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February 15, 2007

MSN Money: "Thriving" through prayer and food banks

I got a jury summons this week. My first thought was: "Sweet! Extra money from Uncle Sam."

So, I perked right up when Samhita of feministing linked to this article on MSN Money, Surviving (and thriving) on $12,000 a year. I thought it might contain some useful tips.

Instead, it turned out to be a rather insulting non sequitur, especially for a money magazine. The reader is supposed to be inspired by just how far a fanatically thrifty person can stretch her budget, but the real message is that $12,000 may not provide even the thriftiest person with the minimal necessities of a decent life.

The author, Deb Freeman, a 48-year-old divorced college student lives on about $1000 a month. I'm sure that's enough to get by in some places, but unfortunately, despite heroic cost-cutting measures, Freeman isn't making ends meet:

Enough is as good as a feast. I love to eat. I don't love paying for it. Because I don't have a "regular" job of at least 20 hours a week, I don't qualify for food stamps. So I shop very, very carefully, and I go to the food bank. Most weeks I can count on potatoes, apples, bread and a can or two of vegetables. Some lucky weeks I get milk, orange juice, pasta, tomatoes, rice or a small package of meat. I cook a lot of beans and stews, and I'm adequately fed -- maybe not as richly or as conveniently as I'd like, but well enough to keep me going.


Announce my intentions. Time and again I have found that when I need something I should "put it out in the universe," which is also known as "prayer." One night last fall, squinting over my homework, I realized I needed more light in the apartment. A day later, a halogen floor lamp landed in the Dumpster outside my window. Recently my umbrella got cranky about opening. The next week I was given a high-quality bumbershoot as a thank-you gift for helping with a campus blood drive. Coincidences? Maybe.

This woman is not thriving financially by any stretch of the imagination. Soup kitchens and prayer are not a viable financial plan. It's appalling that MSN Money would imply that this woman's financial situation as anything but dire.

I admire Freeman's courage and willpower. She's making a radical sacrifice now to dramatically improve her future prospects. That's great, but let's not pretend that she's surviving and thriving financially. She's enduring calculated deprivation.


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Was it an NYC summons or federal? I don't know how federal works, but for NYC I don't think you'll get paid anything. At least, I didn't. As I understand it, you only get reimbursed if you're an hourly worker and your company is docking your wages.

It's a federal summons. I'll let you know if I get paid anything.

I'm a full-time freelancer, so maybe that will make a difference.

A jury summons places an individual in a difficult position. On one hand,if you you do not provide your input on a case, then your ability to hold influence over a jury that may be following a wrong line of reasoning is lost.

On the other hand, most any jury is forced to decide cases based on sharply limited evidence that is disallowed either by a judge, or by law, that would certainly impact your decision. Further, juries are not told the potential legal penalties that a defendant faces in a criminal trial, and would potentially not decide that a defendant is really guilty to that extent. And mandatory minimum sentences or sentencing guidelines really limit the defendant's constitutional right to a full fair trial based on their actual degree of culpability or guilt. This one sentence fits all legal philosophy that ignores the particular circumstances involved in each trial is a huge threat to not only the constitutional rights of a defendant for a fair trial based on the actual evidence, but part of the undoing of our legal system, forcing many innocent poor defendants to plea bargain to lesser crimes to avoid more serious sentences because they cannot afford adequate private legal representation, and most legal aid attorneys attempt to convince defendants to plea guilty to a lesser crime, whether or not they are actually guilty because of their workload.

All of this being said, jury duty becomes a very serious matter of life or death over others, and a huge responsibility that really challenges the moral conscience.

From the article:

"I've decided to increase my monthly church tithe to $20. Sure, I could use that extra $240 a year. It just about equals the university registration fee, or the money I promised my daughter toward the price of her wedding dress. It also represents almost half of the car insurance premium heading my way in April."

Does anyone think this lady isn't barking mad?

Consider it a preemptive strike against Edwards and his "Two Americas." Any kind of populist noises from the Democrats need to be smacked down good & hard by the corporate media (just ask Al Gore). I imagine we'll see a lot more of this kind of "reporting" between now and 11/08: no one's really "poor" in America; the poorest people in this country enjoy a lifestyle that people in previous times could only dream of; how "poor" can you be if you own a TV set? And so on and so forth.

I don't think the woman is barking mad. She sounds like me when I was a grad student. I was making more than her, inflation-adjusted, but I still tried to give a fair amount to charity and/or church, for almost exactly the reasons she cited.

I think it would be unfortunate if some people read the piece and used it to convince others that poverty is just fine and dandy. But I don't think that's the actual strategy for the piece. I think the editors probably think it's a good inspirational piece about saving money. Every money magazine has these, as does every investment firm website; saved money is income for investment-firm advertisers. Sure, your average investor isn't skrimping like the protagonist, but the idea is "if this woman can save money on $12,000 a year, I can surely put away more than I am now." And that "more" is business for the advertisers like Charles Schwab, Fidelity, and Bank of America.

