Settling into a culture and among a “demographic” both of which are completely new to me and my husband, I decide to enroll in a short, eight-week budgeting course hosted in a local church a few blocks away. Hoping to learn about the people of the region and local economic circumstances, I figure it may be a real boon if the course also serves to uncover a way in which we might further economize. Our relocation in 2010 came on the heels of the economic recession and both of us come from families that value frugality and modest living.
The budgeting class is telling—shocking really. I learn that poverty is a way of life for the majority of people of this region. I also learn that there are families going without regular food in order to afford cellphone coverage and internet services. Some employers—especially if a class participant has a slightly higher paying organizational or clerical job which involves company communications—are requiring their employees to purchase and maintain phone accounts and internet services so that employers have 24/7 access to employees via telephone, voice mail, texting and email.
“What are they thinking?” I walk through the door of our house addressing my husband. “How are these people supposed to budget when there is nothing extra at a minimum-wage position? And, if the pay is slightly higher, what I am hearing is that any possible “extra” income is immediately taken up by an employer’s requirement to have the employee purchase technology, rendering the employee accessible at all times and via as many communication methods as possible. What happened to the forty-hour work week?”
Over the next eight weeks, it becomes apparent that the budgeting course’s materials are outdated. Wages are assumed too high, rents too low and the cost of food in the exercises has not kept pace with current prices—then factor in the issue of needing to be technologically up-to-date—and the economic picture presented in the class does not match a family’s current economic reality at all.
The exercises, instructional in a pedagogical sense (we should all practice our math regularly), are not reflective of people’s present circumstances. When asking the program coordinator about updating the curriculum and its materials, I am informed that there is not enough money in the budget to make that change.
The course is taught at locations throughout the community. I am further informed that the course was originally created because some members of the community saw a need “to help those who are economically disadvantaged or less fortunate learn how to handle their money properly.” I receive this information as a quiet aside because my speech patterns define me as someone “other” than a typical attendee.
In American culture, I bump up against this conceit with amazing frequency: Poor people are poor because they don’t know how to manage their money. True in some cases? Yes. True in most cases? No.
“What money?” the question comes flying out of my mouth as I walk through the door of our home after class one night. I find the statement about teaching the economically underprivileged of this community how to manage their money especially ironic when I run across the program coordinator’s annual salary while looking for part-time positions online. Unless there is something in the program coordinator’s past, about which I do not know, I wonder what an individual earning almost five times more annually than the course’s target audience could possibly offer to the people in these classes—to those living at or below the poverty level in real time?
Though the program coordinator may hold the belief that she is there to help the under-educated and the economically disadvantaged (the program does help some people uncover unwise spending habits), she is really there to collect a hefty paycheck, grow her own 401K, enjoy health benefits, manage her own money properly and feel good about working her I-serve-the-poor job.
This is a field report about earnestly striving human beings, who may be poor or homeless or under-educated and next to whom I have learned and sat. After basic expenses are paid and technology requirements are covered, there is little to no opportunity to get ahead because there simply is not enough income or money left over to save, invest or otherwise be managed. There is no extra. And, we would all like to be able to manage our own money—to receive a viable paycheck—or at the very least an adequate one. We would all like to afford a place to call our own–to participate in The American Dream.