Sunday, October 15, 2006
If I had $40. . .
And that's really what this is about, I think. For me, anyway. The idea that, for some people, the idea that you simply do not have $40 extra a month is inconceivable. Everyone has $40 extra a month, don't they? Well, no. We don't. In fact, some of us don't have $5 extra a month and if we did we'd be spending it on things like gas or food and not buying a new paperback or renting the latest zombie movie. (Oh, gods. I so miss those days! Ahem.)
Growing up, I didn't realize I was poor. Strange, but true. I grew up on a farm, in very rural Louisiana. My nearest neighbors were my grandparents and two sets of aunts and uncles. We grew our own vegetables and raised cows and pigs, so we weren't ever hungry. I didn't realize it wasn't normal to wear hand-me-downs, things your own Mother had worn in high school, until I was in junior high and a girl, one who I sorta thought was a friend, asked me all disgusted like why I never wore blue jeans. Which made me start crying when I told her I just didn't have any, because we didn't have the money. I had never really thought about not having the money until then. I never really cared what I was wearing until them, either. But suddenly, it all crystalized for me. I was poor. I wasn't starving, being kicked out of my house poor, but I was poor. We had a house because my parents had been given one as a wedding present by an uncle that just really liked them. Of course, when he gave it to them, it didn't have an indoor bathroom and was very, very tiny. But at least it was a roof over their head. They went into debt adding a bathroom before I was born and then, when I was probably about 8 or so, remodeling the house so my brother and I could have our own bedrooms. (We were getting to the age where we were starting to notice we were made kinda differently, so it was time for us to get our own beds, ya know?)
I never had luxuries like cable television when I was growing up. All my friends did, but I didn't. This only bugged me because it kept me from being able to talk about the things they were talking about. I had never seen MTV until I visited my Aunt Vickie in Lafayette. And I'd stay up until 3 or 4 in the morning, watching, just glued to the television because it was something I didn't have. I couldn't make long distance calls on our telephone either, because it was too expensive. But, because we lived so far out of town, calling any of my friends (who all lived in town) was long distance. So, when I went home from school, that was all the contact I had with my friends. Summer breaks, where you're supposed to be hanging out with your friends, I was stuck in the country on a farm, helping my dad bale hay so we could have the money for school cloths the next semester. And all our clothes came from the Dollar General or Family Dollar. My mother, when I came home that time in tears because I was wearing clothes from the fricking 60s instead of blue jeans, took me into town to the Dollar General and bought me a cheap pair of jeans. She probably didn't really have the money to do that, but she did it because I was so very upset about it.
The paint in my bedroom when I was a child wasn't very good. In that, we didn't have the money to buy enough paint to do the whole room, so most of the walls had only a light coating of yellow on them. You could see the nails and the lines of the board through it. Which never really bothered me, until I had a friend over for the night. I thought everything was going well, we had fun. Until the next day at school, I heard her telling my other 'friends' that my room was awful. That you could see through the paint and that the walls weren't finished and there was no molding around the edges and I had only like five posters on the wall. Which was all true, but had never bothered me before. I had never really cared, because frankly I'm not the sort to put much stock in appearances. (Which all those 'friends' came to appreciate much later, but at this age they were all about judging and fitting in and ostracizing the weird girl.) So, I got really, really upset about that too and, since I knew we didn't have the money to repaint my room, started cutting pictures out of old magazines and making pictures and posters and things to put all over my walls, to cover up the horrible paint and the nails. The next time I had someone over, they thought it was the coolest room they'd ever seen. Because they didn't know how much pain had gone into it, I suspect.
The thing is, I knew there were people who were poorer than I was. I knew there were people who didn't have food to eat or a place to sleep -- because my family made it a point to share what little we had with people who had even less. My family was forever bringing people over for dinner or giving them blankets or pillows or cans of fruit my mother had canned or whatever we had that they didn't. We were poor, but there were people much poorer than we were. We had a house, we never had the utilities cut off, we never went hungry. We were lucky.
It's only been recently that my mother has started to spend money on herself. To my mother, $40 is way too much to spend on a new pair of pants. Or a new pair of shoes. She'll do it, if I'm there to talk her into it, but otherwise...she just can't bring herself to spend money on herself. It's a habit she picked up raising her family on next to no money. You don't have money for things you don't need. You just don't. And when you realize you do, instead of spending it, you put it aways for later because something is always going to come up and you'll be glad you've got th at $40 for a tank of gas or a new car battery instead of those boots you really wanted.
To a lot of people in Louisiana, I have a good job. I have a really good job, actually. And I don't make $27k a year. Imagine, for a moment, making $27k a year and raising a family. In this state, that's a reality. In fact, in this state people making that much money are considered too wealthy to qualify for any family aid programs. (Well, unless you've got like four kids or more.) And you can't get my job without a college education, so in addition to raising a family and paying the rent and car note and insurance you've got to pay back college loans. It's nearly impossible, yet it's considered a good income.
The job I'm moving to next month pays me a little bit less. I'm willing to take a pay cut, because it's a state job which means I've got job security, good insurance and absolutely incredible retirement. I also have a clear path for promotion. So I can take a pay cut now, knowing I'll be making probably a good $5-6K more a year within two years. I'll also be able to get myself promoted to a manager's position in about three years, which means I'll be making close to $40K a year in the foreseeable future. So, by the time I'm 35 I'll actually have made my way out of lower-middle class. I'll be able to consider buying a house or having a child. I'll be able to relax and actually enjoy my life. For a lot of people, that's not something they can see. That's not something they can even imagine.
When people talk about spending $40 a month on leg waxing, the reaction they get is not because people necessarily begrudge them that luxury. It's because for a lot of people, that's just not a possibility. And we want people to understand that all these damned Feminist Wars are clouding the issues. It's not about what you spend your money on, it's that a great many of us simply don't have the money to spend, period. Is it really important if an individual woman spends $40 on leg waxing or on new shoes or on the latest, greatest please-your-man sexbot trinket when we have a huge class of women who don't even have the money to pay the rent? Who don't have the $40 to buy food for their children? Who don't have the money to put gas in the car to get to that college class? When we still have women working as many hours as a man but making less than he does, does it really matter what one person spends their extra cash on? Aren't we losing sight of the issue here?