I was earning five figures a month in sales commissions when the economy melted down in 2008. With shocking suddenness, my retail clients stopped ordering, and the checks stopped coming. My husband couldn’t help. Having left the IT field a few years back to be a stay-at-home father, he found his skills had become too outmoded for him to jump back in. It was official: My family and I were now poster children for the recession.
For about a year, we spun our wheels, trying to adjust to our new reality. I started an upbeat blog about discovering the positive aspects of being poor after living it up in the boom times, and at first I got lots of hits. Our survival decisions were often dramatic and made for good reading: We downgraded and downsized our lives, gave up our tame and tidy suburban comfort and sold our only car. At the time, and for a while after, it seemed that people were paying attention and respected our choices. But now our story is getting old, and the blog hits have dried up. “The New Poor” is no longer at the top of every news feed—even though in our town, Sacramento, the number of un-employed now exceeds previous records. We’re still here, and we’re still broke. And maybe it’s time to hold myself at least partly to blame.
When I was a child, the one unforgivable crime in our house was laziness. In the family’s oral history, my ancestors’ work ethic was granted near-mythological status. They were solid Midwesterners and Southern Protestants, of Scottish and Scandinavian background, and like most Oklahomans, they had a bit of Cherokee blood—but above all, they were stalwart and duty bound. My grandparents were of the generation that soldiered through the Great Depression as children and through World War II as young adults. They planted victory gardens. They doubled up in hard times, bunking with relatives. Through everything, they worked. And worked. When he retired, my grandfather left behind a job he had held for 40 years. I was told growing up that my chosen profession—writer—was not a realistic one. So reluctantly I set that wish on a shelf and became a traveling sales-person, like my father, making very good money in a job that at least I was decent at. I had done the right thing by denying myself the creative path.
That’s partly why the first months of the recession left me dumbstruck, blinking slowly and wondering what would come next. Now we find ourselves heading into our third year of living below the poverty line, and I’m sitting at a café, writing with the vague hope of being paid for my work sometime in the future. My husband is at home with our three kids; we’ve been taking turns since he started a part-time job as the receiving manager at a women’s clothing store—low--paying work he was lucky to get. So today he is making lunch and picking up Legos while I do my best to shake money from trees. I know that my extended family would respect me more if I stopped writing in coffeehouses and started taking a bus to an overnight fast-food job an hour away. The less magnanimous among them suggest that I am playing at being poor, and in my darkest times, I do question how I got here. I wonder if it’s inertia, rather than a lousy economy, that keeps me willing to stay at this, the lowest socioeconomic level. Do I owe it to our children to put away the laptop and take the most grueling, menial job I can get?
I haven’t resigned myself to doing that. Not yet. Instead, I’ve turned what used to be my fantasy career into a reasonable way for me to earn money right now. Not the kind of money I earned in my sales job. But I can get small assignments that pay $15 or $20, and if I manage to amass enough of them in a month, it can mean paying the electricity bill on time instead of chasing the city worker down the street after he’s just shut off the power.