Midnight in the Garden of Cereal

Here’s a story that cuts to the heart of the issue. I could spend weeks dissecting this piece, and its attendant comments, and I just might.

We have some things in common with the profiled couple. First of all, we’re a low-income family too; between my financial aid and Dear Wife’s graduate stipend, we’re pulling down somewhere between $19,ooo and $24,000 per year. That puts us just under the federal poverty line, as listed here. Remember that I’m not employed outside the home right now, so that’s the whole income stream, unless we dip into our student loans. Basically, DW’s paychecks cover our rent and utilities; the rest has to come out of my little stash, which would average out to $140 per week if I wanted to spend it (I don’t) . Our monthly food budget, which you may have guessed is food stamps, is just over $500 per month, just like the family in the news story. We are fortunately out of the babes-in-diapers phase, and we don’t have any daycare expenses, but there are band instruments to rent, gas to buy, shoes to replace, and so forth. Life in America can be very expensive.

And yet…I have to wonder how similar we really are to that Virginia family. What were their childhoods like? Did they have access to the same opportunities that we did? Were their choices constrained by circumstances we can’t imagine? It seems that they became parents well before DW and I did; but she and I have been poor our whole adult lives anyway. Do they live in an apartment complex with no space for a garden? Would they have time for one anyway?

We do not shop at the store profiled in the news piece, and have not for several years now. It has been a deliberate and sometimes difficult choice. We occasionally miss the one-stop convenience and efficiency of buying everything at one place, but we heard and read too many negative things about the company to feel comfortable supporting it. Did that couple have access to those news reports?

And yet…we’ve never gardened, or canned, or spun, or hunted. We don’t enjoy the luxury of close relatives nearby to help with the children,  a large plot of land in the country, or one substantial income to allow the stay-at-home partner to explore the vicissitudes of domesticity. We have a funky, older vehicle; but it gets lousy gas mileage. We are arguably more privileged than many in America; yet there are many who have more advantages than we do. So…where are we?


About poorlocavore

Welcome to one family's journey towards a smaller food-mile footprint on a small food budget. How do our choices affect the environment, and what influences our choices? Read on and find out what I'm learning.
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10 Responses to Midnight in the Garden of Cereal

  1. Cassie says:

    It seems to me that you’re fundamentally different from the people in the story. You are poor by conscious choice. You are well-educated, and have earning potential. You just choose not to exercise it, for reasons that I don’t yet understand. But the point is, you have options. You may not like them, but they’re available.

    The couple in the story have limited earning potential, I’m guessing. Perhaps he has an advanced degree and chooses to be a waiter in a fast food restaurant, but most likely not. They’re just people who are going along, mired in the situation they’ve created, with no way out.

    They’re poor by choice, also–they just don’t know it. They chose to have kids young without getting an education or establishing a career first. They chose to have 5 kids, instead of maybe stopping at one or two. I’m not sure it matters to me why they made these choices, which is a question you bring up. But I do feel confident that their reasons were not the same as your reasons, which leads me to the conclusion that you’re different, despite your similarities.

    They come across as victims of their circumstances (which may be bias on the part of the writer) while you and your family are doing this on purpose. I think?

    No comment on the WalMart angle. I’ll save that for a later tirade.

    • poorlocavore says:

      Our current situation is quite deliberate, that is true. We have chosen to take one step back in order to take two forward, so to speak. DW is going for an advanced degree, and I am planning to get finally get my Bachelor’s, then possibly a Master’s. That should increase our earning potential. Prior to this late-entry college era, though, we were very much like this couple-or felt like them, anyway. I had a GED and was working as a waiter; DW had a HS diploma and went from retail to stay-at-home mom. We had three children within five years, which some people thought was too many, too soon. Maybe I identify with them due to having been there and done that.

      You bring up an interesting point about being poor by choice, whether conscious or not. Sometimes we simply can’t predict the consequences of our decisions, or we’re too young to be able to see that far down the road. I didn’t graduate from high school, then blew off college. Sometimes our good ideas simply don’t work out. I was enrolled in a technical training program for automotive repair for a year before my oldest son was born, and I thought that was going to be my quick ticket to a good income. Seven jobs in one year and $10k in loan debt later, I was back waiting tables. The career move didn’t take.

      There’s another discussion of the article here which I found interesting, if for other reasons. While there are many good ideas there, there’s an underlying condescension to it-“Oh, anyone can do this!”-that bothers me.

      And yes on that last point as well.

  2. Cassie says:

    This has been bothering me all morning. That’s when I know it’s good stuff.

