesn’t take long for all of that to work its way through the house and into your favorite Nickelback shirt. Which oddly makes the shirt way more Nickelback than it was when you first bought it.
The worst part is this: You know how if you put on perfume or cologne, you stop smelling it after about 30 minutes? The same thing happens with funky stink smells. You go to school, thinking you smell just fine, but your classmates start crying from 50 feet away. Before you know it, you’re being relentlessly mocked, and you have no idea why.
“You don’t deserve to be in our hip graffiti room!”
And the argument of “clean your house and take a shower” isn’t always the solution. Take all the showers you want — if you don’t have deodorant, you’re going to start smelling like sweat in a couple of hours. If you don’t have the chemicals to clean your house, then you’re just wiping stuff down with a wet rag, which doesn’t do shit for the stink. And don’t even start with that “They’re just too lazy to clean” bullshit. I mentioned in this article that 91 percent of government benefits go to the disabled, elderly, and working households. Of those who have the ability to clean, many of them are working two part-time jobs a day, while their kids spend eight hours at school and another three hours doing homework. Time is every bit as exhausted as their income.
#4. Your Looks Are Based On Your Parents’ Artistic Ability
Haircuts were the bane of my existence when I was a kid. Paying for one is out of the question, so you have to get them at home. Mom could never get my hair even on both sides, so I looked like someone had stapled a wig to my scalp. Dad would do it when he was 30 beers deep, so I’d come out looking like Moe from The Three Stooges. If your parents suck at cutting hair, then you put that shit off for as long as possible. Fuck fashion, that is why a lot of poor kids have long hair or buzz cuts. If you’ve ever seen a poor person come to school with a totally bald head, it means that either his mom fucked up the haircut so badly that it was less humiliating to just shave it, or he got head lice and they couldn’t afford the shampoo to kill them, so they set his head on fire.
And you can’t just throw some mousse into a bad haircut and make it all spiky like you meant to go for the shaggy rock star look. Remember the deodorant thing I just fucking talked about? Hair care products are even further down on the list of necessities. They might as well be sandwiched between “new Porsche” and “that awesome spinny blade thing from Krull.”
Your parents’ artistic ability also dictates how you look from the neck down. Clothes are hand-me-downs, so you either have to be fine with wearing jeans that haven’t been in style since your mom’s hymen was intact, or you hope that she knows how to spruce them up with dye or scissors or some sort of artwork that makes you look like a grungy alternative rebel.
Or an insufferable hipster twat.
Sometimes, as was the case when I was in high school, the world decides to pull its unlubed fist out of your asshole just long enough to give you a breather. My breather came in the form of heavy metal and eventually the Grunge Era, and it felt magnificent. Holey, ripped-up jeans came into fashion, and that meant that every single shitty pair of pants I owned were finally not embarrassing to wear. Even the severely stained ones were awesome. In fact, the more stained and nasty they were, the better they looked … and trust me, I was nuts-deep in nasty stained pants. Good luck sleeping tonight with that image in your head.
Again, my mom’s artistic talents came into play, but this time it was a good thing. She knew how to make ripped jeans fray correctly so that they didn’t look like I just stabbed them a bunch of times with a steak knife in a fit of rage … which I actually did. She also knew that if you added just the right amount of bleach to the wash, it would make the jeans look sort of stonewashed. Shut up, it was in style at the time.
Surprisingly, that artistic touch had a practical effect. When I entered high school, I grew really tall really fast, so most of my jeans were about three inches too short. But I found out that when you cut holes in them, the weight of the denim makes those rips open up, which makes the legs artificially longer. So after sprucing them up with a pair of scissors and fits of maniacal giggling, all of my old, tiny jeans were back on the market. And trust me, in the 1990s, the ladies loved men in tiny ripped-up jeans.
Hey, come on, my eyes are up here.
Well, not when I wore them, but when other guys did.
But as happy as I was that the Grunge Era made looking like a walking garage sale acceptable, it had some pretty heavy drawbacks. That’s because …
#3. Fads Can Destroy Your Ability To Buy Clothes
Grunge was both a blessing and a curse. The upside was that we already owned most of the stuff that was getting popular. We were always stocked up on flannel shirts because the Dollar Store sold them for a couple of bucks, so we’d get tons of those at Christmas. Old shoes, combat boots, army jackets … all of that stuff came from Goodwill, Salvation Army, and garage sales. And if all else failed, you could just put on dad’s work clothes and you fit right in.
But once that fad kicked in, holy shit, our shopping was fucked virtually overnight. The price of flannels jumped to $40 a piece. Combat boots and thermal undershirts cost as much as that high-priced preppy, sporty shit that all the rich kids were wearing a few years earlier. And it wasn’t just a case of everything getting more expensive. There was something weirder at work.
See, we shopped at Goodwill and Wearable Toilet Paper because we had to. When shitty clothes came into style, everyone else started shopping there because they wanted to. Since middle-class and upper-class kids had the money to buy “new” clothes, they flooded those stores and bought all of the good stuff. Which, back then, meant the shittiest stuff? It’s still hard to get it straight in my head, even after all these years. The point is that they bought out the clothes that were now in style.
Meanwhile, your family is still on the same clothes budget, which means that you still only go shopping once a year (when you get your tax return). So by the time you have the ability to buy new stuff, it’s like showing up to a Thanksgiving dinner in January. All that’s left is bones, mold, and the corpses of those who just didn’t have what it takes to handle the feast.
Now you have to find new places to shop, because even my parents, who couldn’t give less of a shit about how we dressed, were like, “No, we’re not buying this. You couldn’t even get away with wearing this shit ironically. Your classmates will beat you down out of sheer principle, and they would be justified.” Garage sales excluded, the next-cheapest place for clothes shopping was Walmart. But even then, you’d be able to buy one pair of jeans for every five that you could have bought at Goodwill.
