The Only Show On Television That Honestly Understands What It's Like to be Sh*t Poor in America
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The Only Show On Television That Honestly Understands What It's Like to be Sh*t Poor in America

By Dustin Rowles | Think Pieces | February 4, 2014 | Comments ()


I grew up poor, and I don't say that in the lower-middle class Roseanne or even Raising Hope sense. I mean: destitute. Three kids, a single father, all living in a dilapidated 800-square-foot house with a giant hole in the ceiling, that had been abandoned by my great grandfather after his death. Typically, the three of us kids would eat one meal a day -- either from Sonic or Taco Bell (often depending on the fast-food specials) -- while my father's lone meal would usually consist of store-brand potato chips that he would dip into a peanut butter jar. My father worked two jobs, nearly 70 hours a week, and his annual salary was somewhere around the $12,000 range (I know, because I helped with the taxes). I had a fake ID that I had forged myself, not so I could drink, but so I could donate plasma two to three times a week for the cash, and at 6'0", I still had to drink a gallon of water before each visit to weigh in over 145 pounds, which allowed me an extra $5 per plasma donation. There was a drug house across the street from our home for a few years, until our house became the drug house. My father drove a car made up largely of scrap-yard parts, and when it broke down (which was always), he drove my grandmother's 1970-something Ford Maverick. Our wardrobe came from yard sales, although my yard-sale clothes had name brand labels sewn into them, which made me the snob in my family.

I mention this only to highlight why I love Showtime's Shameless as much as I do. Because no other show on television -- and certainly no hour-long drama -- has better captured the reality of what it is like to be poor. Most typical viewers of the drama like it for a variety of reasons: It's funny, it can be heartwarming, there are some great underdog stories, and the relationship turmoil is fantastic (especially if you like seeing Emmy Rossum in various states of undress). But few typical viewers understand the reality of what it is depicting.

Some may argue that it's a "heightened" reality, and in certain cases, maybe it is (no one in my family, for instance, ever intentionally harmed themselves in order to collect disability or insurance, although we knew plenty of people who did). But as someone whose brother manufactured meth before he entered high school (which he dropped out of), and whose sister spent most of her days holed up in a dining room that had been converted into a bedroom (which held only a bed and no walking space) listening to Jane's Addiction, much of Shameless doesn't feel "heightened" to me. It feels all too authentic. Of course, no one in my family prostituted themselves, as one character does in Shameless, but there were a few hookers on First Street. We, however, lived on Second Street, and we were better than that, thank you very much.

But where Shameless especially gets it right is not in the setting, or even the circumstances, but in the way that bad luck seems to follow you everywhere you go when you're poor. You're doubly f*cked, not just because you're without money, but because being poor puts you in circumstances in which it's almost impossible to succeed. If you finally get a job that pays above minimum wage, for instance, it's almost guaranteed that your car will break down the next day, and you'll lose that job because you can't get there on time. When you're asked to look presentable for an interview, or a school function, that's sure to be the day that your sewer line leaks into the water line, and both your bathtub and your shitty washing machine will fill up with sewage. It's practically inevitable.

It breaks your heart, too, because you work so hard to advance so little, and something out of your control will completely set you back. You will end up feeling like a failure because of something beyond your power, and those with control over their lives will make you feel worse because they will insist that a more together person, a more worthwhile person, wouldn't allow for these kind of setbacks. If you're poor, you have to anticipate bad luck.

All of this was running through my mind in the most recent episode of Shameless, when Lip -- who against every odd imaginable -- made it into college, but that sh*t luck followed him even there. Despite studying his ass off, despite preparing himself for a test he wasn't as well equipped to handle as many of his classmates, he missed the exam after his laundry was stolen. He ended up arriving a couple of minutes late to the exam in wet jeans, and the professor wouldn't allow him in because he didn't arrive exactly on time.

Something weirdly similar happened to me in my freshman year of college. I was a bright enough kid, but I didn't have a basic understanding of certain things one needs to know for college, like how to use a computer. During a writing lab, my professor kept coming around to my computer and asking me to change my font. I would sheepishly fiddle with the keys for a few seconds, and go back to writing, and he'd come around again, and reiterate that I needed to change my font. The third time he came around, he was furious. He must have thought I was being a little sh*t. He stuck his face an inch away from my nose, vein popping out of his forehead, and he screamed: "Change your goddamn font or get out of my class!" I felt too stupid to say, "I'm from Second Street, you asshole. I don't know what 'font' means," and so I left the class (it was, thankfully, early enough in the semester that I was able to pick up another writing class).

In situations like these, your heart sinks, and you have to resist every temptation in your body to give up, to go out and bust some car windows out of frustration (as Lip did), and put yourself back at square one. I cannot describe to you how horrible and powerless situations like these make you feel, knowing that there's no way to get out of it or fix it. It's what can make crime so appealing: There's two upsides -- either you make money, or you wind up in prison, where at least they feed you three meals a day in a temperature controlled environment.

The difference between reality, and heightened reality, however, is this: In real-life, that hard-ass professor doesn't say f*ck it and give you a second chance, as he did for Lip in Shameless. In reality, you're screwed. In reality, if you are poor, you are not allowed mistakes. In reality, if your car breaks down, you put on those sneakers you have "fashionably" duct taped together, and you run like you've never run in your life, and if you arrive five minutes late, you don't make excuses, because people with control over the lives do not give a sh*t about your excuses. People with control over their lives have mortgages to pay, and they can't make those payments if they hire some poor sod who shows up ten minutes late to work because their dog hung itself on its own chain earlier that morning.

