Let’s talk about the shame of being poor

(Or of being thought poor. I am very lucky – I have never worried about having enough food or a roof over my head)

We do not waste in this house.

I posted a photo on facebook of Mr T’s Favorite Jeans after I patched them (again) and he was concerned.

“What if people think we are too poor to buy new jeans?” he asked.

At first I laughed, but then I thought, “Why do we even think like this?”

I am in the habit of picking up hair ties from the sidewalk. We live by an elementary school and a middle school and I guess the hair elastics either slip out of girls’ hair or their pockets. (When they have pockets. Which we all know is a luxury reserved for Men because Women Have Purses and We Can Carry All The Things In Our Purses.)

Obviously, I don’t pick up the dirty or nasty ones – but one in good shape? Clean? No hair attached?

Of course I am going to pick it up! I don’t want to have to buy them and we all know they last only a short while before the elastic is shot.

So – I pick up and use clean hair ties I find on the sidewalk.

Do you think that’s gross?

Maybe it is. But – it’s not like the girls around here have filthy disgusting hair.


Mr T and I were visiting friends, Jack and Jill. We were on a walk and he spotted a hair tie.

“Do you want this tie?” he asked.

“What? NO!” I answered.

He was confused. I always want the ties. And he is a practical man. This is the same guy called out to our friend Brandi, who needed us to stop at the drugstore because surprise, her period had shown up unexpectedly, “Texan might have some pads!”

She rolled her eyes at him and shook her head as she walked into the store.

“Maybe that’s not the sort of thing you yell at someone,” I told him.

“But – we could save her the trouble of going into the store!”

“Most women don’t want to talk about their periods in public,” I answered.

“Why not?” he asked. “Women have periods. Is that a secret?”

This is the man who bought menstrual supplies for his stepdaughters and for me, always trying to optimize price with other desired features. To him, it’s an engineering problem to be solved and why don’t we just solve it the most practical way?

He’s so right.

Going off topic.

I am helping a VP prepare a presentation about diversity and why it matters. We are looking for examples of times where lack of diversity on a team has led to a bad product and of course, Apple’s failure to include a period tracker in the FitBit is the first thing to come to my mind.

My VP agreed that it was a great example, but laughed and said no way was she going to talk about periods in a speech where men are present.

How are we supposed to normalize a biological function that half the people in the world experience – that EVERY SINGLE WOMAN IN THE WORLD EXPERIENCES – unless we say it out loud?

Deep breath. Baby steps.

But I digress.

After we had gone home, Mr T asked why I denied the hair tie.

“I thought you needed those!” he asked.

“Yeah, but I don’t want anyone else to know I do it, especially Jill.”

“Why not?”

Why not?

Why didn’t I?

I am not ashamed that we wash and re-use ziplock bags (although a friend teased me about that once and I was embarrassed, so I guess maybe I am a bit ashamed).

I thought about it.

“Because Jill grew up rich and she has no idea what it’s like not to have money,” I explained.

“So?” Mr T asked.

“Because – because I don’t want her to think I’m poor or tacky.”

Why? Why is it so shameful to be thought poor that we don’t want our friends to know that we pick up hair ties (which – OK – that one is a little weird)?

But – why is it so shameful to be thought poor that we don’t want our friends to know that we patch our jeans?

What kind of BS have we been sold in this country that if you are poor, it is your own fault?

Yes, I know our poverty here is different from poverty in other countries. I talked to a cab driver in Morocco who told me America was different – that we didn’t have poor people.

Yes, we do, I told him.

But – your poor people can work and become not poor. It is a possibility, he answered. But here? No matter how hard we work, we stay poor.

He spoke the truth. I had seen the same thing when I was a Peace Corps volunteer – that no matter how hard some people worked, they would stay poor. They weren’t lazy. They weren’t slackers. They were part of a system that wanted to keep them in their place.

In this country, we are supposed to be able to rise above all that.

That’s a myth.

That’s a lie.

I used to believe the pull yourself up by your bootstraps myth, but then I learned more. I got more information. I discovered that there were aspects of our society that make it very hard for people to leave poverty.

Yet our attitude is still that if someone is poor in our country, it’s her own darn fault.

That she is lazy.

That she doesn’t want to take care of herself.

That there is no need for us to help her because if she really really wanted not to be poor, she could do it.

And that’s what it is, really, right?

This idea that being poor is shameful and it’s shameful because it’s a condition the poor person has chosen.

If it weren’t actually the fault of the poor person – if poverty were actually a result of social and economic and structural conditions that could be changed – then we would have the moral obligation to change them.

And we don’t want to do that.

6 thoughts on “Let’s talk about the shame of being poor

  1. Ah, Tex, I love you! I read your blog and agree with almost everything you say, and you say it better than I can. I used to love a blog by a Texas traveling nurse, and I miss her humor. But you are my T I E fighter!


  2. Much food for thought. Today, I am hemming the frayed sides of two very old but still perfectly fine bath towels. My cousin may be visiting soon, and it is certain that she will never see these towels. I will buy more before I will give these to her to use. Now I need to figure out why.


  3. When it became more acceptable to reuse plastic bags, plastic containers etc for environmental reasons, my mom joked, “We were always environmentalists because we were poor!” It’s an ecological disaster that we throw so much out instead of reusing or repairing. Your patched jeans are an inspiration. I’m trying to get better at mending, since the environmental and human cost of fast fashion and throwing out clothes that could be mended is enormous.


    1. In the latest issue of Cooks Illustrated, they recommended a drying stand for plastic bags. And I thought, “Doesn’t everyone just stick them on their wooden spoons?” Buying a tool just to dry plastic bags seems kind of off brand.


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