The Spectacle of Financial Difficulty

Both my husband and I have spent some periods of unemployment over the past decade, and we have become intimately familiar with financial humiliation. Having had a red tag left on your doorknob notifying you of the impending shutoff of one of your utilities is not just a reminder you might soon lose a vital public service; it's a public shaming, and it's hard not to believe that the water bureau, along with a variety of other crafty creditors, are doing it with intention.

Financial uncertainty brings humiliation
As author Wayne Koestenbaum has written, humiliation is a powerful motivation, and we are more likely to feel the emotion when faced with financial problems than just about any other time in our life post-seventh grade, especially in today's shaky economy. With a shameful quantity of Americans in poverty; with unemployment steadfastly setting records; with home foreclosures continuing to weigh down the housing market; more Americans than ever are experiencing financial humiliation.

On American Public Media's Marketplace program, Koestenbaum spoke about the difference between shame and humiliation:

I think shame is a private feeling. It may feel lacerating and terrible, but nobody necessarily sees it. I would say that humiliation requires a scene. It usually requires some act of cruelty or some catalyst from the outside, from some oppressor or tyrant. Let's say, a boss who fires you. And it requires the spectators who see you lose your job, the bill collectors who come knocking.

The spectacle of financial difficulty
Being in a financial mess is all about the spectacle. If you lose your job, there are the unemployment department employees who must approve your claim. There are the friends on Facebook who will see that you no longer have “employer” information on your profile. Working, but struggling to pay the bills? You'll get those yellow and pink envelopes in the mailboxes that demonstrate just how late you are. You'll get the collection calls. If things are really bad, you'll experience the true humiliation of having a process server visit your house, or a tow truck show up around midnight to repossess your car.

Food stamps, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), seem designed to enhance the humiliation and let it trickle through your everyday life. The transformation of the program from funny-money bills to debit cards is a step in the right direction, but there are still spectators at every turn (if you think I'm wrong, check out the comments on any article on the Internet anywhere about food stamps; America's favorite thing to do is to judge what people spend their SNAP benefits on). There are the employees of the county offices who accept and approve your application; there are the employees at the grocery store; there are the people behind you in line, who will inevitably review the contents of your grocery bags and pay attention to what sort of car you drive.

Koestenbaum says that our desire to avoid humiliation is connected to both actual unemployment or even the fear of unemployment:

I think even fearing for the security of one's job is humiliating. The feeling of being watched or judged. Certainly, losing a job leads to concrete suffering and hardship, but also to a sense of loss of status and self-esteem, a sense of how you appear in others' eyes. All the markers of identity and dignity are trashed, in a way, when you lose a job.

Humiliation makes you hungry?
I've been thinking a lot about this lately because of recent news that, while record numbers of Americans are getting SNAP benefits, a third of those who are eligible aren't using the program. While many critics say that food stamps are abused, the numbers tell the opposite story; that, in fact, the stigma is too much for many of those living in poverty. Many millions of people would rather struggle to pay for food — even to go hungry — than suffer the humiliation of getting and using food stamps.

It's my belief that humiliation works contrary to our best interests during times of crisis, preventing us from reaching out and asking for help either from social services or family and friends.

Past-due bills and humiliation
Take past-due debt. Those who have suffered a financial setback major enough to start racking up late bills, and the phone calls that go along with them, are the best example of a group for which humiliation works against personal interest. Collections agents are counting on your humiliation and your fear of a poor credit score (which will engender even more humiliation) to convince you to pay your past-dues immediately. At the worst case, it's a cycle of attempts to avoid shame:

  • You can't afford to pay the whole bill, so you don't pay it, and don't attempt to set up a payment plan with the debtor.
  • A billing department or collections agent begins calling to make payment arrangements; talking to them would be humiliating, so you avoid the calls.
  • Late fees begin to greatly increase the total amount owed.
  • Letters begin to arrive offering settlement arrangements; you take the one you can afford, even if you're paying far more than the original balance due, to avoid the humiliation of an even worse credit score.
  • Or, you do not address the balance due until the creditor goes to court, garnishing wages or seizing tax returns, creating even more humiliation and far more expense.

Humiliation does not begin to do its work until things are extremely dire. Avoiding humiliation in small doses (attempting to negotiate a payment plan, or in many cases, simply saying no to a purchase or financial commitment) ends up turning into a huge humiliation wallop, up to and including repossession and foreclosure.

Accept humiliation now to avoid it later
My best advice is to learn to say this now: “I can't afford that.” My children ask all the time when we're shopping, “can we afford that?” or “do we have enough money for that?” I look around me at the other shoppers who are within earshot and I say, “no,” even though I'd rather say something more nuanced and prideful (“We can afford that but I'm not comfortable with you buying so many toys,” maybe.). I've been through enough financial humiliation to know I'd rather own my budget than aspire to someone else's.

Being honest with the financial situation with my kids has helped me put my humiliation into perspective. There are far worse faults than not having enough money to buy the Ben 10 Transformer watch. I'd rather teach them that money is not unlimited than let them think I'm just being a meanie (or that I have unlimited funds, until the process servers arrive, that is). And sometimes it's great to take a call from some obscure-but-well-intentioned non-profit and say to the closer on the phone, “We have absolutely no money for that.”

It can hurt to try, but you should anyway.
It's our nature to want to avoid pain now at any cost; even greater pain, later. Taking it in small doses is a little like an inoculation; keep doing it, and eventually, you'll be humiliation-resistant. And hopefully in a far better financial place.

More about...Debt, Economics, Psychology

Become A Money Boss And Join 15,000 Others

Subscribe to the GRS Insider (FREE) and we’ll give you a copy of the Money Boss Manifesto (also FREE)

Yes! Sign up and get your free gift
Become A Money Boss And Join 15,000 Others
170 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Jasmine
Jasmine
8 years ago

One of my most humiliating memories is of a school assembly where the headmaster read out a list of names of students whose parents hadn’t paid the school fees yet. My name was on that list. I’ll never forget the burning shame, or how awkward it was trying to act normally with my friends afterwards.

In the long run, it was probably a good experience. As an adult, I’ve become a stickler for paying bills and fees on time, and I’ve never gotten in financial trouble. I still haven’t forgiven my mother, though.

Lauren {Adventures in Flip Flops}
Lauren {Adventures in Flip Flops}
8 years ago
Reply to  Jasmine

That does NOT sound like a good experience if you’re harboring such resentment over that scene. And frankly, I think that the headmaster is a bad person for holding children accountable for their parent’s financial issues. Today, he could be sued citing privacy laws, and rightly so.

Jasmine
Jasmine
8 years ago

The thing is, it was a private school, and the reason I was attending in the first place was because my parents wanted to keep up appearances. Everything in life was about keeping up appearances, and avoiding humiliation.

Amanda
Amanda
8 years ago
Reply to  Jasmine

I know a lot of people that try to keep up appearances also. I’m sorry you had to grow up in that environment.

Someone I know worries about her daugher misbehvaing, being anxious, etc… The thing is if she’d back off or get some mental help herself it’d do more good for the daughter. Cause the kid is just like her only she doesn’t see the problem in herself.

Diane
Diane
8 years ago
Reply to  Jasmine

Seriously, a grudge against your mother? Over this?? I do hope you are kidding. The headmaster is the inexcusable party here. If you want empowerment over this humiliating memory, please consider contacting the school and 1) ask for an apology and 2) make sure that they have discontinued the practice so that current students don’t have to feel the same pain that you have.

Holly
Holly
8 years ago
Reply to  Diane

At my kids’ school, they do not give out the report cards on the last day to any child whose parents are not up-to-date on tuition payments.

Needless to say, every year more than a few kids’ parents allow them to be absent on that last day.

Amanda
Amanda
8 years ago
Reply to  Holly

That’s HORRIBLE.

Janette
Janette
8 years ago
Reply to  Holly

That is reality. Private schools run a tight ship. If ten percent do not pay- the school closes.

Jasmine
Jasmine
8 years ago
Reply to  Diane

It was 25 years ago, so it hardly seems worth the trouble of demanding an apology now, much as I’d like to. And as for my mother? Just part of a pattern of ruinous financial habits.

