I’ve been thinking a lot about the people who have SO MANY OPINIONS about how others on government assistance should be spending their money. Not to see movies! Or eat steak! If you need the government’s help to pay your rent or buy your groceries, then you – my friend – should be the most responsible person on the planet when it comes to money.
I remember when I was poor and the government was assisting me in any number of ways – I still always splurged on payday. When I had the check in my hand, I always did something stupid with it. Sometimes I took E to a movie, sometimes we went out to eat at a fancy restaurant…like Ruby Tuesdays. Sometimes we bought a used VHS of our VERY OWN at the Hollywood Video which sold them cheap. Every two weeks, I did at least one thing with my money that I probably shouldn’t have considering I never really had enough money to pay my bills.
I think of it often as it relates to Maslow and his hierarchy of needs.
We weren’t starving or homeless, so our very basic needs were being met, but I did worry about paying for groceries and rent as I inched closer to each payday or to the end of the month. And I definitely lived in places that weren’t very safe. So I don’t look at those bottom two layers of needs and say that we confidently fulfilled those needs on a regular basis.
And to me – if you’re not living a life where your confident that those two bottom levels of needs are going to be fulfilled every day? Then you’re not going to be making “responsible” decisions about your financial future. It sucks not knowing for sure if you’ll have enough money to pay the rent, and that’s so hard – carrying that burden around – that escaping with a trip to the movie theater is a wonderful temporary release.
Remember: I was also a smoker back then. I got plenty of notices about my utilities getting cut off, but I still found money to buy cigarettes. I was basically the person all of those articles regarding mis-spending government assistance are written about.
But until all of your basic needs are met, you’re not likely to be thinking BIG PICTURE about your needs and self actualization. You’re living day to day and your day to day is kinda miserable so if there’s something to lighten that misery, you do it. Who cares if that means you’re eating ramen for 4 weeks. Cigarettes make you feel normal and less pitiful, so they’re a priority.
I knew plenty of people during that time who fell victim to drug addiction for the very same reason.
If you’re not getting your very basic needs fulfilled, then you’ll find any shortcut you can to achieve some sort of joy – even if it’s temporary. If you’re worried your downstairs neighbor is a murder (we were, don’t ask) then you’re not thinking about how – if you saved that cigarette money – you could maybe afford to fix the air-conditioning in your car. If the math shows you can’t afford that Biology Textbook AND pay the utility bill, then you’re going to use the cash in your wallet to go see that movie with your kid because that helps you escape a little bit. And then you can’t afford EITHER the textbook OR the bill. (I assure you I made this exact decision. Several times.)
If you just got paid and the money isn’t enough to cover all of your bills, you’re going to buy NON GENERIC TOILET PAPER just because you’re sick of the cheap stuff.
Not everyone who is poor makes bad financial decisions, but there’s a whole celebrated theory of Hierarchy of Needs that explains it a little bit.
I worked two jobs, was going to school, raising a kid and couldn’t pay my bills. It was a tough life and yet I still sometimes get more depressed NOW which is INSANE to me. But that is because I was trying to just SURVIVE back then. I didn’t have time to analyze how I take criticism or my relationship with food. I was trying to just keep my head above water and if that breathing was a little easier some days because I splurged on dinner at Olive Garden? Then I was going to do it.
And that limited grocery money never EVER went to fresh foods. Could we have eaten healthier? Most definitely. But when you’re struggling paycheck to paycheck…horribly processed macaroni and cheese is one of your treats. You’re not going to put it back on the shelf just because someone told you that whole foods are better for you.
I’m not saying “LEAVE THE POOR PEOPLE ALONE!” Well, maybe I am, I don’t know. I’m just pointing out how I felt and why I sometimes bought steak and went to movies and was a smoker. And hoping that as I share this, that maybe people will be less about the pitchforks waved at people on food stamps and more about finding someone struggling in their community and maybe offering to give them a break once in awhile.