There is no worse fate than being poor in the land of second chances, and this is what Shameless understands. There are minor victories along the way, and heartwarming family moments over a shared bad luck story, but in the end, you're still going to be in that house, you're still going to be paying for groceries with quarters, and around every corner is something shitty waiting to happen. This is why there's no social mobility in this country, because when you're shit poor, no one will give you a goddamn break.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • Sarah Cote

    What I struggle with now is the judgment that people put on
    my parents for “allowing me” to grow up in such poverty. When I talk about some
    of the most extreme examples of having to go without, others say that my parents
    were neglectful. This makes me angry. My parents were very aware of what we did
    and did not have. They were hard working and loving and flawed and they did the
    best they could. Today I find myself spoiled with the amount of excess that I
    do have. I know that I could live with far less and could survive some pretty
    unpleasant conditions if I needed to. It is one thing to feel sorry for what I
    have lived through, but don’t judge my family for it.

  • Porkchop

    I love Shameless, but my dad just can't with this show. He can't get into The Wire either, no matter how I insist that it's the best written show that's ever been on TV. They hit too close to home, since he grew up dirt poor in Harlem. He doesn't find anything cute or funny about having a drunken ne'er-do-well father since his own was very similar to Frank Gallagher. Kind of a bummer, I know. He does, however, sit back with calm satisfaction when I ask about these shows and if that's what it's really like on the mean streets. He worked hard to get out so the only streets we'd know were the quaint, suburban kind. Nothing mean about them. I'm glad to see you've made it too, Mr. Rowles. I sent this story to my dad, he said "good for you."

  • Guest

    "The Cosby Show" is middle class; "Roseanne" and "Raising Hope" are working class. The Connors had their electricity shut off for nonpayment; the Cosbys sent three kids to college without ever mentioning financial aid. The Chances live in an elderly relative's home and work as a maid, a gardener and a check-out boy; the Cosbys work as a doctor and lawyer and live in a palacial brownstone.

    It may seem nitpicky, but the idea that 'middle class = not dirt poor' is part of a larger problem. Politicians and the media talk to and about the middle class as the default America, blurring the lines on social inequality. The working class becomes invisible in public discussion or trivialized and dubbed lazy because their jobs aren't "real jobs", while people think of themselves as the default (and therefore middle class) even if they're one short paycheck away from having the heat shut off, and the nightly news reports that people aren't THAT bad off because look how many Americans own refrigerators.

    It establishes an unrealistic and unhealthy metric for judging poverty and wealth. If you have a refrigerator, you're not really poor, you're just one of society's 'takers'. If you can afford to buy a bag of chips at the gas station, you're not really poor, even if it was a meal rather than a snack and 'real food' costs more. If you're living in anything fancier than a dirt-floored Appalachian shack, you're considered some variant of middle class, unless the conversation is about helping the middle class. The politicians and media reserve that talk for the middle class as defined by income level, which shuts out the working class Connors and the Chances along with the plain poor Gallaghers.

  • kgelner

    I was poor, but not poor poor as a kid. I liked your article.

    There was one thing that bothered me, a chance to give advice to others... when someone asks you to do something (like change fonts) and you don't know how, you are always better off saying "I don't know, can you show me". It instantly stops them from being mad and turns them to try and figure out how to help you. Not letting people know you need help lets them assume you are incompetent, which is totally different than just not knowing.

    So please, everyone, no matter how poor or rich. If you don't know, say so you'll be helping yourself tremendously over the long term.

  • callinbs

    What a crock of shit! There are so many programs in this country to keep people out of these situations...I just don't buy it. By the way, how many of the characters on Shameless, a show I love, actually work?? I count one, and she can't even keep from jeopardizing that job. These circumstances are the result of poor decisions, no poor people!

  • Michelle Kirkwood

    Well, the fact is, yeah, there are programs to help you, but if you don't meet the qualifications for those programs, and have a criminal record, you're s*** out of luck. And to the author--all you had to do was say that you didn't know how to change the font. That also didn't give the teacher an excuse for acting like an a**hole,though.

  • Susan

    If you've never lived this way or seen in it first hand, I guess it is easy for you to believe this kind of life is "a crock of shit". But it is for far too many a reality.

  • Daniel Lawson

    it wasn't that hard... join the military... that'll give you a leg up and reset your life so long as your not a total screw up. It's what plenty of young men and women do to remove themselves from a bad situation and it's what I'd recomend to every person who sees no light at the end of the tunnel

  • Idle Primate

    you learn to believe there isn't a "place at the table" for you anywhere. and worse, a lot of the time you don't believe you are good enough to have a right to a place at the table anywhere

  • Bjarne-Kjell Otervik

    you should just apply u r self!

    ^note: this is what people actually believe

  • competitivenonfiction

    Holy shit Dustin. I'm floored. This isn't the first gut punch you've given me with your words, but I think it'll be the one I remember most.

  • jon29

    Way late to this, but just wanted to say thanks to Dustin for the piece. Very thoughtful, and thought-provoking.

  • Davis

    Look at the creator Paul Abbotts life it was pretty bad when he was younger

  • premie

    Great article Dustin and it definitely makes me interested in the show. Although I was never actually poor, I grew up in a neighborhood with the working poor (not poor poor). I always try to remember the advantages I had and cut slack to those who are trying to scratch and claw their way up. I have to admit though, sometimes focus on my own responsibilities and concerns stifles my empathy for others. Excuses get scrutinized because they cause me inconvenience or impact my ability to get things done etc. Another aspect of this is substance abuse. I've struggled with this myself and I still sometimes slip in my empathy for others with the same problem. Rambling a little here but its good to recharge my empathy batteries here and there.

  • mult!layer Cake

    I love this show as well. the truth of being poor is funny yet startling at the same daym time! lmao

  • kirbyjay

    I remember getting a ride home from school and getting dropped off at a different house because I didn't want anyone seeing where I lived. There was also the strong possibility that my father would be passed out in the driveway.
    I grew up with no self confidence until I realized that I didn't have to be like them.
    It makes you stronger Dustin, doesn't it?

