By Milva Matseva,CJE – Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin, August 2011. Kaylynn Bolghrin opens her fridge only to realize there is practically no space to put a single box of burritos. The space is so stuffed even the freezer cannot accommodate anything.
“We live very poor,” she told me a month ago.
“Hell, I want to be poor in America!” exclaimed Ivanina Ivanova from Bulgaria when I told her the story a few weeks later.
Yes, the definition of “poor” varies from country to country. But what Ivanova didn’t know was that, according to Bolghrin’s logic, they were in trouble that could lead to “poor” faster than anything else. Debt.
“We have ridiculous student loans that prevent us from ever getting ahead and by that I mean get out of debt,” Bolghrin said. When we add up their two kids and her being unemployed until very recently, the picture becomes grayer. Plus, the stuffed fridge of food was all from a local cheap store. To some, buying crappy food is just as miserable as not having food at all.
To be poor in America turns out to be more complicated than it first seemed.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Wisconsin has an unemployment rate of 6.7 % for December 2012. Much better than Nevada’s 10.8 percent, but still much worse than North Dakota’s 3.1 percent for the same month.
Let’s go now to another state with high unemployment. South Carolina is 38th in the Bureau’s ratings for December last year with unemployment of 8.3 percent. Even though again much better than Nevada which is the last in the list, South Carolina has big issues with homeless people and low income families.
In August this year I needed urgently 1000 dollars for an unexpected expense.
“Haha, are you kidding, nobody here has a thousand dollars in their bank account, you will be lucky if you find somebody with 500,” Steven Banks, a manager in a local amusement park laughed as I asked him for the money. The healthy, working people of Myrtle Beach didn’t have savings in the end of the summer which is the busiest season for the region due to tourism on the beach.
Actually, they did have the money, They just didn’t want to loan it under any circumstances. It was two months after that when I realized the reason why. In the middle of November the streets were empty, the stores were closed and half of my former colleagues were either unemployed or working 2-3 days a week. The winter in Horry County, SC was a test of who can save how much during the summer so they can survive without calling themselves poor.
“Horry County makes the unemployment curve for South Carolina,” said Nicholas Krichten, 25, currently living on a budget of 70 dollars a month. For him, poor means making as much as you spend. But then why does he spend as little as 70 dollars a month on food?
“I have bills, a student loan and insurance to pay,” he answered and kept chewing on the cheesy goldfish box he got. It was supposed to last for two weeks.
Fortunately, Horry County has multiple institutions for helping people in need, homeless, unemployed or just with low income. One of the biggest and well-organized agencies in the area is the Helping Hand of Myrtle Beach, SC. A crisis intervention agency, it offers assistance for various issues.
“Many people live in a constant state of crisis,” said Adrian Weatherwax, executive Director of the agency. “Our agency provides food, rent, gasoline, utilities, prescription medications, diapers, referrals to other agencies, and lots of other services to those in need that live within our area.”
The problem is, many people in need, especially poor people, don’t make an effort to better their lives. “We do not succeed in helping everyone. Our help is crisis based – unfortunately some people never get out of “crisis ” mode,” said Weatherwax.
His words are confirmed by Tom Avison, a citizen and volunteer from the area. “In the beginning of the winter the homeless often do a small crime so they go to prison for the cold months where they can eat for free and have accommodation.”
It sounds sadly familiar, compared to many Bulgarian and Romanian gypsies who do the same when winter time comes. Thus, they survive the snows and storms and start the summer with nothing again, until next winter. It is a circle many people don’t want or know how to come out of.
“I don’t have a definition of “poor,” said Weatherwax in conclusion. “But certainly in this area, many people are poor – low wages, seasonal employment, high housing prices all contribute to the poor economic environment in our area. It is easy to help those in need with food or other physical need but that doesn’t always solve the long term problem.”
Juli Hall, a server in a local buffet, blames the governmental institutions and charity agencies for the continuous state of crisis Weatherwax talks about. “Any place that helps people stay homeless is useless,” she said. “(The government should) set a time frame to be off welfare, food stamps, out of homeless shelters, etc. If people do not abide by the timeline, then they must not care if they are homeless or not.”
Yes, agencies like Weatherwax’s aid people in a way homeless individuals from other continents can never imagine and in a way that may be considered too much help, to the point where it doesn’t promote getting back on your feet. It is true that the homeless people in Chapin Park, SC do sleep on the benches at night, but then in the morning they have a hospital that checks them up for free, a meal center for free food, bus tickets and free clothing no gipsy in Romania, Bulgaria or Serbia has ever had access to. As Sue Leaf, a cashier at Walmart said, “Even the poorest people in the U.S. have much more than those in some places in the World.”
This is why Juli Hall’s definition of poor leads us to the Eastern part of the United States to the inhabitants of the Appalachian mountains. “My definition of poor would be “lack of, or little access to, things needed for daily life,” she said. “The people in the Appalachian mountains are very poor, earn less than 30K per year. Children there get up, go to school where they eat a free breakfast, finish school, eat a free lunch and go home where they don’t eat again until the next morning at school. These people are not homeless, they have a home, but they are still extremely poor.”
Rosy Garcia Hailene, 36, from Texas, also had a home as a child, but nothing else beyond that. “I slept on a blanket on the floor because I didn’t have a bed,” she said. “It didn’t really bother me because I didn’t know the concept of the bed, I had never had one.” She smiled at the crowd of 20 international students in front of whom she was telling her life story. “I know you can’t believe it, but it’s a fact – I am an American and I had no bed!”
But she doesn’t really look sad. Just like her, Sherrie Dunkan, a cashier at a convenience store, doesn’t care about the fact that she is poor. She lives in the dormitory of a Bible College in Marion, SC, she cannot afford to pay more than 40 dollars a week for a double room and she drives a car from a dead guy. Her meals consist of food donated by people often with overdue expiration date.
“I had a really bad marriage, by the time it finally fell apart I had no car, no money, no job and not even a place to live. I had nothing at that time,” she said explaining how she ended up being in such state. She’s been living in the dorms of the Bible College since 2009 and a year later she got the car.
“I got a phone call from a church member offering his dead brother’s car. They said they want to give it to me free of charge,” she smiled.
Does she consider herself poor?
“Financially probably yes, but that’s not my priority in life. The people expect you to accept their priority as your priority,” she said. Her friends don’t understand why she is going to school instead of finding a better job and making more money.
“The money is not important for me. My priority is the Lord, to do what he wants me to do, to be what he wants me to be and the finances they work themselves out,” Dunkan said and got in her black 1988 cadillac. It doesn’t really run beyond the little city of Marion because it is too old and she doesn’t have money for gas, but it runs good enough for her. She calls it “my birthday gift from the Lord.”
And here, in this woman’s smile and a charity non-working car, lies the difference between being poor by circumstances and poor by choice. America offers both. Which one its citizens choose is a matter of world view, motivation and chance. But as with so many other issues, “poor” cannot be strictly defined as every story has its own angle. It is the judgment which people pass on each other that makes some poor and some rich, while, the labels may not mean nothing to the ones labeled. And this is the freedom to build your own life.