Becky
Becky
8 years ago
Reply to  Jasmine

Oh Jasmine, what a terrible experience. I went to a private school too and I can only imagine how that must have felt for you. I’m glad you were able to glean something positive about the harm “keeping up appearances” can do. Every few years my parents would look at their finances and warn us kids that we might have to go to public school next year. The way my mom talked about public schools, I would be terrified – I expected to be eaten alive the second I stepped in the door. I found out later that we lived… Read more »

Elaine
Elaine
8 years ago
Reply to  Jasmine

I wish there were a better way for charities such as the United Way to judge whether someone is really “needy.” I would rather pay my mortgage on time (more or less…) and live on packets of grits & grape jelly for a few days than get thrown out of the house along with a pantry full of food. But that’s not to say it’s any kind of joy. So why is it so difficult to get someone to understand when I swallow my pride and request help with a week’s worth of groceries? What I get is an interrogation,… Read more »

STRONGside
STRONGside
8 years ago

I see this a lot working in a financial aid office at a public university. We see students and parents every day who are ashamed of their financial situation, and are embarrassed to present their tax returns to be considered for financial aid. Also, many people are ashamed to speak with their student loan lenders when they find themselves in a financial hardship. What they don’t realize is that there are generous forbearance options which will postpone payment based on financial hardship. This is much much better than defaulting on student loans, but I believe that people’s pride gets in… Read more »

Janette
Janette
8 years ago
Reply to  STRONGside

I have started to wonder what finance people will say when the parents come in with student loans – trying to get loans for their children.

J.D. Roth
J.D. Roth
8 years ago

I though this was an interesting article. It was thought-provoking, but at the same time it made me wince. For some reason, I don’t like the notion that money humiliates us — that doesn’t seem possible. Instead, I think we humiliate ourselves because we put so much value on money and on appearances. I remember how my parents used to act when we were kids and they were struggling to make ends meet. We were poor — there were times when neither my mother nor father had work, and we didn’t know where the next meal would come from —… Read more »

shalom
shalom
8 years ago
Reply to  J.D. Roth

About 15 years ago, early in our marriage, I finally could not hide how much debt I’d brought with me with me into the marriage. I will never, ever forget that awful conversation with my husband; we walked round and round the parking lot of our apartment complex as I cried, apologized and told him everything. He was shocked, just astounded at how deep a hole I’d dug. The story has a happy ending, because I married a much better man even than I knew. We paid off all the debt, we kept saving, we earned more, and now we… Read more »

mrs bkwrm
mrs bkwrm
8 years ago
Reply to  J.D. Roth

I generally try to make sure my kids clothes look nice when they go to school even if it means going a little slim on the groceries. I don’t make a point to buy designer clothes and I have no problem with gently worn hand-me-downs. It isn’t pride or a need to keep up with the Joneses, so much as an attempt to defend my children when I cannot be there to protect them. People, at least initially, use your appearance to make judgements about you and to decide how they will treat you. Kids that look like their parents… Read more »

Jasmine
Jasmine
8 years ago
Reply to  mrs bkwrm

I used to teach at a private school, and one of my scholarship kids came from a not-too-well-off family who had to scrimp and save for every little thing. He was bullied by his classmates for bringing “house-brand” products in his lunchbox! I still cannot believe that a bunch of otherwise intelligent kids were willing to judge their classmate merely for the brand of soda that he drank. But that’s how kids are.

He dropped out, in the end.

Bareheadedwoman
Bareheadedwoman
8 years ago
Reply to  Jasmine

and my question would be…where were the adults in this school situation and why did they let the privileged kids think this situation–the condemnation–was acceptable? It’s always amazing to me how many stories there are from adults about witnessing a pack-stoning mentality in children without remembering that they themselves, as a witness and non-participant- are condoning the behavior for the affecting kids psychologically by either remaining silent or taking a “kids have to work it out” stance… no, they are kids, they are to be taught; they are not born with all the requisite software. If they get malware installed,… Read more »

SB @ One Cent At A Time
SB @ One Cent At A Time
8 years ago
Reply to  Jasmine

What was your contribution to help that kid? You were the teacher..

partgypsy
partgypsy
8 years ago
Reply to  Jasmine

Kids will tease about anything. I was teased because of bringing leftovers to school for lunch rather than things like potato chips or other items that could be traded. And I didn’t get to buy cafeteria meals (why waste perfectly good leftovers?). I’m sure I ate better but I envied the kids who could get the cafeteria meal, especially on pizza day.

Amy+F
Amy+F
8 years ago
Reply to  mrs bkwrm

It’s Homecoming Week at my kids’ private school (they attend almost free because my husband teaches there and everyone else is quite wealthy and we are barely middle class) and my kindergartner came home crying yesterday because “everyone else” was wearing a Homecoming shirt and we hadn’t bought him one. He never ever cares about his clothes and school clothes aren’t a big deal because they wear (used) uniforms and no one can tell the difference. But geez, I felt bad realizing we were the only ones who didn’t/couldn’t cough up $15 to wear a one-time-only t-shirt.

Jasmine
Jasmine
8 years ago
Reply to  Amy+F

Just curious, but how would you guys have dealt with this situation? My friend in 3rd grade was overweight (back in the days when it was uncommon) and was sometimes called “piggy” by the boys. One day our well-meaning but inexperienced homeroom teacher called a class meeting, made the girl stand up, and pointed at her saying forcefully, “Everybody pay attention: this girl is not a pig, she’s a human being.” Needless to say, I think that was probably more humiliating than the actual teasing from classmates.

Amanda
Amanda
8 years ago
Reply to  Amy+F

Wow! That’s RIDICULOUS about your kindergardner. They should give everyone a shirt or make everyone buy one (like part of the uniform).

I also think more schools should have uniforms so kid’s clothing doesn’t tell what class they’re in (like the parent above who has to spend what could be spent on additional food so that the kids look decent enough not to get teased.).

Jasmine, I agree. The teacher should have talked to the kids when your friend wasn’t around. I don’t know what I would have done in your situation though.

KM
KM
8 years ago
Reply to  J.D. Roth

I agree, JD—for example, I was surprised when reading the post to find that Sarah felt self-conscious about saying “we can’t afford that” to her kid in the grocery store who wanted a toy. Because I say that to my kids *all the time* in the store! I’m far from poor–but I don’t think it’s good parenting to encourage my kids to whine and demand to get every toy they see. If anyone overheard me saying that to my kids in the store, I would have guessed that they would probably thought that I was trying to be a good… Read more »

mrs bkwrm
mrs bkwrm
8 years ago
Reply to  KM

I usually say “Sorry. That’s not in the budget this week.” Sometimes I point out something else we *are* getting. The kids are usually just fine with that, even if they aren’t happy about not getting what they asked for.

partgypsy
partgypsy
8 years ago
Reply to  mrs bkwrm

Haha! I totally stole the “it’s not in the budget” line too. It totally works.

Sherry
Sherry
8 years ago
Reply to  mrs bkwrm

That is exactly what I say too – “it’s not in the budget.” It totally took a lot of stress off me to take the kids shopping more because I always cringed when I had to say no, we don’t have the money. Saying its not in the budget can mean either we don’t have the money, or it isn’t an important enough item to spend money on at this point. I do also say – sorry that is out of our price range sometimes too. I have no issues with that either. Because really, it just reconfirms to the… Read more »

Marsha
Marsha
8 years ago
Reply to  KM

My kids learned very early that no meant no. I never felt as though I had to give an explanation. They also learned that if they didn’t take the no gracefully, I would automatically say no to the next request the next time we were shopping. I would not tolerate whining. They learned that a polite request had a better chance of getting a yes.

bkwrm
bkwrm
8 years ago
Reply to  Marsha

When you don’t offer an explanation, you are only teaching them that you are the boss. I don’t disagree about teaching kids to respect authority, but I believe very strongly that children benefit from understanding the rationale behind decisions we make. I believe it is a very important part of teaching critical thinking skills. You can teach both respect for legitimate authority and teach the ability to think critically. The two are not mutually exclusive and I would feel negligent in my duties as a parent if I refused to offer explanations because I was too threatened by an honest… Read more »

Amanda
Amanda
8 years ago
Reply to  Marsha

bkwrm-there shouldn’t have to be any additional whining though…

Jane
Jane
8 years ago
Reply to  KM

I would use the language “we can’t afford that” very cautiously. Of course if you truly are living hand to mouth, that’s a different story. But I grew up thinking that my parents were poor because they always said we couldn’t afford things when we actually could. It’s better to just say, “No, you can’t have that.”

