The Face of the Newly Poor
The single hardest part of having more debt than money to pay those debts is negotiating with the people you owe money to. I believe it is an art, a skill that you will have to learn as you're forced to do it more and more. We've all heard that you should call a creditor as soon as you realize you won't be able to pay a debt on time but that action is considerably easier said than done. When you cannot pay a bill you owe you have no leverage, no tools with which you can negotiate. This leaves you open to anything from having someone speak to you condescendingly or speak to you with open rudeness. Since I started out my adult life poor I thought I knew the rules of the game. On my way "up" I accepted how I was being treated because I believed it would end one day. Never in my worst nightmares did I think I would find myself struggling in the same way financially, at 55 that I did at 25. These struggles have led to what I call the "begging and pleading" phone calls.
These painful phone calls involve my trying to explain why I cannot pay a bill on time or in full or both. The person on the other end of the phone falls into one of two categories Either they've been in my shoes or they cannot possibly imagine being in my shoes. Some were kind and willing to help me find a way to keep my lights on or my phone working. There was a wonderful woman who explained the "supervisor" system of approval and that she couldn't make adjustments to my bill but I should call back and ask for her supervisor. She also explained that this was true for practically any organization that I might call. Her advice has helped me tremendously over these difficult months. Then there are the others-professional bill collectors, in particular. It feels as if they could not even imagine being where I am financially and are fairly sure I'm probably lying to get out of sending them the money I owe. I have been verbally abused and brought to tears. I've received over 15 "robocalls" starting at 7:30AM on a Sunday and not ending until well after 8PM that night. I've come to feel that I'm being held hostage by my telephone.
I recently found myself in my cellar with a flashlight checking on how much heating oil I had left. Although my oil delivery company had done their best they just couldn’t extend themselves any further. I owed them $1000. It went down to 5 degrees here and we took turns monitoring the fuel oil level throughout the night while keeping the thermostat at 60 degrees. My daughter often says that we're all just one relative away from being homeless and I've marveled at how right she is. We borrowed the $1000 from a relative of my husband and was able to get the fuel oil we needed.
There is something frightening about people who lose the very things that the rest are fighting to achieve - particularly if it’s a career or wealth or a home. If it can happen to me it can happen to you. If it can happen to you it can happen to your families or friends. I can't tell you how often, in the face of failing health, I was asked "how I'd gotten sick." As if there was some secret I'm withholding that would help others avoid having a stroke. I have gone from being a teenage welfare mother to being appointed assistant welfare commissioner of my State, from going with my children to a soup kitchen to a six figure salary and back to getting food from the local food bank. My most recent mantra has been "oh how the mighty have fallen."
I am hopeful that our new President will help America understand, in the face of the millions of newly poor people who found themselves out of work in 2008. Poverty is not a word that should be spoken in the same sentence with the word fault. It does not demonstrate a lack of integrity. It is not due to laziness. The newly poor, by and large, did not bring this on themselves. But they are going to need a great deal of help in the face of what may initially appear to them to be insurmountable odds. It's time we put the same money and energy into helping the newly poor that we given to the banks and Wall Street firms.