  • PTinNC

    I've never seen the show but I liked the post so I might check it out on Netflix. I grew up poor enough that this really resonated with my experience - it felt a little scary to revisit that time. I know that feeling of getting knocked down unfairly just when you think you might get one step up. But I also know from personal experience that poor people make some bad choices. Several commenters have given examples and rational reasons for those poor choices, e.g.: poor diet. But there are other factors that help us understand some of the seemingly irrational choices. If you have ADHD you have a diminished ability to think about consequences of your actions or learn from previous bad choices <http:"" article="" brain-scans-show-we-take-risks-because-we-can-t-stop-ourselves="">. If you grow up poor, there's a good chance your parents won't show you how you can defer gratification so that you _can_ buy those $50 boots that will save you money in the long run. If you grow up poor you may live in an environment that rewards short-term choices and punishes long-term thinking (grab what you can now or you might not get anything to eat later). If you move frequently you may not have been able to form relationships with people or organizations who could help you (my father would help a random stranger but he never, never asked for help). If you grew up poor you may not have learned to use a calendar, write a resume, show up for work on time, apply to a college, or a hundred other skills that middle-class families take for granted.

  • zeke_the_pig

    Great fucking piece, Dustin.

  • Lauren_Lauren


  • smoot

    I love it because it doesn't just get poor, it gets poor on the southeast side of Chicago. I know those places, I recognize those people. It makes me sad and nostalgic and grateful. I got out. Most people don't.

  • Addy

    Thank you, thank you Dustin for a brilliant commentary on one of my favorite shows. There are times were it just hurts to watch because I understand all too well their circumstances yet that is why I love it because it is willing to show a reality most prefer not to address.

  • I was only ever the middle class kind of poor (did get the experience of living in a trailer for a while, but it was a double-wide) but I had a couple friends in junior high who were truly poor--the only can have a bath once a week kind of poor. I sometimes wonder if they ever got out of that poverty--lost touch long ago. Haven't seen Shameless--will look into it.

  • Harper

    Check it out, it's my favorite show, my husband and I both like watching it.

  • MJohnson1971

    " In reality, if you are poor, you are not allowed mistakes." Truer words have never been spoken. It breaks my heart how so much of America despises the poor for being poor but doesn't believe in supporting social programs to aid them into becoming people they no longer despise.

  • Especially since they don't want schools or agencies teaching about birthcontrol or providing it. If you're going to insist on more poor kids being born, then be willing to help support them, damn it. Just the basics. *stepping off the rage soapbox before it gets ugly*

  • Harper

    People with money don't like giving hand outs.

  • Less Lee Moore

    Brilliant. More articles like this please!

  • This is one for the 'fridge, Dustin (mine, I mean. I assume yours is crowded.). Perfectly capturing the shittiest little open secret about social mobility: the single biggest obstacle to lifting oneself out of poverty is.... fucking poverty.

    Your story about college reminded me, oddly enough, of my own professor, who met me one day in the student union food court when I had decided to withdraw and was going around begging my profs for "W's" so I wouldn't be screwed if/when I came back. I didn't know this was a fairly routine thing, and I was ashamed, stammering, babbling and near tears. When he agreed immediately, wished me luck and asked if and how he could help, I was so shocked that I literally sat there with my mouth open, confused. I had IN NO WAY distinguished myself in his class. To the day, I don't remember his name, or his face, or the name of his class (English something-oh-something). But his VOICE is tattooed on my memory: "We're here to help each other."

    I mention him because your story just reminded me of what a difference those tiny strokes of GOOD LUCK - a kind person in the right moment - can make. Even though you made it out okay, clearly, I wish one had taught your class. And Lip's.

  • pajiba

    "the single biggest obstacle to lifting oneself out of poverty is....fucking poverty."

    That's a great line!

  • Melissa D

    Dustin, I am taking a class on Social Determinants of Health. I'd really like to bring up this article in class. You write in such an accessible way.

  • Dustin - I'm honestly not trying to be a dick here and I'll agree that I don't know anything about you or your life other than what you've shared on this website, so feel free to tell me to fuck off if you like...but wouldn't your present circumstances belie your 'there's no social mobility' thesis? You seem to have carved out a nice life for yourself and your family that's light-years away from where you started. If there were no social mobility, wouldn't you still be trapped back there in the same cycle of poverty?

  • becks2point0

    I think he's probably referencing the statistics on social mobility in America, not claiming there has literally never been a case of someone moving up.

  • Dennis Albert Ramirez

    THIS is exactly why I love this site. I always perspectives on pop culture from people who any given piece of pop culture tries to represent. thanks for this, Dustin.

    also, i've only seen the first two seasons of the UK version, and scattered episodes of the US one. the only thing I want to add to Dustin's great piece is that the episodes i've seen of the US version also have the best portrayal of the city of Chicago I have ever seen, at least on the South Side. i didn't grow up there, but I used to work on the South Side quite a bit, and for all the gritty shows or films that I have seen set in Chicago, Shameless comes closest to the real thing.

  • That's why I can't watch Shameless, and why my husband won't watch Roseanne (though the Connors' house is much nicer than the one he grew up in): they're too realistic. We watch them and remember what it felt like to be there every day and suffer for it in every situation, and we've done everything in our power not to feel that way anymore. I certainly don't seek out the sensation in entertainment.

  • Gunnut2600

    Two things has followed me from childhood.

    1) You can never enjoy anything. You expect always the worst case scenario so you don't get attached to anything. You get burned so many times you just don't form attachments to anything. There is no point in spending money on yourself as that is just a waste.

