A lesson in the definition of “Working Poor”

Yesterday evening, I met up with Ayten, the single mother of two girls, 13 & 15, who isn’t quite making it paycheck-to-paycheck. She wouldn’t let me buy her a coffee, just sat with me while I sipped an iced tea to justify taking up a table. I’ll spare you the sadder details of her story and skip straight to the personal finance aspect.

After she took the kids and ran, her ex-husband ditched their home in upstate New York in the dead of winter. When she went back to try to sell or rent it, it was trashed by burst pipe damage. With no funds to fix it or pay for it, it’s now in forclosure. Upon leaving, she lived off credit cards to get their lives restarted. She also made the monumental error of taking out a $750 payday loan that is now up to $5000 with interest and penalties – she’s had it for less than a year. She lives in a housing project in Queens (rent determined by your income) and makes frequent use of the Craigslist Free page, where “curb alerts” became her favorite way to furnish her home and clothe her kids. She uses a recipe website where you put in what ingredients you have and exclude staples you don’t have in a search to figure out what she could make from what she had. She was down to a bag of flour, so they’d been living off homemade tortillas all week. Since no one gives away things like food and soap, she put up the ad on the Wanted page that I stumbled across. Here’s what I learned…

  • If you’re not on some sort of public assistance, like medicaid or welfare, you qualify for nothing at all. She couldn’t get her kids into a summer progam because scholarships are only available for welfare families.
  • 15-year-olds with working papers can’t get jobs doing anything. When I was 15, I babysat my ass off so I could pay my own dental bills, replace my own sneakers, save for college. Apparently you’re an irresponsible parent if you leave your kids with a teenager, so it’s not even an option anymore.
  • Public schools are requiring expensive materials and classroom contributions. The examples she gave me were that each student at the beginning of the year was expected to bring in a large pack of toilet paper, a ream of loose leaf paper, a box of pencils and a pack of paper towels. And then a springtime science project demanded very specific supplies including a $16 board. No board = no project = an F for the student. Schools supplies are only on sale Aug/Sept. I’m thinking that the $30 of stupid craft crap she was forced to buy ultimately led to needing donated food.
  • Milk is liquid gold. I thought that was just the case at the teen shelter I donate to, but this was the #1 food item she mentioned as hard to live without. The #1 non-food item she got excited about was deodorant – again, just like the shelter.
  • Craigslist is an even nastier place for single mothers than it is for straight-shooting massage therapists. She had to go back and edit her original post to exclude her daughter’s ages because men were contacting her, offering money if she’d bring her daughters. I told her to join Freecycle – membership is controlled, that sort of crap doesn’t happen there.

This situation isn’t entirely comfortable for either Ayten or me, but I think we handled it well. For one thing, I hardly paid anything for the three huge bags of stuff I gave her (seriously, like maybe $10 worth of food and sales tax). I let her know about my parents’ bout with bankruptcy and my mother describing to me at the age of 11 what “check kiting” was. I listened to her story because she had no one to talk to about this stuff – she didn’t want her daughters to know more than they already did about how bad things were, tales of woe would only put off her friends and neighbors, and she has no living relatives other than her kids. At no point did she sound like she was begging. Remember, she wouldn’t even accept a cup of coffee from me. I asked her about her personal needs in case I came across any deals, and she said “anything for arthritis, like Bengay and aspirin”. Her daughter is turning 16 next week, so I suggested we meet up again soon so I could give her some things that would make nice little gifts:  Got2b hair styling products, fun socks, mascara, that sort of thing. I also said we should meet at Wendy’s because I’ve got these Buy 1 Get 1 Free coupons for coffee frosty drinks that expire on the 8th, and I couldn’t drink two by myself.