I just think it sends the wrong message to essentially lie. And your children will grow up with a skewed perception of your finances.

Kim
Kim
8 years ago
Reply to  Jane

Jane, I completely agree. I grew up middle class and my parents used “we can’t afford that” for everything since I was quite young. It led me to worry if my parents could afford the groceries, the house…things a child should not have to fret over. My view of finances were skewed for a while. I wish they had told me it was not in the budget and explained what that was. God knows I would have caught on to budgeting much earlier.

Rosa
Rosa
8 years ago
Reply to  Jane

I live in a mostly working-class neighborhood, and saying “no” to my kid automatically means people assume we can’t afford it. There’s no shaming attached, but several times other moms have given my kid something I’ve said no to, often when they can obviously barely afford it for their own kids. So I’ve relaxed a lot of my standards on small things, especially candy and little plastic things – it’s important, socially, to participate in things and share back with people who’ve shared with you. If that means SillyBandz or disposable glow bracelets on the 4th of July, then that’s… Read more »

Nancy
Nancy
8 years ago
Reply to  KM

I usually say, “We didn’t come here to buy that” or “I didn’t bring enough money today to get that”. I’m trying to teach my daughter that you need to plan purchases and not just buy a bunch of stuff on a whim because it looks cool.

Meredith
Meredith
8 years ago
Reply to  Nancy

I typically say, “I didn’t bring money for X today, I only brought money for food (or for what is on my shopping list).” The other thing I do that has been good with my almost 7 year old, is I give him an allowance – he gets $10/month and whenever he sees something at a store that he wants and asks for, I always say something like “We can see how much you have in your piggy bank when we get home and if you still want it, we can come back tomorrow and get it.” 99% of the… Read more »

jenk
jenk
8 years ago
Reply to  KM

The only problem with “I can’t afford that” is that I feel like, if I actually have the money, then it’s a lie.

“It’s not in the budget” also reflects that spending is something one decides on, and can even be planned – it doesn’t just happen.

JenK
JenK
8 years ago
Reply to  jenk

I also think “I don’t want to buy that” is a valid answer. Especially if you’re willing to let the kid use their own money (assuming the kid has their own money) to buy it.

Tania
Tania
8 years ago
Reply to  jenk

I say to my kids, ‘my money is for groceries and other household items – if you want to buy x then you need to use your pocket money”, thereby avoiding issues of what I can /cannot afford. And once they are looking at spending their own money, however small, they soon figured out that buying lollies and other junk meant it took longer to save up for the toys they wanted.

anonymous
anonymous
8 years ago
Reply to  jenk

“The only problem with “I can’t afford that” is that I feel like, if I actually have the money, then it’s a lie.”

I disagree. That’s an excessively literal interpretation of “can’t afford.” It’s like saying someone doesn’t have the time for something–unless you’re about to die, you have effectively the same time anyone else does. Most people interpret “don’t have the time” to mean “not a sufficient priority given competing demands.” It’s the same with money.

anonymous
anonymous
8 years ago
Reply to  KM

I was also surprised that Sarah felt any degree of shame saying, “We can’t afford that.” It’s funny–I grew up in an extremely wealthy household, but we did not “live” rich beyond living in a super expensive area (our house was ordinary) and my attending an expensive private school (where I wore a uniform). My mom told me all the time, including in public, that we couldn’t afford certain things, and I never took it as something to be ashamed of. It was just how my parents wanted to spend their money, a finite resource. It was also very clear… Read more »

Adam P
Adam P
8 years ago
Reply to  J.D. Roth

I remember a few years ago when this story worked backwards; high end stories like Hermes or Barneys were giving plain brown bags so that their shoppers could feel less embarrassed about their wealth.

I also have a good friend who owns several apartment buildings in a university town (in his mid 30s). He is desperate to appear non-rich and when he meets perspective dates he bends over backwards to appear poor or at most average in the wealth department (despite a net worth of several million).

The shame and appearance factor can work both ways!

Sherry
Sherry
8 years ago
Reply to  Adam P

I can understand if someone is being conscious to not perhaps rub their wealth in another’s face on purpose, but I don’t think anyone should be ashamed of their wealth. I just don’t get that. You can have empathy for those that don’t have what you had, and always dressing appropriately (as in…it probably is over the top wearing $300 sneakers to work with a volunteer group to clean up a park or volunteer at a soup kitchen), why worry about what others think?

Rosa
Rosa
8 years ago
Reply to  Sherry

People should be ashamed of some kinds of spending. If they’re spending several hundred dollars on a Hermes scarf, and walking past homeless people on the way home, most people would feel at least a twinge of shame.

Kate
Kate
8 years ago
Reply to  Sherry

@Rosa – Why SHOULD they be ashamed? It’s not like they are rubbing it in the homeless persons face. Its not their fault that the person is homeless…

Rosa
Rosa
8 years ago
Reply to  Sherry

We’re ALL responsible for the state of our country, where we choose to stint on social services to the point where families with little kids end up on the street. Those of us with more money, are more responsible – it’s a system where money = power.

jim
jim
8 years ago
Reply to  Adam P

Hiding wealth is not generally due to ‘shame’. You might hide your expensive Barney’s purchase so you aren’t mugged. You might hide your net worth of millions when going on dates so you can avoid the gold diggers. A landlord might hide his wealth so his tenants don’t feel an excuse to cheat him on the rent. You’d be surprised how many tenants really think that “the landlord is rich” is a good reason to not pay their rent.

Diane
Diane
8 years ago
Reply to  jim

That’s a very astute comment. I have a friend who’s a MND kind of guy. He owns several apartment buildings and all the tenants think he’s the handyman. You’d never suspect by the truck he drives or the clothes he wears.

Amanda
Amanda
8 years ago
Reply to  jim

Diane,

I think that’s how it should be. 😉

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
8 years ago
Reply to  J.D. Roth

Well JD “money” doesn’t humiliate you, and yes you can see “you humiliate yourself” but the fact is that we are status-seeking social animals and a loss of status is always painful– it’s hardwired in our brains. See here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/3340625/Social-status-is-hard-wired-into-our-brains.html In social animals like wolves, zoologists have measured higher levels of cortisol (stress) in lower-ranking individuals. Nobody goes around taking urine samples from unemployed people but you can see how that works. To me, the answer to the social humiliation of having a low income (I grew up pretty well-off) is to adopt a punk rock attitude and learn to… Read more »

Becky
Becky
8 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

Oh, they do collect urine samples from unemployed people – it’s called “drug testing!”

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
8 years ago
Reply to  Becky

oh, that! being self-employed, i had forgotten this exists. they don’t do it to measure cortisol metabolites though. it’s not like “your urine test shows you’re stressed the hell out, and we’re going to give you a job to reduce that stress!”