    2) You learn to never trust anyone. Poverty robs you of everything. I can't tell you the number of times I came home from grade school with all our shit on the street. Family members turn to self medication, you learn never to trust the crackheads you love.

  • Amahle

    Your childhood's subsequent life lessons are exactly the ones that have followed me. My family was poor and most of them are still way underneath the poverty line and I have relatives barely in their 20's that are hardcore drug addicts and others that are grandparents in their 30's.

    Poverty really colors a person opinion of the world and to have to deal with a parent's addiction in addition to the issues of simmering self-doubt, shame and mistrust of others that growing up in crippling poverty tend to is a complete different level of fucked up. I have never seen someone more selfish and self-pitying than an addict. The shit my mother and father spew at me is just plain ridiculous. I have lost count how much of money and property has been stolen from me through the years. I have chronic migraine headaches so severe that I have to medicate with a mixture of topirimate, amphetamine and opiates and one day I caught my mom and my aunt fishing through pill bottles that I had INSIDE my purse. I lock my meds in a fire safe now.

  • Gunnut2600

    I like to think I turned my life around, though honestly I am pretty dysfunctional on a number of levels. I work internationally, about 10-11 months out of the year. No bullshit, this last year, I averaged 90 hours a week, working 13 days on, one day off, for 10 and a half months straight.

    I worked so much that I destroyed my ankle and had to come back for surgery which cost me a $98k tax write off since I was 22 days short of 330 days this year. I cleared about $155k this year before taxes (I will get killed on them as I have to pay US state and Federal, Australian Fed, and Queensland taxes). I'm not even sure of the exact amount, but I am pretty certain that about 2/3rds of that is already been given to family members.

    Out of an initial family unit of 6 people, I am basically the sole breadwinner in the position to help everyone out. So naturally, every month, even overseas, I am cutting checks for at least four different rental properties. My family is the poster children of the working poor....with the exception of my crackhead idiot younger brother.

    I'm the black sheep of the family. My mother hates that I work so much and it can be over a year before I get home. While I was gone, shit for brains brother stole my truck (which didn't have full insurance on it because it was not suppose to leave the property), got high as fuck, wrecked it on the highway, and then falsely claimed my identity at my arrest. I've been dealing with this fiasco for at least 3 months. Since I refuse to pay for the highway damage, I am turning my back on my family (never mind my truck was a total loss by as my mom keeps telling me, it was a piece of shit anyway).

    Yup...I am the asshole who everyone says thinks is better than them for having money, yet they don't mind cashing my checks. My last ex was constantly bugging me to talk about my family and to meet them (she had no clue I had kin until a close friend accidentally let it slip). Holy shit snacks that was a fucking fiasco. No bullshit, the first words out of my sisters mouth to my then girlfriend "You ain't a Jew are you?"

  • Amahle

    I think that it's hard not to have some sort of dysfunction when you have grown up in a chaotic matter how strong-willed and optimistic you are, there is absolutely no way that a person can survive such a difficult childhood without some wounds. I have PTSD from all the crap that I've had to deal with.

    I am the eldest child and before I had to go on a LOA because of my migraines I was the only steady employed individual out of a family of six. My father is a no-good drunk and I do not have much of a relationship with him. He'd walk right past our home to go to where he lived with his other family and didn't care whether or not there was electricity or food or running water for me and my siblings. I could be sitting on the front step and he'd barely turn his head...he'd just keep drinking his beer and walking. One of my brothers is in prison for felony child abuse. My little sister has horrible anger problems (probably as a coping mechanism) so she cannot manage to keep a job more than a few weeks. My other brother is a lazy grifter with a wife and two kids and all of them live off of her $866 SSI check that she gets for "anxiety" and "depression". They live in a trailer with a gigantic hole in the floor but oddly enough he can afford game systems and even has a Playstation 4 that he plays all day. Meanwhile the 2 kids go to school in clothes that are too small and shoes that are too tight.

    And then the crazy thing is that my mother will break her damned neck to send my brother money for commissary and take care of my other brother's family but my sister and I...nope, she does nothing for but she constantly calls me on the phone to ask for money and if I don't answer the phone she will call one of my children or get someone to bring her to my home and she'll beat on the front door until I open it.. My father has never done anything for me but he also thinks that I am supposed to be at his disposal. My husband and I allowed him to live with us for 5 months when a crackhead burned his house down. He received a lump-sum settlement from social security during the time he was in our apartment. He gave us $50.00 for the five month period.

    My husband has a decent paying job but we are in no way wealthy especially because our income took such a hit due to my illness but everyone in my family comes to us for "favors". I don't even see anyone until they want something. One of my cousins I hadn't seen in probably over two years and she happened to be at my sister's apartment when I dropped by and the first thing that my cousin did was ask me for money. My husband and I are in the process of trying to purchase our first home and now it seems as if the money-grubbing has gotten even worst. My coke-fiend aunts have started hanging out at my mother's apartment again which means that my mother is heavily using again (she goes from being a Jehovah's Witness to being a crackhead every six months or so).

    Last week she went to Burger King where my 17-yr old works after-school and asked her for money and when my daughter told her that she didn't have any, she started cursing at her in front of her manager. Now I had already spoken to my mother about asking my kids for money and asked her not to do this and so I called her up and just was telling her how inappropriate she was. She began yelling at me about how I don't care about her and and how I don't give her anything (crackhead lies) and I should be doing more for her and I have a husband who works and I'm so selfish and if we have money enough to be buying a house then why can't I give her more money? What is she supposed to do? I was just dumbfounded.

