I spent this holiday season being poor.
I don’t mean poor to the point where I’m homeless, need to stand in line at the soup kitchen, or had to resort to giving my friends hand-drawn cards instead of real gifts. I don’t mean poor to desperation where I need to pawn off all my belongings and sell my body to the night.
… But I am poor enough that buying presents for people makes my gut ache when I looked at my credit card statement. Poor enough that my recent acceptance to one of my dream master’s programs was more, “Oh shit, how can I afford this?” instead of a celebration. Poor enough that I try to make all my leftovers stretch longer than they should. Poor enough that I’m living paycheck-to-paycheck and still search day and night for odd jobs. I just applied to work fast food a few days ago too… but of course upon seeing “MIT” on my resume they’ll toss it out. Why would an MIT grad want to work at Panda Express?
My naive young self spent the better of her 23 years viewing the 99% through a polarizing lens – either you were so poor you lived in the ghettos (or didn’t have a place to live at all) or you were alright. Middle class. Could afford whatever you wanted with a few hours of overtime.
But it’s not that simple. There’s a lot of individuals that are just poor enough that money is tight but not a scarcity — recent graduates whose luck ran out, single parents trying their best to make happy memories for their children, folks who are unemployed through no fault of their own but being at a downsizing company at the wrong time.
Or in my case, someone who graduated from a top-ten university and then decided to 1) pursue a career in a field that she liked, 2) is severely underpaid, and 3) lives in a city that traditionally doesn’t pay premium wages (unlike, say, San Francisco or New York).
You’d never guess, looking at my everyday living, that I was poor: I wear fancy clothes to work, I have high-end technology, I’m an intellectual woman who can easily discuss financial modeling, business strategy, and economic principles. I drive a car to work. I take classes at the local ballet company.
But all of those things are hard-earned. And always in the back of my mind, there are student loans, credit card debts, next month’s rent, trying to scrimp on electricity, and constantly looking everywhere to see where the next monetary opportunity may lie.