“I fear a lot, and it’s all constant.” —Sam, late 20s, New York
I have been unemployed for a little more than ten months. Because of the nature of my last job, I am not eligible for unemployment benefits.
I’ve done odd jobs here and there. I’ve sold my things. I’ve begged friends and family for money. I’ve even created a GoFundMe campaign – all the while searching for gainful employment and balancing a mental disability and other health issues.
Never had I imagined that I would be unemployed for this long. It’s been this very personal (and difficult) experience that leads me to write this article.
Class struggle. Classism. The poor and working class. These are issues that the general US population thinks it talks about, but in truth, we only ever talk around them.
The left thinks it talks about these issues, too. My experience, however, as a poor person and as an activist, has been that we rarely talk about it – not really, anyway.
Those spaces that are focused on class struggle – socialist, communist spaces – often have a vision that lacks intersectionality. They often exclude people of color, people with disabilities, women and non-binary people, and queer, trans and gender non-conforming, and immigrant communities from the conversation in a way that makes it impossible for these marginalized groups to feel recognized and included.
There is no single face to the poor and working class. In a violently capitalist society, we run the gamut of race, gender, occupation, sexual orientation, citizenship status, ability, religion/spirituality (or lack thereof), and so much more.
Who is telling our stories? Who is advocating for us — and how? And perhaps most importantly: How are we surviving such an oppressive existence?
Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Sam*, Dr. G. Love (aka Geryll Robinson), and Jasmine*. These are three people who volunteered to speak with me and each other about their experiences both as poor and working class women and non-binary people and as people who have worked with these communities.
Together, we explored our histories with class, our own personal survival strategies, and the historic, systemic oppressions that are deeply entrenched within United States class struggle.
From that rich conversation, I have compiled this list of survival strategies for the poor and working class. This list is by no means exhaustive; additionally, the violently oppressive nature of classism leads me to believe that some of you may already employ many or most of these strategies.
However, I believe that this is an important resource to have and an important conversation starter.
As Dr. G. Love stated so eloquently, “[W]e must see that the withholding of financial power from most of the globe’s womyn has been one of the key strongholds to maintaining the imbalanced power structure inherent to patriarchy.”
1. Personal Strategies
Dominant conversations around the poor and working class consist of “do’s and don’ts.” If you’re poor, you shouldn’t have Netflix or a computer. If you’re poor, you should be saving every single penny that you get. If you’re poor, keep your legs closed.
In reality, our mental wellness is just as important to our overall health as people with greater class privilege, and we seek to escape our struggles and protect our brain’s fragility the same ways that anyone else would.
A running theme among the small group conversation noted earlier was the need to find ways to get through the day, the month, the year using personal strategies – using what we have at our disposal to make us happy and grateful.
For us, a lot of what this means is both making and consuming art – from watching movies and television, to participating in performance art, to writing, listening to, and making music. Seeking out affirming spaces (women, LGBTQIA+, POC, faith-based, and so on) that are empowering in the midst of a disempowering culture was also a theme of importance, as was sexual healing and release.
Just like they are for all people.
Poor and working class people, especially those of color, already have comparatively dismal health outcomes compared to those with more money. Instead of judging us (or yourself!), take this as a reminder that our whole selves are worth taking care of.
Yes, even poor people are allowed to have financial and physical autonomy.
2. Practical Strategies
Much like our aforementioned leisure time (we aren’t really “allowed” any), the practical strategies that we use to get by, to survive financially, also come under scrutiny in a classist culture.
Three of the most common practical strategies that we use are bartering (trading services or goods for other services or goods instead of money), economical food shopping/menus (crock pots, staple foods like rice and pasta), and reducing transportation budgets (like more walking, if able, or planning errands into one location or trip).
We also save and recycle bottles and cans; save change from broken dollar bills, which becomes emergency public transportation funds; and rely on friends, family, and partners to help with the costs of transportation, food, and rent.