    I don't even know why I was though because my mom is also the same person that threatened to tell my husband that I was cheating on him (another crackhead lie) because I would not give her $600.00. She was actually on her way to my house when one of my non-coke fiend aunts saw her walking and stopped to give her a lift. She told my aunt what she was going to do and my aunt got pissed and asked her if she'd lost her damned mind, refused to bring her to my home and called me to tell me what was going on. I called my mom and I asked her why would she do that and what type of person is tries to destroy her own daughter's marriage because she wants money. She was just like: I need $600.00 and I know you have it. Like her needing $600.00 made it fine for her to attempt tell such a terrible lie to my husband. She is just pathological.

  • Gunnut2600

    Family- people you would have nothing to do with if it was up to you. God we need to start a fucking support group.

  • lmtj

    I held back my tears until THIS. Yes, this is what it is like all of these years later.

  • Pinky McLadybits

    This is so accurate that it hurts.

  • Long_Pig_Tailor

    Sort of right above the stomach, down and medial to the heart? Like you're not breathing right?

  • Pinky McLadybits

    Yup. It also, strangely, make me crave gubment cheese. Mmmm, best cheese food product EVER.

  • I can't tell you how glad I am that someone else thinks this. I haven't been that poor in a long, long time, and I don't eat processed cheese anymore (or bologna, or hot dogs, or powdered milk - all the hallmarks of a poverty that doesn't come close to what other people have experienced but still makes me feel like I will never *really* be safe or secure), but no fancy pants macaroni and cheese has come close to the stuff my aunt used to make with government cheese - a vat of it, so we could have it for breakfast, too, because that's all there was that week.

  • e jerry powell

    It has been a while since "Good Times," certainly...
    And my family got into a damn good bit of luck since that show ended, fortunately; there were a lot of raggedy cars, fried bologna sandwiches, and seriously unpleasant uncertainty until then.

    There should be more twenties-style rent parties in the world.

    I work doggedly to remember some Shakespeare looking at my life (I don't always succeed):

    A pack of blessings lights up upon thy back;
    Happiness courts thee in her best array;
    But, like a misbehaved and sullen wench,
    Thou pout'st upon thy fortune and thy love:
    Take heed, take heed, for such die miserable.
  • Minnow

    Amazing piece and exactly why Shameless is one of my favourite shows.

    I grew up much the same as you did and this show consistently blows me away with it's dead-on portrayal of what that's like. There's so many little details that are so authentic and not the "Hollywood poor" that I'm used to seeing. For example Fiona casually combing through Carl's hair with a lice comb while watching TV or taking toilet paper from public stalls or trading clean urine for food. I love the way all the kids chip in to pay the bills. When I was 9 my school had a bunch of frozen cookie dough donated to it so I took 3 boxes and spent that summer baking and selling cookies to help keep the hydro on. I've never once felt like the characters were wealthy actors playing poor people, they all seem like people that I know in real life.

    Also, although Frank usually has the least realistic stories, the effect his alcoholism (as well as Monica's bipolar disorder) has on his kids is scarily accurate to the point that I've had to turn it off at times because I felt like I was watching scenes from my childhood.

  • SVR

    I've never seen the show, and I promise I'll finish reading this wonderful entry, but I got to this part and had to stop in a screaming fit of rage: "He ended up arriving a couple of minutes late to the exam in wet jeans,
    and the professor wouldn’t allow him in because he didn’t arrive exactly
    on time."

    I'm a professor. I know professors like that. Fuck those people. No really, fuck them. They talk a great game about how they can't break the rules, and they can't play favorites, and blah fucking blah, but it's all bullshit. They're classic petty dictators, getting off on control and power. And they do almost nothing to help their students learn the course material and succeed. And it is downright INFURIATING. Help your kids or step the fuck off, assholes. I don't give a shit how many letters you have after your name or how many times you've been published.

    ETA: GREAT, DUSTIN. Now I've read your real world example of this and I am in an EVEN GREATER SCREAMING FIT OF RAGE. Good goddam that teacher was an asshole.

  • Long_Pig_Tailor

    So much with the missing of Eloquent Eloquence. Because man, bad teachers cannot be called out enough. Ever.

  • linnyloo

    Word, SVR.

  • Mrcreosote

    As an alternative, I watched a few eps of "Mom" on ABC (I think) Whatever network. A single mom, recovering alcoholic, sober for less than a year, working as a waitress, and somehow she's renting a house larger than mine, going out to lunch and dinner regularly, and worrying much more about her romantic interludes than say, paying the water bill. I just couldn't stop asking "How is she poor exactly?".
    I have this debate all the time with co workers who just cannot understand why the poor cannot just motivate themselves and work harder. "Look at me" one of them said "I am doing great, and I haven't gotten a dime from my parents since I graduated from college."
    College, rent, food and spending money were fully covered. I asked.

  • Momo

    Holy shit.

  • Idle Primate

    "they haven't given me a thing since they gave me a fortune and my good fortunes"

    that thar be not a tale of bootstraps

  • e jerry powell

    "...because when you’re shit poor, no one -- PARTICULARLY AYN RAND DEVOTEE REPUBLICANS -- will give you a goddamn break."

    FTFY with my partisan little self.

  • Anderbot

    I have to admit I'm one of those people with "control over my own life" as Dustin puts it and I have always been one. I don't know what it's like to be this poor. But recently I've started working with large numbers of poor people and noticed two disturbing things that MOST poor people could absolutely change.

    1) Stop smoking. (see the above photo....poor people are more likely to smoke)

    2) Stop eating fast and processed foods.

    The amount of money wasted on these habits is appalling for anyone let alone people who can't afford it. THE MAN is not making you smoke or stuffing your face with a Big Mac.

    I could post more about what poor people could do to better themselves, but I do agree with most of what was written in the OP and I don't want to sound too preachy here. This makes me sad.