She is "enduring calculated deprivation," but so are monks and other religious of many faiths. Given the woman's religious background, I'm almost certain that such people are an inspiration to her. Now, that may not be your cup of tea, but if people from all over the world have chosen such pathways in significant numbers for millenia, there's probably more to it than dire financial straits. There are indeed "spiritual benefits" to calculated deprivation. That may not be what the editors had in mind, but hey, if it works for their advertisers....

I don't think the woman is crazy for tithing. If she wants to spend her limited disposable income helping the less fortunate, more power to her. I give what I can to political and social causes, even when I'm hard up for money. I know lots of other people who make charitable giving a major priority, even though they're struggling.

I don't get the sense that the author's a religious ascetic, either. I think she's just a broke college student who's trying to graduate debt-free and start her career. That's great. I admire her positive attitude.

Still, she's not thriving on $12,000/yr, she's struggling and sacrificing to get ahead. She can't even feed and clothe herself decently on that amount of money, let alone save for the future. That's a pretty shocking fact, when you consider how many people in her community might be in the $12,000/yr salary range for their whole careers, and not just as a stop-gap to get through college. She's counting on graduating and going on to a much better job.

She couldn't expect to get ahead if she had to live on $12,000/yr indefinitely.

Dropping $240/yr on the church is a bit crazy, especially when that money could be put to better use on her and her daughter's behalf, but beyond that, I think she sets a thoughtful example for the rest of us since most of us can live on far less than we think we can.

I do think roGER's right about "this kind of 'reporting'..." During the Reagan reign when people were losing their jobs left and right, there was a lot of talk in the corporate media about the joys of entreprenuership.

I really think we're headed for an economic downturn that will look and feel a lot like national bankruptcy, although that's not what they're going to call it. In Virginia, Dominion Power company is already hinting at rolling blackouts this summer. Living frugally may be the best defense 'regular' working peoople have.

Back when I used to live off that kind of money, all I could really afford to eat were Slim Fast shakes and Snickers bars. Don't let the commericals fool you, they really don't satisfy!

Between the booming high-interest credit card industry and the Bankruptcy Bill, living frugally is an increasingly important self-preservation strategy. Of course, a lot of people with balloon mortgages are already having to find more and more money each month just to stay out of foreclosure.

I just consume copious quantities of bread. I've found that the cheaper bread is, the better it tastes, so I could easily get to one half or two thirds of my daily caloric consumption for a dollar and a half.

Also, do you need any tips on how to avoid jury duty? One of the regulars on Feministing is right now trying to get out; fortunately for her, she's an attorney, which is an almost immediate disqualifier.

I don't have a problem with most of what she says in the article and the accompanying video; my main issue is with the way the article is being framed -- "how to live happily on 12000 a year!" What she is doing is not something that everybody could do, and she knows it. She apparently doesn't have dependents, and at 49 she's not likely to suddenly find herself pregnant. She has reduced rent as a resident manager of her apartment building. She apparently lives in a city with reliable bus service (and she's white, so bus drivers actually stop for her). She's resourceful, and when she prays it's for things like a lamp, not food or shelter. She is very clear that her poverty is temporary, while she goes to school. The article is not a prescription for how to live on $12,000 a year: it's a meditation on what living poor for a while can teach you.

Of course, the elephant in the room is health insurance. She mentions that in the video: currently she's on COBRA, and when that runs out she'll go on a student catastrophic health insurance plan. The fact that this doesn't frighten her out of her wits indicates that her health must be good.

Get a job? How hard is it to find a low paying job? Even at minimum wage, a job would basically double her income... stop being lazy and become proactive.
New">">New York Real Estate

NYRE,did you read the article? The woman's in school and she has chosen to work fewer hours in order to concentrate on her studies. Last year, she worked several part-time jobs in addition to her courses, according to the article. She's nothing if not proactive.

Why do some people assume that everyone who admits to being broke is lazy, even if she's written an article about how she's hustling as hard as any three people to support herself and live debt free while retraining for a more lucrative career?

Janet, I agree that it's the framing that's a problem rather than the article itself.

" I've found that the cheaper bread is, the better it tastes"

Where do you live again? I'm suprised to see you write that. If I recall right, you live in America. Good bread for cheap is common in Europe but not so much in America.

As an aside, last month we had a young woman staying with us who claimed she was living on $3,000 a year. She lives in Greensboro, North Carolina. Her rent is $150 a month. She and her friends are highly organized about dumpster diving food. They seem to know exactly on what days Food Lion or Panera Bread get rid of old food. They'd get dozens of loaves of day old bread from certain bakeries. They also do huge Food Not Bombs cookouts once a week in a community park. She doesn't have a car but rides her bike everywhere. Not sure if it is sustainable, but I admire the thrift that goes into that kind of lifestyle.

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