Steve
Steve
8 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

Our “social animality” has helped our species get to where it is today. However there are downsides to that as per the post. There unscrupulous people using it against us (marketing, collections, etc). And there are inherent negatives, such as sacrificing personally to help the group.

margot
margot
8 years ago
Reply to  J.D. Roth

I agree that it’s all just a matter of perspective. For example, when I was a kid we were very low-income, and I was MORTIFIED that I often wore used clothing and that we shopped at Kmart. I would lie about where my clothing came from, and once I even hid when I saw another classmate at Kmart. Toward the end of high school, I learned that it’s all about perception and framing. I started wanting to shop at used clothing stores – used clothing became cool when you called it “vintage” – and people thought I was fashionable when… Read more »

FrugalTexasGal
FrugalTexasGal
8 years ago
Reply to  margot

Just as an aside. When my kids got asked where their thrift store Tommy H togs from, their well worn line was “my mom got it for me”

JR
JR
8 years ago
Reply to  margot

It is all about one’s perception and projection. Growing up we were ‘low-income’; my parents always made things work, though. I would change how it phrased to us, I think. It has taken me quite some time to learn money skills. I will spend months researching a product before purchasing. For everyday items, I know what stores in my area have the best price vs gas expense. I have no sense of guilt, shame or humiliation in my frugality- only triumph. If I must pay a little more for quality, I will- but never merely for quantity as I frequently… Read more »

imelda
imelda
8 years ago
Reply to  J.D. Roth

I grew up with not a lot of money. Shame was a constant for me. I rarely invited friends over, because I didn’t want them to see that the 6 of us lived in a 1-bedroom apt. I attended a very elite private high school on scholarship, and my years there were an endless series of small shames. No one else caused it – people were incredibly generous and non-judgmental. But the constant litany of having to scramble for rides to the train station because I couldn’t afford a taxi; (it was boarding school; this was in order to go… Read more »

Rosa
Rosa
8 years ago
Reply to  J.D. Roth

There’s a difference between the kind of tight circumstances that make you buy used clothes for the kids (or as my mom had to do one year, borrow from a neighbor to pay for school supplies) and the kind that has you moving out in the middle of the night because you can’t pay the rent, or standing in separate lines each evening because Daddy can’t be in the “family” shelter with the wife and kids. I think you’re right about it not being the money though – it’s other people that do the humiliating, whether it’s a bad attitude… Read more »

Mondo Duke
Mondo Duke
8 years ago

There is no need to feel shame or worry about what strangers think about you. They are not responsible for your happiness. By allowing others to make you feel shamed, you’re giving them even more power over you. If you are in a bad situation, you are in a bad situation. Nobody else need be concerned with that. We’ve been conditioned to care what others think, but that clerk at the checkout who you feel is judging you for what you use food stamps to buy, or the bill collector calling who comes across as angry, when they go home… Read more »

Kristen
Kristen
8 years ago
Reply to  Mondo Duke

Mondo- I wish I could “like” your comment twelve times!

shash
shash
8 years ago
Reply to  Kristen

I totally agree! 🙂

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
8 years ago
Reply to  Mondo Duke

I disagree, for reasons I explained above. No man is an island, blah blah. Your community matters– if you’re surrounded by status-minded jerks you’ll suffer more than if you’re surrounded by people who approach you with solidarity (not charity).

G. M. N.
G. M. N.
8 years ago
Reply to  Mondo Duke

We didn’t have problems with our money – just not much of it. But I did teach my children to not feel humiliated if they were teased for something that wasn’t popular. I told them that people who looked down on other people usually did so because they felt their ideas and ways were better than yours and they had a lot of confidence. To prove it, I suggested they wear something very outrageous to school. When others made fun of them, just say, “Well, if you don’t have the guts to wear it, that’s not my problem. Get a… Read more »

Jacq
Jacq
8 years ago
Reply to  Mondo Duke

I don’t think that’s what bothers most people. It’s not what other people think of me – or thought of me – that was the problem when I had financial difficulties.

It was the shame I felt at myself. That I was a loser in not being able to even make a normal, decent living for myself and my kids.

joanne
joanne
8 years ago
Reply to  Jacq

Jacq, I totally get that. It was never so much what others thought, it was more of a shamed feeling when i was stuggling just for basics.

SB @ One Cent At A Time
SB @ One Cent At A Time
8 years ago

Self chosen hardship is always better than forced hardship and humiliation. Also. don’t forget that in self hardship you are only saving for your dues but, in forced hardship you save for due+interest and added humiliation.

Good post Sarah!

SF_UK
SF_UK
8 years ago

“America’s favorite thing to do is to judge what people spend their SNAP benefits on” I remember working as a student at a supermarket that would take asylum seeker vouchers for clothing as well as food. I always thought this was a great thing – some of the kids were clearly in desperate need of clothing, but I found that others thought it was “pandering” to them as the vouchers were technically only meant for food (how they were meant to clothe their growing children, I don’t know, as the vouchers appeared to be the only income they were legally… Read more »

kms98kms
kms98kms
8 years ago
Reply to  SF_UK

While I think that SNAP and other types of help should exist, I don’t think it should be able to be used to take cash out of the ATM – which they do here in MA and then by lottery tickets, toys and cases of beer.

Nancy
Nancy
8 years ago
Reply to  kms98kms

SNAP can only be used for food. What you are thinking of is “cash aid”(welfare payment). Both are put on the same card. So someone might get $300 dollars in cash aid and $200 of food stamps. They have to spend the $200 on food but can use the rest how they please.

Tyler@Debt Reckoning
8 years ago

My best friend in high school had his car repossessed from the school parking lot because his parents didn’t pay his car note.

We didn’t know until we walked out after school and saw an empty parking space where his car had been parked that morning. He ran inside and called the police, thinking the car had been stolen, and then called his parents.

That was quite an embarrassing moment for him. Oddly enough, he went on to have his own financial problems later in life, repeating the mistakes his parents made and caused him much humiliation as a teen.

Anon
Anon
8 years ago

I went through a long period of being unemployed at the end of the previous recession. During that time I ended up without even the money to do a bankruptcy. Even my retirement savings were gone. So I found myself with no choice but to default on several loans. The only loan I had which was secured (a car loan) I did a voluntary repossession, but the creditor still wanted several thousand dollars. In the end I just let things go and waited to see how it all worked out. When I finally found a job 29 months after I… Read more »

Dogs or Dollars
Dogs or Dollars
8 years ago
Reply to  Anon

The SoL and the creditors who buy your expired debts for pennies on the dollar, is a little discussed skeleton in the credit closet. Talk about shady. I went through all this with my husband before we were married. My first instinct was to pay. Thankfully, I took the time to research first. Most of these debts were so old and had been sold so many times they couldn’t even tell you what it was originally for. And they’re trying to shame me!?

Erin
Erin
8 years ago
Reply to  Anon

Good for you! The difference between businesses and individuals is that individuals have the ability to have emotions (including shame), and many of our money decisions are based on those emotions. If a business had made similar decisions in discharging its debts, those decisions would be applauded as very savvy.

The financial system we have in place favors those who can set their emotions aside, looks at all of the rules governing their situation, and decide which actions will best benefit them. You did exactly that, and you emerged a winner. Well done!!

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
8 years ago
Reply to  Anon

Ah, rude creditors. I learned to cuss at them before they cussed me. I also had a lawsuit thrown out of court with papers I bought off the internet. Why be ashamed when you can get angry– shame loses fights but anger gives you a chance of punching back.

Dogs or Dollars
Dogs or Dollars
8 years ago

I think JD’s right. Its all how we frame it. Used clothes and food stamps = shame. When they should and can = smart living within our means, or perhaps a different values system. This is what I love about the PF blogosphere. Suddenly those decisions to change your priorities, to skip the lunch out and brown bag, to say ‘I dont want to spend money on that’ or ‘I can’t afford that’ those decisions aren’t embarrassing. They might even mean you have leg up on the next guy. Food stamps mean you are trying to feed your family. Used… Read more »

maria
maria
8 years ago

How on earth can using food stamps = living within your means? If you have to have someone else pay for your food your you are living above your means. You need to strive to increase your means or decrease your expenses.

June
June
8 years ago
Reply to  maria

Most people I know who have taken food stamps have children to feed, which is what motivated them to overcome the humiliation. Do you suggest letting your kids go hungry until you figure out how to live within your means? Food stamps are usually a temporary situation for a family, no matter what the public notion is…

Harmony
Harmony
8 years ago
Reply to  June

It is hard not to judge when the person in line in front of you uses food stamps to buy milk and cash to buy alcohol and cigarettes.

imelda
imelda
8 years ago
Reply to  June

In response to the above poster: how dare the poor not be perfect and vice-free, amiright?

maria
maria
8 years ago
Reply to  June

imelda 120
They don’t need to be perfect, however if you have to resort to spending someone elses dime (food stamps) to feed your family they should at least make an attempt to be frugal…Beer and smokes are not frugal and probably part of the reason they are in this position.
Give up the beer and smokes, use the money saved to purchase food for your family and you’ll feel successful and be one step closer to financial independence..

Davina
Davina
8 years ago
Reply to  June

People need to be careful about reproducing — either not having kids at all or maybe just one. Kids cost money and the world is awfully crowded….