  • Momo

    I HATE smoking and think it is a waste of money BUT when a person is poor sometimes that one effing cig now and then is ALL THEY HAVE. Why should they have to give up everything pleasurable (and face it, wealthy or NOT, most pleasurable things ARE NOT healthy!)?? Rich people look at the poor and say "why do they have TV? why are they smoking? why do they have ANYTHING besides a hut, a rag to cover their loins with and some ground chuck?" Seriously??? The poor are supposed to live with conditions that are inhumane? Remember, to be psychologically healthy, you need recreation. You need entertainment. You need relaxation. You need time to recharge and you need something pleasurable. It's not the wealthy who need all that but they sure spend MOSt of their time entertaining and pleasuring themselves. They feel no guilt about overindulgence, either.

  • kimberleybear

    I live in a city where they've done a fair amount of research on food deserts. I live in the part of town where you can get fresh fruit and veggies and whatever you want that's healthy from a fair number of sources. Heck, I could go down to the gas station and pick up a banana or an apple or a midway decent sandwich. But there are other parts of town where that's just not an option. Where, for purposes of one study, they counted some convenience stores as groceries and they STILL come up short. But the fast food is up and down the streets. And I have never been that kind of poor, but I've been broke for the moment, and sometimes that McDonald's hamburger is the only protein you're going to get today, and you have got to eat something.

    I am not a fan of cigarettes or smoking. It costs lives and money. But if I had nothing else in my life that gave me one solid minute of joy other than a nicotine fix, I would take it.

  • thebeardedlady

    Sure, for anyone stopping smoking and eating unhealthy should be a priority but it sounds like you're thinking in terms of a make-do or stop gap situation, like stop eating out to save up for a trip or eat noodles while you pay for college, when the reality is that when you're poor you don't, or can't, see an end in sight. Your life is barely making it and missing out, maybe always has been and feels like it probably always will be.
    So you scrape together loose change or whatever and that cheap pack of smokes gives you a little something for you, something within reach that makes you feel "normal", an equalizer. You can joke with the boss or others about all of you standing in the cold or rain at lunch to smoke. They don't have to know that you're hungry but can't afford to buy lunch and the food at home is for the kids and whatever they don't finish will be your supper when you get home. So yeah, it's a waste but it's more than just a blatant, selfish spit in the face to everyone and certainly not the reason someone is poor. With the fast food, growing up McDonald's or whatever was what you got when the cheques came in, it wasn't throughout the month because most of the money is gone within a matter of days. Poor people don't only interact with other po' folks so what happens is you've gone an entire month watching other kids or families get "things" like pizza lunches, chips, eating in a restaurant, fancy coffee or whatever and you get used to making excuses and promises to hide the shame of not being able to have those simple pleasures. So, when the money comes in you again want to feel "normal" and look like every other family just having a burger, so you excuse the money spent on the treat by promising you'll find a way to get some more money soon and you put yourself right back into the cycle. Again, a waste but no one is poor because of take-out.
    It's easy to say what someone else should do or not do with their life but for some reason the poor are an easy target.

  • Ruby Guggenheim

    There's smoking giving you joy, but there's also smoking as stress relief. I'd quit smoking until recently, but then I got mugged. Since then I've been smoking like a fiend because I'm stressed from walking around feeling unsafe all the time. And I live in one of the safest neighborhoods in my city.

    So imagine the stress of living in a not-at-all safe neighborhood and feeling unsafe all the time (which is much more likely for poor folk), the stress of not knowing how the bills are going to get paid or where you're going to be living next month, the stress of working nonstop and never making ends meeting -- this is like 37 times the amount of stress I have from one unfortunate incident. So if I can't stop smoking like crazy just to try to calm my nerves for a few minutes, I can hardly imagine what it's like for people in less fortunate situations.

  • Elizabeth Mcdaniel

    Well Anderbot, you try to stop smoking and eating fast food. The smoking is a habit that is very hard to stop, and that ready made Big Mac is hard to walk away from when your starving. Do you really think these people would rather eat a stale cold burgar when they could eat a home cooked dinner? They are programmed to get what they can because who knows when it will be there again. And they don't get to get help in kicking the habit.

  • Momo

    Anderbot really doesn't understand.

  • Gunnut2600

    There is one fucking grocery store in all of Detroit. A city the size of New York, Dallas, and LA combined. One fucking store (though I think they now have a Whole Foods for the rich hipsters). Detroit is not unique. I was floored the first time I visited a supermarket outside of Baltimore because it was larger than the Korean Corner stores that just sold shit. I grew up thinking that was the norm. Feel free to drive through my old haunts of East Baltimore and find all the fine dining opportunities available to someone on a limited budget.

    You know what can really break your fucking back...purchasing about $200 for food for you and your family, only to have your power fail. You are double fucked. Telling people to eat healthy food when they don't even have the fucking means to get to the store, let alone the money to purchase it. You ever try to ride a fucking city bus with groceries? It fucking blows. Well try doing that, only three blocks short of your street, bus services stop.

    And you know what? Who gives a shit if a poor person needs a fucking smoke. Being poor is fucking stressful. Its an exhausting, fucking miserable experience.

  • Momo

    Mom and I would walk something about 12 blocks to the grocery store with a cart and walk all the groceries back in the cart. And we'd do that season after season, even in the snow. It was no fun trying to push the cart of groceries past homes where the owners didn't even have the decency to shovel the pavement outside. And then sometimes we even took a bus if the bus would actually show up or not run right past us. Yes, that's happened many many times. NYC.

  • Alicia

    There is one fucking grocery store in all of Detroit.
    Detroit has a variety of small grocers. Also, Eastern Market.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    Er, that Detroit/supermarket thing is not true.

  • KZoeT

    Small note: Detroit has a lot of small, independent grocers but no national chains other than the new (and only) Whole Foods that opened up last year.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    Aldi? I shopped there in my year as a Michigander.

