I am now in the process of packing up what little of my things remain, making arrangements to stash certain things I wish not to lose, and doing the work of getting rid of everything else by any means necessary. As I do this, my thoughts flood with memories of how hard it was growing up poor, contradicted by how easy it was to spend all the money it took to acquire the things I can no longer afford to care about. I just finished selling off my entire personal DVD collection and nearly half of my music collection on CDs, which took years and hundreds of dollars to build. It took just 3 hours of sitting in a public park with all of them lined up next to me, and I pocketed approximately $150 for it (including a few that friends have offered to pay a little extra for after the weekend). It reminds me of visiting my family while I was struggling to survive as a full-time student on government loans (for the first of two times), and discovering that while they had continued to build their 2000+ DVD collection with ever-increasing debt, they were living entirely off of food donated to them by close friends and under-the-table employers. And while I just try not to think about how much it cost me to compile such a magnificent niche collection of nearly 100 DVDs as someone tells me part of their history with drug addiction in between low-balling me for 6 free DVDs (while already only paying $1 for an entire box set at a time), in the back of my mind, I am thinking about when I found out a couple years after that home visit that one of my parents had single-handedly bankrupt himself, his wife, his own parents, and my two sisters and I. He had, in fact, spent years phoning his parents up, sobbing into the phone about how poor and hungry they are while I was homeless and not even speaking so much as one syllable about it. And as his father’s health declined, his mother finally reached her limit and handed over their life savings to him. And he spent every last dime as frivolously as possible.
Just two weeks ago, when I still had hopes of buying enough time to plan my next move better, we had a flatmate living here who went a little apeshit when I told him the internet services are going to be cut off because the bill got up to $360 while we were scrambling to pay the rent on time with money that was intended to keep that bill from getting out of control. He asked me why I don’t just get a job –- why my remaining flatmate doesn’t just get a job -– I told him the honest truth. I sent out hundreds of resumes for the most menial jobs I could find, and so has my remaining flatmate. Neither of us can even get an interview. That’s why I’m on welfare (never mind the part about having a disabling dissociative disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder from a lifetime of sexual abuse). That’s why my remaining flatmate has applied for welfare twice in the past six months. He revealed the chip on his shoulder: he whores himself out for money, he says. I know, I said. I’ve done it. He isn’t in a position to pay a $360 bill, because he’s going to move across the country, he says. I know, I said. I just wanted him to know the situation before he finds out when he tries to log in and check messages from potential tricks, only to find out he can’t connect to the internet. He starts asking me if I really prefer to live on welfare than be out working full-time and earning at least twice as much as I’m allotted. He asks me why my remaining flatmate doesn’t ask his parents for help. He asks me how we manage our finances, both nearly ten years older than him, and finding ourselves living like this. I ask him if he’s seriously asking me these things, while for months, he’s been watching me sell everything I own that’s of value to any other human being. I don’t add that while I’ve been doing that, he’s been earning and spending thousands of dollars on a cocaine habit, coming home from a trick and bragging about spending several hundred dollars on a gym bag from Prada. He says he’s sorry, he’s just venting. I think about how he actually had two jobs before he started hooking, until he decided he wasn’t making enough money. He had two jobs, and quit them both, so he can have this huge chip in his shoulder and take it out on us when he’s pissed off that he’s too broke to even get drunk. Within a couple of days, he had abandoned the room he was living in without so much as acknowledging either of us, or the property management company that thinks he’s still a tenant. And I guarantee you, as he hitches across the country, he thinks we’re a couple of royal fuck-ups.
I’ve maxed out two credit cards (a combined debt of over $6,000), depleted my overdraft (a privilege which has since been taken away), and there is no inheritance coming my way at any point in the future to free me from this prison of real money owed for money that never existed. One parent spent all my hopes of help, years before I even knew about it (not just by taking his parents’ life savings, but also taking my savings away in the same gesture that alerted me to its existence); and the other parent is the adult child of a man who has been slowly committing suicide since her childhood, by drinking away all of his savings. This is how poverty is transmitted from one generation to the next.
I am not poor because I spend my money frivolously –- that is, unless you can convince yourself that something as basic as food or secure housing is frivolous. I am poor because the only people who can help me are my friends and their friends. People who owe me nothing, but give generously while they can. People who just turn away when it becomes too much grief to bear, because helping at all or even just paying attention is optional. And twice in my life, I have been helped much more by men I’ve been in an intimate relationship with, than by anyone else who has ever crossed my path. My gratitude exists in equal measure to my feelings of guilt and shame, both for accepting that magnitude of help at all, and for needing it in the first place.
I am also poor because I was born into a female body that moves about within a sexist society. By the time I was a young adult, I had already deeply internalized the need to feel guilt and shame for being an adult dependent of a man I am presumably intimate with. And by that time, I promised myself I would always find a way to pay my own way, and not be a gold-digger looking for a Sugar Daddy. But while I was working myself so hard (from the age of 12, even) that I was gradually becoming crippled with exhaustion, young men I knew were being offered jobs that paid them twice as much for half the work. Many of them decided they’d rather become addicts than work, and fell ass-backwards into addiction-enabling support networks (including welfare) while all the support I thought I had (including welfare) fell out from under me all at once, leaving me homeless. While I lived economically isolated in a women’s emergency shelter, shop-lifting and pan-handling just to survive; men who lived in a nearby men’s shelter were handed welfare cheques, job offers, an abundance of food, subsidized housing opportunities, handfuls of drugs and alcohol, and sexual favours from women whose survival (and addictions) depended on being sexually exploited by these men for what few resources they would spare. And the resources they could spare might also include protection for women who needed to survive by making a job of providing sexual favours – but as we know, this is at the cost of a cut of her earnings, often in addition to extra sexual benefits without cost to him personally (the very definition of sexual exploitation).
How exactly is someone in my position expected to build themselves up to a status comparable to that of men of the same age group (or even ten years younger)? All possible answers to this enquiry are systemically stigmatized, criminalized, frowned upon, and whined about disproportionately by Men’s Rights Activists. Thus, the irony. If a female-bodied individual such as myself should use all social advantages ze can to build hirself up far enough to be a productive member of society again, as I did, ze is treated with greater suspicion at the same job and housing applications as men of hir age group (as I was), unless ze is treated with special favour for being seen as exceptionally attractive (as I was when I borrowed $900 from my employer to get my first apartment when my housing situation collapsed in on itself at the time, due to my flatmate at-the-time committing suicide). And I can thank that great big wage gap for needing to invite my first long-term boyfriend to move in with me, just so I could keep that apartment (which he wound up taking when we broke up and I decided to leave). My experience in life (as a female-bodied person from a poor family) is precisely why George Bernard Shaw described marriage as nothing more than a legalized form of prostitution. After all, marriage is the only way I can reasonably deduce, of finally liberating myself from this cycle of poverty and impending homelessness (but I’m not the marrying type, being the type of person who falls for narcissistic psychopaths). It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure these things out, but I can certainly see how a cocaine addict might miss a critical part of the bigger picture.
I just hope I grow some facial hair soon, before shit starts getting really hard.