Erin
Erin
8 years ago
Reply to  maria

While you are working to increase your means, you use the food stamps to eat. That’s how you stay alive while you work things out. It’s such a basic concept it wasn’t included in the previous equation, but perhaps it should have been…

Dogs or Dollars
Dogs or Dollars
8 years ago
Reply to  maria

With a national unemployment rate of 9%, increasing your means isn’t always that easy. As you are working on that, you gotta keep food on the table. There is no shame in taking food stamps to do that.

partgypsy
partgypsy
8 years ago
Reply to  maria

PS you can’t use food stamps to buy tobacco or alcohol.

Mondo Esteban
Mondo Esteban
8 years ago
Reply to  partgypsy

You cannot buy alcohol or tobacco. But I work in an industry with some of the major cigarette companies and there is actually a trend that cigarette sales increase early in the month every month. It is suggested that people recieve welfare and use their extra cash to buy cigarettes during this time, and as the month goes on and their check decreases, they have to use their extra cash to buy food instead of cigarettes.

Procrastamom
Procrastamom
8 years ago
Reply to  maria

Annnnnd THIS is where the humiliation comes from…being judged by people who just do not get it. When someone loses a job and eats through their savings and cuts back on everything and still can’t live “within their means”, where do they go from there? Homelessness? Starvation? How do they feed their kids in the interim?

partgypsy
partgypsy
8 years ago
Reply to  Procrastamom

Mondo, all I’m saying is that these snap dollars are not going to buying things like cigarettes or alcohol (a few other things as well) so people who complain about money going for that are misguided. But no, unless you are going to outlaw tobacco and alcohol in general you can’t legislate what people are going to buy with their own cash, or even if they are going to use the snap money the most optiminum/efficient way (force them to buy all beans and rice for example). This again gets into the whole “humiliation” aspect of accepting snap money, the… Read more »

Jean
Jean
8 years ago
Reply to  Procrastamom

Exactly! Thank you for saying this. Food stamps are not just for anyone, there are income levels to be met, it’s not for people who ‘live beyond their means.’ It’s food, people. Food. We need it to live. I used to work for a nonprofit food bank and I was always amazed at the vitriol and judgmental attitudes that people had towards people who needed assistance with food. Do you think people like asking for this kind of help? Help with covering the most basic of our human needs? In my time at the organization, on more than one occasion… Read more »

Cely
Cely
8 years ago
Reply to  Procrastamom

I also volunteered at a food bank for several months and saw all kinds of people. Many had jobs but could not feed their entire family. They would buy groceries, but supplement with the produce and baby food/supplies we offered. We could never keep enough diapers in stock. We served homeless people, those in shelters, families, individuals…people from their 20s to their 70s. It was an eye-opener.

Heather
Heather
8 years ago
Reply to  maria

I can imagine the shame of using food stamps, because it probably feels similar to using WIC, which we do use. When we were in dire financial straits and living with my parents in the nice section of town, the cashiers in the grocery store were nice about it, and more coupon-friendly toward when they had just done my WIC order. But they were so out of practice on doing WIC that they had to call over their manager to show them how. Meanwhile I’m getting evil glares from everyone in line behind me. I was even too embarrassed in… Read more »

Harmony
Harmony
8 years ago
Reply to  Heather

Thanks for mentioning the cell phones. I have always tended to be judgemental about Medicaid patients with iphones. I get by with the cheapest Virgin mobile phone and have always been jelous of those who can afford more. It is good to remember that they may be paid for by someone else.

Holly
Holly
8 years ago

This is an excellent, thought-provoking post… the kind of post that keeps me coming back to GRS.

IMHO learning that different people make different choices, and that there are always trade-offs, is an important lesson for kids. Instead of always seeing what they DON’T have, it gives them an opportunity to think about what they might have to give up to get what they want.

Carol
Carol
8 years ago

I see part of this differently. Our household earnings put us in the top 2% of Americans, but I grew up poor. I am proud to buy pre-used “pre-loved” clothes; it is a form of recycling, and you can get judge fit and material quality after an item has been washed a few times. Same things for toys, household items; anything that is safe to buy used. Now that my kids have an allowance and have to buy all non-discretionary items from it, they whine much less. I don’t need to say “we can’t afford it.” I say “It’s not… Read more »

Rosa
Rosa
8 years ago
Reply to  Carol

I don’t even have to make the judgement anymore; kiddo knows what I will and will not buy for him, for anything else the rule is “you have $X, is this what you want to spend it on?”

Sometimes it is. But if he never wastes his money on crap, how is he going to learn not to? He knows my reasoning – if it was something I wanted him to have, I’d buy it.

Christian
Christian
8 years ago

A friend of mine is having a baby, but is not married. She lives with the babies father and they are engaged. He works a full time job and makes decent money and she works part time. Since they are not married she receives WIP credits that allow her to get groceries for free. It really bothers me though – because they can easily afford it. They just found a loop hole in the system to abuse getting free stuff. I especially bothers me after reading this article that people that DO NEED the help are too humiliated to take… Read more »

Kristen
Kristen
8 years ago
Reply to  Christian

My guess, but maybe it depends on the state (?) is that she’s breaking the law. I believe that if she’s living with another adult, she has a legal obligation to report that person’s income, and likely would then not qualify for food stamps. I don’t have any first hand experience here, but I remember a similar conversation with my FIL, who has a subsidized rental property.

Christian
Christian
8 years ago
Reply to  Kristen

I think technically she has a legal obligation to report this information (I would think), but I’m not sure how the government goes about verifying this if the person chooses not to be completely honest. I guess at some point you just have to hope that people are honest enough not to abuse a program – even if the government is doing their due diligence to ensure compliance.

Becky
Becky
8 years ago
Reply to  Christian

And “due diligence” can feel like harrassment and intentional humiliation to those who are truly honest. I think a lot of people don’t collect benefits like SNAP and Medicaid because the qualification process feels like an endless, accusatory tribunal.

I understand the need to protect government benefits from fraudsters. There are no easy answers.

Steven
Steven
8 years ago
Reply to  Christian

Loopholes (flaws) are different than people screwing the system…

Amanda
Amanda
8 years ago
Reply to  Christian

I think you are being judgemental. Just because someone makes a “decent” living doesn’t necessarily mean that he is rolling in cash. Maybe he has his own dirty secrets (i.e. debt) that he is paying off. And by his girlfriend getting help with food he is able to still do it.

maria
maria
8 years ago
Reply to  Amanda

Am I understanding you correctly?
Using food stamps to feed your kid and boyfriend is ok if your boyfriend is paying off consumer debt…That is just Insane!

Ally
Ally
8 years ago
Reply to  Christian

She is absolutely committing fraud. I am a welfare fraud investigator for the State of Michigan. I’m not familiar with the term/program “WIP.” Perhaps she is on WIC, and I am not 100% sure of their policies because WIC is usually administered by the county and I don’t deal with WIC. If she is on Food Stamps (which she probably is, if she is on WIC) then she has not found a “loophole in the system,” she IS committing fraud. Welfare fraud over $500 is a felony. She is under an obligation to report all adults in the home and… Read more »

bkwrm
bkwrm
8 years ago
Reply to  Christian

I do not know if it is still the case, but the income guidelines for WIC used to be pretty generous. From what I’ve seen of WIC as both a client and someone trained as a breastfeeding peer counselor, WIC, though an excellent program, is as much about supporting the dairy industry as it is about supporting struggling families. The amount of money that is allotted to WIC for breastfeeding support was minuscule compared to that provided for infant formula vouchers. Or that’s how it was when my now-teenage children were younger. WIC is still, IMO, one of the very… Read more »

Cheaperest
Cheaperest
8 years ago

This is a really important topic — money is so much than a number. I see this now with my friends who are fresh out of college (and saddled with student loans). Nobody wants to be the one to say “I can’t go out tonight (go to the movies, eat at that restaurant, pay for the next round, etc.) because I can’t afford it.”
Everyone is living on credit because they think that’s better than coming clean about their finances.

Megan E.
Megan E.
8 years ago
Reply to  Cheaperest

My friends in grad school are willing to admit they can’t afford to go out a lot…we have a party at a home instead (usually mine, as we have a house). Bringing food is usually cheaper and more fun!