Most of my discomfort boils down to my motivation, more specifically what my motivation appears to be. It’s just really important to me that my money and efforts make a tangible difference, and it’s hard to get that by writing a check to UNICEF. In this particular case, I’m finding a way to do for someone else what my grandmother did for my mother, and what my mother does for my sisters – care packages. While this woman is in wayyy more need than anyone in my sphere, the contents of the packages aren’t that dissimilar. That I get to feel like a fairy godmother is both fun and…vain. I know that true charity is about giving without strings, giving without getting back — but while there are no strings, I’m getting an awful lot back. Weird as it may seem, this has turned out to be an unexpected form of therapy for my deep-seated misanthropy. And on a more socially conscious level, I like putting myself out there to prove that doing good has nothing to do with religion. Again, wasn’t expecting that to spring from this sort of activity, but after hearing “you’re a very good Christian” more than a few times, I’ve begun gently correcting them that I’m just a good human.

Oh, and lets not forget – I now have more room in my apartment for free stuff!! It was always about the closet space, people.

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14 Responses

  1. I worked a benevolence committee at a church years ago, and these are the kind of stories you see, or worse. The church has all kinds of resources for women like this. It’s pretty amazing to see the casseroles and diapers and so on in action. I guess you’ve become your own benevolence committee.

    But, seriously, if she really needs help beyond what you can do, you should send her to a church in a rich part of town.

    Good for you. These posts about your small-scale giving have really made me think.

  2. you are really inspiring me to look into donating my cvs stash and seeing what else i can do. how did you find the teen shelter that you donate to? it’s in manhattan right? i’d like to find something like that in queens.

    • I think Covenant House has a teen shelter in Queens, and I’m pretty sure they have wish lists compatible with CVSing. I found this shelter through good ol’ Google – they sometimes get overflow from the Manhattan branch of Covenant House.

  3. When I first started trying to find jobs, I found that 16 was the magic number.

  4. cool. thanks for all the info and glad that worked out. it is tough on both sides of these things – giving can be as complicated as receiving. i do consider myself working poor but i’m also sitting here eating a big fat BLT courtesy of Kraft coupons!

    • Supermarkets in NYC aren’t national chains and don’t take internet printables. Ayten has tried. She really has tried a lot of ways to get things cheap or free, but some strategies aren’t even an option. She was very excited to hear that the drug stores take IPs, so I think she’ll be trying to do what she can with that.

      • oh i didn’t mean to imply anything. i had traded on-line for some of the Kraft newspaper q’s and they were so nice i just bought more on ebay! (my local paper doesn’t get any coupons, so i’m told)

  5. You truly never fail to amaze and inspire me, MMK. When you consider doing good for a fellow human being as reward in itself, you’ve found the key to true happiness. As much as Ayten’s Craig’s List story made my stomach churn, the fact that there are also people like you gives me hope. I’m a bit ashamed but my charitable activity will be limited to writing a nominal check every month.

    • Oh my god, don’t you dare feel bad about sending checks! As “rich” westerners, it’s the most efficient and practical way for us to make a difference. If I could give on a larger scale, I’d be donating monthly to Doctors Without Borders. What I’m doing, I’m doing because I personally can get $10 worth of stuff for $1, which is usually only possible in economies of scale (e.g. the food banks). However, I found a “scale” that’s skewed towards the little people, and I have the time and inclination to work it.

    • Don’t feel bad for writing a check because ultimately charities need money to pay the light bill. Your cash is going to good use. Even the food bank that receives my donation asks for supermarket gift cards so people can splurge on a birthday cake or to round out a food bank’s gift because there wasn’t enough in the pantry that week.

  6. Does Ayten get food stamps? I’m also wondering how she will get out of the hole of that payday loan.

    • No, she doesn’t qualify for food stamps. She’s trying to declare bankruptcy which should discharge the payday loan, but she’s finding it hard to scrounge up the filing fees.

  7. I worked with a financial counseling client who was on public assistance and WIC. I was at a loss how to help someone budget when they only had $350 a month to pay rent, gas, insurance and cellphone.

    People who think that welfare is some gravy train need to grab a clue. It is a horrible horrible place to be in. It is humiliating for most people and all that most recipients want is a decent job and place to live.

  8. It’s awful how much trouble people get into with payday loans! So sad.

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