But wait, it gets worse. Because when you combine the three points I just talked about …
#2. It’s Nearly Impossible To Make Friends
Because of the shitty clothes and the bad smells and the horrible haircut, you’re ostracized in school. Not just from run-of-the-mill bullies, either. I don’t think I’m surprising anyone by saying that kids can be assholes, but it gets so much worse when they want to look funny and edgy in front of their friends, and then you walk by.
They can’t fathom the idea that you didn’t make the choice to look and smell like that. They see you as a lazy, stinky asshole who never showers and doesn’t give a shit how he looks. You can’t explain to them that it’s out of your hands, because 1) that would be humiliating as fuck, and 2) they still wouldn’t understand it. They can’t. They’ve never lived through it. They will never understand what it’s like to view three dollars as a saving grace. To have to replace “shampoo” with “chicken” on your list of priorities. So they make fun of you, and that shit hurts like you wouldn’t believe. You walk away, wanting to die.
And for some reason, the theme to The Breakfast Club is playing.
But even if you’re lucky enough to get hygiene products like that, you still have problems making friends, because you can’t afford to go out with them. I can’t even begin to explain how embarrassing it is to have to turn down simple things like a trip to the bowling alley or a night at the movies because the only way you could go is if one of your friends paid for your shit. It gets so humiliating that you eventually just start making up excuses as to why you can’t go out, and eventually you just come off as an antisocial prick.
So you end up coagulating with other poor people, because they understand what it’s like to have to do poor people activities — cards, campfires, lying about cow-tipping. And don’t get me wrong here; I’m not saying that impoverished friends aren’t real friends. But they always came with an unfortunately common drawback.
In my experience, many of those households were stressed to the breaking point. So much so that it made it almost impossible to visit for more than a few minutes at a time. Dad is coping with the stress by pounding beer. At least two people in the house are constantly arguing. Since you’re a guest, they feel like they have to feed you, but they don’t have the means, so more stress and guilt piles up. It doesn’t take long to feel like a burden, even if all you did was stop in to say hi. Eventually, you figure out that it’s just less of a headache to stay home.
Just you, your yard, and your stupid annoying elephant.
After a few years of that, you finally reach the end of this terrible, shitty time. Graduation is right around the corner, if you haven’t already dropped out. You’re finally able to start your own career of “something to do with being rich” and fix this shit, so your own kids will never have to go through it. And that’s when you find out the worst thing of all …
#1. You’re Expected To Carry On The Family Tradition Of Staying Poor
One thing that’s always driven me nuts is seeing some rich daddy’s boy inserted into a high-paying, high-profile job. In the words of the immortal Mike Patton, “It shouldn’t bother me. No, it shouldn’t. But it does.” Weirdly, the easiest place to see this in action is in professional wrestling. Here’s Charlotte, daughter of Ric Flair, holding the WWE Diva’s Championship title, after only two months of being on the show:
Goddammit, that title was MINE!
And everyone knows that The Rock was and is still occasionally a WWE wrestler. But if you’re not a fan of wrestling, you may not know that he is actually a third-generation performer. Both his father and grandfather were big-name wrestlers, and his grandmother was a promoter. Actually, instead of listing them all off, here’s a gigantic list of wrestlers who are related.
Now, I’m not saying that they’re not talented and they don’t deserve their spots — many of these people are insanely good at what they do. What I’m saying is that people often overlook the fact that they have something a lot of poor people do not: someone to teach them a specialized, moneymaking skill, and relatives and/or friends who know the right contacts to get their foot in the door.
When I was growing up, the people in my family who made the most money were working in oil refineries or actual oil fields. They made great money, but they were also working 80+ hours per week, and were so tired when they got home that they couldn’t function. The other family members (the ones who had jobs) were all manual labor factory workers or cashiers at various stores and gas stations. The skill sets they had were very limited, and the contacts they’d made were for jobs that barely paid enough to survive, and often had no benefits at all. No sick time. No vacations. No insurance. “John, this is my manager, Chad. He’s going to interview you for a position cleaning smeared shit off of the bathroom walls. It pays nine dollars per year.”
My mom was on welfare for a huge chunk of our lives, and when she finally did start working, it was as a housekeeper, getting paid under the table. For those of you too young to understand what that is, it means that she was getting paid in cash and wasn’t paying taxes on it. So even if she were to teach me her cleaning skills (which she did), I’d still be in eventual trouble, because I thought it was totally normal to just pocket cash and not report it as income.
But the overall thing that I, and many people like me, learned was what our parents knew: You apply for the job that’s the easiest to obtain, and just be happy that you have a job at all, no matter what it is. It took me 35 years to break that mindset, and when I finally did escape it, people were shocked. They patted me on the back and told me what a great job I did, like I hit the lottery or something.
It’s because I wore my lucky dress.
Sadly, “hitting the lottery” is the way it’s viewed, because breaking out of that perpetual buttfucking is a true rarity. So if you’re poor, let me tell you something that the rest of the world won’t. You absolutely can break out of that prison. It’s not easy. In fact, it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it is absolutely doable. Rather than think about all of the time, effort, exhaustion, and luck it’s going to take in order to make that happen, though, start small. Start with learning a new skill that few other people can do, and figure out how to put that skill to work. Doing that isn’t going to drop you ass-first into a pile of money, but it’s an excellent start to breaking that mindset of “I will always hand people french fries for a living.” The longer you stay in that frame of mind, the harder it is to escape.
No, seriously, close the window and go do that. We’ll be here when you get back.