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“Poor” vs. “broke”

In my last post–which, for the record, was intended to be half snarky, half humorous–I threw around the word “poor” a few times. Later that day, I chanced upon an article in Everyday Feminism about the political incorrectness of using “poor” when you mean “broke” and what the difference is. This is something I’ve never thought about before, and, considering my upcoming post titled “Things not to say to poor people,” I feel it’s only fair to share why this writer argues against confusing the terms:

Language is a huge part of the movement for social justice.

Recognizing why some words are harmful, what others words mean, and why our language matters are all important steps toward building a more just, aware, and empathetic world.

That’s why today, I come bearing one simple request.

I need broke folks to stop calling themselves “poor.”

Wanna know whether you’re poor or just broke? Just let me ask you three questions.

1. Is Your Hardship Temporary? Is There a Way Out?

For folks in the midst of poverty, there often isn’t a “way out” of their struggle. For the most part, their hardship is part of their way of life.

I noticed, growing up, that people were very quick to throw ideas at poverty that weren’t real, or possible, in an effort to minimize how hard being poor really was.

It’s comforting for us to believe that poverty is a choice, or a consequence for a string of bad choices. But in reality, poverty is more common than ever – and the gulf between financial security and relative comfort is wider.

It isn’t always possible, for example, for poor people to “put money away,” whether it’s in a savings account or into investments. Because poor people sometimes live paycheck-to-paycheck, without much money left in-between.

It’s also not always feasible for poor people to cut costs, or to give up anything beyond what they already have sacrificed. It’s not possible for someone to sell their car when it’s all they have to get to work, or scrap childcare when they’re raising young children. Sometimes, the biggest costs are the most important.

And it’s downright insensitive to ask a poor person to “work harder” – especially since poverty alone is grueling emotional labor and often, the poor person in question is juggling more than a few jobs to scrape by.

Being poor shapes someone’s entire life, and changing that takes a lot more than cutting back or making small changes. But for broke people, financial hardship is temporary – and quick solutions make it possible to overcome that hardship.

When I had just graduated college and my friends and I were all strapped for cash, we started cutting back. We spent less when we went out, or skipped on going out at all. I cut back stringently on how much my groceries were costing me, and learned to make ten bucks last a week or more in the kitchen. We moved into neighborhoods where the rent was cheaper. We took on different jobs. And I started getting my hair cut in the living room instead of at the salon.

And for most of us, that situation was temporary.

We landed stable jobs with good paychecks and were able to move into better apartments or start going to restaurants and bars again. I even increased my food budget and started buying fresh. We were suddenly able to take trips, or buy cars, or otherwise pursue our dreams. What a difference a job made!

None of these things made us mega-rich, or imbued us with sacks of cash to throw around. But they did enable us to stretch our assets and get by. And that’s a key difference between being “broke” and actually “poor.”

Getting away from temporary hardship – and knowing there’s a light at the end of the tunnel – is infinitely easier, and more possible, for a broke person.

Someone who’s down on their luck but has the peace of mind to believe they’ll be up on it soon is more equipped to “get out” of financial insecurity because it’s not a lifestyle, it’s a temporary phase of life.

And most of us go through it.

Most of us are too broke in college to buy pizza every once in a while, or get coffee at Starbucks, or join our classmates at karaoke. Most of us graduate into gross apartments, or work three weird jobs to stay afloat while we’re figuring out our careers.

Poverty doesn’t look like that – and getting away from it takes more than a new job or a new budget. And that’s because poverty is part of the class system, and a result of it, while being broke is just a transitional hardship.

2. Is Your Current Situation Indicative of Your Class?

I did “broke” in hyper efficiency mode.

I cut back the most, stretched each dollar the furthest, and made do on the least compared to most other folks I knew. And that was because being broke, for me, felt a little bit familiar – albeit a little more uncomfortable – because I’d been raised by a working-class single mom.

Graduating into self-sufficiency, even with limited resources, didn’t shock me. It was what I’d expected going into college, and what I’d been preparing for. While the necessities of being broke – the hard work, the constant financial vigilance – took some of my peers by surprise, I was a little more prepared going in for what it would look like.

Being broke was indicative of my social class. That struggle for me was just a continuation of my mother’s struggle, one custom-made to fit me.

But it isn’t like that for everyone.

For some broke folks, their financial situation is miles away from their actual class experience.

For some folks, being broke is a pit stop on the way to exorbitant wealth, or a vacation away from their family’s resources. It’s what you do in the period between graduating and inheriting your father’s business, or a temporary quest for freedom that’s occasionally sustained by checks from Mom and Dad.

And that’s a big difference between being “broke” and being “poor.”

Because being poor isn’t about the day-to-day financial insecurity someone experiences when they’re currently strapped for cash. Being poor is about a day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month struggle to make ends meet, survive, and thrive – and it doesn’t change, typically, from year to year or life phase to another.

3. Do You Have a Safety Net?

There’s no quick fix when you’re broke and poor. There’s no familiar model for breaking out of financial insecurity. And there’s no safety net.

For poor people, there’s no such thing as a safety net. Any loss of money is a permanent loss, and any times of hardship must be faced with the limited resources people have to access to immediately.

For broke folks who come from class backgrounds that aren’t as overcome with financial insecurity, there exists one very easy way out: a safety net.

When I graduated college, I took a chance and stayed in Washington, DC, where I’d gone to school and was sincerely committed to building a future for myself. That meant taking a huge financial risk, and putting everything on the table. I had no savings, and a very modest job with no benefits or opportunities for mobility.

I wasn’t able to save. I was just hustling – trying my hardest to find my way, to reach solvency, to bail myself out.

There was no safety net. If I failed, that was it.

When the going got tough, I couldn’t always call home and ask for financial help. When things seemed impossible, my mom couldn’t connect me to a high-powered network of folks who were eager to employ me.

And when I finally did land the “dream job” – the one that paid me enough to enable me to save, gave me benefits and stability, and let me use my brain to do the work I wanted to do – I went in on day one with almost no money in the bank and a ripped dress on my back.

A safety net can take many forms.

It could be a backup pile of cash, a network of people who can offer help, or even opportunities kept on the backburner. It can be going to work for your parents, or a family friend, even though that work isn’t your dream. It can mean some money to help you get by while you’re pursuing your goals, or an apartment paid for by someone else while you’re unemployed. It can look like a trust fund that gives you room to innovate or a financial background that allows you to take time off to travel and figure things out.

Those things can be truly invaluable to a broke person who wants to get back on their feet – and they’re things people living in poverty don’t have, even in emergencies.

But the existence of a safety net signifies class privilege.

If the biggest difference between being poor and being broke is a way out, a safety net is how most people open the door.

Read the full post here



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