  • Gunnut2600

    And Baltimore has vibrant street markets. But if you aren't in walking distance of either, you are stuck using resources closer to you.

  • Dumily

    I don't want to sound too preachy myself, but you sound like you're viewing poverty through the eyes of someone who has had a certain amount of money. It's really difficult to explain to someone who hasn't been poor what it feels like. You're almost constantly under stress. Not "I've really got a lot of work to do" stress, but "I need to figure out where we're sleeping tomorrow" stress. Every decision is really an exercise of will power because you can't splurge and get a coffee or treat yourself to lunch or get your nails done. You are always counting every dollar, and figuring out how to make what you have last another week. And everyone at some point breaks. So you buy McDonalds because it's cheap and there and you don't have to think about it. And you take your smoke break because if I don't do one fucking thing that makes me feel better soon, I'm going to lose my fucking mind. When you're that poor you're too preoccupied with surviving this moment to think about the future. And when we have the income inequality, the food deserts, the shitty school systems and the lack of decent paying jobs that we currently do in this country, please, for the love of everything holy, don't tell poor people what they can do to "better themselves."

  • Shannon

    I need this on a t-shirt.
    I've been straddling the line between this and finally catching a break and getting a financial sigh of relief my entire adult life. I'm single, no kids, college educated, and I understand how money works. I'm not just "bad with money". I come from smart parents who knew how to make my lower middle class childhood feel much closer to upper middle class.
    You factor in all the great points you make with the 30-something or 40-something aged realization that you are not at all where you thought you'd be by now, compiled with the pressure of not knowing how or when or if you ever will be there, and in my case add in 3 chronic and incurable health conditions, and see if you don't start smoking again after having quit a decade ago. Imagine being a smoker that doesn't even LIKE it!
    You and Emmalita made me smile with this. Thanks ya'll.

  • Dumily

    Holy crap. I can't believe I forgot about our fantastic health care system. Throw that onto the list of unending nightmares that the lower 60% of the country has to deal with. I'm so sorry about your health issues, and really hope you catch that break you deserve. And I'm totally stealing that "financial sigh of relief line." Brilliant.

  • emmalita

    I'm either going to marry you (gay and/or poly is fine) or name my next 4 legged friend after you.

  • Shannon


  • Dumily

    Wait, why did that post three times?! Damnit! It's not funny if it's posts three times! Why is it posted under guest?! Dustin, help a sister out, clean this nonsense up for me.

  • Dumily

    Wait a minute . . .

  • Guest

    Wait a minute, . . .

  • Guest

    Uh oh . . .

  • SVR

    Google "food desert." It's a hell of a lot harder to avoid those kinds of foods when you're picking up dinner at a gas station or liquor store.

  • belphebe

    I tried the food desert lunch at a gas/convenience store the other day. I could get an impressive amount of calories of the bad kind for about $3 or I could spend $6 and get cottage cheese, a banana and a whole wheat bagel.

    Given that i was buying lunch at a convenience store because it was a miserable day where i was late to every appointment, way behind at work and feeling overwhelmed, all I wanted was junk food. I grew up low-income, but not poor. I don't know that i have the inner strength to rise above true poverty and I am grateful every day that my folks had the means to give me a stable and loving childhood.

  • 2) Stop eating fast and processed foods.

    Much easier said than done. Poor people often have to work multiple manual-labor jobs and live in urban areas with inconvenient access to grocery stores. Much easier for a single mom working two jobs to pick up some pre-made food for her and the kid than go home and cook.

    Smoking I'm with you.

  • Harper

    At least it's food. There are some asshole "parents" that don't feed their children. Those end up on the local news for neglect and abuse.

  • linnyloo

    Not to mention all that healthy eating requires the time and energy to plan meals, and shop for and cook said food, which can be time some folks simply don't have, or would rather spend sleeping.

  • e jerry powell

    Particularly considering the price differences between prepared foods made with cheap, federally-subsidized ingredients (corn, anyone?) and, like, HEALTHY VEGETABLES and stuff. If all you have is a dollar and lettuce is $1.50...

  • That's a large part of it, although if you really try you can cobble together a semi-healthy meal for about the same price. You better like quinoa though.

    I'll go and visit SS offices sometimes (which are frequently located in areas of need i.e. the hood), and its amazing how far I'll have to drive to get a lunch that isn't fast food. The inconveniences are staggering.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    I'm always curious about how real the food desert phenomena is. Aren't there even delis/bodegas in the poor neighborhoods? Those have at least moderately fresh sandwiches/tacos.

  • nosio

    It's really real. For real.

  • I realize it's probably not a fair example to use, but in New Orleans it's very real. The business owners in the poorest neighborhoods were poor themselves and often didn't have the money to rebuild, so many of the corner grocery stores/delis/restaurants are just derelict buildings and people have to go across town to better off neighborhoods to reach the chain stores because none of them want to be in the hood.

  • ggadventures

    I actually just moved to a food desert. (It's a property my dad owns, so I'm there to save some $$$.)

    There is not a single proper grocery store in my entire zip code. The only stores available are "corner store" type things and liquor stores. They'll have chips and stuff like that maybe, but not anything you would really call healthy or want to bring home to your kids. And they're expensive.

    There is lots of fast food, though and I now fully understand why someone working 2 jobs with a few kids to feed would stop by Burger King on the corner. And don't even get me started on the fact that many don't have cars.

  • e jerry powell


    Quinoa's not bad. I scan through Passover cookbooks.

  • Mrcreosote

    Fast and processed foods are often all that are available in poorer neighborhoods in this country. The food is also cheaper than presumably healthy foods. And when your life is absolute shit, the break that a cigarette affords is often the only joy you're getting all day. You're also much less likely to do careful health planning when you're exhausted.

