Penny: On Being “Poor” And Receiving Help

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Dear Rich,

As you know, my family and I get food support. We’ve been getting it for about 8 years now, ever since my husband was in chiropractic school. We could have gotten it before then, when he was a Catholic elementary teacher making only $18,750 a year, but I hadn’t known it was available to us. I didn’t realize we were poor.

When we first started getting food support, I wasn’t sure how to feel about it. I was kind of embarrassed by it. I felt like we were too good for it, like we were above it.

Now, I receive it with gratitude. I know that we are not any better or worse than anybody else getting it. I am no longer too proud. We are all just humans doing the best we can in this world, and I am happy and grateful for the help we get.

Could we get by without it? Yes.

Do we use what we save on food to help pay off our student loan debt? Yes.

Is that fair? I think so.

I recently read this amazing book called The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer (not sure if you’ve ever heard of her or not… she’s this rock star married to author Neil Gaiman, and she used to be part of a band called the Dresden Dolls). In the book, she writes this little tidbit about Henry David Thoreau that kind of sums up how I feel about all this food support stuff:

Thoreau wrote in painstaking detail about how he chose to remove himself from society to live by his own means in a little ten-by-fifteen-foot cabin on the side of a pond. What he left out of Walden, though, was the fact that the land he built on was borrowed from his wealthy neighbor, that his pal Ralph Waldo Emerson had him over for dinner all the time, and that every Sunday, Thoreau’s mother and sister brought him a basket of freshly baked goods for him, including donuts.

The idea of Thoreau gazing thoughtfully over the expanse of transcendental Walden Pond, a bluebird alighting onto his threadbare shoe, all the while eating donuts that his mom brought him just doesn’t jibe with most people’s picture of him as a self-reliant, noble, marrow-sucking back-to-the-woods folk hero.

I think a lot of the time, people might expect those getting government assistance to look and act a certain way (poor), and that they shouldn’t be able to enjoy any kind of treat or luxury (like going to Harry Potter World) because of that. Kind of like how we expected Thoreau to look when he was living at Walden Pond.

Taking the donuts is hard for a lot of people.

It’s not the act of taking that’s so difficult, it’s more the fear of what other people are going to think when they see us slaving away at our manuscript about the pure transcendence of nature and the importance of self-reliance and simplicity. While munching on someone else’s donut.

I’m not working on writing a literary masterpiece here, of course. I’m just trying to raise my kids while my husband tries to grow his business… and, yes, all the while we’re munching on someone else’s donut.

And I’m okay with that. I’m learning how to take the donuts.

Yes, getting food support helps free up money for us to put toward student loan debt and vacations, but it also helps us pay our mortgage, our electric bills, etc. Basically, it helps people with living their lives.

Right now, the company you work for pays for your housing, your phones, and your health insurance. In a way, you’re in a similar situation… someone is providing for and supporting you and your family in your life.

As I’ve said before, people need to take care of each other. We belong to each other. It is a gift to be able to accept support from another person (or the government). It makes you humble. It makes you grateful. It makes you human.

It is a gift to be able to give, and it is a gift to be able to receive.

Unlike before, I am starting to realize that I am a poor person, yet I still don’t feel like one (I think being really “poor” has less to with money than one might expect). In many ways, I live a life similar to yours, but one with a lot more support: We send our kids to a private school (thanks to a scholarship), we eat healthy, organic food (thanks to food support), we own a house (thanks to our moms co-signing on the mortgage).

Should our lives look differently? Should we look like we are poor and suffering? Or should we take the donuts and do what we can with them? That’s the path I’m choosing.

And is that fair? I know you, like many people, have worked hard to get where you are and for what you have. But did you work any harder than my husband worked in chiropractic school and in starting his own practice? Probably not. Did the friends my husband made during chiropractic school, who are now making a lot more money than him and even you, work any harder than he did? Probably not, they just have different gifts and personalities and happen to be better at selling chiropractic than him (along with having a different vision and fee structure for their practices). Do either of you work any harder than a construction worker or a teacher does?

It’s all relative. Different people have different interests and values and jobs and income levels. And some people just get lucky.

And we all need to take care of each other, in any way that we can.

And that’s okay.

Here’s another excerpt from The Art of Asking (I can’t recommend this book enough) that I’ll end with:

Our first job in life is to recognize the gifts we’ve already got, take the donuts that show up while we cultivate and use those gifts, and then turn around and share those gifts – sometimes in the form of money, sometimes time, sometimes love – back into the puzzle of the world.

Our second job is to accept where we are in the puzzle at each moment. That can be harder.

Some days it’s your turn to ask.

Some days it’s your turn to be asked.




8 Replies to “Penny: On Being “Poor” And Receiving Help”

  1. Hey Pen — I don’t think it’s unfair that you receive financial help. But, I don’t think having my house and phone paid for by my company is the same at all. We work for that benefit, and if we didn’t work for the company, we wouldn’t have that benefit. They are not doing it because they care about us or because we are in need. They do it because for the company to accomplish its goals, it needs people to live overseas. Families would not take these jobs if they had to find housing on their own in a different culture, language, laws, etc. It’s the cost of doing business.

    And the part about working harder than a teacher or construction worker — I would never say that. Teachers have incredibly hard jobs — a day with kids wipes me out. And I worked on the farm, so I know how tough manual labor is.

    You make some good points that I want to think about. But I don’t think financial success is all about working harder or getting lucky or being born with gifts. I think it has a lot to do with choices — how much debt to incur and what career to choose. I’m not saying it’s always easy, but we have some control over the process. I have more thoughts but this is turning into a new post so I’ll stop here!
    Rich @ recently posted…Monthly Money Check: How Rich Spends $2,000 On Food — February 2017My Profile

    1. The point I was trying to make, in comparing my getting food support to you getting housing paid, is that we’re all getting help from somewhere. Yeah, yeah, I know it’s not the *same* thing, so sorry if that was a bad comparison.

      And I never said that you would say that, about working harder than a teacher or a construction worker. I don’t know if it reads like I’m attacking you or something, but I was just trying to explore these thoughts and ideas. So, sorry if it came across as something other than that.

      I agree that financial success is ALL about working harder or getting lucky or being born with certain gifts and abilities, but I do think that is part of the equation. One of the biggest things, in terms of gifts / abilities / temperaments, is the difference in person’s drive and ambition. I think that plays a big part in all of this. Some people have that, some people don’t. And it’s not wrong or right either way, it’s just different.

      But, yes, I agree with you, in that, like with anything in life, we certainly have some control over the process.
      Penny @ recently posted…Penny: On Being “Poor” And Receiving HelpMy Profile

      1. Maybe I mixed up the rhetorical “you” with the direct “hey, you, Rich.” But it does sound rather specifically like the latter when you said, “I know you, like many people, have worked hard to get where you are and for what you have. But did you work any harder than my husband worked in chiropractic school and in starting his own practice? Probably not.”

        I don’t feel attacked. I think that’d be a fun conversation to have at Thanksgiving, for example 🙂

        I’d love to hear more, eventually, on your thoughts about ambition. On the one hand I perceive you and Mr. Penny do not have a drive to make money. On the other hand it takes plenty of drive to make it through Chiropractic school and open a business.
        Rich @ recently posted…Book Review: Tribe — Rich Digs The Modern FoxholeMy Profile

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