What does it mean to be poor?
The L.A. area is home to a lot of very rich people and a lot of very poor people. But the number of people in poverty has gotten worse since the recession, especially among children. Today 22 percent of children in California live in poverty. We ran a survey in the October issue to find out what our readers’ experiences were with poverty. Many of the more than 1,400 respondents indicated that their families were struggling financially, like having trouble paying rent or buying food, but only 3 percent said their family was poor. We thought it was interesting that so few people considered themselves poor, so we brought together some of our staff members to talk about their views on class and poverty. These are excerpts from our discussion. Click here to see the answers from our survey.
Miguel Molina, 18, East Los Angeles College: My parents used the credit card a lot. They put themselves in debt in order for us to be comfortable.
Shivani Patel, 17, Whitney HS (Cerritos): It’s my senior year so I’m applying to college. I found out our income is low. We qualified for waivers for a couple colleges. It was surprising. We’re not as well off as I thought. I have the mentality of I can’t apply to more than 10 colleges because of the financial burden. I can’t make my parents spend that much.
Editor Mike Fricano: When you hear about poor people in America, what comes to mind?
Shivani: There are ranges of poor. Like my family, I thought they’d more or less be able to get me through college. But that’s not the case. But I would never consider myself poor. I thought poor was your house is small and broken down, you have problems paying for stuff, you have problems getting Internet. As I’ve grown older I realize that there are many versions of poor, even if you look well off on the outside.
Frank Gaspar, 15, The School of Arts and Enterprise (Pomona): I would think of the homeless people you see asking for money outside of the store.
Mike: Has that changed as you’ve gotten older?
Frank: There are different ways to classify poor. There’s homeless, and then there’s you have a home but there are certain things you don’t have, like say your parents don’t drive you to school, you walk to school. I know some friends who are like that.
Daisy Villegas, 17, Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies: I know for a fact that I am and I can’t talk about it ever. My mom is a single parent. I feel now that I pressured my mom to make me go to private school because that’s where all my friends were going and later when she said she couldn’t do it anymore I understood. There is that huge stigma that you can’t talk about being poor because it’s looked down upon. Even some of my friends, they associate being poor with being ghetto and uneducated.
Jacqueline Uy, 15, Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies: My dad is the only one who works in my family. When I was younger I always thought that we were middle class because my dad was a nurse and he must have made a decent amount of money. But then when my mom started attending college information classes and learning about the tuition, my parents started talking to me about being realistic about where I want to go. They told me that they might not be able to put me through college so I would have to get a scholarship or get a loan. So I think being poor means you have to make a choice between education or graduating high school and getting a job immediately.
Chris Villalta, 16, S.E.A. North Hills: My mom’s a nurse. I’m always at the bank whenever my mom goes. And I’ll see the saving account and it’s $100. I never thought of me being poor. I always thought of me being fine. Thinking about it right now it’s kind of bad because we recently lost the house. There’s a buyer that’s giving us a year there but if he wants he can kick us out and we’re hoping that he doesn’t.
Ana Muñoz, 15, North Hollywood HS Zoo Magnet: When I was young I didn’t have any idea about what being poor was. As I got older, I started thinking about it. There are some people who are struggling to buy food or even the people outside the 99 Cents Only store asking for money. I feel some pity toward people who are homeless or who can’t afford food.
Miguel: To me what poor means is somebody whose parents can’t afford college and where the student is forced to get a job in order to help their family out and whose parents are in debt. That’s basically what I saw with my family. I always thought we were in a good position. I would see homeless people [and think], these guys are homeless, I guess we’re not that poor. I never saw my neighbor in brand-name clothing and I saw myself with this clothing and I thought, I guess my neighbors have less than what we have. Then you start seeing the reality: you’re all in the same position because you’re all in the same place paying cheap rent and barely getting by. If you seem to have a bit more it’s because your parents have gone into debt to provide things for you.
Mike: There are so many degrees of struggle. I think that’s one of the reasons why a lot of the respondents in our survey didn’t say their families were poor, even when they said “we don’t have health insurance, we struggle to pay for food.” I think there is a sense of, but I’m not homeless. But is it bad that we think of the poor only as homeless?
Shivani: I think we should [have a broader definition]. We have a business. We have a manager and he struggles with paying bills, with getting food. He has a huge TV. He has all these little trinkets. You would think that having all these things he’s not poor, he’s middle class. At the same time he’s struggling. It’s not black and white at all. For some people it depends on what you prioritize.
Mike: Why did you want to participate today?
Daisy: I finally wanted to talk about it. I understand what it means to be a type of poor but I’ve never been able to talk about it. I’ve never lived in a shelter, I’ve never been on that extreme end of it, but I feel it was important to have a different perspective as well.
Jacqueline: This year I became a homeroom leader so I became a mentor for little kids. And when the free lunch program came around all of my kids were signed up and they would tell me about their financial situations and problems at home, I thought to myself, “I didn’t know that it was like this.”
Miguel: I was struggling to figure out why my parents didn’t have that much money. During the 12th grade when I moved in with my aunt and uncle, I started to see everything they had and I’m like, “Why couldn’t my parents do it as well? Why couldn’t they make their own business like my aunt and uncle did?” I felt frustration about them not being able to provide the same life that my cousins have because their life seemed much easier than my life. My aunt and uncle get to go see their games when my cousins play. My dad couldn’t do that for me because he always had to work on Saturday. I guess it also tends to do with the age of my aunt and uncle when they got married. They got married at age 25. They already had this mentality of what they were going to do and this plan ahead of them. My mom got pregnant at a young age and my dad didn’t get to get an education.
Mike: I’m going to read these stats [from our survey]. Has your family had trouble paying for any of the following in the past year? Rent or house payment—52 percent had trouble paying for that; 36 said transportation they had trouble; 58 said utility bills; almost one in four had problems paying for food. Yet only 3 percent identified as poor. A lot of people said they struggled with things that are basics, yet only 3 percent identified their family as poor. Why do you think there’s such a big difference between those numbers?
Chris: Lots of people don’t want to be labeled as poor. So they try to go with something higher than poor, like middle class.
Frank: I think something related to that is what we were saying earlier: why do they have this gadget or technology if they need money for this? I think they want to have a phone so they aren’t classified as poor. They don’t want to be asked, “What, are you poor? Do you not have a phone?”
Jacqueline: Teenagers don’t want to be identified as poor. If you go to a school like mine where there are so many privileged kids, in the parking lot the parents will have the nicest cars ever. They’ll shop at Urban Outfitters, $50 clothes is not a big deal to them. You don’t want to say, “I got my clothes at Goodwill. I went to Payless to get my shoes for the next school year. I couldn’t even shop for clothes for the next school year.” It’s shameful. They’re going to look at you.
Ana: Maybe teenagers don’t want to admit that they’re poor because they think other people might find them less cool.
Frank: Or people may assume the stereotypes, like ghetto or they’re not smart just because they’re poor.
Jacqueline: My friend has the nicest clothes ever. She has all the gadgets and stuff. I was talking to her on the phone a few days ago. I wanted to apply to this program over the summer and we were supposed to do it together. But then she said, “I can’t afford that program. My dad got laid off and my parents are divorced so my mom can’t afford it on her own. She’s having problems paying rent right now.” I always thought she was rich because of the clothes she wore. After I found out, I thought, “You can’t really judge someone based on how they look.”