  • Long_Pig_Tailor

    Yep. While SNAP is a godsend to many, the fact remains that it's really only sort just barely enough, and when it needs to stretched the best way to stretch is gravitating towards processed and canned foods over fresh. One needn't be going after fast food to be killing their health-- grocery stores are more than willing to help you do it, too, and make you think you aren't in the process. That's a problem that's going to remain for as long as politicians persist in making the argument that the question of feeding people well is in anyway something you debate.

    Cigarettes, though... I don't know, I think it's reasonable to expect people to not smoke at this point. But that said, when smoking maybe scores you a few more minutes of a break from a soul-killing job that doesn't even buy you into a halfway stable situation... Hard to fault somebody, too.

  • ScienceGeek

    My job is researching possible treatments for lung disease, and I've had severe asthma my entire life. So it's safe to say I have a massive bias against cigarettes.
    But I also remember when I had a job stocking shelves at the local Coles and I considered starting the habit. Because when I was shoving the sixtieth empty box into the crusher, I'd look over and see the smokers, all the managers and checkout chicks and loading dock guys, the hierarchy gone, chatting and relaxing, and I thought, 'I want me some of that'.
    And I did that job to get 'pocket money' while I was at school. If it had been my life, I'd be grabbing the nearest box of cancer-sticks, no hesitation.

  • Elizabeth Mcdaniel


  • barcia

    Pick up a copy of Nickel & Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, read it, and then we'll talk.

  • I've written here before that I'm a [REDACTED]. My current position keeps me involved, tangentially, with people in desperate economic circumstances. Every now and then I get to see firsthand the difference something like SNAP or MA expansion or LIHEAP makes in a person's life, and I'm always struck by both how huge the impact is and how strongly they believe their situation is temporary. For all the garbage spewed about welfare queens and poverty pimps, most lower-income individuals I meet really want to better themselves. And many of them made one or two bad decisions with money or lifestyle that have crippled them for life.

  • mc-rox

    I work directly with people in desperate financial circumstances and addicted to drugs in the poorest neighborhood in my country. I so agree with you on your point about "decisions with money or lifestyle that have crippled them for life". Through listening to their stories, I am acutely aware each day that we all are a traumatic personal event or a semi-catastrophic bodily injury away from being where they are at. In that chaos, I am blessed each day by the magic of the human spirit through enormous acts of kindness which these people grant each other. I hope you see that too.

    Dustin, you are a cool dad who by your accounts has an equally cool wife with, as I recall that picture of you holding your twins, two but likely three, cute as a button kids. You have come so far and wow.... I am left to say --> rock on bro and most importantly, FUCK YEAH! Thanks for writing this. You keep on being your impressively awesome self.

  • damnitjanet

    Brilliantly said. I also grew up dirt poor...5 kids & 2 parents in a 2 bedroom apartment, then in a 3 bedroom house. My dad was a truck driver and an alcoholic. We patched, re-patched and quadruple patched every hand-me-down we owned. I slept with my sister in a twin bed. It's a shit life, and Shameless understands that.

  • This made me think of this bit from Terry Pratchett, which is the highest of compliments:

    "The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money.

    Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles.

    But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that'd still be keeping his feet dry in ten years' time, while the poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.

    This was the Captain Samuel Vimes 'Boots' theory of socioeconomic unfairness.”"

  • ScienceGeek

    I use that quote all the time. I also reference a Cracked article (of all things) about being poor. It boils down to - you're poor, so you don't have savings. Hence, you can't afford to service items to stop them breaking down or buy the ones that don't break down as much. You can't even take advantage of awesome deals, because you just don't have the cash for that decent washing machine on sale, you have to buy the shitty one.
    So you're always behind. When that unserviced car breaks down on your way to work, you lose a day's pay AND have to cover the towing and repairs. The dodgy washing machine breaks down after a year and causes a flood that destroys even more things, while that decent washing machine would have lasted 10 years. It's not bad luck, it's just the shitty results of being broke.

    When a SAHM friend of mine got a part time job, the relatively little she earned meant they were finally able to build up a savings buffer, and it's made such a difference. When her husband saw a fantastic couch at an auction, they replaced their couch for about two thirds of the price they'd have paid for a slightly less terrible couch. A couple of months ago, they got air con installed, which aside from improving their health/productivity (my friend suffers heat-induced migraines) costs less to run than their old portable air con and their heater. That thousand they spent will pay itself back in a few years, and past that, it's all 'profit'. But they just never had the money to do it before now.

  • ScienceGeek

    PS I also LOVE that quote from Pratchett (Vimes again) about how, the lower you are socioeconomically, the more you uphold those 'rules' and look down on the people who break them. My family weren't poor, but we were pretty low on the rung, and I remember completely losing respect for a friend who told me she'd got a job offer, but she was staying on the Dole because 'it's not my dream job'. You just don't DO that, in my world. If you can work, you don't choose the dole instead. That's what the Deros do, and you'd cut off your own nutsack before you fall that low (see: 'You will go to school every single day you're not possibly dying', 'Our house isn't fancy, but it's bloody clean' and my personal favourite 'You kids aren't sitting on the 'good couch' until you're 21').

  • Fabius_Maximus

    I know I'm late, but I found it:

    "When you got right down to the bottom of the ladder, the rungs were very close together and, oh my, weren't the women careful about them. In their own way, they were as haughty as any duchess. You might not have much, but you could have Standards. Clothes might be cheap and old, but they could be scrubbed. There might be nothing behind the front door worth stealing, but at leas the doorstep could be clean enough to eat your dinner off, if you could've afforded dinner. And no one ever bought their clothes from the pawn shop. You'd hit bottom when you did that. No, you bought them from Mr. Sun at the shonky shop, and never asked where he got them from."

    It's from Night Watch, Pratchett's best.

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