Anne
Anne
8 years ago
Reply to  Megan E.

It’s easier to say no when you are still in school. Then everyone expects you to be poor. It’s harder when you graduate and some land much better jobs. When you are in school you expect relative poverty to be temporary. You expect things to get better when you graduate. What happens when the job you land pays LESS than you earned as a grad student. And while I love a good potluck party at home, what happens when you can’t even afford to bring food to a friend’s house because your income can only feed you! And it basically… Read more »

imelda
imelda
8 years ago
Reply to  Cheaperest

Yup – and often even when you DO tell people, “sorry, I can’t afford it,” they say, “oh, no problem, I’ll lend you the money.” Or, “Oh, I’ll treat you.”

Do people not get how embarrassing that is??

1) borrowing $$ doesn’t make something any more affordable, and

2) no one wants to be a charity case.

I know everyone here knows this…. just had to have a rant! 🙂

Ali Manning
Ali Manning
8 years ago

I really enjoyed this post. It’s well written and thoughtful. I’d add that the prospect of financial humiliation also keeps my people in unhappy marriages or living arrangements. The prospect of financial insecurity is very scary and it can keep people in situations that are at best unhappy and at worst abusive.

Josh
Josh
8 years ago

I think the SNAP program needs an overhaul.

People who are in need of nutrition should not be able to buy junk food with those benefits. They should be limited to more healthy staples. If that would be too hard to restrict with the card then we should just start providing people with bulk bags of rice, beans, etc….

Harmony
Harmony
8 years ago
Reply to  Josh

Good luck trying to define what a “healty staple” is. There was recently an effort to exclude potatoes from SNAP out of obesity concerns that drew a lot of oposition.

Rosa
Rosa
8 years ago
Reply to  Harmony

Back in the day, it was a big struggle to get rice added to our WIC program. Not because it isn’t healthy, but because of pure ethnocentrism – what, bread isn’t good enough for all these Asian immigrants?

mary w
mary w
8 years ago
Reply to  Josh

Back in the late-60s before food stamps people on welfare got “commodities”. I think they were things the government “bought” from farmer’s through some sort of farm subsidy program. (I was a child who ate the food, but never an adult that dealt with the program.) Some of it was good and healthy-ish (corn meal, flour, canned chicken, cheese). Some less tasty (powdered eggs and milk). Some was truly vile (canned meat of unknown origin that came out of the can in a single block. Even the dog next door wouldn’t eat it.) Talk about stigma. First you had to… Read more »

Diane
Diane
8 years ago
Reply to  Josh

You seem to be making an assumption that the folks receiving SNAP benefits have the same means to prepare food that you do. Years ago, I remember that a church group wanted to prepare food baskets for Thanksgiving, complete with turkey. They had to be reminded that many of the poor don’t have access to working ovens or pans to cook the turkey in, or a table to sit at… I believe they went with canned hams (the kind with turnkeys) instead.

Sherry
Sherry
8 years ago
Reply to  Diane

That is a good point – perhaps there are a lot that don’t have those means to cook from scratch, or have the time. Not looking to rehash that argument. HOWEVER, though I HATE having government intrusion in general, if folks are receiving money from the government for food, I think it is reasonable for policies to be put in place that things like soda and candy be disallowed. I don’t think crossing any of that stuff off the grocery list is going to cause harm. Sure, a mom or dad may have to say no to the kiddos when… Read more »

SLCCOm
SLCCOm
8 years ago
Reply to  Sherry

So. of course, since we need to draw SOME sort of line, who should draw that line? You? And certainly, “junk food” is verboten! So if the kids want a birthday party, they should have chosen their parent(s) better? And enjoy those rice cakes, kiddies! Maybe we can scrape up a little jelly.

I believe this goes back to the original thought about people deciding that they have the right to judge what people buy with SNAP money.

Laundry Lady
Laundry Lady
8 years ago
Reply to  Sherry

I’ll admit I do struggle with the idea that junk food can be bought with WIC or SNAP but not disposable diapers and toilet paper, which I would consider to be higher levels of necessity.

Kingston
Kingston
8 years ago
Reply to  Sherry

The corporations that make unhealthy food, snacks and sugary beverages will fight tooth and nail any attempt to limit government food assistance to healthy products.

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
8 years ago
Reply to  Josh

Why one size doesn’t fit all:

-Peanut butter for those with allergies
-High glycemic foods for diabetics
-Wheat and wheat products for celiac patients
-USDA beef for vegetarians
-Powder milk for the lactose intolerant
-Kosher Ham? Halal Ham?
-etc.

It’s better to educate people than to shove things down their throats. Could be a requirement for example that those getting SNAP benefits either pass a nutrition test or attend a class, just like for a driver’s license. That might actually be helpful.

Melinda
Melinda
8 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

Great. More humiliation. Didn’t you read the article?

Kate
Kate
8 years ago
Reply to  Melinda

How is a class on nutrition humiliating?

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
8 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo
SLCCOm
SLCCOm
8 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

I think a more useful class would be how to shop. Use the sales circulars, buy on sale, plan your meals, how to compare prices from brand to brand, use of coupons, other frugal living tips.

Pamela
Pamela
8 years ago

I think Sarah handled this topic with a lot of compassion. And I’m impressed by some of the comments too. I remember having to deliver the startling news to someone who wanted a loan to repair her home that she was too poor to get one. She didn’t have the means to pay it back. Fortunately, we had a grant that could help her but she felt embarrassed about taking the much-needed money. She didn’t see herself as a poor person although her income was barely above poverty level and making ends meet took careful management. And she was worried… Read more »

Bareheadedwoman
Bareheadedwoman
8 years ago
Reply to  Pamela

“my philosophy that every time we help someone over a rough spot, we all benefit. If her house is repaired, it benefits her neighborhood, the tax base, and future buyers.”

and don’t forget karma. everytime we help someone over a rough spot, some rough spot in our own future gets a guardian over it set up for us.

so judge at your own peril…literally.

Becky
Becky
8 years ago
Reply to  Pamela

There’s an episode of “This American Life” where an immigrant tells the story of flagging down a policeman because a homeless person asked him for help. He (the immigrant) could not undertand how a person could not have anyplace to live, because in his country, a family would be ashamed to allow this to happen to one of its members. In the U.S. we often take pride in not needing care from others, but the ugly flip side of that is feeling righteous about not *giving* care to others. I’m not saying all Americans are selfish – of course that’s… Read more »

Jacq
Jacq
8 years ago

It wasn’t until I truly felt the shame of being constantly broke, having creditors calling, and almost having my house repossessed that I did anything about it. Today, I’m grateful that it happened and forced me to do a 180.
http://singlemomrichmom.com/how-to-get-out-of-debt-part-1-1-rock-bottom/

One of the things I did every day was to list what I was afraid of doing and forced myself to “eat that frog” first thing every morning. I can’t describe how freeing it was to finally address my problems rather than run away.

Joe+@+Not+Your+Average+Joe
[email protected]+Not+Your+Average+Joe
8 years ago

My 16 year old is already a smart shopper that likes to buy clothes at the local Goodwills. She always looks great, and she gets some of the items for $1 at these stores. On one trip she and my wife practically got a new wardrobe for her for $50. She’s been brought up being taught the value of a buck.

One of our most important jobs as parents is to teach my son and daughter to avoid excessive debt to stave off any future “humiliation”. It’s a necessity.

Dr. Jason Cabler (@DrCabler)
Dr. Jason Cabler (@DrCabler)
8 years ago

I think its good for people to feel humiliated when they have to go on public assistance. Not necessarily because they deserve to feel bad, but because it shows a healthy sense of self respect that some people on assistance just don’t have. When you feel humiliated in this way it shows that you want to do better for yourself and you don’t want to be in that situation, so you are more likely to find a way to get out of that situation and never go back. I teach people in my Celebrating Financial Freedom course that in order… Read more »

Bareheadedwoman
Bareheadedwoman
8 years ago

part of me wants to link to see exactly what kind of “doctor” you are that advocates humiliation–especially of worth– as an acceptable cattle prod to use on humans…and who would think such a pat answer would be a good advertisement for a financial seminar.

then the other part of me thinks “eh.” and decides not to link.