One of the things that this experience has taught me is that asking for help is one of the most important – and most difficult – things you can do. Even as someone who grew up poor, it cuts your pride in ways that I imagine very few human experiences do.
Particularly in a culture that prides itself on the “bootstrap mentality,” asking for help can be seen as a sign of weakness, laziness, and as indicative of a person’s (supposed) less-than-noble character.
Also, in a society in which many people are struggling financially, asking directly for financial help can even be seen as audacious.
Because there are cultures and subcultures in which even the poorest of the poor give one another aid, as a group, my friends and I briefly discussed the ways in which patriarchy and capitalism stifle community.
While promoting my GoFundMe campaign, a stranger on a website told me that I was “wrong” for asking for help because many people are in the same boat.
She told me, in essence, that we should all be asking for help in such a way if I were allowed to do so. Indeed, we should. That is what community is about.
After all, you are never wrong for asking for help – from anyone.
If people do not want to or can’t afford to pitch in, they’re not obligated to help you. However, you are also not obligated to sit in silence, and surviving while suffering in silence is not a badge of “honor” anyone should have to earn.
3. Local Resources
While it was difficult to make this as regionally diverse as possible, we discussed some of the local organizations, community centers, and other resources we have used that have helped us as we’ve struggled to survive.
For Dr. G. Love, the Ashe Cultural Center in New Orleans is an important resource. For Sam, the Freelancers Union (based in New York City, but with operations nationwide) is particularly helpful around tax season. I’ve found that local LGBTQIA+ centers and food pantries are great resources for a variety of things for the working class.
In addition, local libraries are a great resource for the Internet and printers – essential job searching tools in the 21st century. The Thomas J. McShane Center for Psychological Services, affiliated with Pace University in New York City, offers sliding scale therapy based on your income. I attend regularly.
And speaking of sliding scales: For other healthcare services, ask around for sliding scale fees. Also, universities are another good source for healthcare services. Even if you’re not a student, universities often have medical students provide low-cost health services. I’ve had dental work performed at New York University.
It’s important for me to note here, however, that Jasmine has not found useful resources. This is one of the many ways in which poor and working class people are repeatedly failed.
Often, when public discourse revolves around welfare and charitable services, conversations assume that the poor and working class “have it made.” The infamous stereotype of the welfare queen is so ingrained into the American psyche that it’s even etched into the minds of the poor and working class themselves.
There are, however, many roadblocks to receiving and maintaining assistance of various kinds. Did you know, for example, that in order to receive rent assistance through social services, you have to 1) legally be on the lease (a dead end for people who are the roommate of the person on the lease) and 2) already be at least two months behind on your rent, on the verge of eviction (a major stressor)?
There isn’t nearly enough space to elucidate the ways in which seeking formal help can go wrong (or can be insufficient for one’s needs). This is part of the reason why community is so important.
By no means, however, should “community” be seen as the sole supporter of the homeless, poor, and working class. It is essential that government agencies operate more efficiently to meet the needs of the people.
I sincerely hope that these survival tips have helped you in some way and that reading these stories has been validating for your own experiences.
Out of all of the tips and strategies we shared, I believe Sam leaves us with the most salient one: “[Finding and establishing emotional support is] the most important practical and emotional tip I can give, because with all the stress, hustle, and fears, feeling overwhelmed and depressed [can easily happen].”
The Google Hangout conversation we had – and this subsequent article – barely scratch the surface of our experiences. Be inspired to find ways to achieve economic liberation for all.
We need each other to survive. Take care of yourselves.
Denarii Monroe is a poor, fat, bisexual African-American cisgender woman with multiple disabilities in her late 20s. A native New Yorker, she has been involved in social justice activism in some capacity since her days as a queer student leader at Rutgers University. Denarii is a syndicated writer for BlogHer.com and an aspiring screenwriter with a passion for youth and young adults. She likes dogs, cats, and bunnies. She loves eggnog, wine, horror films, and Hanson (yes, Hanson). She loves to laugh, dismantle oppression through art, and make all kinds of love.