Poverty and Shame.

The Handsome Sidekick and I were doing some catch up shopping on our childfree day, and as we were talking about something else, I caught the tail-end of an announcement ‘… this bargain won’t last long, so head over to the Fresh Produce Department now.’  Bargain?  I thought.  Guess I’ll check it out!

It turned out they were doing their $3 bags. You get given a shopping bag — the regular grey recycled ones — and there are a few crates of fruit and vegetables on a large storeroom trolley.  Fill up the bag with as much as it can hold, with whatever you want from the crates, and all you’ll pay is $3.  It’s a win-win-win: the store gets rid of (and paid for) fresh produce which is past its best, the food gets used rather than thrown into landfill, and the customer gets a bargain.  And there are bargains to be had.  I ended up with a pear, eight slightly grubby potatoes, three kilograms of bananas, six lemons and a large head of lettuce.  The bananas alone would have cost me around $12 — and they’re overripe which makes them perfect for muffins, cakes and smoothies.

So if it’s win-win-win, why did I feel so scummy, while other shoppers stared at me as I rummaged through the crates to find what I wanted?  It’s not like I was the only customer taking advantage of this, but I did have the sensation that what I was doing was not a desirable thing to do.  Surely, I should be buying my fresh produce for full price?  Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do?  If you get it cheap, it means you’re cheap.  Or poor.  Either way, it’s not good.

I turned this around in my mind for most of the day.  I mean, don’t get me wrong: I was very pleased with my food!  And I felt as if I’d done a good thing for our budget and for the planet.  But I did wonder about this general idea of asking for discounts, of getting things cheaper, of using second-hand or second-best.  Most of the furniture we own was new for someone else before we got it.  As was our car, as were our clothes, as was our house.

Sitting down with the Handsome Sidekick that evening, I asked, ‘Why is it shameful, to be poor?’

We talked about where this came from — is it a remnant of a more class-based society (not that we’re so classless now, despite what people might like to believe!), or it is it more due to the consumerist culture in which we find ourselves?  Why is it so embarrassing to admit that you can’t afford something?

Several years ago, I was working at a call centre.  Leaving aside the fact that it was a depressing, soul-destroying job (the people I worked with were lovely, just the job was shocking; I’m sure others can relate!), we were paid a pretty modest wage, and to add insult to injury, we were paid monthly.  You should know that in Australia, most jobs pay fortnightly, and so most people pay their rent or mortgages fortnightly, too.  This usually works out fine, of course.  When you get paid monthly, and just put aside two rent payments out of the paycheck.  But you know how some months have five weeks?  Well, sometimes the rent falls three times within that five weeks.  And that… is quite hard to budget for, especially when you’re a single-income household.

So it was payday, at this job, and I just did not have enough money to get to work.  From memory, I had about five dollars.  I desperately needed the pay to have gone through by the Friday morning, but it wasn’t there, and I couldn’t afford to put fuel in the car.  So I rang work, and told them that I was going to be late.  My car had broken down, I said, and I was going to catch the bus.  Which I did, and I got to work late, and was able to work back an hour and get a lift home with a colleague.

Why didn’t I tell them that we’d had three rent payments that month?  Why was it so shameful that I couldn’t afford to get to work?

Last year’s US election campaign raised some similar issues about poverty and shame — and about what people deserve.  There is a tendency to blame people for their poverty, to demonise them.  The area where we live has a high unemployment rate, and high poverty rate* and I know, when I tell people where I live, that they’re already deciding what kind of person I am.  It’s as if there is some unwritten rule, that people must be poor by their own design.  Surely, if you were more resourceful, you’d have a (better-paid) job?  It’s probably that you just can’t manage your money.  You must like welfare-dependency.  You should just stop smoking/drinking/taking drugs/eating junk food — that’s probably where all your money goes.

It’s these kinds of unspoken assumptions which perpetuate this idea of poverty being shameful.  Since moving from a very affluent area (where people made a whole different set of assumptions about what kind of person I was), I’m a lot more aware about the different aspects of relative poverty which some of us experience in this country.  This has come from both observing others in my community, and from personal experience.  There are so many reasons why people struggle to make ends meet — from family responsibilities, to unexpected and chronic illness, to debts building up and out of control.  And on top of that, there is the shame that you sometimes need to admit that you can’t afford something.  Yet there’s really no shame in that, when you think about it.  Everyone has a budget, and some are larger than others, but we all have to prioritise our expenditure.  It’s hard enough, being poor.  Being ashamed of it just makes it harder.

If only we could remove the stigma from being ‘poor’, and realise that in this developed nation, where we have a comprehensive welfare, education and health system, and where the weather (at least in this part of the country) is generally warm and friendly, that we are, in fact, very, very wealthy!  What does it matter if you buy something new or second-hand?  What does it matter if you buy it at all, as long as you have sufficient to see you through?  

I once read a quotation: ‘There is no shame in being poor, only in acting poorly’, and it has buoyed me up on several occasions where money has been somewhat scarce and we’ve had to really pool all our resources as a family to get through.  My children are well aware that we’re not rich, but I refuse to have them think they’re poor.  If anything, I want them to realise that even if money makes the world go round, it’s a pretty empty world if that’s all you have, and that are plenty of things to be ashamed about, but being poor is not one of them.  What’s more, wherever this notion comes from — whether it’s based on class or capitalism or is simply a way for some people to try and put others down so they can try and justify their own lives — it’s a label other people are using.  I have a clear conscience that I am doing the best I can with the financial resources we have.  I wonder if everyone who looks down on buying the seconds from the fresh produce section can say the same?


*I’m talking, of course, about poverty by Western standards.  I can guess that many of these households have potable water on tap, and most basic needs.  That is not to say all of them do, or that life is a breeze when you’re living on welfare.  But it is quite different to being poor in other parts of the world.


10 thoughts on “Poverty and Shame.

    • I totally agree with this.

      And I think many people demonize the poor because that makes it easier to believe it cannot happen to them, too.

      • That’s a good point. If I believed that poor people are not fine upstanding citizens, and that I was an upstanding citizen, I might think that character alone would keep it from happening to me. Yeah, right, time for a reality break!
        Very well-though-out piece, BTW, Bec.

      • I used to do soup kitchen with a guy who would often say, ‘there, but for the grace of God, go I’. You’re right, most people would like to think that this would never happen to them. But how many times do you see or hear of people in sad and destitute situations, who say, ‘I never thought I’d be in this situation…’

      • Yes, people often say, ‘I never thought I’d be in this situation…’. And I think that’s not bad per se, because we all need to keep some distance to keep going on with our lives. It turns bad when people treat others who they nothing about as if they somehow deserved their misery.

  1. I love it when people talk badly about the poor… It let’s me know RIGHT AWAY where you are in your maturation process and I know to NOT talk to you again. A bargain is a bargain! I have had LOTS of rich friends who’s parents purchased generic products. THE real RICH are people who know not to waste it!!! WISDOM always will out! I can’t wait to learn latin so I can say that in latin and sound SUPER COOL!

    • It seems so petty, doesn’t it, to blame someone for his/her poverty 😦 And if you have money, why waste it on buying something for the sake of a label or to seem rich? Madness.

      • I think humans are DESTINED to find SOMETHING to hurt others. It’s a NON winning battle so… I just don’t play!

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