Walk a Mile in the Shoes of the Poor

If you ever want to start a debate, ask for people’s opinion on what the poor ought to be allowed to buy with food stamps. Generalizing about the poor seems to be almost a national pastime.

People who don’t make much money are called entitled, lazy, greedy (and worse), and the things they buy and own are scrutinized and commented on.

I’m sure there are lazy, no-good, poor people out to work “the system” and “live like kings” (in dangerous, drug infested neighborhoods without access to even basics like grocery stores and banks, let alone good health care.) I have no doubt of that.

Just like I’m sure there are lazy, no-good, middle class and rich people out to work (a slightly different) system. (And the things they do and own are commented on too, but in a little bit of a different way.)

That said, do I seem like a poor person to you?

I’m not.

I make plenty of money, and I appreciate every dime of it. I love going to the grocery store and being able to buy anything I want to eat.

That ought to tell you something right there.

My social security earnings record shows that I made $2,375 during 2003 ($9,745 below the federal poverty guidelines at the time for a family of two — and definitely in the 10% bracket that the Bush tax cuts created.) I also received a total of $2,400 in child support.

In 2004 I did a little better, earning $2,966 + receiving the child support. Now I also had $10,000 in savings that I used to tide me over. I’d saved that up in 2002, the year I made $19,144.

How would you do with a total of about $20,000 for you and your child to live on for two years? What would you cut from your budget? (Having a roommate helps.) Would you sell your computer and TV?

Me, I never felt poor, and I wasn’t. To me poor means you have nowhere to go take a shower. I had a house to live in, food to eat, and a car to drive.

But I guarantee you if I’d pulled up to apply for food stamps in my little red convertible people would have talked. Why should I use food stamps when I can afford an expensive (looking) car? Why the heck didn’t I just get a job?

What’s interesting is that the same kind of reasoning could be applied to many people. How would you feel if you heard comments like these:

  • Why don’t you just quit spending so much money if you’re in debt?
  • Why didn’t get off your butt and work while in high school, so you could pay cash for college instead of mooching off the government? Those government-guaranteed/subsidized loans and grants are our hard-earned tax dollars, you know!
  • What are you doing buying meat when you (and the planet) are better off if you eat beans? You’re probably too lazy to even stick some beans in a crock-pot.

Ok, I’m getting a little ridiculous with the crock-pot thing. But I hope you get my point. There’s always more to things than meets the eye. Not everyone has the same advantages (or disadvantages). Not everyone is like you, or me. Unless you’ve been there, you don’t really know what it’s like.

Sometimes it pays to walk a mile in the shoes of the poor. Not only will we gain a little compassion and get to know some very nice people, but we can learn a lot about frugality, having fun, and hard work.


  • I haven’t been poor, but my mother was on welfare when I was a baby since she left my neglectful father right out of her third year of college. She spent 3 months on welfare while she found a county job and then worked her way up to middle class as a single mom until I was 7 years old.

    That was when she met my step-dad…between his Engineering salary and my mom’s financial management skills, they are a kick butt team that are very happy in their currently retired lives.

    No, you shouldn’t judge anyone until you’re in their shoes…my mom was a classic example of someone who really just needed a little help to get back on her feet. I inherited my sense of humor and frugality from her…

  • We shouldn’t be so quick to judge anyone. Rich or poor. Simply because we know nothing about the person, and external is nothing. A lot of people have lost houses, cars and jobs this past year..that I know….who appeared to be rich. Who would no longer afford their houses and cars. While a person who appeared to be poorer…driving an older civic, living in a smaller house….lost her job and has been good! She kept her property, seems happier and is even going on a vacation.

  • Preach it! I think a lot of folks simply fall prey to the fallacy of My Personal Experience is Universal Truth. They think if they did X,Y or Z, then everyone else should be able to. Thankfully, the world is not filled with clones.

  • CF, that’s exactly the point I was trying (in a round about way) to make.

  • People do make a lot of assumptions about others based on outward appearances and it’s too bad. Thanks for the reminder that we don’t know what’s really the situation and need to have a little compassion.

  • Bucksome, yeah, and I also think that people make a lot of assumptions about others without even realizing that they’re doing so.

  • claudia

    I think you meant “pastime,” not “pass time.”

  • Claudia, ah yes, that’s what I meant.

  • Here is a simple answer (yeah I had a modest writeup, but this new answer is much simpler).

    If you allow food stamps to buy more than food, then why have food stamps? Why not just give out money in leiu of the food stamps and stop wasting tax dollars creating such an albatross of a sub-financial system?

    This might even save us money vs. the current system? A portion of that organization could be shutdown even. Only a portion, because the money would still be sent out to those that need the money for food…

    After all, a person that’s just modestly clever can get a neighbor that doesn’t get food stamps to go shopping with them, and then have the neighbor pay them for the food at a discounted price… So both the neighbors and the food stamp receipient are happy…

    I understand the government’s logic around the rule, but it’s flawed… They don’t want people to waste that money on drugs, or other non-food related items… So they want to make sure people feed their kids… While you might have the discipline to spend the money on food, not all that receive the food stamps do.

    Can you tell that in an earlier work life, I worked in a grocery store? I was a bagboy, but I still learned the tricks…

  • Money Reasons, I wasn’t arguing that people should be allowed to buy more than food with food stamps. (I don’t even know what people can and cannot buy with food stamps.) Although I do think that being allowed to buy basics like toilet paper and tampons would probably be helpful.

    As you said though I’m sure there are people who get around the system.

    What I meant though was that I’ve heard people judge others using food stamps because they saw things like pizza and chips in their cart. There seems to be this assumption that folks using food stamps should only be able to buy basic ingredients instead of pre-made food.

  • Whew, I’m glad I misunderstood!

    Yeah, I agree with you, people should judge others on such things!