Daily WTF: Claiming that Lower and Middle Class People Just Need to Budget Better to Improve Income Inequality

Conflated ImageRecently, a friend uploaded the above picture on his Facebook page. He wasn’t condemning either class and instead used it as an example of how liberals and conservatives would look at the situation. I, however, didn’t like it because I’m rather tired of people painting lower income/people with SNAP benefits (food stamps) as drug-addicted criminals sponging off the rest of us – especially since that portrait is grossly inaccurate. In fact, when states issue drug tests for people with SNAP benefits, less than 1% test positive for any illegal drugs, and according to the Department of Agriculture, less than 2% of all holders try to sell their benefits for cash (which can then turn into buying TVs or drugs or alcohol). These are incredibly low numbers! So I responded, which in turn netted a response from a stranger. We went back and forth for a bit before reaching a surprising accord. I thought all was well in the world until another person weighed in with the following: “So many people COULD get by with considerably less than they spend if they would simply learn to cook and garden, rather than buying food out, or buying pre-made microwave meals.”

Blaming the lower and middle classes for not having enough money is incredibly reductive of the issue and completely side-steps the actual problems of income disparity, wage gap, racism, and an unlivable minimum wage. The assumption is that we’re all causing our own problems by being elitist and refusing to buy off-brand food or being irresponsible by going out to eat every night and stocking up on snack foods. So if we could all just stop our spendthrift ways, we’d totally be able to keep our utilities on, our fridges full, and our finances in order.

The fact of the matter is you can pinch pennies as tightly as possible and still not have enough to live off of. You can only buy clothes at Goodwill and only after patching the ones you have to tatters. You can only buy generic food, canned vegetables, and in-season fruits. You can only give your children $1 books for Christmas. You can refuse to use your heater and AC. You can walk any place below 10 miles away. But if you are not given enough money to live on, you are not going to be able to live off of it. It’s just illogical think that having $5 means you can somehow spend $10. I’m pretty sure that defies the laws of physics.

Sometimes, there’s just no where you can go in your penny pinching. You can cut out snack foods, soda, frozen foods, and salads will still cost $3.99 a bag, apples $0.99 a pound, and milk $2.19 a gallon. There’s no way around those costs. Ours is not a negotiable economy where I can simply exhaust my local Kroger cashier until they agree to give me my $50 bare bones groceries for only $20. That’s not how reality works.

Furthermore, neither cooking nor gardening is necessarily cheaper than fast food or pre-packaged meals. McDonalds has a $9.99 Dinner Box that can feed a family of four. So I buy a box of spaghetti noodles for $1, a can of tomato sauce for $1.50, a loaf of bread for $0.88, butter for $1, a bag of salad for $3.99, and water from the tap. Yes, I have successfully fed my family for less than $10 (though only slightly) – but it is a terrible, calorie-deficient meal whose nutrient value is just as low as (or lower than) the McDonalds’ meal. Not to mention that it took time to put together the meal whereas I can simply grab McDonalds on the way home – which can be really tempting when you’re getting off an exhausting 14 hour shift.

“But what if you were gardening?” you ask, “Then you could make your own tomato sauce and salad. Surely, that would save you money.” Probably not. A garden takes a great deal of work and money and is dependent on the elements. I’d have to get some kind of gardening equipment, at least a hoe and a spade, some sort of watering can, a trellis or at least a bit of wood for the tomatoes to grow on, stakes, seeds, fertilizer, shade, pots to start the growing process, cans and canning equipment, and who knows what else. After the initial investment, I might break even – but I’ve also spent dozens of hours on the project – hours I don’t have because I’m working at least 40 hours a week and have a family to raise, a house to tend, or school to go to. Neither cooking nor gardening can be viable when you don’t have the time or finances to spend on them.

Finally, the rural poor often do garden and can. Some of the best canners in the country come from tiny Podunk towns with a population of less than 1000. You have nothing to teach them about how to pickle beets or when to harvest corn or the best way to grow potatoes. They know. It’s the rural poor and middle class who don’t know these skills and don’t have the room or money to learn them. Where, when you live in Section 8 Housing or an apartment complex, are you even going to have a garden? Given some complexes’ strict rules, you might not even be able to have box gardens!

If co-ops were more affordable, if the government would give out vouchers to start a garden and canning, if land was given freely by cities, and if the government would raise the minimum wage, changing our eating and food-spending habits would be a viable answer. But it still doesn’t address the fact that 99% of this nation’s wealth is owned by 1% of the population. It also puts no personal responsibility on them. Would you suggest the Hiltons grow their own food on one of their palatial estates? Would you suggest Donald Trump walk, bike, or carpool around the US for his speaking engagements? Would you suggest the Kochs fire their personal chefs and learn to cook for themselves? No, of course, you wouldn’t, but you have no problem demanding that the lower and middle classes, who are getting progressively poorer and worse represented, deny themselves a little more and squeeze out a few more drops of blood. That’s ridiculous, shortsighted, and, worst of all, will only further this country’s economic divide. So instead of spouting off some bootstraps-level nonsense about how the lower classes need to budget better, take a look at the people and institutions that never worry about budgeting and ask yourself, “What are they doing to help this country and its vulnerable people?”

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