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
8 years ago

“Dr.” Strangelove

Heather
Heather
8 years ago

I agree with Dr. Cabler, and my kids are getting WIC. I don’t think people should try to humiliate others who have less than they do, but I think it is healthy for the “have less” people to want to do better. Humiliation and judgmental looks from others, whether real, imagined, well-meaning or otherwise, can be a powerful motivation. The humiliation we’ve been through will just make it sweeter when my husband gets a promotion (quite soon, we think!) and/or we pay off the debts we have.

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
8 years ago
Reply to  Heather

some people are always going to have more than others. why subject yourself to mental torture instead of learning contentment?

Robin
Robin
8 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

Why should you be content to be on public assistance?

Pamela
Pamela
8 years ago
Reply to  Heather

Part of my job is to sit down face-to-face with people who have credit problems and help them figure out how to fix them so they can someday own their own home. Although I’ve never tried humiliating anyone in my office, I can’t imagine how it would help me to motivate them to do the hard work it takes to fix credit and save money. No matter how terrible a credit report looks, I try to find something the person is doing right and help them figure out how to bring that small discipline into another area of their life.… Read more »

PawPrint
PawPrint
8 years ago

A long time ago I left an abusive relationship with my toddler in tow and no job. I had to go on welfare, housing assistance, etc. Adding additional humiliation to what was already a humilating situation for me would have pushed me over the edge. Thankfully, most of the counselors didn’t follow your proposed policy. I believe that having to go on public assistance is already humilating enough for many if not most people.

Jean
Jean
8 years ago

There is so much wrong here I don’t even know where to start. How about not everyone is on a level playing field and has the same opportunities to pick themselves up and get out of the situations they are in due to geography, education and ability? No one grew rich off public assistance as far as I know. Everyone just loves to receive government assistance, that’s why all of us are scrambling madly to get on it. If your intent was to inflame, well then, congratulations.

JP Adams
JP Adams
8 years ago

Interesting article. One additional angle to consider is how financial difficulty can force an individual or a family to be creative about problem solving. Jason at Frugal Dad recently wrote an interesting article titled: “10 Free Dates That Your Wife Will Love” that I love. A few weekends a year I have “$20 weekends”. I make my way through the back corners of my food cabinets, wander through free museums, explore new sections of town with friends and watch old movies. It turns out to be a lot fun. It stretches my mind to explore activities that I often don’t… Read more »

Steve
Steve
8 years ago
Reply to  JP Adams

Does that imply that a normal weekend for you costs more than $20?

JP Adams
JP Adams
8 years ago
Reply to  Steve

Thanks Steve. I have the expense patterns of a young professional single person. Over 85% of my costs come during Friday evening and Sunday. This is when I socialize with friends, see movies, eat out, etc. You bring up a good point however that my spending patterns are not necessarily representative of other people. Some families may very well only spend $20 a weekend – although I would think most spend far north of that. NYMag recently had great piece on the wealth gap in NY City. They compared two family’s spending habits. One from Manhattan and I believe the… Read more »

Samantha
Samantha
8 years ago

I think a big reason why people don’t sign up for food stamps and similar government assist programs is related to the process of getting approved. I’m sure it’s different in every town in the US, and some people are successful, however in a big city like New York, the process can be extremely frustrating and scary. I’ve not signed up for it myself, but have heard friends describe their experiences of spending hours waiting in line in government offices to get approved (valuable time they would have spent looking for work) often with people who looked drugged up, sick… Read more »

Bareheadedwoman
Bareheadedwoman
8 years ago
Reply to  Samantha

i have worked with people trying to get system help and have played with people on the other end, the gatekeepers of assistance application and approval. it is common knowledge in the system that the humiliation, the constant trips, the lost IDs/paperwork, etc. is innate and built-in (or not corrected) specifically as a weeding tool. The going thought is that only those that “truly” are destitute will suffer the intelligently applied humiliation and that anyone who can really help themselves, will eventually give up and quit returning/applying (as in, your friends really didn’t need help because they wouldn’t run the… Read more »

Samantha
Samantha
8 years ago

One of the two friends I mentioned is able to take care of herself, although she is an incredibly talented artist who doesn’t get paid very much even though she’s been very heavily published and hired. She tried real estate to make things financially easier, but found that things became financially harder. She’s stuck with her choice (and loves her choice regardless of the hardships), but is frustrated with how difficult it is to run that gauntlet. She probably fits into the group you’re referring to. The other is not so lucky. She suffers from severe depression and low self… Read more »

Bareheadedwoman
Bareheadedwoman
8 years ago
Reply to  Samantha

intentionally inflicting pain on another human who is potentially in a hardship situation for whatever reason NEVER makes sense to me.

inflicting pain on some just in case ALL are not as they seem, NEVER makes sense to me.

justifying the infliction of pain on another human NEVER makes sense to me…

and yes, i’d rather subsidize 3 frauds in order to avoid inflicting pain on one genuine needy person.

but that’s just me.

Pamela
Pamela
8 years ago
Reply to  Samantha

I read a story about how legalizing heroin in Sweden actually decreased heroin use (Malcolm Gladwell, perhaps?).

The addicts had to make an appointment and report to a government waiting room where they had to fill out all the forms and rigamarole to get their shot of heroin before they left.

Researchers have speculated that the dreariness of the process made heroin a lot less interesting to an addict.

Just imagine if you wade through the bureaucracy and all you get is free (bad) cheese at the end. 🙂

Cindy
Cindy
8 years ago

I grew up poor, but on a farm. We didn’t have much in the way of clothing or possessions, but our food was fresh and organic — because we grew or butchered it ourselves. (I thought everyone had steak a lot!) Husband grew up in a military family that was frugal because they had to be. His mom used to go down to the shrimp boats to buy their supper. (I only knew the heavy-coated shrimp ‘poppers’ from the freezer section, but we had all the fresh bass, sunfish and salmon we wanted, thanks to living not far from a… Read more »

Shannon
Shannon
8 years ago
Reply to  Cindy

Excellent post! Being poor/frugal does not necessarily mean shopping at Kmart. That just means buying poorly made items. I shop almost exclusively at thrift/consignment stores for my kids, and they were pretty much all name brands. I only buy items without tears, stains etc in good condition. No one would ever know where my kid’s stuff comes from, not even them because I shop by myself, I wash it, and it shows up in their dressers. I can guarantee those shopping at Kmart are paying more than I am and the stuff probably wears out twice as fast. It really… Read more »

Carla
Carla
8 years ago

I know all too well the shame and humiliation not having enough can do to a person. After all, *we* are responsible for our lives as adults. We are responsible for our budgets, our education, even our jobs (when you’re laid off, people automatically assume its your fault first). People also project their fears on to you and want to inadvertently blame you when you hit a patch of bad luck. In terms of food stamps, I don’t as many people qualify as that stats suggest. I tried to apply several months ago and was turned down despite being on… Read more »

Bareheadedwoman
Bareheadedwoman
8 years ago
Reply to  Carla

“on the streets to qualify…”

if then.

babysteps
babysteps
8 years ago
Reply to  Carla

Bummer about the food stamp process for you.

Have you tried area food pantries? Both for their free food, and because many food pantries (though not all) – especially ones that are part of a larger charity organization – have intake screening that may be able to help determine if you might qualify for food stamps after all, and if so may also be able to help you re-apply.

partgypsy
partgypsy
8 years ago

I think it is harder to get those benefits than most people think, particularly if there are adults in the household. To give an example a household of 3 people, maybe have to make less than 22K to qualify. So you have 1 unemployed person, and two people each making 11K each, but together the household makes too much to qualify. Some of my family members do not have health insurance. There is a subsidized plan they found out about, but it is amazing the amount of paperwork needed to be able to qualify, and once you are qualified, you… Read more »

Bryan at Pinch that Penny!
Bryan at Pinch that Penny!
8 years ago

Thanks not only for the thoughtful article, but the use and analysis of Koestenbaum’s “Humiliation.” I picked the book up a couple of weeks ago, and this post probably put it next on my to-read list.

chris
chris
8 years ago

Absolutely fascinating topic! When I was in high school, in the 1980’s I worked in the grocery store and my parents were getting out of farming (we moved to town). Needless to say, we owned a ton of money, and had very little income. Working at the grocery store I saw those people come in with the food stamp coupon books and you wouldn’t believe the variety of folks who used them. From the lady in the fur coat with gold jewelry driving the Mercedes to the kid in my class whose father was a painter at the mental hospital.… Read more »

Jan
Jan
8 years ago
Reply to  chris

When I was in school the “poor” kids had yellow lunch tickets. It was terrible and humiliating for those kids so when I found myself single parenting and poor, I went at for years skipping meals for myself so that I could afford the regular lunch tickets for my daughter.

partgypsy
partgypsy
8 years ago
Reply to  chris

Those financial aid people might get in trouble. Most students would NOT be eligible for snap because they are still dependents and part of a household whose income exceeds the limits. Only if the student is a declared independent would they be possibly eligible for food stamps.