    I’m wondering why I found it important to make the distinction between poor by conscious choice and poor by unconscious choice and I think it’s because it speaks to your level of awareness and reflectiveness (is that even a word?). You reflect deeply on your daily activities–whether it be the impact of buying local or the the concern with how “Low Prices!” affect our global well-being. I’m not sure that most poor people have that level of intention to their lifestyle. Their main concern IS low price–either because they don’t care, or, if they DO care, they don’t have the luxury of putting their money where their mouths are–vetoing bad business or environmentally unfriendly practices by spending more to get something that is produced more responsibly.

    I’m glad you elaborated on your situation. I think you have a unique perspective, having been on both sides of the poverty fence. I made a poor assumption that you’d always been sort of working your way through school. Good to know the back story. I think your experiences will really be helpful as you delve farther into this.

    Interesting about the “anyone can do it” attitude. I don’t know about that. I’m trying to cut my food budget and it’s really hard. The article did seem a little flip–like, “Well, they just load up their cart and next month they do it all over again!” What’s IN that cart, I’d like to know!

  3. Jen says:

    We are also ‘poor by choice’, at least, in a sense. I have been living at or below the poverty line for most of my adult life. Raising a family in this modern world can be a pricey business, but there are ways around some of the costs.

    We have chosen time over money. After experimenting with working more and buying childcare, and the attendant stressors of having to buy more and more to make the job possible (commuting expense, clothing expense, convenience food expense, b/c you can’t cook from scratch when you are away from home for so long every day, and of course, childcare…) I found that I wasn’t really netting any extra income after it was all said and done. And the health stress is a sneaky thing too, and that doesn’t usually collect it’s debts until you’ve been on the hamster wheel for far too long.

    Now I am back in school, getting an education, trying to add to my ability to creatively make income in the future that is outside the box of corporate employment. I have skills that can translate to a reasonable business when the kids are older and I am willing to invest more time in such a project. But I think I will pass on working myself to death in order to escape this perceived money poverty. I would like to be more stable & have my needs met, but living for so long with so little has helped me reframe just exactly what that means. And for me, time is a huge part of that, because we only get so much of it, and I am not willing to trade that in on a fancy car or a fashionable wardrobe.

  4. Jen says:

    “What’s in the cart, I’d like to know!”

    I like your question, Cassie. There are really so many ways to divvy up an income, even when it is meager. Some of the ways that I have found to save money just wouldn’t work for another family. Also, some people aren’t exposed to alternative ways of looking at things. I live in a leaky old PNW rental, which I love b/c the rent is cheap, and it allows me to keep my internet turned on. Some people bike in order to avoid the costs of driving & insurance. Other people might choose differently. Some people might choose cigarettes and pop as an important budget item; or cable, or candy, or well, who knows?

    I think that if we were exposed early on to the idea of asking ourselves “Does this choice/thought/action serve me?” people my learn to make better choices, and also waste less of their energy on things that don’t serve them. Unfortunately, nowadays advertising has such a huge impact on what people choose & think & believe, and those choices are for the benefit of the corporations & their profit margins, not the health and sanity of our citizenry.

  5. poorlocavore says:

    This is the sort of conversation I hoped would begin 🙂

    Time vs. money-it’s too bad that the two are in competition. The conscious choice for material poverty, or “voluntary simplicity” as it is sometimes known, has been a factor in our lives as well. Many theological and philosophical threads can lead one there, be it the Tao, or Thoreau, or Jesus. It can manifest in so many ways. Yet the larger culture stands firmly against it, and fights it, and tries to demonize it. There is no “Enough!” As in: these prices are low enough. My income is high enough. Our family prestige is great enough. The company’s profits and stock price are sufficient. Whereas natural systems achieve an equilibrium, human systems tend to seek ever more and more.

    I wish we knew what was in their cart as well. Leaving the contents to our imaginations may not be doing the family much of a favor. And there is another effect that I have noticed: when prices are lower, we tend to buy more because “it’s such a good deal,” rather than looking first at what we really need. That’s why I think making up the menu before the grocery list is such a good plan. We, as a family, are trying to break this mind-set as well.

    BTW, I fixed a link in my original reply above to another blogger’s post on the same article.

  6. captiv8ed says:

    One interesting thing is how often, even in the infinite reaches of the world wide web, we are basically talking to ourselves and people just like us. I just read through the majority of the blog comments from the second link. And it is overwhelmingly: wow, what a great post. I already do this. Or “What!!?? You BUY pancake mix!!??? I am so much purer than you! I grind my own flour from wheat grown from the same seeds that my great grandfather sowed.” Not a lot of diversity of opinion there. Sometimes it seems like blogs and comments are simply a chance to feel smug about our choices. This one excluded of course 🙂

    • poorlocavore says:

      One reason why I decided to chime in on that post was to give another perspective, which I agree that group was lacking. And I want there to be some dissent, some back-and-forth, because that’s how we learn.

  7. Pingback: I Want to Believe… | The Poor Locavore

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