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Are you Poor or Just Broke?

by Bethany

I was the poor kid. Or at least I thought I was. At 13 not ever buying clothes at a store and instead shopping at Goodwill meant we were poor. Parents who stressed about money and fought over the budget behind closed doors meant we were poor. No family vacations or coffee runs meant we were poor. Bologna and mayonnaise sandwiches at least had to indicate our level of “poorness”.

Turns out my family was not poor even in the slightest- we were just broke.

Perceived Notions of being Poor

Poor is a relative term that is gravely misused…

Let’s talk about language and the perceived notion of poor. The standard dictionary definition of poor is: lacking sufficient money to live at a standard considered comfortable or normal in a society.

Based on this definition, poor is a relative term that is gravely misused- especially in my case as a child. I was never hungry, I always had a roof over my head and clothes on my back even if they were used. I believed I was poor because I had decided what was normal based on the circle of people around us.

American society has this nifty way of turning luxuries into necessities within a matter of a few years, and in some cases less. Not being able to pay the bills to keep the lights on and not being able to go out for drinks on a Friday night or buy a new smartphone are two drastically different things. Often a  luxury turned to “need” based on American Consumer culture can begin to warp the notion and use of the word Poor.

This doesn’t mean that being broke isn’t hard, or that it does not change how we live our lives. However being broke is temporary, non-life threatening, and something that you can escape from. Being poor or living in poverty is a way of life, offers little choice to get out and most importantly is held in place by societal structure.

Poor Shaming

…the idea that being poor is simply a mindset and all that is needed is to not spend money on lifestyle inflation negates what is actually happening for those in poverty.

I decided initially to write this post after reading a article detailing a “Rich vs Poor Mindset”. While I find mindsets extremely important to success, this sort of segregation of rich vs poor overlooks the many ways in which society is structured to monopolize money for the few and elite.

That article and many others in this rich vs poor mindset phenomena states that a rich mindset understands that a surplus of resources (money) can be used to accelerate education, business, and your future. While a poor mindset immediately see the surplus of resources (money) as an opportunity to inflate their lifestyle.

While being poor causes an undue amount of stress and can lower functionality of decision making, leading to things like tunneling, the idea that being poor is simply a mindset and all that is needed is to not spend money on lifestyle inflation negates what is actually happening for those in poverty.

According to the Women’s Legal Defense and Education Fund 70% of the Nations Poor are Women and Children.  This is in part due to the wage gap, childcare costs, segregation into lower paying jobs, family care-taking, costs of healthcare and especially pregnancy. These are major structural issues facing some of those living in poverty and have nothing to do with buying a Pumpkin Spice Latte because you have a few extra dollars one day.

Being poor does not change based on current status in class. For example a middle class college student is most likely broke as hell. Not poor, but broke- because when they graduate and find a career their status and income will immediately change based on this new phase of life. Or if they get in a bind, they have a safety net – which includes someone they could call for some help or cash.

Those living in poverty typically do not experience phases of life that create a trajectory to move up. If you are thinking the solution to poverty is to work harder, get up earlier or find a new job- think again.  Most individuals who are poor have multiple jobs and juggle some of the most laborious jobs out there.

The Words we Use

Living paycheck to paycheck and being broke still includes one word: LIVING. Those who are poor are SURVIVING and this is something that must be considered.

Language in this case is very important. If the word poor were to be exchanged for the word broke in the above article it would have a very different meaning. Living paycheck to paycheck and being broke still includes one word: LIVING. Those who are poor are SURVIVING and this is something that must be considered when deciding whether you are broke or poor.

So why did I write a whole post about two words that seem to be synonyms but instead hold very different connotations based on our society? Because language and the words we use matter. They become the foundations to progress and they push for awareness. Because social activism requires that we consider our words and perceived notions of being poor.

Have you all thought you were poor and instead were just broke growing up or even right now? Did you grow up in poverty? What was that experience like for you? 

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10 comments

Angela @ Tread Lightly Retire Early October 31, 2018 - 11:57 am

You are incredible. This post is incredible. Thank you for taking the time for putting this one together.

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Bethany November 5, 2018 - 6:18 am

<3 Thank you friend!

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Chris @ Mindful Explorer November 7, 2018 - 10:29 am

This is such a great article Bethany and I think many overlook personal situations and perspective. It is easy to cast broad ranging assumptions but until we are in those positions we truly can’t make simple social media blanket statements for others. Our goal should be providing simple options and education so others have the option and ability to change their lives.

Glad Angela shared your post today.

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Bethany November 7, 2018 - 7:32 pm

Thank you! Agreed, Leave room for other experiences and consider your language around describing your own. 🙂

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Jaye November 7, 2018 - 5:54 pm

I, too, appreciate your distinction between broke and poor. I often think about how when in college I still lived “middle class” even if I didn’t make or have enough money to be in the middle class.

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Bethany November 7, 2018 - 7:33 pm

Yes, I think the way we live does not always equate to the money we have either. Thank you for reading.

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Christopher Robbins December 4, 2018 - 9:01 am

On mentalities – one’s relationship with money makes a profound difference in whether one is able to achieve financial goals and/or obtain wealth. A person’s relationship with money is often shaped by the wealth or poverty they experience during their formative years. I don’t think it’s possible to fully entangle these mentalities from socioeconomic status, but we can definitely re-label them to make it clear that we’re speaking about something different from, but related to, status – in more popular lingo, these would be the “abundance” mentality (rich) versus the “scarcity” mentality (poor). Because we live in a society and culture with high levels of class and status mobility, it’s not at all uncommon to see wealthy people with a scarcity mentality and broke (or even poor) people with an abundance mentality. For example, some might argue that there’s entire lines of political thought created by wealthy people with scarcity mentalities.

While I find myself agreeing with your semantic argument, I don’t think the academic definition of poverty is of much use to us in our daily discourse, outside of the arguments and agitation that accompany politics and activism. “Wealth” and “poverty” have more utility as relative terms. My view is that if you’re in a situation where you’re able to describe yourself as “relatively wealthy,” then you should feel an implicit responsibility to help ALL of those who are “relatively poor” achieve your level of wealth if possible – but that it should be very much a personal, individualized choice how, whom, when and where to help, otherwise there is little virtue to be found in fighting poverty.

And that sounded wayyyyy more libertarian than I wanted it to, but I’ll leave it unfiltered.

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Deanna January 23, 2019 - 10:50 am

Great post, Bethany.

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Bernz JP January 23, 2019 - 12:01 pm

Great post-Bethany!Indeed being poor is one of those things we will never understand until we experience them.

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Peti January 24, 2019 - 10:36 pm

Great post. I never thought we were ‘poor’ when I was growing up, but I was aware that we had less than others. I think it’s an important distinction to make, out of respect for those who really are suffering.

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