Kate
Kate
8 years ago
Reply to  chris

When I was a college student, I was not able to qualify for food stamps or assistance because of my full-time student status. My roommate and I were both scholarship students. We were car-less, television free, library-computer-using, book-borrowing, card carrying poor people. We washed our clothes in a bucket because so we didn’t have to waste money at the laundromat and when we did carry a full load of clothes several blocks to that gleaming beacon of modernity and convenience, we carried the sopping clothes home to hang them on the line to dry – a savings of 75 cents!… Read more »

Chela
Chela
8 years ago

Shame is absolutely a big factor with money, but not as much as some would think. Unfortunately, my parents were (and still are) horrible with money. They never taught us kids about finances, went through bankruptcy while the three of us were still in high school, and still managed to rack up over $12k in credit cards years later. I remember trying to speak with my dad about refinancing their home in ’06 when rates were low and using the equity to pay off all their debts; this was after I was already married with my 1st baby. I will… Read more »

Nancy
Nancy
8 years ago

Great post. It’s hard to navigate these issues with kids but the rewards for doing it are definitely there! We aren’t poor by any means but have gone through layoffs several times and have learned to set priorities for our money. This is the message we tried to give our kids when they’d come home from a friend’s house and ask why we didn’t have the big screen tv or fancy car. We would say that we had more important things to do with our money, like save it for their college educations. They grumbled about this plenty and it… Read more »

Katie
Katie
8 years ago

Regarding the part about a third of people who are eligible for food stamps not using them, I don’t think that’s exclusively because of humiliation. I don’t doubt that’s part of it, maybe even a big part, but I know we qualified at one point according to our income (and we qualified by a significant margin), but our situation was such that we didn’t have trouble paying for our food, so obviously we didn’t go sign up or anything. In our case, it was a situation of fairly low income for a couple years but with a good cushion of… Read more »

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
8 years ago
Reply to  Katie

Well, no… it’s my understanding that if you have savings you’re not eligible for food stamps. You’re supposed to have depleted all other options before you actually qualify. It’s a last-straw resource.

Hm… google sez it varies from state to state, but there’s definitely an asset test:

http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/Files/Projects/retirementsecurity/03_increasing_saving.pdf

Katie
Katie
8 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

Yes, there must be some variation, because we were offered it by a social worker who ought to have known the system (and presumably did). It’s good to know that that’s something that’s taken into account in many cases though.

cherie
cherie
8 years ago

This was a great piece. I think it is important to remember that everyone is different when it comes to self esteem and the opinions of others. Both my husband and son have need for approval, to fit in, etc. My 11yo boy worries over his relative status all the time – are they richer than us? etc. It’s just who he is [his father doesn’t ever give off these messages for him to learn – he’s actually extremely successful – but the 11yo inside HIM still worries that he’s not ‘good enough’] My daughters are the opposite – and… Read more »

jenk
jenk
8 years ago

Take past-due debt. Those who have suffered a financial setback major enough to start racking up late bills, and the phone calls that go along with them, are the best example of a group for which humiliation works against personal interest. Collections agents are counting on your humiliation and your fear of a poor credit score (which will engender even more humiliation) to convince you to pay your past-dues immediately. Indeed. My father’s bills were a mess by the time he landed in the hospital. (Dementia does not help in managing finances.) He also doesn’t have a lot of money.… Read more »

Melanie
Melanie
8 years ago

I’ll through school (from elementary to high school) I got reduced lunch. Cost was $.40 vs $2. I paid my $.40. The lunch lady checked my name against a list and I received lunch.

I never ate lunch during middle school or high school. Too humiliated.

Children shouldn’t be made to feel singled out like that.

Rosa
Rosa
8 years ago
Reply to  Melanie

I don’t know how universal this is, but at our school all the kids have a lunch number. They memorize the number and give it to the lunch checkout person. Some of the numbers go to accounts that parents pay into electronically (about half), some go to accounts that are paid by the state for low-income families, or the county for fostercare and homeless kids. Nobody knows but an accountant in a back office somewhere.

Lucille
Lucille
8 years ago

Reading this post makes me feel incredibly lucky. I endured a difficult divorce and was left in a rather impoverisfed situation. I was waist deep in debts but felt confident about negotiating with the various companies involved. Though I was advised to declare myself bankrupt; I decided against it and had lengthy communications with each of the companies. They all gave me fair payment terms and today I’m well on the way to solvency and feeling good about my life. To echo the words of Barack Obama: “no where else in the world is my story possible” – my geographic… Read more »

Andy
Andy
8 years ago

My husband grew up in Northern NJ and his family was middle class in an area where most parents worked high profile jobs in NYC (stock broker, atty, advertising, ect.) He still, to this day, talks about being dropped off at school in a beat up lincoln when the other kids were brought in chauffered luxury cars. (Don’t ask me why no one rode the bus?) He is so scarred by those memories. He grew up caring so much about what other kids and people thought of him it still bothers him tremendously today and it upsets me that those… Read more »

Amanda
Amanda
8 years ago

Contrary to the author’s thought I feel that many do not make use of SNAP programs because they are unaware that they qualify. An example is my friend who 6 months into her pregnancy told me she was SICK of eating fish and her midwife didn’t really want her eating that much (because of the thought that more than trace amounts of bad minerals -?- might affect the baby-like mercury) and I said if you really can’t afford food maybe you qualify for food stamps. SHE DID! So, maybe it’s because there’s a stigma associated with food stamps but maybe… Read more »

Mr. Frugal
Mr. Frugal
8 years ago

Managing your finances is a chore just like anything else that keeps you healthy. Imagine the shame that would result if you never brushed your teeth, washed your clothes or did the dishes. I’m not equating people with bad money management skills to slobs. I’m more trying to illustrate how essential it is to understand how to manage money and what the consequences are when you don’t. We teach children to brush their teeth as soon as they have teeth. But many people are never taught healthy habits for managing their finances. Unfortunately, these people (myself included) often end up… Read more »

Linda
Linda
8 years ago

I agree there is a lot of emotion around financial decisions. We are in the process of downsizing to a smaller and much lower priced house. In our current situation, we are actually able to pay all of our bills and save a little. However, we came to the conclusion that we were strapped when it comes to paying for the things we really enjoy and we want to be able to comfortably save more. I think when it comes to other decisions of spending, the magic phrase,”not in my budget at this time” is golden. I show my kids… Read more »

Giskard
Giskard
8 years ago

I was lucky, my parents were very poor when I was young, but my father always said that money is “S&*t”. As I grew up always took that mantra, I am a saver now and have a healthy bank account, but nothing gave me more freedom then taking a handful of change and throwing it away. I know I will get angry dislikes for that. But YOU control your money, it does not control you. So give it a try take a dollar or so of change and just throw it away, don’t give to charity just waste it. Then… Read more »

Miss Brooklyn
Miss Brooklyn
8 years ago

To have things as dire as they are right now is fortunately temporary. But just last night I went through grocery checkout with basket of generic ramen and generic mac and cheese and I was pretty embarassed. I did the only thing I could do to deal with my shame: greeted the cashier warmly, looked her in the eye, said please and thank you, wished her the same good evening she wished me and smiled at the gentleman behind me in line. I may be broke but at least I have good manners.

shares